MLK play at Assumption teaches lessons about civil rights

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Two colors, one people as Assumption 3rd Grader Rafe Wolpert puts race into less than clear, black and white terms as he peers one eye from his face, one eye from his Martin Luther King, Jr mask while waiting for his time to speak during the 25th Anniversary performance of the Martin Luther King Play. Wolpert was co-cast with Patrick Jonest to play the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. during this year's showing of the annual play at the Assumption Church on Friday.

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Assumption 3rd grader Avery Klein sends his message in a civil rights march during the 25th Anniversary performance of the Martin Luther King Play at Assumption Church on Friday.

WALLA WALLA - After growing up in the prime years of the American civil rights movement, Beth Call was looking for a way in the mid-1980s to teach her fourth-graders about that era.

"They have this passion for justice when they see how things were so unfair, they want to see how things could be changed," the longtime Assumption Catholic School teacher said last week.

Call, who now teaches third-graders at Assumption, found her answer in a play. She wrote a four-page script for a three-act play and uses it as part of her lessons on civil rights. The play was performed for the 25th year on Friday afternoon at Assumption Catholic Church.

The play begins with a narration that introduces the audience to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., then re-enacts the Montgomery bus boycott, a lunch counter sit-in and a 1963 protest march in Birmingham, Ala. A narrator wraps up the play by showing similarities in King's life and death to those of Jesus, followed by a passage from King's "I Have a Dream" speech.

The role of King is offered to the student or students who have done best in their lessons. Call said over the years, a few black students have had the role, and she recalled their pride with a smile.

She said performing the play makes a deep impression.

"What they're not as aware of is how miserably blacks were treated. They have an inkling but not the intense experience of having actually acted it out themselves."

In addition to the play, Call reads a biography of King by James T. de Kay to her students, plays music by Pete Seeger, including his rendition of "We Shall Overcome," as well as music from black churches and the Civil War. Her students write their dreams and memorize quotes from King.

Students can choose three from a board of quotes in Call's room at Assumption, but all must include a personal favorite: "Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend."

The lessons about civil rights remain relevant today, Call said.

"I think they're under the impression you can violently suppress injustice," Call said of today's grade-schoolers.

"You look at the wars and gangs and it can seem hopeless," she said. But the lessons and play "add to the hope bank."

Even with apparent setbacks in the quest for equal rights and peace, Call sees causes for optimism in her students expanding their view of social justice.

"I dare to hope a better day is coming."

Alasdair Stewart can be reached at alasdairstewart@wwub.com or 526-8311.

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