19th annual MLK Drum Major Competition: Detroit seniors offer sound advice for President Obama


By John Minnis

Legal News

If President Barach Obama is looking for good ideas on how to improve graduation rates at the nation's hardest-challenged high schools, he can get plenty from Detroit seniors.

Some 103 seniors from four Detroit high schools submitted essays as part of the 19th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Drum Major for Justice Advocacy Competition, held Saturday, March 5, at Wayne State University Law School.

Valerie Albright, chair of the MLK Advocacy Competition Committee, said essays were blind-judged by 12 attorneys, who then passed along six finalists to be judged by three sitting judges.

Judges for the finalist event at Wayne Law were Wayne County Probate Judge Terrance A. Keith; U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark A. Randon, Eastern District of Michigan; and 36th District Judge George A. Chatman.

The finalists were also paired with attorneys who helped prepare the students to orally defend their essays.

The finalists were Sharria Reed, Nekeia I. Thorton, Malkiya Woods, Bethany Morris and Dawnielle Lavette Johnson, all from Heart Academy, and Cynthia Madu, from Cass Tech.

Morris, the finalist, not only received a $3,000 U.S. Savings Bond, a trophy and a certificate, she also moves on to regional and national competition held by the National Bar Association and has a chance to win a four-year college scholarship.

Second-place essayist Thornton was awarded a $2,000 U.S. Savings Bond, while Madu took third place and a $1,000 savings bond. Fourth-place finishers, Johnson, Reed and Woods, each were awarded a $500 savings bond.

"I was extremely impressed with the poise and composure the finalists demonstrated during their presentations to the judges and the quality of the content of their presentations," Judge Randon said. "I am certain that we had some budding lawyers in our midst."

"I thought the essays were very competent, very well thought out," said Committee Chair Albright, of the Straker Bar Association. "This year's topic really resonated with the students. It dealt with issues faced by the students today."

On March 1, 2010, Obama challenged states to identify high schools with critically low graduation rates (below 60 percent) and implement programs to reduce them. The student essayists were asked:

"If Dr. King were alive today, what specific new solutions and new programs should he recommend that your state implement and the Obama administration fund; and specifically explain why the proposed new solutions and programs should be adopted?"

The MLK Drum Major for Justice Advocacy Competition was the dream of Detroit attorney A. Kay Stanfield Spinks, who in 1993 was president of the D. Augustus Straker Bar Association.

Founded in 1990 to promote legal practice opportunities and equal justice for minorities and women, the Straker Bar Association is named after a pioneering African-American attorney, author and jurist who earned his law degree at Howard University in 1871.

The "Drum Major for Justice" portion of the event's title was adapted from King's "The Drum Major Instinct" speech: "(I)f you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice."

The event, which is co-sponsored locally by the Association of Black Judges of Michigan and the Wolverine Bar Association, is held annually in observance of Black History Month. The program was so successful that it was picked by the National Bar Association.

Published: Thu, Mar 10, 2011