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

 

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