Abner Mikva captivates audience at the Lincoln Presidential Library

Written by Mike Halpin, A Mikva Challenge Alumnus.

IMG_9892We all know the story of the co-founder of Mikva Challenge. A young aspiring law student walks into a South Side ward office in the early 50’s asking to get involved in the political process. The committeeman, a large, slick, chain-smoking “made man” tells the student he is not welcome. If no one sent you the machine does not want you. Feeling determined that young man decides to disregard the unbridled advise of the committeeman and fight for his own stake in Chicago politics. Years later that law student would graduate from University of Chicago Law, get elected to the Illinois General Assembly and begin a long career of dedication to public service. He would stand up for social justice, raise a family, and make a difference in the lives of countless inner city young people. Today, Abner Mikva, 89, continues to tell his story and inspire a new generation of civic leaders.

IMG_9925An audience sat patiently in an open room at the Lincoln Presidential Library, in the heart of Springfield, IL, awaiting Judge Abner Mikva to speak. Buzzing with chit-chat, the discourse of the room is calm and filled with the hot topic political news of the day. Budget cuts, Illinois’s fiscal crisis, immigration, corruption…the list goes on.

Wild applause erupts as he makes his way to the podium. After his introduction, made by the Executive Director of the museum, Abner begins his speech with a history lesson. The correlation he finds between the divisiveness of the political world in times of duress is truly outstanding. His narrative connecting the importance of radical republicanism in the Civil War era and the kind of gridlock seen today in Congress hits on the point that the power of one’s voice trumps, and commitment to a cause higher than oneself can make a significant difference.

IMG_9927During the Q&A session, Ab explains his life in public service, including why many know him as Judge. Although many former judges, especially ones that serve on the Circuit Court of DC, refer to themselves in a similar fashion, Abner is unique in that former President Bill Clinton gave him the name on his first day of serving in his administration. Judge Mikva went on to tell stories of Clinton as a valued friend and tough politician, who occasionally lost his temper. Throughout the evening Abner went on about stories of his youth and his climb to some of the most prominent positions of government. He even asked the audience to give a brief applause to a Mikva Challenge alumnus meticulously taking pictures from the side! (aka me).

IMG_9943Through a wealth of stories, insight and wisdom, Abner Mikva’s life has become a catalyst for inspiration and change. Opposing the Democratic Machine and constantly striving to better the lot of others, Abner’s presence continues to quell the disenfranchisement of people from the political process. Through Mikva Challenge, his legacy promotes an agenda that puts young people at the forefront of many debates. Civic engagement, a way of life for Abner, instead of just a responsibility, needs to desperately make a comeback in his eyes. How he references his many dear friends and colleagues over his long tenure in government gives one a sense of satisfaction that government can be an effective force for good. Many of the members of the audience in fact were former neighbors, acquaintances and supporters of Abner’s past, all of who were appreciative of his public appearance to once again be reminded why they have such a profound respect for him.