Man on Fire: Activist Ben Gray’s Flame Burns Bright


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Much has changed and not changed since I did this story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) profiling Ben Gray, who at the time was a television journalist in his adopted hometown of Omaha, Neb. Gray was an unabashed advocacy journalist who used the forum of a public affairs program he produced and hosted to confront social-political issues on him mind.  He’s always been an advocate and activist in the local African-American community, and since my story’s publication he’s immersed himself in those roles even more deeply, having left his career in TV to get himself elected an Omaha City Council member representing largely African-American District 2 and becoming a key player in the African-American Empowerment Network (see my stories about the Network on this blog site).  This article alludes to the growing tension between Gray and one of his heroes and mentors, former Nebraska State Sen. Ernie Chambers, a relationship that’s become more strained over time. Gray was not born in Omaha, and he didn’t grow up here.  The U.S. Air Force brought him here and he has devoted most of his adult life to serving the community and to improving conditions here for its most vulnerable residents.

 

 

 

 

Man on Fire: Activist Ben Gray’s Flame Burns Bright

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

 

Ben Gray finds himself in “an uncomfortable position” these days for his vehement opposition to the Nebraska Legislature’s recently enacted schools reorganization plan. The law mandates a new learning community and the severing of the Omaha Public Schools into three racially identifiable districts. As co-chair of the community-based African American Achievement Council, Gray is a plaintiff in an NAACP-led civil rights lawsuit that challenges the action.

He’s secure with his denouncement of the school makeover plan as bad policy and, as the lawsuit contends, unconstitutional legislation that sanctions segregation. However, he’s uneasy his stance casts him as an adversary to a man he admires above all others — State Sen. Ernie Chambers — who crafted the key amendment to restructure OPS, a district Gray is adamant about preserving.

The venerable senator is regarded as “a great man” by Gray, veteran KETV Channel 7 photojournalist and host/producer of Kaleidoscope, the longest continuously aired public affairs program in Omaha television history.

It may surprise people to learn Gray, who’s fronted the show since 1979, didn’t originate it. He traces its start to 1969 or 1970 as a response to the riots in north Omaha and to general black discontent in the wake of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassinations and the slow progress of the War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Movement. Kaleidoscope featured rotating hosts until Gray found his niche.

He said public affairs programs like it emerged from the tumult of “constructive dialogue and confrontation from folks like Charlie Washington, Ernie Chambers, Welcome Bryant, Bertha Calloway, Dorothy Eure. They deserve the credit.” Once the show was his, he decided troublemakers like these “needed a forum so their ideas could be presented in their entirety rather than in sound bites. A lot of people were very angry at me because I gave Sen. Chambers that forum.”

More than once, he said management’s alleged he or Chambers handled subjects unfairly, but never proved their claims. For 27 years Gray’s dealt straight-up, in his direct, eloquent, informed approach, based on his vast reading of American and African-American history, with tough stories. From police shootings to racial profiling cases, he’s called it like it is and he asserts, “Not a single person, not any of the police chiefs I’ve had on, can ever tell you they were treated unfairly on my show. Now, they were asked hard questions…but when you come to my television show it’s like coming to my living room and in my living room you are my guest and my guests don’t get treated disrespectfully. Now, they may get asked hard questions…” The show goes beyond local matters to discuss national-world affairs.

He’s patterned his on-air demeanor after three men: Charlie Washington, the late Omaha journalist-activist and host of Omaha Can We Do and To Be Equal; Gil Noble, host of New York’s Like It Is; and Tony Brown, of the syndicated Tony Brown’s Journal. “Charlie didn’t let you off the hook for anything. Charlie argued and debated with you. Charlie adopted that style and never deviated from it. Gil Noble never deviated. Tony Brown never deviated. Those are the guys I admire and respect. I modeled my confrontational style after theirs. Charlie and Tony were great friends I got to know very well. Gil was intimately involved with Malcolm X and he’s shared some of his Malcolm materials with me,” Gray said.

Unlike most of his colleagues Gray’s unapologetic to be both news reporter and news maker. He often takes public stands on the very issues he covers. He wishes more black journalists followed suit. But no issue’s drawn him so far out into the line of fire over such an extended time as the schools debate. The national media’s focus on the controversy as the poster case for the larger resegregation underway in American public schools, has made him a much sought-after quote. His characterization in the New York Times of LB 1024 and the amendment to break up the Omaha Public Schools as “a disaster” has been oft-repeated.

He’s sure with his choice to be an advocacy journalist.

“You have a choice of one of two things when you’re a professional journalist. That you’re going to satisfy yourself personally, i.e. move up the ladder and try and make network and make the big bucks, or to make a difference,” he said. “So, the question becomes, do I satisfy personal goals or do what others before me have done — and that is sacrifice for the greater good, for the greatest number? And that’s what’s driven my decisions.”

He invites trouble by bucking the-powers-that-be in pursuit of doing what he thinks right. His relationship with general managers at KETV, where he’s worked since 1973 after an Air Force stint brought him to Offutt, has often been strained; never more than in 1976 when he and others filed a complaint against Ch. 7 with the Federal Communications Commission. Dubbed by media as “the black coalition,” Gray said the group’s fight went beyond color to gender and equity issues.

“What we were complaining about,” he said, “was that at the time Kaleidoscope and some other public affairs shows on Ch. 7 were only on very early in the morning or very late at night and there were no African-Americans on the air in prime time and had not been for a considerable period of time and there had never been a woman main anchor in Omaha.

“We filed against the station’s license, which employees very seldom do. It was the only avenue we saw because we had a news director at that time who felt like he was going to put an end to what he thought were affirmative action hires. In other words, he didn’t care much for black folks or women” in television.

“Now, you want to talk about tense when we filed that complaint. All sorts of wild rumors went through the station — that black people were trying to take over Ch. 7, that black people were trying to get rid of white people there. I look back and I laugh now, but, man, those were some pretty contentious times. I mean, people were really pissed at us for doing that. Although it was highly unlikely, the possibility the station wouldn’t get its license (renewed) was there. Ch. 7 operated with a temporary license for almost two years as a result of our action.”

Gray and his fellow complainants lost the battle but won the war.

“The FCC finally dismissed our complaint (in 1977) but with this caveat: They said they found merit in our argument about public affairs programming and so they issued a ruling, that comes from us, that no public affairs programming can only be contiguous with early morning or late night hours. Ch. 7 changed the times of several of the programs” to reflect the ruling’s spirit.

Dissatisfied with what they saw as a window dressing remedy, the group contemplated a federal lawsuit when, Gray said, “I got a call from a very high-up person in Pulitzer Broadcasting who said, ‘Before you do anything like file a legal action, give us a month, and if you don’t like what you see…go ahead and file your suit.’ Well, Ch. 7 soon hired the first female anchor in prime time in Omaha with Marsha Ladendorf and then a whole slew of minorities followed after that. Carol Schrader and Michael Scott were two of the beneficiaries. The fact of the matter is we kicked in the door and it happened, and we’re proud of that.”

Along with a more diverse staff on and off camera, programs like Kaleidoscope were accorded more respect. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t had to fight to keep the show relevant, much less alive. “I’ve had so many battles,” he said. Current GM Joel Vilmenay has been “by far the biggest supporter because everybody else was trying to get it off the air or were indifferent about it,” he said. Having someone from management in his corner is such a new experience to Gray it took him aback.

“For awhile I didn’t know how to take somebody giving me advice and challenging me and chastising me all at the same time. What I like about Joel is he’s a tough taskmaster. Joel knows what he wants and his standards are high and that’s who you want to work for. When you’re challenged you either fall apart or rise to the occasion. Well, Kaleidoscope has been my baby for far too long for me not to rise to the occasion.”

Vilmenay encouraged his switch a few years ago from a Tony Brown-type discourse to the present This Week-panel format. Each week Gray “facilitates” a panel of talking heads — Brenda Council, Lee Terry Sr. and Jim Fogarty — offering liberal, conservative and moderate perspectives, respectively, on topical issues. Gray only occasionally weighs in with his left of center views, though not nearly as often as “some people want me to.” The show’s tackled the schools divide and what some see as Chambers’ betrayal of his ideals.

By opting to defy his longtime hero, Gray’s put himself on the hot seat. “I’ve chosen a course that’s not necessarily comfortable in opposing Sen. Chambers, but it’s right,” he said. “Again, when you have the kind of respect I have for him, it’s difficult to do, but at the same time when I think you’re wrong I have to call you on it. That’s just the way it is. I don’t think anybody should be above being questioned. And if that puts me on the opposite side of people who are friends or great associates or whatever the case may be, then that’s what it will have to be.”

Ironically, Gray’s doing what he admires in Chambers — raising a dissident voice for the marginalized. It’s not hard to imagine why Gray looks to him, the lone wolf black legislator who champions the underdog, as someone to emulate. Gray measures himself as a strong, outspoken, incisive African-American community activist in the context of the firebrand figure his mentor cuts.

“We don’t have enough men in our community who are willing to stand up and be men and take on issues in spite of the obstacles, in spite of the odds, in spite of who’s for you and who’s against you,” Gray said. “We don’t have enough men who say what really this is and lay everything on the table and keep their ethics and their integrity and their honesty intact. When you see that kind of nobleness in an individual you want to gravitate to that.

“Sen. Chambers does that and I’ve done everything I could to try and come close, because nobody can be Ernie, but at least come close to exemplify his willingness to put it all on the line…to be honest…to stand up against oppression and racism.”

When revealed last week that several Omaha North High School teachers staged racially offensive parodies, with some remarks targeting not only Chambers but students of color, the senator condemned their actions and asked that they be removed from their duties. Gray showed his solidarity by sending a highly critical letter to OPS and the media.

Gray considers Chambers the second most influential person in his life behind his older sister Mary Thompson, who raised Ben and his younger brother Doug in their hometown of Cleveland, Ohio after both parents died of cancer in the same year.

“I was 13-years-old and we were very poor. When your parents die and you’re a young person, grief comes later. What happens first is fear. Because you don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know if some other relative is going to take you in. You don’t know if you’re going to go to a foster home. You don’t know what tomorrow is going to be like,” he said.

“I had an older sister who took us in and she took us when she already had five other children. She raised me and I was not the best of children — by a long shot. But she hung in there. She stuck with me. She’s the person I consider to be my greatest role model. I consider her my guardian angel. To say I love her wouldn’t do her service because she’s been everything to me and continues to be.

“And the other significant influence has been Sen. Chambers.”

 

 

Ernie Chambers
Despite that, Gray said, “People aren’t right all the time. Nobody is. And in this particular instance, knowing what I know about the school system — about the children and families in this district, I think he’s wrong on this, and I would be less than a man if I didn’t express my feelings and act on my feelings. No matter who it is. If it was my sister, it would be the same thing. Because I think it’s wrong.”
As outraged as he is by the damage he fears LB 1024’s learning community plan and OPS split will do, he’s upset by how these measures came to be fashioned in the first place. He believes lawmakers acted rashly, without proper deliberation and community input from those most invested in the issue and in the process.

“I think when you’re going to do something as delicate as this, when you’re talking about our children, you go slowly, you don’t go real fast. I think that’s where the mistakes were made.

“What really galls me more than anything is that the African American Achievement Council, the Latino Achievement Council, the Native American Achievement Council, the Ministerial Alliance and various groups that participated in the political process were not consulted. We did what legislators, the governor and other elected officials hoped we’d do. We engaged in the process. We went to Lincoln. We lobbied. We fought. We cajoled. We testified. We did all this.”

Yet, he said, “nobody came to us to find out what we do or what changes we have made in the district, which are numerous and ongoing and many of which are starting to bear serious fruit. To negate or dismiss all of the work done by plain citizens who just want to help is a travesty and a crime quite frankly. And then you do this (pass the new law) and you lock us out? You didn’t even ask us what we thought — those of us who are engaged?

“And all these folks now running around saying, ‘Yeah, this is a good idea and Ernie’s right,’ and so forth and so on, none of ‘em are engaged. None. Zero.”

Gray, who said he’s carefully read the new law, cites many things not accounted for in the bill’s language, including such basics as funding and hiring mechanisms, classroom assignments, grant stipulations, program operations and oversight responsibilities. He fears too many details have been ignored, too many consequences unaddressed, leaving in limbo and perhaps in jeopardy educators’ jobs and district programs hinging on grants or contracts.

“I don’t know if people realize, for example, the Omaha Public School District has about $30 million in grant programs that somehow have to get reapportioned or reapplied for. What’s going to happen to these programs? Who writes the grants? Who gets the grants now? There’s a teachers union contract that runs over into 2008 — what happens to it? Who’s going to negotiate a new contract? What happens to those teachers? How do we pick and choose which teachers and principals we keep and don’t keep? Who decides?

“What’s going to happen to the district’s Triple A bond rating? What about levee limits and bond rates? With our low property tax base, what kind of bonds can black and Latino districts float? What about insurance — with each new district being much smaller than OPS what kind of group rates will they qualify for? There’s a myriad of things I don’t think anybody thought about.”

He’s not so pessimistic he discounts a framework can be found that answers such questions. “Oh, there’s always a possibility,” he said. His point is that a huge education ball was put in motion without due diligence or foresight. “It should have been worked out before and not after the bill. Normally, when there’s a merger or an acquisition or a break up, the answers have all been worked out and in this instance nothing has been worked out. There’s just too many things we don’t know.” In the interim, some things, like a planned South Omaha Educare center, are on hold until there’s more clarity.

He distrusts and derides the hallmark of Chambers’ provision — local control. He sees little assurance of it when the board overseeing the new learning community will be appointees, not elected officials, installed by other appointees. He points out the suburban districts will have a majority on the board and thus a voting bloc over inner city districts. He contends creating black-Latino districts will isolate them and make them easy targets for unequal shares of the revenue pie.

He also cautions that local control failed the local Head Start program.

“We’ve lost parts of enough generations to not run the risk of doing something as foolish as this and risk damaging a school district or harming children for the sake of this fanciful notion of local control. I call it foolish because we haven’t thought about it, we haven’t talked about it,” he said.

 

Omaha City Council President Ben Gray began serving his two-year term in June. (Photo by Ryan Robertson KVNO News)

Omaha City Council President Ben Gray began serving his two-year term in June. (Photo by Ryan Robertson KVNO News)

 

 

Gray devotes much of his public-private life to education reform. He reveres educators and hopes his work, which sounds more like lecture than rant, rises to that higher calling. The African American Achievement Council he co-chairs with his wife Freddie J. Gray works in concert with OPS on initiatives to bring the performance of minority children in line with that of whites. Under his aegis the Council’s made textbook-curriculum changes infused with black history. He helped launch the Greeter program that brings black men into schools as role models. He gives frequent talks to students of color, mentors individuals, assists black scholarship programs, etc.

He helped frame the OPS argument for its One City – One School District school boundaries effort aimed at swallowing up suburban districts. Along with superintendent John Mackiel, Gray’s made himself a visible, audible point person in support of One City, One School at public forums. One reason Gray’s left caution behind is to defend Mackiel, whom he feels is falsely maligned by critics.

“I didn’t want to be involved in the One City, One School District fight, but I just could not see a white man the caliber of John Mackiel, with the dignity I think he has, fighting for all children out there on the stump by himself. It’s about fairness and doing the right thing with me and what was happening to him was unfair when I know what he was doing was the right thing.”

Gray’s position in forums is that black-Latino inner city schools suffer in comparison to white suburban schools due to an inequitable distribution of resources. He says race, class and white privilege enable the segregated housing and unequal employment patterns that breed segregation.

“We have to address the bedrock that is white privilege. First of all we have to name it. Whites are not going to accept it from me. They’re going to accept it from somebody who lives in their neighborhood and who looks like they do, That’s who’s going to drive this discussion — the Jonathan Kozols and other white authors who call the educational system in this country apartheid.

“And that discussion has to occur because if it doesn’t this country is not going to be long for existence. Joseph Lowry, the former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference said it best, ‘We may have come over here on different ships — we are on the same boat now. We better figure out how to fix this boat.’ I have to be optimistic.”

If nothing else, he said, the discord shows what happens in the absence of dialogue about the underlying issues. He sees people “slowly venturing into this uncharted territory,” adding his message is welcome in some parts of town and not others.

While he has “great faith the lawsuit is going to be successful,” he added, “I don’t put all my eggs in one basket. You just don’t sit back and wait. You do other things on the legislative and social justice end. There are already rumblings the legislature next year is going to do some fine tuning. I’m looking for legislative solutions. I hope we find dialogue somewhere, so that we don’t have to go to court.” He’s wary what decision a court might render. “You know, courts can do anything — from rule against us to rule for us. They have wide latitude. I think we all need to be concerned about what a judge will do.”

Students, parents and taxpayers face the surreal reality that once the new schools plan is implemented in 2008, every legislator that shaped or passed it will be out of office due to term limits. In this void, Gray said, “I don’t know who to talk to. I don’t know who’s going to be elected.” Chambers is among those whose term will expire. Before then, Gray hopes to get him to look deeper at the questions the plan poses. “I have to do a better job convincing him because Ernie has very strong convictions, very strong beliefs and you have to prove yourself to Ernie over and over again, and that’s not bad. It keeps you focused and it keeps you strong.”

No sweat for Gray, who shares with Ernie a passion for pumping iron, and carries with him two values from his military days, “discipline and completing the mission,” that ensure the schools plan “will not go unchallenged” by him. He vows it.

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  1. July 29, 2013 at 10:25 am

    My family members always say that I am killing my time here at net, except I know I
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    Like

  1. November 20, 2010 at 3:42 am

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