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Girls Honor Civil Rights Trailblazers

Holiday: Speeches offer tributes to Rosa Parks and Sojourner Truth at King Day event in Oxnard.

January 22, 2002|HOLLY J. WOLCOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kalisha Crone and Vera Vanderkraan both daydream about going to college and enjoy debating American history. In the spirit of competition, the two seventh-graders also love a good fight.

It was only fitting, then, that the Oxnard girls were chosen co-winners of a speech contest in which top prize was a chance to address hundreds of people who attended the city's Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration Monday, one of several held across Ventura County.

"These two girls are wonderful. They personified the essence of our competition and their topics were excellent," said Iva Jeffreys, a member of the local group that began the city event 16 years ago.

After brief comments by area leaders and a rendition of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," 13-year-old Kalisha went to the podium and placed a brown felt hat on her head.

Slowly and eloquently, as she looked out at the cavernous concert hall, Kalisha retold the story of how Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man on Dec. 1, 1955.

"I've had a long day and I'm tired," Kalisha quoted the now 88-year-old Parks as saying that day in Alabama.

She described how Parks was jailed and given a $14 fine, and she spoke of King's yearlong bus boycott in response to the arrest, along with his history-making rallies against segregation in schools, hotels and restrooms.

"It's about being equal in all ways," Kalisha said.

One of two winners of the annual African American Speech Exposition, held by the local chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, Kalisha said she was inspired by her mother and motivated by her two older sisters, who are both in college.

Kalisha's mom, Cheryl, portrayed Parks in presentations during Black History Month at Junipero Serra School in Ventura in the early 1990s. Then 3, Kalisha would sit on a teacher's lap, enchanted as her mom spoke.

"I think it was sort of embedded in her since then," Cheryl Crone said.

For 12-year-old Vera, who wants to be a genetic engineer and enjoys creative writing and poetry, enrolling in the speech contest was her first response when she didn't win the competition a year ago.

"That was my motivation," she said. "I felt like I had made it to second base that first time, and I really wanted a home run."

Using history books and Internet articles, Vera wrote a first-person speech about Sojourner Truth, a New York slave from the early 19th century who traveled the country preaching about women's rights and the abolition of slavery.

"There was a time when she talked about how her religion and her son and certain other things in life had failed her," Vera said. "And what I did was try and draw on things that I felt I had struggled with, in school and life and such."

Vera followed Kalisha during the celebration and came to the dais wearing a white robe and head wrap, reminiscent of what Truth might have worn.

She spoke about Truth's emancipation under the New York State Antislavery Act of 1827, and her successful struggle to reclaim her son after he was taken from her.

"She was one of the first black women to win a case against a white man," she told the audience.

At the end of her presentation, choosing words that echoed King's philosophies and dreams, Vera said, "When you know something is wrong, make it right."

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