TAMPA – Eight years ago, Harrison Mootoo stepped nervously into the spotlight to read the historic “I Have a Dream” speech by the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. before hundreds of people at Beulah Baptist Institutional Church.
“I remember every last thing about it,” said Mootoo, who was 9 at the time. “I’d never done something like that before. I was always in the choir, but never had a solo where everyone was watching me. I got into it and enjoyed myself.”
Mootoo, now 17, will deliver a portion of the speech once again, in the same church, as part of Hillsborough County’s Martin Luther King Jr. Interfaith Service on Monday. The observance has been held every year for nearly 30 years on the weekend of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
King gave the speech, calling for an end to racism, before more than 250,000 people in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963 — five years before his assassination.
Entertainment begins with a 4 p.m. performance by the choir at Beulah Baptist church, 1006 W. Cypress St.
The service, free and open to the public, starts at 4:30 p.m. and will include performances by three other local choirs, speakers, a meal, and the presentation of the annual Robert Saunders award for community service to local historian Charles “Fred” Hearns.
The service is funded in part by $3,500 in grant money from Hillsborough Community College.
New this year will be a featured speaker, the Rev. Frederick Haynes, an author, radio show host and senior pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas.
This time around, Mootoo is more confident about speaking before a crowd. Since that first stint in the spotlight, he has performed on stage in musicals through the fine arts program at Blake High School, where he is a senior.
Now that he is a bit older, the day’s events hold a deeper meaning for Mootoo.
“To be a part of something like this is very cool,” he said. “I’m standing in front of a group of people and telling them that we can all be together and live among each other. It showcases my very strong belief in equality.”
Roy Kaplan, one of the event’s organizers, has helped plan the service for 27 years. It has drawn up to 1,200 attendees in the past.
“We want people to learn about our history and create a better future for us all,” Kaplan said. “That’s what this event is all about – to show people from all different faith backgrounds can work together to make this community a better place.”
Kaplan, a professor of Africana studies at the University of South Florida, remembered Mootoo from the first time he delivered King’s speech.
“I remember he knocked them out,” Kaplan said. “It was quite unusual.”
Alexis Mootoo, Harrison’s mother, took one of Kaplan’s classes at USF last year. The professor approached her to see if her son would be interested in delivering the speech again.
“The whole concept of the speech is a futuristic vision Dr. King wanted of our society,” Kaplan said.
Mootoo, he added, “is a person who is living that dream, a person who has dedicated himself to academics. He’s going to get a higher education. Here’s this young man who embodies all of the concepts Dr. King spoke of – a gentle, articulate, young person.”
Mootoo is taking seriously his preparation for the speech. He has spent the last month memorizing the text, reading it over and practicing, while juggling school, final exams and college applications. He listens to a recording of the speech while doing his homework in the evenings to learn the way King gave it.
“It’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s educational and it makes you feel good,” Mootoo said. “I’m excited to do it again and see what the difference is, to see how I’ve grown as a person.”
Mootoo’s mother, who is working toward her doctorate in race relations in government, said she is proud of him for participating once again in something so important.
“I think practicing for this speech has enlightened him about why I’m so passionate about what I’m doing,” Alexis Mootoo said. “This experience is good for him in terms of understanding the significance of the event.”
Mootoo also will sing “The Impossible Dream” from the musical, “Man of La Mancha.”
When he graduates this spring, Mootoo plans to study musical theater at the University of Central Florida. He hopes to one day perform in Broadway shows.
“I can’t see myself doing anything but Broadway or national shows and being paid to do what I love,” he said. “I really want to tour the world and expose people to theater. After I retire, I want to go into teaching and share my experience with other people.”
Mootoo’s experience in musical theater will make for a powerful performance today, his mother said.
“I imagine this time you might think it was Martin Luther King speaking. It won’t just be a delivery, it will be an emotional delivery.”