King's dreams come alive for area students

By Greg Gelpi

There weren't 250,000 people, but about a thousand.

It wasn't Aug. 28, 1963, but Tuesday.

And it wasn't on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, but the message rang the same.

Theatre IV, a national touring company, presented a dramatic representation of the life and times of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. at the Clayton County Schools Performing Arts Center.

Although removed by time and place, school children in attendance weren't removed by emotion and empathy.

"I think I'm getting in the seat I paid for in the section you designated for Negroes and I intend to stay put," Cherise Jefferson, who was portraying civil rights activist Rosa Parks, said. Parks sparked a bus boycott in Alabama and encouraged changes in civil rights laws, and her words sparked the youth of today as well.

The packed theater applauded loudly in support of Parks.

Jefferson, who played multiple roles, including King's wife Coretta Scott King and Parks, urged more than a thousand elementary and middle school students to live King's dream.

"It's not just black history," Jefferson said. "It's American history."

A powerful speech, many have read in books or heard referenced by politicians, came alive for the students.

"I have a dream," Matthew Ryan Smith, who played King, resounded in the theater, and that dream is still being dreamt. "Although headlines made it sound easy, it wasn't."

The play detailed the violence and hardships that paved the way for equal treatment.

Letitia Lewis, 34, who teaches language arts at Riverdale Middle, said today's children don't have a sense of what blacks went through during the civil rights movement. The drama provided the school children a glimpse into the passion and strife of the 1950s and 1960s.

Decades later and further removed from that era than Lewis, today's students are "out of touch with Dr. Martin Luther King," she said.

"I grew up watching television shows about him," Lewis said, and even with what she has seen she still can't totally comprehend the magnitude of the struggle.

Clayton County public schools have been observing Black History Month during February. Theatre IV, the company that presented the play, specializes in productions for students.