I vow to keep writing, for justice for Jelani Day

I returned to Peru this week, drawn by the case’s momentum and a rally here by Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and Rainbow/PUSH.

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A member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc. carries a sign in support of his fraternity brother, Jelani Day, at a rally in Peru, Illinois, this week.  

A member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity carries a sign in support of his fraternity brother, Jelani Day, at a rally in Peru, Illinois.

Photo by John W. Fountain

PERU, Illinois—I said it once and I’ll say it again: “Justice for Jelani.” And just in case you still can’t hear me: “Justice for Jelani.”

I said, “Justice for Jelani.”

For the life of a young Black graduate student whose body was found floating in the Illinois River in this historic sundown town, 60 miles north of his college campus, and whose death remains shrouded in mystery, I echo the words of hundreds of protestors who gathered here this week to declare: “Justice for Jelani!”

Some stories are worth repeating — over and over and over and over again. Jelani Day’s is one of them.

In the more than 4,000 words that I wrote in a recent four-part series titled, “Justice for Jelani,” the aim was to humanize him. And I’d write 4,000 more words to bring some measure of solace to a grieving mother’s heart and soul.

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To give voice to Jelani, 25, and to his mother’s cry for justice for her baby boy in a world where the mainstream press is often devoid of empathy or compelling interest in covering the stories of missing or murdered people of color: Black women, Black girls and also young Black men like Jelani.

I seek to shine some light. To be a conduit for the voices of the unheard, for the invisible, for the neglected and downtrodden.

And sometimes, columnists, like any good preacher worth their salt, return to essential sermons time and time again. Some even preach a series when the weight and message of the subject are critical and necessitate more than the allotted space or time.

I usually get 600 words weekly. The more I reported Jelani’s story, it became clear to me that I needed more space — and time. My esteemed editor at the Sun-Times, Tom McNamee, now since retired, agreed and granted me both.

Tom trusted my journalistic judgment — and for that reason alone, I hold him head and shoulders above any editor I have had in more than 30 years as a journalist. (But that is a different story for another day.)

I returned to Peru this week, having ended my series two weeks earlier and with no intentions of writing again so soon about Jelani, but drawn by the case’s momentum and a rally here by Rev. Jesse L. Jackson and Rainbow/PUSH.

A multiethnic, multigenerational crowd of hundreds gathered peacefully near the river where Jelani’s body was found. Among them were members of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity to which Jelani belonged, and also others in the Divine Nine (Black fraternities and sororities) who came to call for justice for one of their own.

Marchers toted signs and echoed Carmen Bolden Day’s demand for a federal investigation into her son’s death, and for answers, one day after the LaSalle County Coroner’s Office announced the cause of Jelani’s death to be drowning.

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A graduate student at Illinois State University in Bloomington-Normal, studying speech pathology, Jelani was reported missing on Aug. 25. A day later, police found his car in a secluded wooded area here. On Sept. 4, the authorities found Jelani’s body two miles away from where his car was found, floating facedown in the river.

“None of this stuff adds up,” Day told the protestors this week. “I want answers… I need answers. I deserve answers. I need justice for Jelani.”

Rev. Jackson led the crowd in a chant. “Jelani will live, as long as we remember him, fight for him. Keep fighting for him, until eternity…”

I vow to keep writing for him.

How many words or columns are a good young man’s life worth? Every single one.

So here’s another one. And I’m still not done.

Justice for Jelani.

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