Scholarship winner addresses King theme

Eastside High School senior Taonga Leslie, the 2011 recipient of the Edna M. Hart Keeper of the Dream Scholarship Award, gives his speech during the national holiday kick-off program at Bo Diddley Downtown Plaza.

Erica Brough/Special to the Guardian
Published: Wednesday, January 19, 2011 at 9:51 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 19, 2011 at 9:51 p.m.

Several hundred people used umbrellas to shield themselves from the rain early Monday afternoon while listening to a speech delivered by a 17-year-old high school senior during the 2011 King Celebration National Holiday Kick-Off Program.

Eastside High School senior Taonga Leslie, recipient of the $7,500 2011 Edna M. Hart Keeper of the Dream Scholarship Award, stood on the stage of the Bo Diddley Downtown Community Plaza and delivered his speech like a seasoned statesman as he focused on areas people can get involved with to honor the theme of this year's King Celebration: "Renewed Commitment: Acceptance, Justice and Education.

Benjamin Osoba, a 2010 Eastside graduate and last year's recipient of the Keeper of the Dream Scholarship, flew to Gainesville from Virginia for the weekend to preside over the program. Osoba is a freshman at Norfolk State University in Norfolk, Va.

At the end of the program, Rodney Long, president and founder of the Martin Luther Jr. Commission of Florida Inc., told the crowd that the future looks bright.

"We are certainly in good hands when we have brothers like Ben and Taonga," said Long as the rain stopped just before the annual Commemorative March began from the plaza to the King Center.

Besides the speech by Taonga, another highlight of the program came when 10-year-old Jasmine Fleming performed "Here's Where I Stand" by Tiffany Taylor. Jasmine was the winner of the 2nd annual Youth Talent Extravaganza held last Friday night, also at the King Center. Jasmine, a fourth-grader at Duval Elementary Fine Arts Academy, received a standing ovation as she dazzled the crowd with her singing skills.

During his speech, Taonga encouraged the community to fight against inequality in the educational and judicial systems, poverty and to make their voices heard by voting.

He said a good education is "one of the most important resources" a person can have because its value never declines. To illustrate inequality in the judicial system, he said 1 out of 10 black men are locked up, and he said research shows that blacks receive 10 percent longer sentences than whites for the same crimes.

He also talked about poverty, saying it is a shame how noticeably different east and west Gainesville looks to the naked eye.

Taonga then talked about the importance of voting. He said it was great that so many people voted in the 2008 presidential election, but he said it was discouraging to see how many people didn't vote in the mid-term elections in November. He talked about the importance of voting in local elections and he challenged voters to turn out for the Gainesville

City Commission election in March.

"I hope to see a huge increase in the March elections," Taonga said.

Gainesville Mayor Craig Lowe also addressed the crowd. He said the fact that so many people attended the program despite the rainy weather "shows true dedication." He also said the fight for equality is still going on.

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," said Lowe, citing a phrase King wrote in a letter on April 16, 1963, from a jail cell in Birmingham, Ala.

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