A dozen sixth-grade boys — black, Hispanic, white — stood behind classmate Roberth Ventura onstage Monday at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center. He was presenting a painting of Martin Luther King Jr. he had created.
The audience was rapt, but Roberth was nervous and needed support.
So classmates from Chattanooga Preparatory School stood alongside. The painting was one of many tributes to the civil rights leader's legacy on Martin Luther King Day during the program, "Speak Like A King: I Am The Dream."
"When I first heard of Dr. King, I began to think if we succeeded [meeting] his dream. Sometimes I think yes, but sometimes I think no," said Sean Besley, one of the Prepsters, as their teachers call them.
"When I came to Chattanooga Preparatory School, I made a choice. As Dr. King said, 'I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal.' Dr. King's vision affects us all and others by allowing us to go to school together."
On a day when most students were out of school, the boys took time to honor King, presenting artwork and photographs, giving speeches and reciting poetry.
"It's a day for being on and not off. Our boys have been working so hard to express themselves," Dean of Students Chatoris Jones said. "It's been a journey at Chattanooga Prep, and today's the day they are going to show you they are truly young kings. We want to honor the work they've done today and honor Dr. King's legacy. They are truly carrying on his legacy."
CHATTANOOGA PREP PERFORMERS
All original poems, photograph, paintings and speeches on display at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center as part of Monday’s “Speak Like A King” event were created by Chattanooga Preparatory School students, including:
Most of the 65 boys at Chattanooga Prep, which launched this school year as the city's first all-boys public charter school, come from neighborhoods such as Alton Park and Highland Park. Most are minorities who have grown up in communities of concentrated poverty and violence.
But the school is trying to change the trajectory of the boys' lives, much like its sister school, Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, has done for some of Chattanooga's most at-risk girls.
"Dean Jones wants us to be the men of tomorrow," said Denis Lopez as he presented his photography collection titled "The Special Place."
"Being the men of tomorrow means we help people, we unite people who are not friends and we convert them to friendship," said Denis, who moved to Chattanooga from Guatemala in 2013.
"Martin Luther King wanted a world united. 'USA' stands for the United States of America. 'United' means we are all together as one in harmony," he added.
The school partnered with the Bessie to hold Monday's event.
Bessie Smith Cultural Center president Paula Wilkes said the boys where phenomenal. She also announced fundraising commitments for the school and said she hoped they would continue working as partners.
The boys who performed had volunteered, Jones said. They spent weeks working with classmates and mentors — each boy has been paired with a male from the community — to prepare.
"All of the paintings, all of the drawings, all of the speeches are from the minds and ambitions of these kids," said Vincent Ivan Phipps, the emcee for the event.
The boys explained how they and their community had been affected by King's life and ways they aim to honor his legacy.
"Ross are red, violets are blue. Martin Luther King saved me, but he also saved you," recited Brandon Kelley. "Through day and night, it was a tough fight. But at the end of the day, he did it for our rights."
Troy Kemp, executive director of the National Center for the Development of Boys and one Prepster's mentor, said it is important that the boys can share their thoughts onstage.
"You learn a lot of things from Dr. King, but one thing they can learn about is if you have something to say, have the courage to stand up and say it," Kemp said. "They need to learn at a young age that they are important, that their words matter."
Kemp, who said he's worked with some of the best and some of the most challenging boys in Chattanooga, said the thing they need most is a vision.
"They need something to aspire to," he said. "If you don't have vision, then you don't have hope."
Coming together to study and honor an influential figure such as Dr. King can give them a vision, he said. But they can inspire each other, as well.
"Each one of them is going to make each other better," he added. "And ,boy, I saw it up there today."