Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Honoring Emmett Till on MLK Day January 17, 2022

My community is marking MLK Day, not with a breakfast as planned and promoted in this poster, but rather virtually, due to COVID. (Source: Faribault Diversity Coalition Facebook)

EMMETT TILL. I should recognize that name, right? But, up until watching a limited ABC television series, “Women of the Movement,” I hadn’t heard of this 14-year-old African American murdered in August 1955. Two white men were charged with the crime, and then found not guilty by a Mississippi jury. Till’s death led his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, to take action. And that sparked the Civil Rights Movement.

A St. Olaf College student watches a video that includes Martin Luther King Jr. during a “Selma to Montgomery Marching Along the Voting Rights Trail” exhibit at the college in 2015. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2015)

I should haven known all of this. And the reality that I didn’t weighs on me as we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day today.

Eight years to the date after Emmett died, 250,000 people gathered in DC for the March on Washington for jobs and freedom. During this event, King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Skin color matters not, as showcased in this section of a Stephen Somerstein photo featured in a 2015 exhibit, “Selma to Montgomery Marching Along the Voting Rights Trail.” (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2015)

I expect young Emmett, who lived in Chicago with his mother, but was visiting family in Mississippi when he died, had dreams. He had his entire life ahead of him. His mother warned him, before he headed south on the train, that attitudes toward African Americans differed from those in the north. She advised him to be careful. Cautious around white people. He was reportedly killed after flirting with a married white woman in a shop.

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

His death is tragic beyond words. His grieving mother determined to carry on, to reveal the truth, to raise awareness. Mamie Till Mobley spent the rest of her life speaking about racial injustice. And that began with her decision to have an open casket. She wanted the world to see her son—how he had been beaten, shot, his eyes gouged out before his body was tossed into the river.

As I watched this real-life story unfold in the television drama, I sobbed. At the unfathomable cruelty. At the senselessness. At the grief of a mother who endured the unthinkable.

Just months after Emmett’s death, Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white person in Montgomery, Alabama. Soon thereafter, a 26-year-old pastor, Martin Luther King Jr., called for a city-wide bus boycott.

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

And here we are today, decades later, with racial injustice issues still existing. Certainly, progress has been made. But in recent years, it feels like we’ve regressed. Discrimination. Efforts to squelch voting rights. Murder. Hatred flaring.

Visitors could photograph themselves at the St. Olaf exhibit and express their thoughts. (Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2015)

I admire Mamie Till Mobley for her courage and tenacity. Her strength. Now it’s up to each of us to honor her son by doing our part. Love. Respect. Speak up. Care. Do what we can to assure that no other mother—although there have been many since—loses a child to hatred.

Photographed in a storefront window of a downtown Faribault, Minnesota, business. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo 2018)

Thoughts?

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. January 20, 2020

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A student watches a video about Martin Luther King Jr. at the “Selma to Montgomery Marching Along the Voting Rights Trail” exhibit at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, in April 2015. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

AS I FINISHED MY BOWL of oatmeal and blueberries this morning, I watched a portion of Good Morning America. A young boy talked about a program he started, Books N Bros, aimed at “empowering boys, promoting literacy, and bringing awareness to African American literature.”

Sidney’s own challenges—specifically with stuttering and bullying—led him to seek refuge in reading. Now he’s using those negative experiences to make a difference by connecting boys to books. His efforts equal love in action, following the example of Martin Luther King Jr.

King rallied and worked for equality on a national stage. I admire his determination, his strength, his hopes, his dreams to make a positive change in this country. We’ve come a long ways. But much still needs to be achieved in racial and other equality.

 

Visitors could photograph themselves and express their thoughts, as shown here in this Polaroid image posted at the “Selma” exhibit. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo April 2015..

 

While we need leaders like King and young Sidney to publicly champion for change, we, too, must get involved. It takes all of us, from small towns to major metropolitan areas, to stand up, to speak up, to do something, not just sit there.

So how do we accomplish that? Assess your strengths—because we all have them—and then use them in a positive way. For me, writing and photography prove a powerful tool to connect, to uplift, to inform and more. Words matter. They can help or they can hurt, empower or diminish, support or break down. I recognize the responsibilities I carry as a writer. And as a photographer.

I’ve also been gifted with the ability to listen, a skill that seems more and more a rarity in a seemingly me-centered world. But our family, our friends, our neighbors, even strangers, need us to listen. Just listen. Not turn the conversation to ourselves and our experiences and challenges, but to stay focused on the person talking to us. Them. Not us.

I can’t write enough about the need for compassion. The challenges of life—and I’ve experienced plenty—have made me a stronger and more empathetic person. Some good emerges from every difficulty, although we can’t always see that when we are in the thick of whatever.

Like young book-loving Sidney, I was bullied as a child. Because of that, I advocate kindness. If we all were just a little kinder to one another, not talking at or over others, we would all better understand the perspectives and experiences we bring to conversations. In other words, listen. There’s that word again.

 

Photographed in August 2018 in a storefront window of a business in downtown Faribault, Minnesota. I’ve never forgotten this powerful message posted in my community. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2018.

 

Today and every day, I hope you will take to heart the many inspiring words of Martin Luther King Jr. and live those words. Through your conversations and your actions.

TELL ME: I’d like to hear how King’s words have inspired you.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In honor of Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. January 21, 2019

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Photographed in 2018 in a storefront window of a business in downtown Faribault, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2018.

 

I have a dream that 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. —from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech.

 

© Photo copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The positive steps toward embracing diversity in Faribault January 18, 2019

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I took this photo, reflecting Faribault’s diversity, during a downtown event several years ago. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

FARIBAULT IS A COMMUNITY EVOLVING. Changing as our population diversifies and we are no longer a place of mostly European and Scandinavian peoples. Rather, my southeastern Minnesota city is now home to people of many colors. We are increasingly diverse.

 

1960s vintage art that represents, to me, the colorful and beautiful diversity of my community. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

An article published last week in the Faribault Daily News stated that from 2010 to 2018, the population of students of color in the Faribault School District increased from 25 percent to 55 percent. That’s a remarkable change in just eight years.

 

Faribault Community School is hosting two more Harboring Voices Choir evenings on January 22 and 29. Led by St. Olaf College students, the gathering gives adults and kids an opportunity to sing together in a community setting.

 

Equally as remarkable is the shift I’ve noticed in attitudes, in efforts to welcome our newest families. I’m hearing fewer negative comments about Somalis, Hispanics and other immigrants. I’m not saying those attitudes don’t still exist. It’s just that I don’t hear that animosity as much or sense such strong resentment toward these newcomers.

Why the change?

 

One of the virtues highlighted as part of The Virtues Trail Project. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2018.

 

After time, people become more accepting as they adjust and as newcomers assimilate into the fabric of Faribault. I think much of that can be attributed to the kids, who see their classmates as classmates and friends, not defined by their skin color.

 

This notice is posted, among the one above and the one below, on a community bulletin board at Buckham Memorial Library, Faribault.

 

But adults have also made concerted efforts to help locals and newcomers accept one another. The Virtues Project Faribault, the Faribault Diversity CoalitionFaribault Community School and the creators of 1855, a local history series on Faribault Community Television, are all making a difference. I am grateful for their efforts.

 

Faribault celebrates MLK Day on Monday as noted in this notice posted at the library.

 

My great grandparents emigrated from Germany to America. They faced challenges in language, culture and more. It’s important to remember our immigrant roots. But no matter our ethnicity, our language, our culture, our skin color, we are all just people…with hopes and dreams. And voices.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling