Follow Me!

(The following story originally appeared in the 8/18/05 issue of The Mobile Register. It has been reprinted, with permission, here, and has not been altered in any way.)


Staff Reporter
The Mobile Register
Thursday, August 18, 2005

For nearly six years, a Choctaw County native has traveled the country, performing a one-man play about his life growing up in the segregated South.

Forty-three years ago, an 18-year-old Carl Ray watched as his father was shot near the town of Butler because the youth hadn't addressed a white neighbor as "sir."

His story soon will be studied by 11th graders in one of the nation's largest school systems. A version of the play that in cludes a question-and-answer session with students will be introduced into the Los Angeles Unified School District as part of the high school curric ulum on race.

"It's just epic what was done to him," said Brian Heffron, a producer for the L.A.-based school television station KLCS. "It shows how twisted and tortured and ugly the atmosphere had to be. I admire his empathy and his ability to move on."

After the shots rang out that day in Choctaw County, witnesses said the shooter, William "Bill" Carlisle, lowered his handgun, stumbled to his truck and drove away. George Ray, a 62-year-old farmer, died in the yard of a friend's home near Butler.

Carl Ray, an engineer-turned-comic-turned-playwright-turned-activist, eventually found a way to forgive Carlisle, he said. A friend suggested he turn that story into a one-man play and financed the effort.

Last fall, Heffron read a newspaper story about Ray in the New York Times after the autobiographical documentary, "A Killing in Choctaw, the Power of Forgiveness," premiered in San Jose.

Moved by his plight, Heffron called Ray and asked him about working with the school district on a project.

"It kind of took me by surprise," Ray said of the request. "It's great that my life story is going to be the focal point of the civil rights study. I'm proud of that."

Now 60, he's presented the play nearly 100 times at community theaters and college campuses across the country. The production chronicles his life growing up in a racially divided Alabama, including his father's 1962 death and the years he spent blaming himself for the slaying.

For the segment filmed in Los Angeles earlier this summer, about 50 students from two schools were selected to become audience members. The group first attended a seminar about Martin Luther King Jr. and other prominent figures in the civil rights struggle.

A week later, they were bused to the television studio to watch Ray perform the play. The teens sat in low-slung chairs and on couches, watching Ray relive some of the most painful parts of his life.

To better illustrate Ray's story, three sets were built for the taping. One featured a jury box and a wooden chair to demonstrate what it was like when Ray was questioned during Carlisle's trial.

Another showed a comedy club stage, where Ray was able to forget his own troubles as he made others laugh.

The third set included a life-size facade of the front of the wooden home where his father was shot. A dusty suitcase sat near the front steps. A small television was wedged in the doorway, just as it was some four decades earlier when his father moved the TV to the porch to watch the evening news in the minutes before he was slain.

Two days before filming, on a Wednesday in early June, Ray traveled to Los Angeles to prepare for the taping.

"I walked in and saw the house," he said, pausing. "That kind of got me."

The next day, producers told him they were able to secure a copy of the CBS evening news with Mike Wallace that aired the evening his father was shot. Then, he was shown the segment.

"I pretty much froze up on that," Ray said. "It took me back to places that I hadn't been before, that the play didn't take me."

When performing the play in previous years, he used only a few props to propel the production. He would change into a Tuskegee sweater when acting out scenes from college. He sat in a chair when being questioned in court.

When Ray's performance in front of the students ended that day in June, the cameras turned on the audience, recording their questions and comments.

Heffron said some of the reactions were remarkable.

"We're always kind of stunned at what 11th graders are able to come up with," he said. "There was a lot of (talk of) revenge."

The teens also wanted to know how Ray was able to maintain his sanity in the days and months after the shooting.

During the play, as images of Tuskegee educators flashed on a screen behind him, Ray talked about how college teachers and counselors came together to keep him out of trouble.

"It's still very difficult to talk about the old folks," he said on the tape, wiping his eyes between questions, "because they meant so much to me."

One young man asked Ray what he thought God put him on the earth to do. Ray answered quickly: "As strange as it may seem what happened that day is the reason I'm sitting here talking to you."

A woman in the audience asked Ray what might make tensions between the races better. "Dialogue," he said. "We live in a country where we don't talk to each other."

That's one of the reasons Ray continues to travel back to Alabama, bringing groups of high school students to tour historically black colleges, and why he continues talking about how he came to forgive a man for ending his father's life.

Some of the conversations Ray had with students after the cameras stopped rolling encouraged him the most, he said. After the filming, a young man wanted a more detailed explanation of how Ray could forgive the man who killed his father.

"He didn't understand forgiveness," Ray said. "His thing was, 'why didn't you kill the guy?' He couldn't see it. I think with the private discussion he got it. I think he wanted to get it all along."

Dan Alba, director of the Los Angeles regional office of Facing History and Ourselves, a professional development company, identified two classes and their teachers to take part in taping Ray's play.

He said the session was an opportunity to take students noses out of textbooks and have them focus, instead, on a living, breathing person who experienced something emotional and powerful.

"Carl Ray made this an accessible story that really brought about the complexities of these horrific things that occurred in his life," Alba said. "I think that too often (students) don't get to understand the complexities of that violence, they don't really understand the effects that it has on people.

"Here, you got to see the impact on a man's journey and the legacy of that and how it continues to live within and it shapes his identity and those choices."

For Ray, continuing to perform the play and mentor minority high school students has become a calling more than a choice.

This summer, he began working with school leaders in Birmingham to create a mentoring program that includes tours of the Civil Rights Institute and college campuses for students in Alabama's largest city.

"It seems like this thing is growing up and taking on a life of its own," Ray said. "It's bigger than me."

Months after the taping in southern California, Ray continued to marvel at how some of the classmates there seemed to get his message.

Ray stayed afterward that day as long as there were students who wanted to talk. He even walked the last of them out of the studio. As he stood with producers and waved good-bye, a teenager caught his attention.

"As the bus was leaving, he leaned out the window and said 'I'm going to college now'" Ray said. "We really bonded."

© Mobile Register, August 18, 2005

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