Martin Luther King Jr. fought for equality with his eloquent poetry and prose, and young high school and college students are paying it forward through Carnegie Mellon University's Martin Luther King Jr. Writing Awards, now in its 15th year.
Dietrich College English Professor Jim Daniels established the Martin Luther King, Jr. Writing Awards in 1999 to encourage students to uncover personal experiences with race and discrimination. With a true passion for expressing oneself through poetry, Daniels wanted to share his experience with students.
"We want the students to be honest," Daniels said. "To invoke the spirit of Dr. King, without just quoting him. We want them to think about his ideas … we want their poems and essays to be inspired by his spirit, openness, honesty and compassion."
The Writing Awards program, which has received more than 200 submissions this year, includes Pittsburgh-area high school and college students. Pittsburgh's Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) and Winchester Thurston high schools have been the "anchors" since the beginning. CAPA was the first school to participate and Winchester Thurston joined in 2002.
"You can't hide in a poem. There's a kind of openness and honesty in the best poems," Daniels said. "We want the students to tell their own personal stories of dealing with race and difference. We want them to make it more complicated. Not simplify it."
A nominee for the 2014 Martin Luther King Jr. Distinguished Leadership Award, Daniels has committed himself to helping students express themselves in "safe environments," where they can speak freely and express their own hardships and dreams.
"If we can be a center where there's acceptance and understanding, I'm all for that," Daniels said.
"Some of the most moving things for me have been during the receptions we have afterward where I meet the kids' families," Daniels said. "A lot of these kids have to be brave to write some of the things they write. I really admire them."
Jamar Thrasher (HNZ'14), winner of the 2003 Writing Awards, has a deep connection to his first-place poem "An Unforgettable Journey," which was written after he visited Ghana in the summer of 2002.
"It was my first time being in Africa, and as a black man it was a powerful experience," Thrasher said. "The piece was my coming-of-age story about my experiences as a black teen growing up in a black Pittsburgh neighborhood and traveling to Africa."
Thrasher and five previous MLK Writing Awards winners traveled to the Chautauqua Institution in New York state last year to read their work as part of the institution's lecture series "Emancipation: Where Do We Go From Here?"
"The audience's reception at the Chautauqua Institution showed me that the piece, even after all of these years, still has power," Thrasher said.
Winners will travel to the Chautauqua Institution again this June.