As a diverse group of parents, students and community members gathered in the Paducah Middle School cafeteria, one word based on the many positive contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. resonated through the crowd - freedom.
Awards were presented to 14 students from kindergarten to high school during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. essay and poetry competition sponsored by the Paducah-McCracken County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and AT&T during a reception Sunday afternoon.
The event in its 25th year strives to combine the ideals of tolerance and universal respect taught by King with lessons about literary expression in all forms, according to NAACP education committee member Fredrickia Hargrove. She said despite what future career students plan to pursue, written expression remains critical.
"This is an opportunity to not only honor King's memory but to showcase the best of youth writing," she said.
McCracken County School Superintendent Nancy Waldrop reminisced about the event and the commitment shown by the local NAACP chapter to inspire generation after generation through the words and actions of King.
"Each year this program teaches students to reflect on the genius of Dr. King and how he taught the world how to be a better place," she said
Kindergarten to third-grade and fourth- and fifth-grade students were asked to write a poem based on the topic, "What does freedom mean to me." The assignment for middle and high school students was to construct an essay based on the question, "How would Dr. King respond to changes to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by the Supreme Court?"
Work from first-place winners in each age group was read to the crowd and each submission drew the connection between the values of equality in daily life with equal access to educational and legislative resources. Middle and high school students analyzed the revisions to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, from King's perspective.
The Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the act in June 2013, the provision of the landmark civil rights law that designates which parts of the country must have changes to its voting laws cleared by the federal government or in federal court.
Elizabeth Katz from Paducah Tilghman High School won first place and wrote about the importance of maintaining the foundation of the past built through hard work from civil rights leaders like King with innovation and changes mandated by ongoing future development.
Local NAACP president J.W. Cleary said the program and those it recognizes has come a long way from its humble beginnings in a small room at the Quilt Museum to the jam-packed cafeteria Sunday.
"The diverse crowd you see with kids and parents coming together is what makes this program so unique," he said. "It's really about how education brings people together."
The ceremony, which was led by NAACP educator of the year Melony Smith, also included multiple musical performances from McCracken County School students and a recognition for both Waldrop and Paducah Schools Superintendent Randy Greene by board member Felix Akojie.
NAACP member Cynthia Alston closed the program and commented on the impressive submissions from students and applauded the vital support of family members.
"The youth have been such a blessing, seeing everyone here today it's a beautiful sight," she said. "Dr. King would be proud."
Other first-place winners included Olivia Noonan, Concord Elementary School; Tylee McElroy, Morgan Elementary School; and Grace Denton, Paducah Middle School.
Contact Kathleen Fox, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8651 or follow @kathleendfox on Twitter.