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Youthful orator steals a professional's thunder

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By ERNEST HOOPER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 22, 2002


Willie Jolley was in trouble, and he knew it.

Jolley was the featured speaker at Monday's Tampa Organization of Black Affairs Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Breakfast, but before he ever got a chance to address the crowd of nearly 800, he was reeling. An 18-year-old Blake High senior had stolen the show.

Jolley is a motivational speaker and author of two books: A Setback Is A Setup For A Comeback and It Only Takes A Minute To Change Your Life. It may take only a minute, but I would say Felicia Wright used about five to change her life and move the crowd.

When Wright, the winner of TOBA's Youth Oratorical Contest, concluded her speech, Jolley offered visible praise, wiped his brow and then playfully fled the dais for relief.

So how could Wright place Jolley in the position of having to follow an opening act more sizzling than his keynote address? After all, Jolley is the 1999 Toastmasters International/Motivational Speaker of the Year, has produced a special for PBS and is heard daily through his syndicated radio show The Magnificent Motivational Minute.

Start with expectations. From Jolley, we expected to be overwhelmed. And he was good. He spoke of redemption, rededication and recommitment, of not letting setbacks hold us down. Jolley said Dr. King's gift to us was access and equality, and our gift to Dr. King is what we do with those entitlements.

I'm convinced Wright is going to do great things with those gifts. From her we expected a nice little speech, filled with a few unintended pauses and stumbles, followed by polite applause.

What we received was stunning. Without aid of notes, without the cadence of someone repeating from memory, Wright delivered a dissertation on the progress blacks have made -- and not made -- with a fiery tone that commanded attention.

She spoke of the achievements that have sprung from the civil rights movement, but that was just a prelude to the day's most candid moments.

From the mouth of this seemingly unassuming youth came a scalding critique of today's black experience. She noted that people died for blacks to have the right to vote, but now people are begging blacks to exercise that right.

She spoke of how integration has given us school choice, but at the same time defiant students are choosing suspension and expulsion, walking around "with their pants hanging around their waists and their underwear showing."

She noted that teens are restricted from seeing some films because they contain too much sex and violence but can see just as much sex and violence in the hallways of their own schools.

Asked later whether she was hesitant to use such blunt honesty, Wright said, "A little bit, but I thought it was something they needed to hear."

Wright, the daughter of Harrial Wright and Linda Montgomery, went on to say blacks were once discriminated against because of the color of their skin, but now they don't have "a skin problem, but a sin problem."

This brought the crowd to its feet and filled the grand ballroom at the Marriott Waterside with shouts of "amen."

She continued, asking today's youth to return to spiritual guidance and realize the civil rights moment was born in the church. Concluding with a biblical passage from 2 Chronicles 7:14, Wright got another standing ovation.

There was only one thing I did not understand about this vibrant young lady. She hopes to become an anesthesiologist, which didn't make sense when you consider she did everything but put the audience to sleep.

-- Ernest Hooper can be reached at 226-3406 or Hooper@sptimes.com.

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