A celebration of life for late Illinois State University graduate student Jelani Day on Saturday night resembled a spiritual revival, a rally, a memorial and a party with music, food and dancing.
The event at ISU’s Bone Student Center was to remember Jelani Day, a 25-year-old from Danville who was pursuing a graduate degree in speech pathology. The event also served as a formal kickoff and $50-a-ticket fundraiser for the nonprofit Jelani Day Foundation, held a year from when Day disappeared and his body was found in the Illinois River near Peru 60 miles north of Bloomington-Normal.
Jelani Day’s mother, Carmen Bolden Day, told attendees that after police initially showed little concern about her missing son, she organized the first search. It took nearly three weeks to identify his body after it was found Sept. 4.
Authorities say he drowned and there were no signs of trauma on his body before he died. Authorities say they don’t know why Day ended up in the river. His family and their supporters have rejected theories about suicide or self-harm and believe he was murdered. The investigation is underway, with the FBI offering a $10,000 reward for information about Day’s death.
Police have not shared any information with Bolden-Day in months, she said, leaving her to do her own sleuthing. Bolden-Day said she spent the one-year anniversary of her son’s disappearance traveling to Peru to ask police for updates and to get a look at a critical piece of evidence – Jelani Day’s car. It was found abandoned, without its license plates, in a wooded area by the YMCA in Peru, two miles from where his body was located. His wallet and school lanyard were found a few blocks away.
Bolden-Day said she was appalled the vehicle was not in a secured garage only steps away at the Peru police department, but instead, it was under a tarp in the parking lot. She recounted her experience to those gathered – explaining how the car was still filled with items that were inside the day it was discovered.
“Money, shoes, shorts (other) clothing, the ticket he got the Sunday before he disappeared, a letter he wrote to his friend – all of that is still there. Nothing has been bagged, tagged, labeled and put in an evidence report.”
The case drew national attention, with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rainbow PUSH Coalition calling for a federal investigation. U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, a Democrat from Chicago, requested the Department of Justice investigate the death. Instead, authorities had created a multijurisdictional unit that includes departments from Bloomington, LaSalle, Peru, and the Chicago division of the FBI.
Jesse Jackson’s son, Jonathan Jackson, spoke at Saturday’s event. He renewed a call for the Illinois attorney general to investigate the case and coordinate the work of the various agencies. Jackson referred to Jelani Day as a young man who was doing everything right and yet the criminal justice system turned its back on him.
“In the words of Rev. Martin Luther King, ‘Justice delayed is justice denied.’ This need not be delayed or denied any longer,” Jackson declared to those dressed in all white, seated at roundtables in the ballroom filled with purple and gold balloons, candlelight, and a sign with red and white bulbs spelling out “JJDay.” Large portraits of Jelani Day, sometimes with family and friends, were on easels throughout the venue.
State Sen. Elgie Sims, D-Chicago, attended and addressed the group. Sims helped pass what’s known as the Jelani Day Law, which requires a coroner or medical examiner to notify the FBI within 72 hours if remains are discovered but have not been identified. Sims said he mourns with the Day family but feels good about legislators’ quick response to address a gaping hole in the system.
“If there’s a person who goes missing, you don’t have to say, ‘We don’t have the resources to go looking into … or have to find the resources.’ You are now required by Illinois law to reach out to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and get assistance from our federal government,” Sims said.
Sims also supported the family by matching a $1,000 donation from Jacari Harris, executive director of the George Floyd Memorial Foundation. Harris has been advising Bolden-Day and announced the goal of $25,000 for what will be an annual event as he pledged the first $1,000.
Bolden Day is turning her pain into purpose through the foundation. It will promote social change and provide scholarships to Black men pursuing a degree in speech pathology. It’ll also support families of missing minorities.
“The purpose of this foundation and the mission is that no family again has to go through what we’ve been through. I want to be able to provide the resources, be of assistance. I want to be able to connect individuals with individuals that I have met along this journey that have helped me.”
She added, “I never thought that I will wake up on that Wednesday morning and that my entire life would be changed. However I didn’t choose this, it chose me. So I believe that within this, there is a purpose.”
Noted civil rights attorney B’Ivory LaMarr also donated $1,000 to the foundation and he’s providing legal help pro bono. He was with Day’s family when members were interviewed by police for seven hours. LaMarr told WGLT they were treated like suspects. The FBI has not provided him with any information, particularly about what the agency might have learned from Jelani Day’s cell phone.
The phone was discovered near at interstate exit in Bloomington-Normal by someone who said they found it when a mattress fell off their truck. The man turned it into Walmart for money. The store gave it to Bloomington Police. Day’s mother, learning of that development on a social media post, asked the phone to be handled by the FBI because she said, “I didn’t trust Bloomington police.”
Throughout the evening that was livestreamed on the Justice for Jelani Facebook page, the Jelani Day Memorial Ensemble made up of friends and relatives, sang songs that were the young man’s favorites including “Let Go, Let God.” Bolden Day referenced that song as she spoke directly to those she thinks are responsible for her son’s death and who might have been watching the livestream.
“I’m angry with God, because I don’t understand why my child is not here. I’m learning how to let go and let God, just like the song said – ‘It’s not over until God says it’s over.’”
She went on, “I want the people who know something, who did something to Jelani, that are watching me right now, to know that is not over until God says it’s over. I will not stop. I will not stop till I find out what happened to my son.”
Filled with passion and persistence, Bolden Day vowed also to keep up the pressure and demand accountability from police agencies who have been indifferent to her and seemingly disinterested in aggressively acting to solve what she believes was a murder.
“I want Peru, LaSalle, Bloomington and the Illinois State Police to know that because you lacked in doing your job and failing to find out what happened to my son, I will not lack in doing mine. You all will be held accountable concerning what has not happened concerning Jelani Day.”
Chicago Sun-Times columnist John Fountain, whose series of columns about Jelani Day’s death won him a 1st Place award for commentary from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, told the gathering that he’s a journalist and also a Black man, and seeing Jelani reminded him of his own son. Fountain ends every column with #justiceforjelani. He said he believes that the truth will come out.
“She will not rest and so I told her, ‘If you keep fighting, I’ll keep writing.’”
The task force investigating Day’s death last December announced a $10,000 reward for significant information. The FBI is still asking the public to submit tips — even anonymously — through 1-800-CALL-FBI.