The black and white images of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. flashed across the large screen. Inside the Smith Theater at the Howard County Community College, more than 200 spectators of all ages and races moved into their seats in anticipation of the 27th Commemorative Birthday Celebration honoring Dr. King's life.
On what would have been his 83rd birthday, citizens and officials from Howard County came together Sunday, Jan. 15, to pay homage to the civil rights leader in a powerful program titled "Renewing the Dream."
"We need the older generation to keep teaching the younger generation," said Chuen-Chin Bianca Chang, Chairwoman of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Commission. "We need to take ownership to embrace the dream, embrace the skin color and embrace the ethnic background and we all will come together united."
For Lienna Feleke-Eshete, a senior at Atholton High School and one of the two students on the commission, the program was a reminder of what the true meaning of Monday's holiday represents. "A lot of people think Martin Luther King Day is just a school day off, but it's a lot more than that," she said.
Feleke-Eshete's parents were born in Ethiopia before coming to the United States. "My family is not from here so they never faced segregation," she said. "But it does make a difference today, because I know that the life we live would not be the same without him."
Nearly 200 Howard County students also expressed why Dr. King's legacy is more than a just holiday by taking part in the "Renewing the Dream" Essay Contest. Six winners were announced during Sunday's program.
Melissa Tate, who co-chaired the student essay contest, said selecting the winners "was a difficult choice. Across the board, the students were well written and had some really creative thoughts."
An excerpt from each of the winning entries was read by Tate. The students tackled issues of bullying, stereotypes and identity, and discussed how they were dedicated to renewing "the Dream."
"My take was looking at Dr. King's fight and his legacy and putting it into a more modern perspective," said Sara Calvert, a 17-year-old Centennial High School senior who won first place in the high school division. "I talked about how, in his time, a lot of the fight was working toward legislation...and I think today, the fight is more on an individual level, talking to individuals and getting them to change their attitudes and stereotypes."
The first-place winner in the middle school competition was Jack Morris, 12, a sixth-grader at Lime Kiln Middle School. In his essay, Morris used the lessons he has learned from being a Boy Scout and his religious teachings to uphold the legacy of Dr. King.
"I focused on mainly how my faith in God is a good pathway for me to go down," he said. "How by doing things that I've learned through my church can help me be a better person."
Tate said of Morris' entry that she was "very surprised, not only by the quality of what he wrote but the character he conveyed in his writing about being active in his community … it was wonderful."
Also honored at the celebration was Glenelg Country School 11th grader Tala Ahmadi, recipient of the 2011 Living the Dream award. Ahmadi was nominated for her service within the community and beyond. In June 2011, Ahmadi traveled to Tanzania, Africa, to promote the importance of education. In November, Ahmadi organized "World Cup: Uniting Strangers with Soccer Tournament" that brought Howard County students of many backgrounds and faiths together for a day of sports.
"I don't think I understood the magnitude of what was going on until I stepped into this beautiful place and saw all of these people," Ahmadi said before she received her award. "If I in some way embodied a little bit of his legacy I would be honored."
The accomplishments of the student winners did not go unnoticed by the many school and political leaders in attendance.
"[This program] was a great example of the amazing youth we have in Howard County," said Board of Education member Brian Meshkin.
County Council member Calvin Ball said he was "overjoyed and inspired" by the students. "I am quite moved by what I see," he said. "There is a bright future on the horizon."
Along with "Renewing the Dream," the two-hour program emphasized the importance of taking action. In his moving speech, guest speaker Jeff Johnson challenged the audience to think beyond Dr. King's 1963 "I Have A Dream" speech. He asked them: "What will you do with your hands?"
Throughout the program, which started at 3 p.m., speakers, including Johnson, gave updates of the Ravens-Texans NFL playoff game. When the game ended shortly after 4 p.m., Terry Owens, Master of Ceremonies, announced the final score in humorous way that generated applause.
But that was only a footnote in what was an inspiring program, centered around the young students and their legacy for continuing Dr. King's dream.
"If that is our future, I'd say we're in great hands," Owens said.