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August 4, 1961

“John Hardy and Travis Britt were beaten by whites when they brought blacks to a Mississippi courthouse to register to vote.”

The Kapi’olani Hospital’s black and white television continues to blare troubling news.

“Beaten just cause they want to vote,” Benford Lee III mumbles.

“Sir?” his assistant, Walter, asks.

He flashes on Car Car, her gap toothed smiling, brown face.

Caroline Johnson had several names. To her boss and other whites, she was “girl.” To others, she was Miss Sugar. To Benford, she was Car Car.

When Benford’s mother tired of his endless questions and loud presence (she wanted a cat more than a son) would lock him in the closet, it was Car Car who would let him out.

“Brought out of the dark by a darkie!” he would think with glee.

One day, he was stumbling over some homework reading at the kitchen table, and he asked Car Car to help him.

She kept doing the dishes and kept saying, “Go on with that, Bennie! Just, go on!”

His sister, Flora, kicked him under the table and whispered, “Stop being so mean, Bennie. You shamin’ her! You know Car Car doesn’t have any learning!”

He was surprised and puzzled, because Car Car taught him all about the Bible and doing the laundry and being nicer to his sister and all sorts of things. She was the smartest person he knew. How could she have no learning?

He couldn’t reconcile what he had just heard to what he knew of Car Car, but he did not ask another question about his school work, because he was horrified at the idea of shaming her any further.

“I want to start a scholarship for colored people… at my old stomping grounds… Columbia and Harvard Law school. I want–” Benford loses consciousness.

Twenty one and back home from overseas, Benford was still drunk from the previous night and early morning.

His father came to his room and looked at Benford with disgust and bemusement. He told him it was time he got up and went to the registrar to register to vote. His father was running for mayor and was telling everyone the same message. This time, however, he had the authority to enforce this suggestion. Benford’s father loved his authority.

Benford buried himself under his covers as his father closed the door.

A soft knock pierced Benford’s fuzzy headedness.

“Bennie, I think you should get up and register like your father said to,” Car Car suggested.

“Why don’t you go register if it’s so damn important?”

“Bennie, you know Negroes aren’t allowed to vote. I…never mind… you’re too young and wild.”

“Never mind what?”

“Well, the other night I had a vision… that we could vote and one day…we would have a Negro president. You don’t know what you have, Bennie. You don’t know what you have.”

“Get me the name of the first, colored baby born today at this hospital. I want it to have the first scholarships. I want to help.”

Walter finds the information and brings it to Benford.

“Ms. Durham had a baby boy just an hour ago.”

“Make up the paperwork!”

“Car Car, wait for me…”

January 20, 2009

“My fellow citizens: I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors.”