Lila Aryan Photography for Wisconsin Muslim Journal

“If you think you are nothing, you are 100% wrong,” Abigail Cashman told her listeners at Milwaukee’s 36th annual celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, held this year on Sunday, January 20 at the Marcus Center.

The theme for the 2020 event was “Your life has significance” and student speakers, artists and writers from both the City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee County responded.

Abigail Cashman, a student at Golda Meir School, won the speech contest in the 3rd and 4th Grade category. “The world needs you to believe in yourself,” Cashman told the audience in Uihlein Hall. “When it’s difficult, take a super-hero stance and say, ‘I can do this.’”

In keeping with the theme, the young speakers emphasized positive thinking and learning to believe in yourself.

Samawia Akhter of Salam High School, Grade 11, credited a teacher with making her feel important by acknowledging her. Now, she said, she believes she has significance. “My words have power,” she said in a moving and confident speech. “I stand here now, knowing that I have significance, measured by accepting who I am. No one can make me feel inferior without my consent.” She urged her listeners to “be the best of whatever you are” and emphasized that “it is what people do for others that matters . . . one good deed I do for someone else” may change a life.

The 862-student Salam School, #8 on’s list of best private schools in Milwaukee, swept the writing awards in the Grades 9th & 10th and 11th & 12th categories. Altogether, there were seven writing award winners from Salam School. Donelle Johnson, who has run the King Day writing contest since 1981, three years before the city-wide celebration began, said that 2,200 students from both public and private schools entered this year.

The essays by writing award winners were published in a special section of the Sunday Milwaukee-Journal Sentinel on January 20. Work by the art contest winners was displayed during a reception after the event. But all the young winners were introduced and applauded by the audience.

Milwaukee has been celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday since 1984, the first year it became a national holiday. Only Atlanta, Georgia, Dr. King’s birthplace, has been celebrating the event as long.

The event opened with a stunning traditional dance performance by the United Indians of Milwaukee Youth led by Ronnie Preston. Water Street Dance of Milwaukee performed a couple of powerful modern dances. And bass baritone Dr. Derrell Acon sang thrilling renditions of “America the Beautiful,” the Black National Anthem, and “Deep River.”

Janan Najeeb, emcee for the celebration and president of Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition, reminded the audience that “the journey to freedom is still not over. . . Everyone needs to be treated with dignity and have access to a decent livelihood. . . Let’s keep the dream alive.”

Congresswoman Gwen Moore, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, and County Executive Chris Able as well as MPS Superintendent Dr. Keith P. Posley were among the featured adult speakers. Each spoke movingly about the King Day Celebration and Martin Luther King’s lasting influence on our city, nation, and world.

County Executive Abele said he had two personal heroes, Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln, for their “moral courage and moral clarity,” their “ability to do right when it’s awfully hard.” He reminded the audience of Dr. King’s words: “‘The time is always right to do what’s right.’”

Abele, who is not running for re-election this year, told the audience that Sunday’s event was a “celebration of one of the greatest human beings that walked this planet” but that “progress doesn’t make itself.” In the upcoming elections, he said, “Every single candidate in every office needs to be clear” that their priority is ending “racial inequity.”

Fourth District Congresswoman Gwen Moore had her own take on the celebration’s theme, urging the audience to express their significance by voting and participating in the 2020 census.  “Every single person who is counted or not counted determines millions of dollars” in federal aid, she said.

Mayor Barrett praised the participating young people for putting themselves out there and making themselves into stronger people. “I want you to be proud . . . as community members,” Barrett said, telling the audience that he views “the future of this city with great optimism,” but adding that a positive future for Milwaukee “starts with giving young people the tools to be strong members of the community.”

The politicians who spoke knew how to hold an audience and deliver a message. But the messages of the young speech contest winners generated the greatest enthusiasm. Angela Gorton, a tenth grader at Ronald Reagan High School, spoke passionately about an issue that particularly impacts young people. “What do you do if you suffer from mental illness?” she asked the audience. “This is a problem that many teen-agers face every day.” In Wisconsin, she said, suicide is the second leading cause of death for people age 15 to 18. Gorton urged the audience to become acquainted with the QPR method: Question, Persuade, Respond.

In a lively speech, Benji Johnston, a sixth grader at Eastbrook Academy, won the audience over by telling them that “Age does not define our significance.” Dr. George Washington Carver, Johnston said, was in his 70s when he went to work for the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, and a middle schooler recently made a prosthetic arm out of Legos that was the first step in creating a prototype.

After the celebration, WMJ spoke with Salam School eleventh grader Ibrahim Bektesi, the third place winner in the 11th & 12th Grade category. He credited English teachers Edward Sheehan and Melissa Tolner with giving students the encouragement and tools to win. But Bektesi made it clear that at Salam School, the values taught by Dr. King are about more than winning a writing contest. “All of our teachers and the principal push us to treat everyone equally,” he said.

Khaled Mahamed, a twelfth grader at Salam School, won a first-place writing award with an essay titled, “Hard Work Gives Us Significance.” He wrote, “Once you decide what you want to do in your life, pursue that goal with everything you have in you . . . Don’t let anyone make you forget your worth. Don’t let anyone stray you off the path you’ve made for yourself. We all must seek out a way to make our nation a better place for people of all backgrounds to live. MLK set down the road . . .”

Or, in the words of Aisha Hameed from Salam School, the third-place writing contest winner in the 9th & 10th Grade category, “People want to make a change in the world and replace all the negativity with happiness and love.”