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A box of chocolate bars and the Gettysburg Address
By Henry Dews

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[February 09, 2024]  Let’s take a quick trip back in time to 1959. Alaska and Hawaii celebrated joining the union as the 49th and 50th state. Castro had gotten sick of the Batista regime. Communist China had grown tired of Tibet’s 14th Dali Lama. Negroes were both sick and tired of Jim Crow. While these historical events make for important reading, they’re not locked in my memory like the twelve Hershey bars Ben Cooper and I were each awarded that year for successfully completing a difficult history assignment.

For lack of support from an absentee father, Mom moved us to into the ‘projects’ in 1956 where we lived the four years prior to her passing. At the time Longview Place in Decatur, Illinois was segregated: blacks living on the east side and whites on the west. Separating the races were two cyclone fences running parallel the width of the housing complex with multiple train tracks in between.

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 mandating public school integration begin with all speed, most states complied. The Southern region though was a different breed of animal as various state, county and municipal governing bodies dragged their feet, utilizing every trick up their sleeves to impede the abolition of ‘equal but separate’ Jim Crow laws.

That same year, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. became the minister for a Baptist church in Montgomery, Alabama, and with his arrival on the scene black folks’ long struggle for equality and social justice got a shot of adrenaline. At this juncture, Dr. King could’ve rightly quoted President Lincoln: “I did not bring about the present conflict tearing at the heart of this nation, but the present conflict has brought me to where I am now dedicated to righting the wrongs dividing our house.”

By the time I started junior high school in Decatur, Centennial was fully integrated; in fact blacks held a slight majority. And on the day before Abraham Lincoln’s birthday our 7th grade history teacher, Mrs. Brown, announced, “In honor of our 16th president’s birthday tomorrow each of you will be required to recite The Gettysburg Address.”

I recall what happened next as though it were yesterday: the entire class let go a collective groan. Had she dropped a stun bomb the class couldn’t have been more shocked. Someone dared question the short notice, to which our petite, African-American schoolmarm informed us we’d been told of the assignment at the beginning of the new term, which resulted in a few of us, including me, exclaiming, ‘Huh?’ No one in class recalled having been given the task, and to this day I honestly believe Mrs. Brown’s memory failed her on that occasion.

Be that as it may, bending to the task that evening and well into the night and
early morning hours, I finally succeeded in planting those 271 immortal words in my brain, which couldn’t have been accomplished without mom’s help. That she was sick and had to clock in at seven at the sweatshop where she slaved as a seamstress epitomizes the sacrifices parents make to see their children succeed. I dared not go to sleep for fear of loosing it—the address that is.

Come seven-thirty, I dragged my weary body the mile to school, which abutted the eastern boundary of the projects. Throughout morning classes, I kept mentally reciting those words, which by then had given me one terrible headache. (It’s humbling to think about the headaches endured by him who had penned that immortal address.)

When Mrs. Brown arrived carrying her signature carpetbag, she greeted us in her usual manner, “Good morning children.” Then, while retrieving a box of chocolate bars from her carryall and placing it on the front of her desktop, she said. “Is everyone ready to recite?” An alien silence ensued.

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Starting alphabetically, she called the first student: “I can’t do it.” The second simply shrugged. On and on Mrs. Brown called roll. Not a soul stood to recite until this black kid, Ben Cooper drilled it. Following Ben no one was up to the task until Henry Dews was called. I recited perfectly.

Mrs. Brown finished roll call with nary another nibble. Then after summoning me and Ben to the front of the class, she said, “I had intended to give each student fulfilling the requirement a chocolate bar,” whereupon, quite deliberately, she divvied the sweets between the two of us. While relishing my reward, I scanned the class: two-dozen pairs of eyes were locked on our booty—some filled with envy, some with loathing. (A Rod McKuen quote seems appropriate: “The mind is such a junkyard it remembers candy bars but not The Gettysburg Address.”
[Twenty-Five / The Coming of the Rain by Rod McKuen])

After class Ben and I gravitated to one another, and as we walked down the hall one of our classmates shouted, “There go the chocolate buddies.” I figured the remark was aimed at those chocolate bars, but Ben’s sad expression said he’d taken it altogether differently. Ben and I chummed around the rest of that year and the next.

It was during this period President Eisenhower desegregated public housing,
and the old man, like countless millions across this “land of the free” totally against integration, moved of us out of Longview to a small town with a sundown law.

Time passed and Ben Cooper was relegated to that place where one files fond memories. But as providence would have it our paths crossed once again four years later at a freshman mixer at Southern Illinois University. I don’t recall who saw who first, but after exchanging greetings Ben said he’d won an athletic scholarship, said he was on the wrestling team. Shortly into our reunion two of his buddies strutted up beside him, one of them saying, “Hey Bro, whatchu talkin’ dat honkey foe?” Before being escorted away his sad eyes said he was sorry for his friends’ hostility. I couldn’t fault his loyalty to his brothers for reasons that should be obvious. That chance encounter with Ben and his friends made me realize those chain link fences separating blacks and whites were firmly supported on both sides.

Here in the 21st century the race issue has been absorbed by yet a bigger issue: ever-widening class division. Some pundits believe this division into red, blue, and purple regions ‘from sea to shining sea’ is direr than the one President Lincoln faced. Is there another statesman like our rail-splitter waiting in the wings to reunite us? One can only hope and pray, but this individual isn’t holding his breath because congress is suffering longer and longer bouts of gridlock, leaving ‘government for the people’ in the hands of self-serving unctuous politicians and unscrupulous wannabe kings.

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