The American Legion’s 2023 National Oratorical Contest got underway Saturday in Indianapolis where 49 high school orators from across the country spoke on the U.S. Constitution. After two rounds of competition, the top three orators have earned a spot in Sunday morning’s National Oratorical Finals.
Ian Chung of Vestal, N.Y., Emma Johnson of Powell, Wyo., and Haley Bock of Indianapolis will compete in the finals for a chance to win first place and a $25,000 scholarship. Second and third place will earn $22,500 and $20,000 respectively.
Watch Bock, Chung and Johnson compete live Sunday, April 23 at 10 a.m. Eastern. The finals will be streamed live on The American Legion National Headquarters Facebook page and The American Legion YouTube channel.
Chung is a junior at Vestal Senior High School who is familiar with the Wyndham Indianapolis Hotel where the competition is held – he competed last year but didn’t make it past the semifinal round. “I stumbled a lot last year in both rounds of competition, but I felt a lot better going into both quarter and semifinals this year. I had more confidence,” Chung said. When he saw his state listed in the top three finalists spot on the electronic board, “I was excited to get to finals and I’m happy for the opportunity tomorrow. I’m looking forward to just giving it a go. I very much enjoyed watching the national finals last year and my opponents are extremely talented so I’m just going to give it my best shot and have fun with it.”
The title of Chung’s prepared oration is “A Delicate Balance.” The discussion of his speech is about “the delicate balance between the tyrannies of the minority and the majority and how that’s reflected in our framers’ desire to avoid tyranny of all sorts in the founding document,” he said. What he wants listeners to take away from it is that “although the Constitution seems like a very stable institution that everyone can rely upon, in the end it also relies upon the people in order to function as that institution and if more people can participate in the democratic process and defend American constitutional ideals, the better off we will be as a nation.”
Chung has had the support of American Legion Post 1645 in Binghamton, N.Y., his sponsoring post for the three years he has participated in the oratorical contest. “There are some wonderful people at the post level who have encouraged me from the beginning,” he said. “I’m really happy to have the New York delegation here too; they’ve been as welcoming as anyone can ask for. I’m really proud to be representing the Empire State.”
Johnson, a junior at Powell High School, derived her prepared oration off the award-winning musical “Hamilton.” Titled “I’m Not Throwing Away My Shot,” Johnson said she learned more about the U.S. Constitution from watching the musical than her history classes. As she states in her speech, “For those two hours and forty minutes, I was captivated by these key and distinct American notions: the process towards compromise, the importance of upholding a legacy, and the obligation to fulfilling the duties of the people. Through the power of music, I became more connected to America and its founding documents than I had over the last decade of social studies lessons.”
Johnson too is familiar with Indianapolis as she made it to the finals last year but not past the quarterfinal round. “To get as far as I have today is pretty shocking!” she said. As for what’s different from last year, Johnson said there’s an exposure that you get from making it to the national competition. “It’s not only meeting other like-minded kids but also understanding the level of intensity. Everyone usually has their orations down pretty well so it boils down to the (Constitutional) amendments and integrity of what you’re able to leave with the audience and the judges. A lot of people can listen to any type of oration, but you have to leave something that’s going to stick with them; something that’s tangible because otherwise you’re just another person that’s speaking in front of a crowd.”
What does Johnson want listeners to take away from her speech? The musical “‘Hamilton’ is an area for this generation to see people get engaged, get excited about our Constitution and Founding Fathers,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be so rulebook in the way that the Constitution has to be a boring subject. The ability for us to grow as a nation is stemming from that engagement and how much we put into it. If we can get people excited than that means all the world in the sense of voter engagement and getting people to actually know what their civic duties and obligations are.”
Johnson is sponsored by American Legion Post 26 in Powell where her father is a member. When she saw her state listed as a top three finalist, she hugged her mom in shock and excitement. “It’s one of those feelings I won’t forget walking and being like, ‘Is that a typo? Am I actually on there?’ To say you’re a national qualifier, to say that you get the honor of being here is something that I won’t forget, and it’s something that I’ll treasure for a long, long time.”
As she takes the stage tomorrow morning for the finals, Johnson said she has no question that the Legionnaires back home will be “cheering me on from the livestream.”
This is Bock’s third time participating in the oratorical contest but first time to make it to nationals. “It’s such a privilege and a blessing from God,” she said. “I’ve been working with my parents, they’re my coaches. And I’ve been inspired by my brothers who came here (to nationals and post-level competition) in the past. It feels like a real blessing directly from God to be here, a place I’ve dreamed about coming to for a while.”
The title of Bock’s prepared oration is “The Black Hole of American Democracy: American Territories are Where Voting Rights Vanish.” She opens her remarks about Luis Segovia, a U.S. citizen who lives in Guam but served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Illinois National Guard.
“Luis Segovia was willing to give his life for his country,” she wrote. “He protected Iraqi citizens' right to vote. But back home in America, Luis, along with four million residents of the American territories of Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands were denied their right to vote.” Her speech goes on to talk about “interpretation of the Constitution which silences the voices of over four million Americans like you and me by denying them that very right.”
With her oration, Bock, a homeschool senior, “wanted to encourage young people my age and other Americans, and veterans in The American Legion to investigate issues like that and to try to use their voice to speak for others who don’t maybe have the platform that they do.”
Post 3 in Indianapolis sponsored Bock for the oratorical contest, just like her two brothers. The why behind the family tradition to participate in the program is “the skills that it leaves you with,” Bock said. “The ability to articulate ideas about the Constitution and your country, and also the communication skills to connect with people. You have an idea, you want reform, you want change but how can you incite that passion and excitement in other people and do that in a respectful way. That’s why we have continued to come back (to the Legion oratorical program) because it leaves you with so many new skills and capabilities that other forms of education don’t leave you with necessarily.”
The 49 national oratorical contestants won their respective American Legion post, district and department contest. Saturday’s contest began with the quarterfinals where contestants were divided into nine groups to present their prepared 8 to 10-minute oration on the U.S. Constitution, as well as a 3 to 5-minute oration on an assigned topic discourse – a phase of the Constitution selected from Articles and Sections – in front of judges and family members. The top 18 advanced to the semifinal round to again present their prepared speeches and assigned topics. Chung, Johnson and Bock edged out the competition in the semifinal round to become the top three finalists.