Donovan Summers, 11, isn’t like most kids his age.
The East Garner Middle School sixth grader’s favorite subject is history, and he likes to dress nicely. He likes to make speeches too.
And when he makes his speeches, he doesn’t sound like an 11-year-old either.
Usually dressed in a suit and a different color bow-tie, he steps to the podium with confidence. That was evident at last week’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration at the Garner Performing Arts Center. Summers wowed the crowd with his speech called “Code of Conduct – You better watch your mouth.”
He said God gave people the code of how one should conduct themselves by loving one another, and Martin Luther King Jr. showed them how to use that code. Yet, he says, people haven’t been paying attention. He encouraged people to follow King’s lead.
Summers wasn’t the keynote speaker the MLK event, but after his speech, he received a standing ovation. Some congratulated him afterward too. Others asked if he could speak at their churches. That’s how he usually gets his gigs.
But they are all for fun, he said.
Donovan said he got his passion from learning about black history and hearing stories from his father, Charles Summers, who grew up in Nashville in the ’60s.
He also went on a Heritage tour four years ago in Selma, Alabama, and learned how King marched. He visited the civil rights museum, where he says he cried after seeing a picture of Emmett Till’s face. Emmett Till, was a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago, who was kidnapped and murdered in Mississippi in 1955, for whistling at a white woman. His mutilated body was later found in a river. The two men, who years later confessed to killing him, were acquitted at the time.
“I tell him how fortunate he is,” Charles Summers said of his son. “He’s on the football team. He has a lot of white friends. Going to birthday parties, going go-carting. We just didn’t have that luxury. Because of Martin Luther King, he’s brought us a long way.
“It was always ‘You live on that side of the tracks,’ and ‘We live on this side.’ (They’d say) you come on this side of the tracks and you’re going to get jumped.
Creating a speech is a process for Summers. He and his dad will spend hours in his room writing creatively, his mother Sarah Summers said.
Or the two will go out for a ride in his car and brainstorm ideas and bounce them off each other. His father may write a couple of things down. Donovan will look it over, then say “I like that, but I would say it like this.”
He’s done about 10 speeches, from Raleigh and Garner, to Greensboro and other surrounding areas. Donovan said he’s gotten to the point where he doesn’t get nervous anymore. Before he steps up to the podium he takes a deep breath, closes his eyes and says a little prayer.
“I try to think of a happy place, like Fiji or Hawaii or something,” Donovan Summers said. “So the big crowd won’t scare me.”
Most of his speech receive positive reviews. But not everyone liked his speech. In one of his speeches, he said he was afraid to walk home at night in his neighborhood with a hoodie on because some neighborhood-watchperson may think he look suspicious.”
Some of those who left comments posted negative ones. They asked why he would say that, and what he had against neighborhood watchmen, Charles Summers said. One person attached his speech to a political website. Charles and Sarah Summers considered pulling him from doing any more speeches but felt his speeches had a higher purpose.
Donovan said the comments initially scared him too.
“I had nightmares,” Donovan said.
“Are they going to come kill me like they did Malcolm X?” he asked his parents. He said he also thought about not speaking at any more events.
“I had that second thought but I was saying to myself it really doesn’t matter what people think about me because I’m going to do (well) in life and then those people aren’t going to talk about me no more,” he said. “And while I do more speeches, the negatives are dropping down.”
An early sign
Sarah Summers said she knew her son had a gift when he was 6 years old and he stepped to the microphone to say a few words at a cousin’s funeral.
Sarah Summers’ cousin, was a musician. More than 300 people were there, including a few famous faces.
“We would be looking around and he was gone,” Sarah Summers said. “We were like ‘Oh my God, what is he going to say.’”
“We didn’t even know he was gone,” Charles Summers added. “Before we knew it, we looked up he was already at the mic.”
Donovan talked about how his cousin taught him how to play the drums and what he meant to him. Then he said “He was a great person. It’s because of him, I am the person I am today. Now let’s give it up for Jonah Ellis.”
The crowd rose for applause.
“So I knew then,” she said.