Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 2021 January 18, 2021

The faces of the Civil Rights Marches and Movement include Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., left. This is a snippet of a photo by Stephen Somerstein featured in a 2015 exhibit, “Selma to Montgomery: Marching Along the Voting Rights Trail,” at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

PEACE. Today we celebrate a man who embodied peace, whose ideals still resonate 53 years after his assassination.

Today we honor Civil Rights Movement leader Martin Luther King Jr. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for his nonviolent resistance to racial prejudice in America.

Watching a video featuring King in the St. Olaf College exhibit. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

He inspired. He uplifted. He encouraged. He used words, like those spoken in his “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963 during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, to affect change. “I have a dream…my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

This common phrase of the Black Lives Matter Movement was chalked onto the sidewalk at Bridge Square in Northfield, MN., along with names of individuals who died and chalk portraits of some. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2020.

Change came in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Change came in shifting attitudes and edging toward equality. Yet, we still have a long ways to go. Peaceful protests during the past year, especially, underscore the social injustice issues that still exist in our society. So do the many Black Lives Matter signs I’ve photographed in recent months.

It’s refreshing to see signs like this in small town Minnesota. I photographed this in October 2020 in Kenyon, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

In my own southern Minnesota community, I’ve observed, listened to, read of the challenges our Somali immigrant families face. In language barriers. In educational disparity. In housing. In prejudice. Many organizations, like the Faribault Diversity Coalition, local churches, schools, St. Vincent de Paul, government agencies and more, are reaching out, helping, supporting. For that I feel grateful.

Visitors could photograph themselves at the St. Olaf exhibit and express their thoughts, like this young woman. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

But we also need to step up individually—speaking up, for example, when we hear derogatory remarks about our new neighbors or anyone of color. I admit to not always voicing my objections, although I often do.

I regret not speaking to a young man who, for months, flew a Confederate flag (along with an American flag) on the back of his pick-up truck. I worried how he would react if I approached him. Thankfully, he eventually removed this blatant public symbol of hatred/racism. I was relieved. Still, the root issues remain. And, as troubling as this Confederate flag was to me, I can only imagine how disconcerting, threatening and offensive this felt to anyone of color in my community.

One of two retro trays I purchased at Vintage Treasures in St. Charles, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo November 2015.

Yes, much still remains to be accomplished. But we have made progress. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr set us on the course nearly 70 years ago as did others in the Civil Rights Movement. A peaceful course. As one coming of age in the turbulent late 1960s and early 1970s, I gravitated to the word peace. It was everywhere, especially in the peace symbol. Many decades later, I still hold that word close to my heart. Peace. Just give peace a chance.

Messages on a house in small town Dundas, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2020.

In the words of King: “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”

Photographed just recently in the window of a business in downtown Northfield, across the street from Bridge Square.

And more inspiring words from this Nobel Peace Prize winner and Civil Rights Movement leader: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

FYI: The Faribault Diversity Coalition celebrates its 7th annual Martin Luther King Day Breakfast with a virtual event from 9 – 10 am today. Click here for details. In neighboring Northfield, the Human Rights Commission will hold a virtual event themed to “In This Together” at 7 pm. Click here for info.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Signs that prompt thought, discussion &, maybe, action October 28, 2020

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One of the many inspiring signs posted in the Atwood Neighborhood of Madison, Wisconsin. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

SIGNS. I FIND THEM INTRIGUING. Interesting. Telling. A way to communicate a message, a thought, an idea.

I think we can all agree, though, that during this election year, sign overload exists. Political signs clutter yards and buildings, even vehicles and sides of roadways. It’s visually overwhelming at times.

Photographed in Kenyon, Minnesota, on Sunday, October 22.

But some especially meaningful signs have emerged, signs that convey ideas rather than banner a candidate’s name. Those I appreciate because they prompt thought. And that includes the BLACK LIVES MATTER signs I’ve seen, some in Rice County (especially in Northfield), many in the Atwood Neighborhood of Madison, Wisconsin, and, just last week, two posted on a modest house in Kenyon.

A comment posted by a visitor on her Polaroid photo at the “Selma to Montgomery: Marching Along the Voting Rights Trail” exhibit at St. Olaf College in 2015. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

I often wonder about the stories behind those posting the BLACK LIVES MATTER (or similar “issue”) signs. Did a personal experience prompt someone to share their views in such a public way? Or rather do they simply believe so strongly in something that they opt to freely express their opinion via signage? Maybe both. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that they care about this social justice issue, this human issue really. Even in small towns like Kenyon, population around 1,800.

Messages on a house in small town Dundas, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2020.

I recognize that, when you live in a small community (under 5,000 by my definition), everyone pretty much knows everyone. If you hang a sign like BLACK LIVES MATTER on your front door and porch windows, everyone in town will know. There is no anonymity. You could quickly become the subject of coffee talk or rumors or whatever people choose to circulate. I’m not saying this is the case in Kenyon, just making a general observation.

Posted in the “Selma to Montgomery” exhibit. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015.

Whatever, at least people will be thinking. Maybe even engaging in meaningful and respectful conversations that promote understanding and healing. Bring fairness and equality. In the current divisive environment, I recognize that’s not easy to achieve. But we must keep trying.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Let peace & love guide us August 26, 2020

 

It’s truly timely. The message posted in windows spanning the front of an historic building in Dundas.

 

 

VOTE FOR OUR PLANET EARTH

VOTE FOR OUR DEMOCRACY

VOTE DEAR ONES VOTE

 

 

And then in the windows to the right side of the front door:

LET THE SPIRIT OF PEACE

AND THE POWER OF EVERLASTING LOVE

BE YOUR GUIDE

—JOHN ROBERT LEWIS

 

 

And then above the door:

BLACK LIVES MATTER

I spotted these powerful words while in this small southeastern Minnesota community on Saturday for a history cruise. And I felt compelled to stop and photograph the scene, to share this with you before continuing on to the tour.

As someone who grew up after and near the end of turbulent times—the Civil Rights movement (with its racial injustices) and the Vietnam War and an increasing awareness of environmental issues—I get it. The teenage me embraced the peace symbol, wrapped my wrist in a POW bracelet, wore Earth shoes. That was decades ago. Yet, it seems sometimes that little has changed.

 

 

And so those words resonate with me in their familiarity. I appreciate the gentleness of the selected words, yet the power behind them. Urging people to vote by calling them “dear ones” feels intensely personal and loving. Now, more than ever, we must exercise our right to vote. Men and women have died for our freedom, ensuring our democracy and the right to vote. Others have marched for the right to vote, including long-time Georgia Congressman and Civil Rights leader John Lewis, who died in July from cancer.

The quote from Lewis that peace and love should prevail is something we can all aspire to in this deeply divided nation in need of healing. I appreciate the positive message. The words uplift, rather than press down. They enlighten rather than oppress. They encourage rather than attack.

 

 

And, yes, black lives do matter. As does every life. I recognize the frustration, the anger, the desire for change. I don’t condone the violence, the looting, the destruction, which detract from the cause. Let peace and everlasting love be our guide.

John Lewis marched for voting rights for blacks across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965 and suffered a skull fracture at the hands of police. He organized voter registration drives and participated in lunch counter sit-ins. And here we are, so many decades later, with root cause issues unresolved, people still struggling, hurting, protesting.

 

 

If only we remember how “dear” we are to one another, how the words we choose, the actions we take, matter, affect others. Let peace and the power of everlasting love be our guide.

 

 

FYI: The building where these messages are posted was built of locally-quarried limestone in 1866 as the Ault General Store and is on the National Register of Historic Places. It is the only remaining structure from Dundas’ original commercial district, which ran along Second Street. When the railroad came to town, businesses moved to the west side of the Cannon River near the new train station. That included the Ault Store.

The local newspaper, the Dundas News, was housed here from 1876-1979 as was the town’s first library on the second floor. Today the old store is in a residential neighborhood and a residence. But it still retains that feel of community, of centering knowledge and of expressing opinion.

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Bridge Square in Northfield: Black Lives Matter August 4, 2020

Messages related to the Black Lives Matter movement are chalked in Northfield’s Bridge Square.

 

BRIDGE SQUARE in Northfield. It’s a gathering spot for the community. A place to relax and enjoy music and conversation and even popcorn from the popcorn wagon. Water flows from a fountain. Benches beckon visitors to linger. Colorful flowers spill from large, lush planters. Nearby, the Cannon River roars over a dam. People fish and picnic and walk along and over the river. It’s a beautiful setting of trees and sky and water.

 

This is a common phrased used in the current Black Lives Matter movement. Chalked names fill the sidewalks at Bridge Square.

 

The downtown park also provides a place to express public opinion, most recently related to the Black Lives Matter movement. On a recent walk through Bridge Square and several blocks along the River Walk and Division Street, I read the concerns expressed about lives lost, about racial injustice…

 

A broader view of the names and messages leading to and surrounding the fountain.

 

Written in chalk were names of the dead. And messages. Powerful. Heartfelt. Even as rain and sun have faded the chalk writings, the meaning remains that Black Lives Matter.

 

Next to the fountain, this fading portrait of James Baldwin.

 

Next to Baldwin’s portrait, one of Paul O’Neal.

 

Chalk portraits of James Baldwin and Paul O’Neal give faces to names that we should all remember. Like Baldwin, an author and Civil Rights activist. Like O’Neal, shot in the back by Chicago police in 2016. And, more recently, the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis, sparking nationwide protests, unrest, destruction, and calls for police reform and justice.

 

Barricades have been set up along this street next to Bridge Square to separate traffic and pedestrians/protesters on a bridge spanning the Cannon River.

 

The poem I found particularly meaningful in relation to Black Lives Matter and the death of George Floyd.

 

After crossing a partially barricaded street to follow the River Walk, I paused to read a poem imprinted in the sidewalk as part of Northfield’s Sidewalk Poetry Project. Reading the seven-line poem, the final line—Just breathe—struck me. George Floyd, when he lay dying on a Minneapolis street, said, “I can’t breathe.”

 

I followed the River Walk, eventually turning onto this footbridge across the Cannon River.

 

And so I walked, down steps, along the pedestrian river path hugging the banks of the Cannon River. I thought of that poetry and of those names and messages in Bridge Square.

 

One of many Black Lives Matter signs I spotted in downtown Northfield, this one in the upper story window of an historic Division Street building.

 

I considered how, no matter our skin color, our background, our education, our whatever in life, that we are all just people. We see beauty. We feel sunshine. And sometimes we share the silence that forms in our minds.

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling