A cluster of Paxson Elementary School second-graders gathered around foster grandparent Jonna Rhein as she read the heroic story of Martin Luther King Jr. on Friday morning.

“Free at last, free at last, Thank God Almighty I’m free at last,” Rhein recited, explaining to the children in Wendy Lofthouse’s class how King’s iconic words were etched onto his gravestone after his death.

That class, along with 53 other Missoula elementary school classes, spent an hour Friday discussing the civil rights leader who lost his life in 1968 when an assassin shot him. The program was part of a statewide Read for Peace event, and 2014 marks the fourth year volunteers from across Montana read about Martin Luther King to the elementary students.

“He felt really sad that some of his friends couldn’t play with him because they were white,” Lucy Johnstone, a second-grader in Peggy Manning’s class, said after the reading.

In hushed tones, volunteer Diane Keefauver read the book to Manning’s class, fielding questions and commenting on statements from the group of second-graders gathered around her.

She explained that the second-graders’ great-grandparents were probably born about the same time as Martin Luther King Jr., highlighting the vast generational gap between the people in the room – and the marked changes in society since America’s Jim Crow laws were overturned in the mid-1960s.

“I think these kids get this and (the reading) reinforces it,” Rhein explained after she had finished the book. “It’s already part of their lives.”

Rhein is a regular face at Paxson. Her desire to volunteer started when her own grandchild was in second grade three years ago. The retired nurse says volunteering with the school helps her organize her life around the time she spends at the school, and she enjoys watching the children advance in their studies.

“This gives me great direction and keeps my brain sharp,” she said.

As she passed out the Read for Peace activity instructions, Rhein fielded questions from the second-graders like “Were you born when Martin Luther King Jr. was alive?” and “Did you know him?”

Rhein, who was a student at the University of Montana in the 1960s, didn’t know King, but remembered the day he died. She said as students, they spent a lot of time as activists on campus – both before his death and after.

“I really hope they take away how kind human beings can be to each other,” Rhein said.

Reporter Kathryn Haake can be reached at 523-5268 or at kate.haake@missoulian.com.

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