English and history were never Vinh Phan's favorite subjects.
So when his English teacher asked the class to write an essay on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for a contest, Vinh didn't think much about it at first.
"I thought it was just an assignment," said the 16-year-old, a junior at Kennedy High School in Granada Hills.
But after reading about the famous civil rights leader in the library, Vinh said he began to get very inspired.
"I had never really thought about him," Vinh said. "But I learned that he worked for something and died for something, and we have to carry on his legacy."
Vinh's essay, which took about a week to research and write, won first place for 11th-graders in an annual essay and art contest sponsored by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles as part of its annual King Week Festival.
King "wanted us to 'rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice,' " Vinh wrote, quoting King.
"In reaching this path," the student wrote, "King did not want us to push and shove to see who would get there first, but he wanted us to walk side by side to get there together."
For 17 years, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference has invited students from schools across the Southland to submit art and essays celebrating King's life and philosophy. One student winner and one honorable mention are selected from every grade level in third through 12th grade.
This year, more than 750 students entered the contest. The only two San Fernando Valley winners were Vinh and 11-year-old Hannah Whang, a student at Welby Way Elementary School in West Hills, who received honorable mention for her essay in the sixth-grade category.
The theme for the contest was: "The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: Who Are Its Caretakers?"
Vinh, who was born in South Vietnam and escaped with his parents to the United States when he was about 1 1/2, said he believes everybody has a role to play in realizing King's dream.
"We're all in too much of a hurry," he said. "If we all slowed down, we would get something done."