Archive of Issues
Archive of Narrations
Syndic Literary Journal

A New Birth of Freedom


Charles Rammelkamp

Narration by Charles Rammelkamp

That July 4, in 1968, when the valedictorian at the high school, a black kid named Chuck Porter, recited the Gettysburg Address in the bandshell in Chester Morgan Park during the Potawatomi Rapids Independence Day festivities, most of the town’s youth, especially the ones who were home from college for the summer, weren’t feeling particularly patriotic. Most were angry and scared about the draft and the War in Vietnam. Both MLK and RFK had been assassinated earlier that spring, too, which cast a pall over the celebration, anyway.

The white kids at Potawatomi Rapids High grudgingly admired Chuck for his academic achievements; they called him “Brainiac” after the villain in the Superman comics, which of course carried its own baggage. Brainiac was a bald, green-skinned humanoid for whom nobody had any respect. But Chuck was nowhere near as admired as another black kid, Ernie Whitney, star running back for the Muskrats. When it became known that Chuck would deliver the Gettysburg Address, the tenuous admiration turned to scorn. He was called a sell-out, and worse, an Uncle Tom. Bobby Boyd sneered that Chuck would be awarded “the Congregational Melon of Honor.”

The academic year that had just ended at Potawatomi Rapids College had been Greg Hartmann’s first on the faculty of the Speech and Theater Department. A newly minted Ph.D., he had quickly become the advisor for the radical students on campus and had joined them in their anti-war protest march through town that spring, even while Dr. Brodie, the head of the department, and Dean Benson had frowned on his participation. Somebody in the crowd had thrown a brick at Hartmann which bounced off his shoulder, tearing his shirt and gouging his skin. Nobody owned up to it, but everyone suspected Brad Marshall, a vocal war-supporting Republican, a man more than a decade past draft age.

As is often the case, Town and Gown didn’t usually mix together much, but Hartmann had joined the town’s Independence Day committee, having been asked to coach the speechmakers, including Chuck.

Hartmann met Chuck three days before the holiday to critique Chuck’s delivery one last time. It was a warm Monday afternoon in Potawatomi Rapids.
Chuck was on the state-champion debating team and really didn’t need any help from Hartmann, but Hartmann always looked forward to his meetings with Chuck. They’d become friends. Chuck was going to Northwestern University on a full ride that fall.

Chuck came to Hartmann’s office. A peaceful summer quiet had fallen on the Potawatomi Rapids College campus with all the students gone. Hartmann noticed that Chuck’s hair had grown out since his graduation four weeks earlier, on its way to a bushy afro.

“How’s it going? You’ve had that speech nailed for a few weeks already,” Hartmann said encouragingly.

“You know,” Chuck mused, “I think I’d like to ditch ‘The Gettysburg Address’ altogether and recite Malcolm’s ‘The Ballot or the Bullet’ speech instead,” referring to Malcolm X’s great oration in Detroit four years earlier.

Hartmann didn’t say anything for a moment. “Well, you know, Chuck, that speech is way longer than Lincoln’s, and you only get ten minutes max.”
“I know, Doctor Hartmann, I thought I’d do an excerpt. The high points, the impassioned parts.”

“‘If a Negro in 1964 has to sit around and wait for some cracker senator to filibuster when it comes to the rights of black people…’”

“You have a good memory.”

“I wrote a paper about that speech in grad school.”
“Well, what do you think?”

“Why do you want to, Chuck? I’m just curious. Lincolns speech is so eloquent already.”

“I know, I know, one of the greatest statements of American national purpose, but somehow black people have been left out of that purpose. I feel like a fraud reciting it, like it’s all a lie.”

“It’s not because of the things your idiot classmates say about you, is it?”

“You know about that?”

“Who doesn’t? It’s a small town.”

“Maybe that’s part of it. ‘Uncle Tom,’” he said, using air quotes.

“It’s sure to piss people like Brad Marshall off, too.”

Chuck snickered. “Maybe that’s part of it, too.”

“Well, if you’d like, why don’t you recite that one today, too, but remember, you’ll be leaving Potawatomi Rapids soon enough, and I suspect for good. You’ll love Chicago. Why make waves?”

The Gettysburg Address can be recited in two or three minutes. Chuck’s excerpt from “The Ballot or The Bullet” came in at just under six. His performance of both was suave and convincing.

“If you really think you want to go through with this, Chuck,” Hartmann said, not completing the sentence.

“It might be a mistake, you’re right,” Chuck conceded. “And yeah, Lincoln’s speech really is eloquent. I’ll think about it.”

They shook hands at Hartmann’s office door.

“See you Thursday at the bandshell.”

Thunderstorms raged all day on Independence Day in Potawatomi Rapids, leading Bruce Williams, home for the summer from his freshman year at the University of Michigan and now sporting a freak flag of his own, to write in the local paper, The Potawatomi Rapids Gazette, that God had frowned on America that day for its shameful actions in Southeast Asia, the kind of sophomoric prose you might expect from a teenager. Bruce was a Journalism major and had worked at the Gazette when he was in high school.

Hartmann and his family had gone to the barbeque at the pavilion in the park. Because of the weather the cookout had basically been a bust. Then, before the fireworks display, the mayor, Eugene Edwards, made his welcoming remarks and then introduced Chuck Porter. While the rain came down in torrents and the sparse crowd huddled under umbrellas, Hartmann held his breath, wondering which speech Chuck had decided to recite. Either way, he figured, it was going to be a killer.



Compiled/Published by LeRoy Chatfield
History of Syndic
Write Letter / Contact Publisher
© all photos/text

Archive of Issues

Archive of Narrations