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MLK day speech CONTEST

JANUARY 15, 2024

African American Museum in Philadelphia

"Be the best of whatever you are."

The Contest


Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired a nation to advocate for change in part through his compelling and visionary public speeches. Today, more than ever, we need to continue to follow in his footsteps and use our voices to unite and move our communities forward.

The Thomas and Woods Foundation hosts the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Speech Contest, which matches high school students with mentor-coaches over several weeks, empowering them to write and perform their very own speeches before a live panel of judges.  We give away $3,500 in scholarships to the winners!

"The event was wonderful. I appreciated learning more about the students and their goals, dreams, and perspectives."

Announcing 2024 Winners!

2024 Theme:  How do you want to use your voice?

First Place:  Hadas Ali, Girard College

Second Place:  Antoinette Ellis, Parkway Center City Middle College

Third Place:  Seven (Laylaa) Frazier, Phila. Performing Arts Charter School

Finalists:  Khyree Cousins, Christian Dunn

About the program: 


High school juniors and seniors are matched with a volunteer coach, who will work together in virtual coaching sessions to prepare a 3-5 minute speech about this year's theme (TBA).  The sessions will be held weekly online, and will include guest speakers and prior winners of the Contest.  On January 15, 2024, students will give their speeches at our LIVE event in person.  Guest judges will pick the top three speeches, who will receive $2,000, $1,000 and $500 in scholarships.  

Coaches should expect a virtual commitment of 4-8 hours with their student between December 1 and January 15.  No formal experience is necessary.

Why participate?

  • "The coaching set up allowed me to properly guide my thoughts and build a good overall speech, but it also allowed for me to build a speech that fit my style best."

  • "Gave me the platform to speak my mind."

  • "I enjoyed the chance to speak and preform something I worked hard on."

  • "The event gave me perspective on my city.  I was able to hear from people I'd never even heard of before, and the adults were encouraging to the ideas/ideals brought up even though they were being brought up by 'kids.'"

Past Winners

2023 Theme: "Love your enemies."

First Place:  Cayla Waddington, The Mathematics, Civics, Sciences Charter School

Second Place:  Antoinette Ellis, Parkway Center City Middle College 

Third Place:  Ava Jackson, George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science

Finalists: Khyree Cousins, Imhotep Charter School; Kevin Leonard, George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science

2022 Theme: Write a speech about one of the following quotes: “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”  (Washington, DC, February 1968); "A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right."  (Selma, AL, March 1965).

First place:  Kevin Leonard, G.W. Carver High School of Eng’g and Science

Second place: Erin Gill-Wilson, G.W. Carver High School of Eng’g and Science

Third place: Ja’Leah Guenther, Central High School

Finalists: Sarah Narvaez, Daysha Cobb, Ryan Johnson, Nasir Williams

2021 Theme: Building Resilience in 2020: How has the resilience you’ve built in 2020 prepared you for the future? 

First place winner ($2,000 scholarship): Dwayne Campbell, G.W. Carver Eng'g & Science H.S.​

Second place winner ($1,000 scholarship): Youma Diabira, Central High School

Third place winner ($500 scholarship): Dea Carter, G.W. Carver Eng'g & Science H.S.​

Finalists: Grace Chang, Dennis Chen, Malcolm Miller


We hosted the first Thomas and Woods Foundation Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Oratory Scholarship Contest in 2017 to give Philadelphia students the opportunity to share their views on our current political and social climate. Each student submitted an essay and then worked with a board member as a coach to turn their essays into speeches.


The contest was hosted at Martin Luther King High School on MLK Day, where over 50 people came to listen to these student's speeches. Each student was judged by local members from the community, including elected officials at the local and state level. Through the generous donations of our supporters and local organizations, we were able to award over $2,000 in scholarship money to the finalists. 

Since then, we have continued the tradition, and this year are proud to offer $3,500 in scholarship prizes to three students.

"Always feel that your life has the ultimate significance."

For questions regarding the contest, please email

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