Fifteen years ago, when Olathe held its first Martin Luther King Jr. essay contest, only 12 students submitted entries.
This year, more than 5,000 entries came through for the event.
“This is a milestone,” said Vivian Avery, the event chairperson. “That says a lot about our kids.”
At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. will be celebrated at an awards presentation at Olathe Northwest High School.
Winners of the sixth- through 12-grade essay, multi-media and visual arts contest will be presented. Educator and performer Cynthia Johnson, also known as Mama J, will be the featured speaker.
More than $5,000 in scholarship money will be awarded.
This year’s theme is “Diminishing Fear,” to mark the 60th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ arrest for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala.
“Dr. King is the name everyone recognizes, but there were a lot of people — young and old — involved in the struggle,” Avery said. “Rosa Parks was one of those people. The moment she refused to give her bus seat up for a white man, she kicked off the civil rights movement.”
The event is a collaboration between the city of Olathe, the Olathe Human Relations Commission, Olathe Public Schools and other community partners.
It was when the city joined forces with the school district 10 years ago that the event really took off, Avery said.
The event fit in with middle school and high school curriculum and teachers encouraged students to enter the contest.
The event and contest have become so widely anticipated for students that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day has become more than just a day off school.
“It’s not even about the contest anymore, it’s about values and tolerance,” said Tim Brady, director of athletics and activities for the Olathe School District. “It’s about Dr. King’s belief that you should treat others the way you’d want to be treated. It’s about becoming a good citizen.”
Brady isn’t aware of any other school district in Kansas with a Martin Luther King Jr. event of this magnitude.
“I’m honored to be a part of it,” he said.
The celebration is especially important for students, because it promotes a society free of bullying, discrimination and mistreatment based on race, gender or religious beliefs.
“Olathe has become so diverse, our students need to know how to treat people,” Avery said. “To move forward, you have to know where you came from. So it’s important to learn about other cultures and learn about our nation’s history.”
It’s also about respect.
“There are a lot of people who fought and died for us to get along and live together peacefully,” she said. “We should honor that.”
With a dynamic speaker such as Mama J, and phenomenal contest entries, Avery encourages everyone to attend the ceremony Thursday morning.
“It’s going to be a fantastic show, not some boring little program,” she said. “It will give people something meaningful they will keep with them the rest of the year. It will give them a real history lesson.”