Social movements are part of the American fabric. Black Lives Matter (BLM) began in response to violent deaths of African-Americans. It now addresses all systemic inequities and disparities affecting blacks. Some Omaha BLM activists believe the disfrachisement that holds back many blacks in the U.S. is a root cause of blue on black, black on blue and black on black violence. BLM is a platform for activists to engage such issues. But these activists don’t want all the energy behind BLM to be expended only on protests and dialogue sessions. They want BLM efforts to spur change that improves social conditions, police-community relations, law enforcement practices and policies. so that as concerned citizens they won’t have to still be holding rallies a decade or two from now but can count on elected officials and lawmakers to do the right thing.
Black Lives Matter: Omaha activists view social movement as platform for advocating-making change
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the September 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Borne from outrage over violent African-American deaths, the grassroots Black Lives Matter movement espouses a social action platform to end systemic violence against and mass incarceration of a people. BLM’s loose-knit activists advocate diverting funds from militarized to community policing and to supporting quality of life indicators.
All this resonates across the nation, In Omaha, tensions exist between the African-American community and police and gaps persist in black health, education, housing and employment. BLM activists here and elsewhere have inserted themselves into the political process through protests aimed at disrupting the status quo and campaigns raising awareness about social injustice. This movement without a leader or structure is a catalyst for citizens getting involved to address issues.
The Reader spoke with local BLM activists whose voices are engaged in various public forums.
Michelle Troxclair, ©photo by Bill Sitzmann
Nebraska Writers Collective deputy director Michelle Troxclair has long railed against perceived wrongs, including wrongful killings. She’s seen initiatives come and go..”In all this protesting we have to have a unified message of what we want – that we are not disposable people. Throughout our history we have been considered everything from chattel to cattle, and based on studies I’ve seen not much has changed. So Black Lives Matter represents our voice that we deserve respect and basic human rights guaranteed in the constitution – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“The movement’s about self-love and self-empowerment as well as making systemic changes. I’ve seen it in the way black men and women wear their hair, dress and walk. I look at our young people and they are not apologetic for their blackness.”
She likes BLM’s strong language.
“There’s a war on terror, a war on drugs and to that extent, yes, there’s a war on black people. To maintain power and notions of superiority you have to eliminate the competition through education, dehumanization, emasculation and economic means. This is how you completely decimate a community.”
Poet Allen Stevenson said, “I definitely support the movement expressing frustration over the brutality.” He and others have their say on heavy topics at open mic nights.
Musician Dominique Morgan, co-administrator of the Omaha BLM page, said despite differences “our blackness is what unites us. We cant allow division. That’s what will hinder us in the long run – folks trying to appropriate a whole movement.”
Troxclair’s organized and attended rallies, held signs, spoken her mind. She’s drafted and circulated a petition of demands. Now she wants others to assume the mantle.
“When I look back at how long i’ve been doing this and nothing’s changed, I’m ready to pass the baton to others on the front-lines. I feel like my calling is as a poet with a microphone – that’s where I think I can make the most difference.”
Dominique Morgan, ©photo by Bill Sitzmann
Until BLM, Morgan’s activism was confined to LGBT rights but he said, “This the first time I’ve seen a movement where my sectionalities as a gay black man meet. These identities that so strongly represent who I am made it doubly important for me to be aware and also to have a voice in what’s happening, especially in a place I call home. I realized I have a stake in this. It made me go harder in advocating for black folks.
“This movement is waking people up.”
Art educator Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru awakened years ago and uses BLM to reach disaffected youth.
“When I work with kids I try to teach them to question things and not to accept everything they’re told – to keep searching for the whole truth and story and needing to move with purpose.”
Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru
She said BLM provides a vehicle to discuss “absent narratives about black life and history,” adding, “There are certain systemic racist powers that prefer it to look like our contributions don’t matter and that hyper showcase negative aspects and issues to deconstruct or denigrate black lives.”
BLM’s emboldened her to speak out. At a recent public hearing she advocated the city budget fund mandatory anti-bias, diversity and mental health training for police.
Gaines Liwaru said BLM must not be just media fodder or a stage for a few. “The movement continues whether televised or not because we have solidarity for a cause. But I see it fizzling out if people don’t do behind-the-scenes rallying to demand the reform within policies. We can’t assume someone else will carry the torch for justice … at hearings or in elections. Rallies won’t mean change or justice – unless we show up to have a say.”
Stevenson said, “I applaud what the movement is doing because people are standing up and making life uncomfortable. The racism discussion is being had. When you have a group feeling suppressed for an extremely long time, something has to give. That frustration and rage needs to go somewhere and that’s where it’s happening.”
Minister Tony Sanders said, “If this emotion is not channeled in the right direction, you will have continued civil unrest or rogue individuals taking the opportunity to further divide us instead of unite us.”
Stevenson said it’s hard remaining calm after a new blue on black incident claims another victim. “Even if there’s an investigation, the determination is there’s no crime and we’re left with nothing except to stew on that frustration,” he said. “Then the next thing happens and the cycle continues. How much of that can you really stand?”
He gets that BLM is a platform for people to vent or debate, but, he said, “once you create this discussion, what do you next? I would like to see something different. It can’t be just like the same old.”
“My hope is our collective voices speaking about the injustices of our people will migrate into calls for action and overdue change,” said Voice Advocacy founder-director Clarice Jackson. “I believe we are seeing that happen now and will see more of this in the future.”
Dominique Morgan said, “There are fires going. We have to fan it to make it grow stronger.”
Some are not waiting for change. Thirty-something social entrepreneur Ean Mikale is running for mayor with the slogan, “Be the change.”
Maurice Jones with Hillary Clinton
Seventeen-year-old Maurice Jones, vice chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party Black Caucus, is running for the Omaha City Council.
“I hope my candidacy will inspire others my age to enter public life,” said Jones, adding that he wants to amplify the voices of people who go unheard by the political system.
On the streets, Stevenson said blacks face real fears of being profiled. “If you get pulled over by the police, you tell yourself, ‘Survive through this – cooperate.’ But there are people who cooperated and still faced horrible fates. For us to have to teach this extra element is stressful because you have to confront some of your worst fears over something that shouldn’t even be. I think of my sons and I’m like, I need you to live.”
Rev. Sanders confronts fear head-on in town halls he hosts called S.O.S. (Saving Our Sons).
“The first installment, ‘The Talk,” taught African-American males how to interact with law enforcement should they encounter them,” he said. “No one ever had that conversation with me. I had to learn it the hard way. That’s more common than not.”
Michelle Troxclair bemoans the lengths she must go to to instruct her son on what to say and do should he be detained.
“I’m resentful white mothers don’t have to have these conversations. It’s not a question of cops doing their jobs or good cops versus bad cops, – it is the innate belief some officers have when they enter into an encounter with African-Americans.”
She asserts some officers are prone to overreact because they assume blacks are threats. She acknowledges that’s not the whole story. “All officers are not bad people. I learned that when I coordinated the Michael Brown protest. I had bail money in the glove compartment of my car. Instead, I was met with kindness and great cooperation.”
Sanders calls for unity from the pulpit and the street. He’s part of coalitions working with police to remedy alleged discrimination.
“We’re standing, working and moving forward together for there to be a change in policing,” Sanders said. “There has to be more transparency and accountability. We’re working on specific things to make that action and change a measurable, tangible reality. We’re sitting down saying, OK, what can we do to resolve this issue? How do we learn to coexist?
“There will never be equality if there’s a segment of the population not viewed as equal. How do I change that in you? I can’t legislate that. No policy can make you see me as equal. We have a tendency to be afraid of and treat differently about which we don’t understand. It requires we get together so we learn about each other. Then our fears dissipate and we look at each other from a humane perspective.”
He’s planning table talks to discuss elephants in the room like black on black crime.
Clarice Jackson said, “For some, BLM is solely about the wrongful deaths of blacks at the hands of law enforcement but as a mother who lost her daughter, Latecia Fox, to gun violence this applies to black on black violence as well. Black on black crime is a huge issue of concern and I feel just as passionately about the injustice of it and the families it hurts as I do when some police officers feel they have the right to be judge, jury and executioners of black people.”
Until action-based change results, expect BLM’s social critique that freedom still hasn’t been fully won to continue.
Got a call out of the blue yesterday afternoon from an 86-year-old man in Omaha. He’s a retired Jewish American retailer. He’d just finished reading my November Reader cover story about The Education of a WASP and the segregation issues that plagued Omaha. He just wanted to share how much he enjoyed it and how he felt it needed to be seen by more people. Within a few minutes it was clear the story also summoned up in him strong memories and feelings having to do with his own experiences of bigotry as a Jewish kid getting picked on and bullied and as a businessman taking a stand against discrimination by hiring black clerks in his stores. One of his stores was at 24th and Erskine in the heart of North Omaha and the African-American district there and that store employed all black staff. But he also hired blacks at other storees, including downtown and South Omaha, and some customers were not so accepting of it and he told them flat out they could take their business elsewhere. He also told a tale that I need to get more details about that had to do with a group of outsiders who warned-threatened him to close his North O business or else. His personal accounts jumped from there to serving in the military overseas to his two marriages, the second of which is 60 years strong now. He wanted to know why I don’t write for the Omaha World-Herald and I explained that and he was eager to hook me up with the Jewish Press, whereupon I informed him I contributed to it for about 15 years. I also shared that I have done work for the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society. It turns out the man who brought me and my work to the attention of the Press and the Historical Society, the late Ben Nachman, was this gentleman’s dentist. Small world. I also shared with him why I write so much about African-American subjects (it has to do in part with where and how I grew up). Anyway, it was a delightful interlude in my day talking to this man and I will be sure to talk with him again and hopefully meet him. He’s already assured me he will be calling back. I am eager for him to do so. It’s rare that people call me about my work and this unexpected reaching out and expression of appreciation by a reader who was a total stranger was most appreciated. That stranger is now a friend.
Here is the story that motivated that new friend to call me about:
White people don’t know shit about black people.
That’s an oversimplification and generalization to be sure but it largely holds true today that many whites don’t know a whole lot about blacks outside of surface cultural things that fail to really get to the heart of the black experience or what it means to be black in America. That was certainly even more true 50 years ago or so when the events described in the 1970 book The Education of a WASP went down. The book’s author, the late Lois Mark Stalvey, was a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant and thus WASP Omaha homemaker in the late 1950s-early 1960s when she felt compelled to do something about the inequality confronting blacks that she increasingly became aware of during the civil rights movement. Her path to a dawning social consciousness was aided by African-Americans in Omaha and Philadelphia, where she moved, including some prominent players on the local social justice scene. Ernie Chambers was one of her educators. The late Dr. Claude Organ was another. Stalvey talked to and learned from socially active blacks. She got involved in The Cause through various organizations and initiatives. She even put herself and her family on the line by advocating for open housing, education, and hiring practices.
Her book made waves for baring the depths of her white prejudice and privilege and giving intimate view and voice to the struggles and challenges of blacks who helped her evolve as a human being and citizen. Those experiences forever changed her and her outlook on the world. She wrote followup books, she remained socially aware and active. She taught multicultural and diversity college courses. She kept learning and teaching others about our racialized society up until her death in 2004. Her Education of a WASP has been and continues being used in ethnic stiudies courses around the country.
A WASP’s racial tightrope resulted in enduring book partially set in 1960s Omaha
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the November 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
When a liberal, white middle-class couple with young kids moved to Omaha from Chicago in the late 1950s they entered this city’s weirdly segregated reality, not uncommon in almost every American city. It was not as public or overtly violent as the segregation in the former Confederate states of the South, but it was no less impactful on the African-American communities in Northern states. Homemaker Lois Mark Stalvey was a former advertising copywriter who once owned her own agency. Her husband Bennett Stalvey was a Fairmont Foods Mad Man.
The Omaha they settled into abided by a de facto segregation that saw blacks confined to two delineated areas. The largest sector, the Near North Side, was bounded by Cuming on the south and Ames on the north and 16th on the east and 40th on the west. Large public housing projects were home to thousands of families. In South Omaha blacks were concentrated in and around projects near the packing plants. Blacks here could generally enter any public place – a glaring exception being the outdoor pool at Peony Park until protestors forced ownership’s hand – but were sometimes required to sit in separate sections or limited to drive-thru service and they most definitely faced closed housing opportunities and discriminatory hiring practices.
This now deceased couple encountered a country club racist culture that upheld a system designed to keep whites and blacks apart. Neither was good at taking things lying down or letting injustices pass unnoticed. But she was the more assertive and opinionated of the two. Indeed, son Ben Stalvey recalls her as “a force of nature” who “rarely takes no for an answer.”
“She was stubborn to accept the accepted norm in those days and that piqued her curiosity and she took it from there,” he says. “She had grown up in her own little bubble (in Milwaukee) and I think when she discovered racial prejudice and injustice her attitude was more like, What do you mean I can’t do that or what do you mean I have to think that way? It was more just a matter of, “Hell, no.”
Though only in Omaha a few years, Stalvey made her mark on the struggle for equality then raging in the civil rights movement.
The well-intentioned wife and mother entered the fray naive about her own white privilege and prejudice and the lengths to which the establishment would go to oppose desegregation and parity. Her headstrong efforts to do the right thing led to rude awakenings and harsh consequences. Intolerance, she learned here and in Philadelphia, where the Stalveys moved after her husband lost his job due to her activism, is insidious. All of which she wrote about in her much discussed 1970 book, The Education of a WASP.
The title refers to the self-discovery journey she made going from ignorance to enlightenment. Blacks who befriended her in Omaha and in Philadelphia schooled her on the discrimination they faced and on what was realistic for changing the status quo.
Among her primary instructors was the late black civic leader and noted physician Dr. Claude Organ and his wife Elizabeth “Betty” Organ and a young Ernie Chambers before his state senator career. In WASP Stalvey only sparingly used actual names. The Organs became the Bensons and Chambers became Marcus Garvey Moses.
A Marshall, Texas native and graduate of Xavier University in New Orleans, Claude Organ was accepted by the University of Texas Medical School but refused admittance when officials discovered he was black. The state of Texas paid the tuition difference between UT and any school a denied black attended. Organ ended up at Creighton University and the state of Texas paid the extra $2,000 to $3,000 a year the private Jesuit school cost, recalls Betty Organ.
His civil rights work here began with the interracial social action group the De Porres Club led by Father John Markoe. Organ became Urban League of Nebraska president and later advised the Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties (4CL). He was on the Catholic Interracial Council board and Mayor’s Biracial Committee.
“He built a lot of bridges,” son Paul Organ says.
Betty Organ got involved, too, supporting “any group that had something to do with making Omaha a better place to live,” she says.
So when Stalvey was introduced to the Organs by a black friend and determined to made them her guides in navigating the troubled racial waters, she couldn’t have found a better pair.
Stalvey met Chambers through Claude Organ.
Chambers says “This woman detected I was somebody who might have some things to offer that would help give her what she called her education. And when I became convinced she was genuine I was very open with her in terms of what I would talk to her about.”
Though it may not seem so now, Chambers says the book’s title was provocative for the time. WASP stands for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, which defined Stalvey’s background, but racism was rampant across ethnic and religious lines in White America.
“WASP was a term that not everybody to whom it applied embraced. So by using that title she caught people’s attention.”
Ernie Chambers educating Pastor William Youngdahl in “A Time for Burning”
But he admired the “substance” behind the sensation. He admired, too, that the vitally curious Stalvey asked lots of questions.
“I never got the impression as used to happen when I was interviewed by white people that she was ‘studying’ me like a scientist in a lab would study insects. She genuinely was trying to make herself a better person and I think she succeeded.”
This ever apt pupil threw herself into The Cause. Her son Noah Stalvey says, “I can remember meetings at the house. She had a lot of the movers and shakers of the day meeting there. Her goal was to raise us in an environment of tolerance.”
“At times it was lively,” says Ben Stalvey. “There wasn’t much disagreement. We knew what was going on, we heard about things. We met a lot of people and we’d play with their kids.”
All par for the course at the family home in Omaha’s Rockbrook neighborhood. “It wasn’t until well into my teen years I realized my parents were fighting the battle,” Noah says. “I just thought that’s what all parents do.”
His mother headed the progressive Omaha Panel for American Women that advocated racial-religious understanding. The diverse panelists were all moms and the Organ and Stalvey kids sometimes accompanied their mothers to these community forums. Paul Organ believes the panelists wielded their greatest influence at home.
“On the surface all the men in the business community were against it.
Behind the scenes women were having these luncheons and meetings and I think in many homes around Omaha attitudes were changed over dinner after women came back from these events and shared the issues with their husbands. To me it was very interesting the women and the moms kind of bonded together because they all realized how it was affecting their children.”
Betty Organ agrees. “I don’t think the men were really impressed with what we were doing until they found out its repercussions concerning their children and the attitudes their children developed as they grew.”
Stalvey’s efforts were not only public but private. She personally tried opening doors for the aspirational Organs and their seven children to integrate her white bread suburban neighborhood. She felt the northeast Omaha bungalow the Organs occupied inadequate for a family of nine and certainly not befitting the family of a surgeon.
Racial segregation denied the successful professional and Creighton University instructor the opportunity for living anywhere outside what was widely accepted as Black Omaha – the area in North Omaha defined by realtors and other interests as the Near North Side ghetto.
“She had seen us when we lived in that small house on Paxton Boulevard,” Betty Organ says. “She had thought that was appalling that we should be living that many people in a small house like that.”
Cover of the book “Ahead of Their Time: The Story of the Omaha DePorres Club”
Despite the initial reluctance of the Organs, Stalvey’s efforts to find them a home in her neighborhood put her self-educating journey on a collision course with Omaha’s segregation and is central to the books’s storyline. Organ appreciated Stalvey going out on a limb.
Stalvey and others were also behind efforts to open doors for black educators at white schools, for employers to practice fair hiring and for realtors to abide by open housing laws. Stalvey found like-minded advocates in social worker-early childhood development champion Evie Zysman and the late social cause maven Susie Buffett. They were intent on getting the Organs accepted into mainstream circles.
“We were entertained by Lois’ friends and the Zysmans and these others that were around. We went to a lot of places that we would not have ordinarily gone because these people were determined they were going to get us into something,” Betty Organ says. “It was very revealing and heartwarming that she wanted to do something. She wanted to change things and it did happen.”
Only the change happened either more gradually than Stalvey wanted or in ways she didn’t expect.
Despite her liberal leanings Claude Organ remained wary of Stalvey.
“He felt she was as committed as she could be,” his widow says, “but he just didn’t think she knew what the implications of her involvement would be. He wasn’t exactly sure about how sincere Lois was. He thought she was trying to find her way and I think she more or less did find her way. It was a very difficult time for all of us, that’s all I can say.”
Ernie Chambers says Stalvey’s willingness to examine and question things most white Americans accepted or avoided was rare.
“At the time she wrote this book it was not a popular thing. There were not a lot of white people willing to step forward, identify themselves and not come with the traditional either very paternalistic my-best-friend-is-a-Negro type of thing or out-and-out racist attitude.”
The two forged a deep connection borne of mutual respect.
“She was surprised I knew what I knew, had read as widely as I had, and as we talked she realized it was not just a book kind of knowledge. In Omaha for a black man to stand up was considered remarkable.
“We exchanged a large number of letters about all kinds of issues.”
Chambers still fights the good fight here. Though he and Claude Organ had different approaches, they became close allies.
Betty Organ says “nobody else was like” Chambers back then. “He was really a moving power to get people to do things they didn’t want to do. My husband used to go to him as a barber and then they got to be very good friends. Ernie really worked with my husband and anything he wanted to accomplish he was ready to be there at bat for him. He was wonderful to us.”
Stalvey’s attempts to infiltrate the Organs into Rockbrook were rebuffed by realtors and residents – exactly what Claude Organ warned would happen. He also warned her family might face reprisals.
Betty Organ says, “My husband told her, ‘You know this can have great repercussions because they don’t want us and you can be sure that because they don’t want us they’re going to red line us wherever we go in Omaha trying to get a place that they know of.'”
Bennett Stalvey was demoted by Fairmont, who disliked his wife’s activities, and sent to a dead-end job in Philadelphia. The Organs regretted it came to that.
“It was not exactly the thing we wanted to happen with Ben,” Betty Organ says. “That was just the most ugly, un-Godly, un-Christian thing anybody could have done.”
Photos of the late Dr. Claude Organ
While that drama played out, Claude Organ secretly bought property and secured a loan through white doctor friends so he could build a home where he wanted without interference. The family broke ground on their home on Good Friday in 1964. The kids started school that fall at St. Philip Neri and the brick house was completed that same fall.
“We had the house built before they (opponents) knew it,” Betty Organ says.
Their spacious new home was in Florence, where blacks were scarce. Sure enough, they encountered push-back. A hate crime occurred one evening when Betty was home alone with the kids.
“Somebody came knocking on my door. This man was frantically saying, ‘Lady, lady, you know your house is one fire?’ and I opened the door and I said, ‘What?’ and he went, ‘Look,’ and pointed to something burning near the house. I looked out there, and it was a cross burning right in front of the house next to the garage. When the man saw what it was, too, he said, ‘Oh, lady, I’m so sorry.’ It later turned out somebody had too much to drink at a bar called the Alpine Inn about a mile down the road from us and did this thing.
“I just couldn’t believe it. It left a scorch there on the front of the house.”
Paul Organ was 9 or 10 then.
“I have memories of a fire and the fire truck coming up,” he says. “I remember something burning on the yard and my mom being upset. I remember when my dad got home from the hospital he was very upset but it wasn’t until years later I came to appreciate how serious it was. That was probably the most dramatic, powerful incident.”
The former Organ home in Florence where a cross was burned.
But not the last.
As the only black family in St. Philip Neri Catholic parish the Organs seriously tested boundaries.
“Some of the kids there were very ugly at first,” Betty Organ recalls. “They bullied our kids. It was a real tough time for all of us because they just didn’t want to accept the fact we were doing this Catholic thing.”
You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
Daughter Sandra Organ says, “There were some tensions there. Dad would talk about how to handle these kind of things and to take the high road. But if they used the ‘n’ word we had an opportunity to retaliate because you defend your honor as a black person.
“An older neighbor man didn’t particularly like black people. But his grandson was thrilled to have these five boys to play with, so he became like an extra person in the family. The boy’s family was very kind to us and they kind of brought the grandfather around.”
Betty Organ says things improved with parishioners, too. “It got to the point where they got to know the family and they got to know us and they kind of came around after a few years.”
Sandra says when her brother David suffered severe burns in an accident and sat-out school “the neighborhood really rallied around my mom and provided help for her and tutoring for David.”
Stalvey came from Philadelphia to visit the Organs at their new home.
“When she saw the house we built she was just thrilled to death to see it,” Betty Organ says.
In Philadelphia the Stalveys lived in the racially mixed West Mount Airy neighborhood and enrolled their kids in predominantly African-American inner city public schools.
Ben Stalvey says, “I think it was a conscious effort on my parents part to expose us to multiple ways of living.”
His mother began writing pieces for the Philadelphia Bulletin that she expanded into WASP.
“Mom always had her writing time,” Ben Stalvey notes. “She had her library and that was her writing room and when she in the writing room we were not to disturb her and so yes I remember her spending hours and hours in there. She’d always come out at the end of the school day to greet us and often times she’d go back in there until dinner.”
In the wake of WASP she became a prominent face and voice of white guilt – interviewed by national news outlets, appearing on national talk shows and doing signings and readings. Meanwhile, her husband played a key role developing and implementing affirmative action plans.
Noah Stalvey says any negative feedback he felt from his parents’ activism was confined to name-calling.
“I can remember vaguely being called an ‘n’ lover and that was mostly in grade school. My mother would be on TV or something and one of the kids who didn’t feel the way we did – their parents probably used the word – used it on us at school.”
He says the work his parents did came into focus after reading WASP.
“I first read it when I was in early high school. It kind of put together pieces for me. I began to understand what they were doing and why they were doing it and it made total sense to me. You know, why wouldn’t you fight for people who were being mistreated. Why wouldn’t you go out of your way to try and rectify a wrong? It just made sense they were doing what they could to fix problems prevalent in society.”
Betty Organ thought WASP did a “pretty good” job laying out “what it was all about” and was relieved their real identities were not used.
“That was probably a good thing at the time because my husband didn’t want our names involved as the persons who educated the WASP.”
After all, she says, he had a career and family to think about. Dr. Claude Organ went on to chair Creighton’s surgery department by 1971, becoming the first African-American to do so at a predominately white medical school. He developed the school’s surgical residency program and later took positions at the University of Oklahoma and University of California–Davis, where he also served as the first African-American editor of Archives of Surgery, the largest surgical journal in the English-speaking world.
Claude and Betty Organ
Sandra Organ says there was some queasiness about how Stalvey “tried to stand in our shoes because you can never really know what that’s like.” However, she adds, “At least she was pricking people’s awareness and that was a wise thing.”
Paul Organ appreciates how “brutally honest” Stalvey was about her own naivety and how embarrassed she was in numerous situations.” He says, “I think at the time that’s probably why the book had such an effect because Lois was very self-revealing.”
Stalvey followed WASP with the book Getting Ready, which chronicled her family’s experiences with urban black education inequities.
At the end of WASP she expresses both hope that progress is possible – she saw landmark civil rights legislation enacted – and despair over the slow pace of change. She implied the only real change happens in people’s hearts and minds, one person at a time. She equated the racial divide in America to walls whose millions of stones must be removed one by one. And she stated unequivocally that America would never realize its potential or promise until there was racial harmony.
Forty-five years since WASP came out Omaha no longer has an apparatus to restrict minorities in housing, education, employment and recreation – just hardened hearts and minds. Today, blacks live, work, attend school and play where they desire. Yet geographic-economic segregation persists and there are disproportionate numbers living in poverty. lacking upwardly mobile job skills, not finishing school, heading single-parent homes and having criminal histories in a justice system that effectively mass incarcerates black males. Many blacks have been denied the real estate boom that’s come to define wealth for most of white America. Thus, some of the same conditions Stalvey described still exist and similar efforts to promote equality continue.
Stalvey went on to teach writing and diversity before passing away in 2004. She remained a staunch advocate of multiculturalism. When WASP was reissued in 1989 her new foreword expressed regret that racism was still prevalent. And just as she concluded her book the first time, she repeated the need for our individual and collective education to continue and her indebtedness to those who educated her.
Noah Stalvey says her enduring legacy may not be so much what she wrote but what she taught her children and how its been passed down.
“It does have a ripple effect and we now carry this message to our kids and our kids are raised to believe there is no difference regardless of sexual preference or heritage or skin color.”
Ben Stalvey says his mother firmly believed children are not born with prejudice and intolerance but learn these things.
“There’s a song my mother used to quote which I still like that’s about intolerance – ‘You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught’ – from the musical South Pacific.
“The way we were raised we were purposely not taught,” Ben Stalvey says. “I wish my mother was still around to see my own grandchildren. My daughter has two kids and her partner is half African-American and half Filipino. I think back to the very end of WASP where she talks about her hopes and dreams for America of everyone being a blended heritage and that has actually come to pass in my grandchildren.”
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!
Stalvey’s personal chronicle of social awareness a primer for racial studies
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the November 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)
With America in the throes of the 1960s civil rights movement, few whites publicly conceded their own prejudice, much less tried seeing things from a black point of view. Lois Mark Stalvey was that exception as she shared her journey from naivety to social consciousness in her 1970 book The Education of a WASP.
Her intensely personal chronicle of becoming a socially aware being and engaged citizen has lived on as a resource in ethnic studies programs.
Stalvey’s odyssey was fueled by curiosity that turned to indignation and then activism as she discovered the extent to which blacks faced discrimination. Her education and evolution occurred in Omaha and Philadelphia. She got herself up to speed on the issues and conditions impacting blacks by joining organizations focused on equal rights and enlisting the insights of local black leaders. Her Omaha educators included Dr. Claude Organ and his wife Elizabeth “Betty” Organ (Paul and Joan Benson in the book) and Ernie Chambers (Marcus Garvey Moses).
She joined the local Urban League and led the Omaha chapter of the Panel of American Women. She didn’t stop at rhetoric either. She took unpopular stands in support of open housing and hiring practices. She attempted and failed to get the Organs integrated into her Rockbrook neighborhood. Pushing for diversity and inclusion got her blackballed and cost her husband Bennett Stalvey his job.
After leaving Omaha for Philly she and her husband could have sat out the fight for diversity and equality on the sidelines but they elected to be active participants. Instead of living in suburbia as they did here they moved into a mixed race neighborhood and sent their kids to predominantly black urban inner city schools. Stalvey surrounded herself with more black guides who opened her eyes to inequities in the public schools and to real estate maneuvers like block busting designed to keep certain neighborhoods white.
Behind the scenes, her husband helped implement some of the nation’s first affirmative action plans.
Trained as a writer, Stalvey used her gifts to chart her awakening amid the civil rights movement. Since WASP’s publication the book’s been a standard selection among works that about whites grappling with their own racism and with the challenges black Americans confront. It’s been used as reading material in multicultural, ethnic studies and history courses at many colleges and universities.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln associate professor of History and Ethnic Studies Patrick Jones has utilized it in two courses.
“In both courses students had a very positive response to the book,” he says. “The book’s local connections to Omaha literally bring the topic of racial identity formation and race relations ‘home’ to students. This local dynamic often means a more forceful impact on Neb. students, regardless of their own identity or background.
“In addition, the book effectively underscores the ways that white racial identity is socially constructed. Students come away with a much stronger understanding of what many call ‘whiteness’ and ‘white privilege” This is particularly important for white students, who often view race as something outside of themselves and only relating to black and brown people. Instead, this book challenges them to reckon with the various ways their own history, experience, socialization, acculturation and identity are racially constructed.”
Jones says the book’s account of “white racial identity formation” offers a useful perspective.
“As Dr. King, James Baldwin and others have long asserted, the real problem of race in America is not a problem with black people or other people of color, but rather a problem rooted in the reality of white supremacy, which is primarily a fiction of the white mind. If we are to combat and overcome the legacy and ongoing reality of white supremacy, then we need to better understand the creation and perpetuation of white supremacy, white racial identity and white privilege, and this book helps do that.
“What makes whiteness and white racial identity such an elusive subject for many to grasp is its invisibility – the way it is rendered normative in American society. Critical to a deeper understanding of how race works in the U.S. is rendering whiteness and white supremacy visible.”
Stalvey laid it all right out in the open through the prism of her experience. She continued delineating her ongoing education in subsequent books and articles she wrote and in courses she taught.
Interestingly, WASP was among several popular media examinations of Omaha’s race problem then. A 1963 Look magazine piece discussed racial divisions and remedies here. A 1964 Ebony profile focused on Don Benning breaking the faculty-coaching color barrier at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The 1966 film A Time for Burning featured Ernie Chambers serving a similar role as he did with Stalvey, only this time educating a white pastor and members of Augustana Lutheran Church struggling to do interracial fellowship. The documentary prompted a CBS News special.
Those reports were far from the only local race issues to make national news. Most recently, Omaha’s disproportionately high black poverty and gun violence rates have received wide attention.
This is an excerpt from one of two iBooks I authored for the Making Invisible History Visible project through the Omaha Public Schools. It was part of a larger Nebraska Department of Education digial publishing initiative. Working with teachers and illustrators we looked at sspects of African-American history with local storylines. My two 3rd grade books deal with the Great Migration and Civil Rights. The excerpt here is from the Civil Rights: Standing Up for What’s Right to Make a Difference book that looks at the movement through the prism of the peaceful demonstrations that integrated the popular Omaha amusement attraction, Peony Park.
Each book is used in the classroom as a teaching aid. To get the full experience of the book you need to experience it on a device because there are many interactive elements built in.You can access the iBook version at:
You can download a PDF version at:
You can access my post about the Great Migration book I did at:
NOTE: More Great Migration stories can be found on my blog.
Here is some background on the project I participated in:
During the summer of 2013, eight Omaha Public Schools teachers each developed an iBook on a topic of Omaha and Nebraska history as it relates to African American History. The four 3rd grade books are: Then and Now: A Look at People in Your Neighborhood; Our City, Our Culture; Civil Rights: Standing Up for What’s Right to Make a Difference; and The Great Migration: Wherever People Move, Home is Where the Heart is. The four 4th grade books are: Legends of the Name: Buffalo Soldiers in Nebraska; African American Pioneers; Notable Nebraskans; and WWII: Double Victory. Each book was written by a local Omaha author, and illustrations were created by a local artist. Photographs, documents, and other artifacts included in the book were provided by local community members and through partnership with the Great Plains Black History Museum. These books provide supplemental information on the role of African Americans in Omaha and Nebraska history topics. It is important to integrate this material in order to expand students’ cultural understanding, and highlight all the historical figures that have built this state. Each book allows students to go beyond the content through analysis activities using photos, documents, and other artifacts.Through these iBooks, students will experience history and its connections to their own cultures and backgrounds.
STANDING UP FOR WHAT’S RIGHT TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE
©AUTHOR: LEO ADAM BIGA
©ILLUSTRATOR: WESTON THOMSON
Imagine wanting to go swimming on a hot summer’s day at a big public pool. You arrive there with the simple expectation of laying out in the sun and cooling off in the refreshing water. But when you show up at the front gate ready to enter the pool and have fun you are turned away because you are black.
Naturally, your feelings are hurt. You’re probably angry and confused. How unfair that you cannot go swimming where everyone else can just because of your skin color. “What can be done about this?” you wonder.
It may surprise you to know this actually happened in Omaha, Nebraska, and the young people who were denied admission decided to do something about it. Some of them were Omaha Public Schools students. In 1963, they organized protests that forced the swimming pool owners to let everyone swim there.
How were people’s civil rights violated at Peony Park?
There was a time in America when black people and other racial minorities were denied basic human rights because of the color of their skin. Racism and discrimination made life difficult for African Americans. Often, they had to use separate facilities, such as black- only water fountains, or take their meals in the back of restaurants. Even something as ordinary as a swimming pool could be off-limits. Segregation in all aspects of daily life emphasized that African Americans were not equal and this system could be enforced with violence. If a black person tried to take a sip of water at a fountain, eat at a counter reserved for whites, or sit in the front of a bus, they could be arrested or attacked.
The system of segregation in America was called “Jim Crow.” In the South, Jim Crow segregation laws severely restricted blacks from using public facilities. But these laws were in place all over the nation. These harsh measures were put in place after the end of slavery. Though African Americans were now citizens, Jim Crow laws made black people second-class citizens, denied opportunities open to everyone else.
African Americans experienced racial discrimination in Omaha. A popular amusement park that used to be here, Peony Park, did not let blacks use its big outdoor pool. Unfair practices like that sparked the civil rights movement. People of all races and ethnicities joined together to march and demonstrate against inequality. They advocated blacks be given equal rights in voting, housing, jobs, education, and recreation.
DOING THE RIGHT THING
Following World War II protestors with the De Porres Club in Omaha peacefully demonstrated against local businesses that refused to serve or hire blacks. Members of the De Porres Club included the people of Omaha’s African American community, college students from Creighton University, and more. They were active from about 1947 to the early 1960s.
In 1963, members of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) Youth Council, some still high school teenagers, decided to challenge Peony Park and its racist policies. “Activism was in its heyday, activism was alive and well. Every community of black folks around the country was involved in some initiative and that was the Omaha initiative,” said Youth Council Vice President Cathy Hughes. Though only 16 at the time, Hughes was a veteran civil rights worker. As a little girl she carried picket signs with her parents when they participated in De Porres Club protests.
The Youth Council decided to protest at Peony Park after one of their members, a young black woman, was turned away along with her little sister. “She was told she couldn’t get into the pool,” recalled Archie Godfrey, the then-18-year-old Youth Council President. “It happened the same day we were having a meeting. She came to the meeting like she always did and said, ‘Guess what happened to me?’ And here was an issue that paralleled what was going on nationally.’ What do we do? All we knew is our member got rejected from Peony Park and we were going to make it right, and that’s how that thing got started.”
Godfrey and his peers closely monitored the civil rights movement and saw an opportunity to do here what was being done in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others were waging nonviolent social actions. Omaha Youth Council members had trained in nonviolent protest methods at NAACP regional events. Godfrey said, “We decided, ‘Well, let’s do what they taught us. We’ll test it.'” And they did.
STAGING THE PROTEST
Media played an important role in documenting the protests
The Youth Council activists came up with a plan for their protest. First, members tried to gain admission to the pool. Each time they were told it was full, even though whites were let in. Members next removed the ignition keys from their cars to block the entrance and exit. “That was the beginning of the demonstration,” said Godfrey. “We were nonviolent, we didn’t go out and shout and scream at them, we didn’t throw bricks, we didn’t spit, we didn’t do anything but demonstrate for the next two weeks.” Protesters also made sure the media was present to document their activities.
The group sang freedom songs to relieve the tension from counter- protestors, who were opposed to the civil rights movement. The Youth Council was aware things could turn violent as they did down South. “One of the reasons why we sung is because of how stressful and explosive a situation like that could be,” said Godfrey. “The singing of the civil rights songs as a group was like a medicine that kept us bound and understanding we were not alone, that there was unity. By singing to the top of our voices ‘We Shall Overcome,’ we didn’t hear the words that came from across the street from people calling us nasty names.”
He said the human chain they formed with clasped arms outside the front gate was only as strong as its weakest link. They needed solidarity to keep their cool. “If one of us had lost self control and got mad and went across the street and hit one of the those kids all hell would have broke out and it would have killed everything,” Godfrey observed. Cathy Hughes said all their training paid off. “We were disciplined, we were strategic.” No violence ever erupted. No arrests were made.
WINNING THE FIGHT
For a time the Malec family that owned and operated the park resisted making any changes. But after losing business, being challenged with lawsuits, and getting negative publicity, they opened the pool to everyone. The youth protestors won.
The success of the demonstration raised interest in the Youth Council. “We went from a few dozen members to 300 members that summer,” Godfrey said, “because of the attention, the excitement and people pent up wanting to do something like people were doing all over the country. We jumped on everything that was wrong that summer.” He said the Council staged protests at restaurants and recreation sites. “Each one opened its doors after we started or even threatened to demonstrate, that’s how effective it was.”
The events of that summer 50 years ago helped shape Godfrey. The lesson that youth can change things for the better has stayed with him. “I’ve been an activist and politically involved all the rest of my life,” he said. Cathy Hughes said the experience “instilled in me a certain level of fearlessness and purpose and accomplishment that I carried with me for the rest of my life,” adding, “It taught me the lesson that there’s power in unity.” She has never hesitated to speak out against injustice since then.
Demonstrations like these helped push Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which put into place many safeguards to prevent discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity. Today, people of any color or background can go anywhere they choose. That freedom, however, was hard earned by people like Archie Godfrey and Cathy Hughes who stood up to speak out against wrong.
ACTIVITIES AND QUESTIONS
ACT IT OUT
1.Describe how the Youth Council activists staged their protest of Peony Park.
2.How would you feel if you were told you couldn’t do something like go to a park or go inside your favorite store? What would you do about it?
3.Peony Park is only one example of a place where segregation occurred. Find other examples of segregation. Where did it happen? Who was involved? When did it happen? What did people do to end this segregation?
DESIGN A MONUMENT
You will design a monument that will recognize the accomplishments of the individuals who helped to desegregate Peony Park. Included with your design should be some words telling people what your monument represents.
1. WHY DID PEONY PARK WANT TO KEEP AFRICAN AMERICANS OUT?
2. WHY DID THE LIFEGUARD THINK THIS WOULD BACKFIRE?
3. THIS LIFEGUARD RISKED LOSING HIS JOB FOR SOMETHING HE BELIEVED. DO YOU THINK YOU WOULD DO THE SAME IN HIS POSITION? WHY OR WHY NOT?
4. THIS ARTICLE USES THE WORD “HYSTERICAL.” WHAT DOES IT MEAN? WHY IS FEAR OF AN INTEGRATED POOL CALLED “HYSTERICAL”? USE IT IN A SENTENCE.
MEET THE AUTHOR
Leo Adam Biga is an Omaha-based author- journalist-blogger best known for his cultural writing-reporting about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions. His book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film is the first comprehensive treatment of the Oscar-winning filmmaker. Biga’s peers have recognized his work at the local, state and national levels. To sample more of his writing visit, leoadambiga.com or http://www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga
MEET THE ILLUSTRATOR
Weston Thomson is a multidisciplinary artist and non-profit arts organization director living in Omaha, Nebraska. His work ranges from graphite, ink, and acrylic illustrations to 3D printed sculptures.
A NOTE FROM THE TEACHER
My name is Russ Nelsen. I teach 3rd grade at Standing Bear Elementary. I enjoyed taking what the author and illustrator did and putting it into an iBook! Hopefully this book was educational and fun!
Omaha’s had its share of social justice champions. They’ve come in all shapes and sizes, colors and styles. Tommie Wilson may not be the best known or the loudest or the flashiest, but she’s been a consistent soldier in the felds of doing the right thing and speaking out against bias. Her work as an educator, as president of the local NAACP chapter and more recently as a community liaison finds her walking the walk. Read my profile about her for The Reader (www.thereader.com).
Civil rights veteran Tommie Wilson still fighting the good fight
Retired public school educator lives by the creed separate is not equal
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the May 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Social justice champion Tommie Wilson experienced the civil rights movement as it happened. For her, the good fight has never stopped.
While president of the local NAACP she brought a lawsuit against then-Gov. Dave Heineman over redistricting legislation that would have re-segregated Omaha schools. As Community Liaison for Public Affairs at Metropolitan Community College she chairs a monthly Table Talk series discussing community issues close to her heart, especially reentry resources. A grandson did time in prison and his journey through the system motivates her to advocate for returning citizens.
“I’m interested in how we can help them to have sustainable, productive lives,” says Wilson, who often visits prisons. “You know what they call me in prison? Mommie Tommie.”
Giving people second chances is important to her. She headed up the in-school suspension program at Lewis and Clark Junior High and the Stay in School program at the Wesley House.
“It took the kids off the streets and gave them the support they needed to be able to go back into school to graduate with their classes.”
Though coming of age in segregated Nacogdoches, Texas, she got opportunities denied many blacks. As a musical prodigy with an operatic voice she performed for well-to-do audiences. She graduated high school at 15 and earned her music teaching degree from Texas Southern University at 20.
She knew well the contours of white privilege and the necessity for she and fellow blacks to overachieve in order to find anything ilke equal footing in a titled world.
Her education about racialized America began as a child. She heard great orators at NAACP meetings in the basements of black churches. She read the words of leading journalists and scholars in black newspapers. She listened to iconic jazz and blues singers whose styles she’d emulate vocalizing on the streets or during recess at school.
Through it all, she gained a dawning awareness of inequities and long overdue change in the works. She credits her black professors as “the most positive mentors in my life,” adding, “They actually made me who I am today. They told me to strive to do my best in all I do and to prove my worth. They challenged me to ‘be somebody.'”
She and her late husband Ozzie Wilson taught a dozen years in Texas, where they helped integrate the public school teaching ranks. When the Omaha Public Schools looked to integrate its own teaching corps in the 1960s, it recruited Southern black educators here. The Wilsons, who came in 1967 as “a package deal,” were among them.
The couple’s diversity efforts extended to the Keystone Neighborhood they integrated. Tommie didn’t like Omaha at first but warmed to it after getting involved in organizations, including Delta Sigma Theta sorority, charged with enhancing opportunities.
“I’ve never shied away from finding things that needed to be done. I’m a very outspoken and vocal person. I don’t have a problem expressing what I feel. If it’s right, it’s right. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong, I don’t care who it hurts. That’s my attitude.”
She was often asked to lend her singing voice to causes and programs, invariably performing sonatas and spirituals.
Much of her life’s work, she says, has tried to prove “separate is not equal.” “I’m a catalyst in the community. I try to motivate folks to do what they need to do.”
She feels the alarming rates of school drop-outs, violent incidents and STDs among inner city youth is best addressed through education.
“Education is the key. Children have to feel there’s love and care about them learning in the classroom. Teaching is more than the curriculum. It’s about getting a rapport with your kids, letting them feel we’re in this together and there’s a purpose. It has to be a personal thing.”
Schools can’t do it alone, she says, “It’s got to start with church and home.”
She applauds the Empowerment Network’s efforts to jumpstart North Omaha revitalization.
“I love everything they’re trying to do because together we stand, divided we fall. If we can bring everybody together to start working with these ideas that’s beautiful.”
She’d like to see more financial backing for proven projects and programs making a difference in the lives of young people.
Since retiring as an educator, Wilson’s community focus has hardly waned. There was her four-year stint with the NAACP. She then approached Metro-president Randy Schmailzl to be a liaison with the North O community, where she saw a great disconnect between black residents and the college.
“We had students all around the Fort Omaha Campus who had never even stepped foot on campus.”
She feels Metro is “a best kept secret” for first generation college students,” adding, “For affordable tuition you can get all the training and skills needed to be successful and have a sustainable life.”
The veteran volunteer counts her 15 years as a United Way Loaned Executive one of her most satisfying experiences in helping nurture a city that’s become dear to her.
A7 79, Tommie Wilson finds satisfaction “being able to share my innermost passions, talking to people about their issues, trials and tribulations and teaching and guiding people to change their lives.”
What’s a good day for her?
“A good day is when I make a difference in the lives of others. Hardly a day goes by somebody doesn’t ask for advice.”
UNO professor emeritus of criminal justice Samuel Walker is one of those hard to sum up subjects because he’s a man of so many interests and passions and accomplishments, all of which is a good thing for me as a storyteller but it’s also a real challenge trying to convey the totality of someone with such a rich life and career in a single article. As a storyteller I must pick and choose what to include, what to emphasize, what to leave out. My choices may not be what another writer would choose. That’s the way it goes. What I did with Walker was to make his back story the front story, which is to say I took an experience from his past – his serving as a Freedom Summer volunteer to try and register black voters in Mississippi at the peak of the civil rights movement – as the key pivot point that informs his life’s work and that bridges his past and present. That experience is also juxtaposed with him growing up in a less then enlightened household that saw him in major conflict with his father. My cover profile of Walker is now appearing in the New Horizons newspaper.
Justice Champion Sam Walker Calls It as He Sees It
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in the New Horizons
And justice for all
You could do worse than label UNO professor emeritus of criminal justice Samuel Walker a dyed-in-the-wool progressive liberal. He certainly doesn’t conceal his humanist-libertarian leanings in authoring books, published articles and blog posts that reflect a deep regard for individual rights and sharp criticism for their abridgment.
He’s especially sensitive when government and police exceed their authority to infringe upon personal freedoms. He’s authored a history of the American Ciivil Liberties Union. His most recent book examines the checkered civil liberties track records of U.S. Presidents. He’s also written several books on policing. His main specialization is police accountability and best practices, which makes him much in demand as a public speaker, courtroom expert witness and media source. A Los Angeles Times reporter recently interviewed him for his take on the Albuquerque, NM police’s high incidence of officer-involved shootings, including a homeless man shot to death in March.
“I did a 1997 report on Albuquerque. They were shooting too many people. It has not changed. There’s a huge uproar over it,” he says. “In this latest case there’s video of their shooting a homeless guy (who reportedly threatened police with knives) in the park. Officers approached this thing like a military operation and they were too quick to pull the trigger.”
As an activist police watchdog he’s chided the Omaha Police Department for what he considers a pattern of excessive use of force. That’s made him persona non grata with his adopted hometown’s law enforcement community. He’s a vocal member of the Omaha Alliance for Justice, on whose behalf he drafted a letter to the U.S. Justice Department seeking a federal investigation of Omaha police. No Justice Department review has followed.
The alliance formed after then-Omaha Pubic Safety Auditor Tristan Bonn was fired following the release of her report critical of local police conduct. Walker had a hand in creating the auditor post.
“Our principal demand was for her to be reinstated or for someone else to be in that position. We lobbied a couple mayors. We had rallies and public forums,” he says.
All to no avail.
“The auditor ordinance is still on the books but the city just hasn’t funded it. It’s been a real political struggle which is why I put my hopes in the civic leaders.”
After earning his Ph.D. in American history from Ohio State University in 1973, the Ohio native came to work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He met his life partner, Mary Ann Lamanna, a UNO professor emeritus of sociology, in a campus lunchroom. The couple, who’ve never married, have been together since 1981. They celebrated their 30th anniversary in Paris. They share a Dundee neighborhood home.
Though now officially retired, Walker still goes to his office every day and stays current with the latest criminal justice research, often updating his books for new editions. He’s often called away to consult cities and police departments.
He served as the “remedies expert” in a much publicized New York City civil trial last year centering around the police department’s controversial stop and frisk policy. Allegations of widespread abuse – of stops disproportionally targeting people of color – resulted in a lengthy courtroom case. Federal district judge Shira Scheindlin found NYPD engaged in unconstitutional actions in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. In her decision, she quoted from Walker’s testimony about what went wrong and what reforms were needed.
Walker’s work is far more than an exercise in academic interest. It’s a deeply personal expression of beliefs and values formed by crucial events of the ’60s. The most momentous of these saw him serve as a Freedom Summer volunteer in the heart of the Jim Crow South at the height of the civil rights movement while a University of Michigan student. Spending time in Mississippi awakened him to an alternate world where an oppressive regime of apartheid ruled – one fully condoned by government and brutally enforced by police.
“There was a whole series of shocks – the kind of things that just turned your world upside down. The white community was the threat, the black community was your haven. I was taught differently. The police were not there to serve and protect you, they were a threat. There was also the shock of realizing our government was not there to protect people trying to exercise their right to vote.”
His decision to leave his comfortable middle class life to try and educate and register voters in a hostile environment ran true to his own belief of doing the right thing but ran afoul of his father’s bigotry. Raised in Cleveland Heights, Walker grew up in a conservative 1950s household that didn’t brook progressivism.
“Quite the reverse. My father was from Virginia. He graduated from Virginia Military Institute. He had all the worst of a Southern Presbyterian military education background. Deeply prejudiced. Made no bones about it. Hated everybody, Catholics especially. Very anti-Semitic. Later in life I’ve labeled him an equal opportunity bigot.
“My mother was from an old Philadelphia Quaker family. It was a mismatch, though they never divorced. She was very quiet. It was very much a ’50s marriage. You didn’t challenge the patriarch. I was the one in my family who did.”
Walker’s always indulged a natural curiosity, streak of rebelliousness and keen sense of social justice. Even as a boy he read a lot, asked questions and sought out what was on the other side of the fence.
As he likes to say, he not only delivered newspapers as a kid, “I read them.” Books, too.
“I was very knowledgeable about public affairs by high school, much more so than any of my friends. I could actually challenge my father at a dinner table discussion if he’d say something ridiculous. Well, he just couldn’t handle that, so we had conflict very much early on.”
He also went against his parents’ wishes by embracing rock and roll, whose name was coined by the legendary disc jockey, Alan Freed. The DJ first made a name for himself in Akron and then in Cleveland. In the late 1940s the owner of the Cleveland music store Record Rendezvous made Freed aware white kids were buying up records by black R&B artists. Walker became one of those kids himself as a result of Freed playing black records on the air and hosting concerts featuring these performers. Freed also appeared in several popular rock and roll movies and hosted his own national radio and television shows. His promotion contributed to rock’s explosion in the mainstream.
As soon as Walker got exposed to this cultural sea change, he was hooked.
“I’m very proud to have been there at the creation of rock and roll. My first album was Big Joe Turner on Atlantic Records. Of course, I just had to hear Little Richard. I loved it.”
Like all American cities, Cleveland was segregated when Walker came of age. In order to see the black music artists he lionized meant going to the other side of town.
“We were told by our parents you didn’t go down over the hill to 105th Street – the center of the black community – because it was dangerous. Well, we went anyway to hear Fats Domino at the 105th Street Theatre. We didn’t tell our parents.”
Then there was the 1958 Easter Sunday concert he caught featuring Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis headlining a Freed tour.
“My mother was horrified. I think my generation was the first for whom popular cultural idols – in music and baseball – were African- Americans.”
In addition to following black recording artists he cheered Cleveland Indians star outfielder Larry Doby (who broke the color barrier in the American League) and Cleveland Browns unning back Jim Brown.
More than anything, he was responding to a spirit of protest as black and white voices raised a clarion call for equal rights.
“Civil rights was in the air. It was what was happening certainly by 1960 when I went to college. The sit-ins and freedom rides. My big passion was for public interest. The institutionalized racism in the South struck us as being ludicrous. Now it involved a fair amount of conflict to go to Miss. in the summer of ’64 but what I learned early on at the most important point in my life is that you have to follow your instincts. If there is something you think is right or something you feel you should do and all sorts of people are telling you no then you have to do it.
“That has been very invaluable to me and I do not regret any of those choices. That’s what I learned and it guides me even today.”
Walker on far left of porch of a Freedom Summer headquarters shack in Gulfport, Miss.
He never planned being a Freedom Summer volunteer. He just happened to see an announcement in the student newspaper.
“It’s a fascinating story of how so much of our lives are matters of chance,” he says. “It was a Sunday evening and I didn’t want to study, I wanted to go to a movie. I was looking in the paper and there was no damn movie. Instead, I saw this notice that Bob Moses (Robert Parris Moses) was to speak on the Mississippi Summer Project. It sounded interesting. Moses was a legend in his own time. He really was the guiding spirit of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.”
Walker attended the March ’64 presentation and was spellbound by the charismatic and persuasive Moses, who also led the Council of Federated Organizations that organized the Freedom Summer effort.
“If you heard him speak for 10-15 minutes you were in, that was it, it was over. He was that eloquent. He was African-American, Northern, Harvard-educated, and he could speak in terms that white college students could relate to. It was just our language, our way of thinking.
So it was really just a matter of chance. If there had been a good movie that night my life would have been different.”
Walker applied to join the caravan of mostly white Northern college students enlisted to carry the torch of freedom in the South.
Applicants went to Oberlin (Ohio) College to be screened.
“They didn’t want any adventure seekers. We had to come up with $500 in reserve as bail money in case we got arrested. I had that, so I was accepted.”
He says his father “was absolutely furious” with his decision, adding, “We had fallen out the year before and so this was no surprise.” Meanwhile, he says his mother “was quietly supportive.”
Walker joined hundreds of other students for a one-week orientation at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio.
“The training was very intense.”
He learned about the very real risks involved. As Northerners intruding into a situation white Mississippians considered a sovereign state rights issue, the students were considered troublemakers, even enemies. Most whites there held deep resentment and contempt for outsiders attempting to interfere with their way of life and order of things.
“Intellectually we knew the danger, that was explained to us, and we had ample opportunity to bail out. There were some people who were accepted who apparently did not show up. I’m not sure I could have lived with myself if I chickened out.”
In June Walker and three others set out in a station wagon belonging to one of his Eastern compatriots.
“It had New York plates and of course that was a red flag we were outside agitators. We went down through Ala. and then crossed over…I have a vivid recollection of crossing the line into Miss. that morning on this clear soon-to-be hot June day. I was assigned to Gulf Port, next door to Biloxi. Gulf Port was the ‘safest’ area in the state. Not far from New Orleans. Tourism. There’s an U.S. Air force Base down there. So they were accustomed to having outsiders.”
Nothing Walker witnessed surprised him but seeing the strict segregation and incredible poverty first-hand did take him aback.
Volunteers stayed with host black families in humble shanties.
The men in the family he boarded with worked as longshoremen. There were separate white and black locals of the International Longshoremen’s Association and having a union voice gave the black workers some protections many other blacks lacked.
Walker variously went out alone or paired up with another volunteer.
“We would go up these unpaved roads to these shacks and try to convince people they should register to vote. Only 7 percent of potentially eligible African Americans were registered. I was going door to door talking to people and looking them in the eye and seeing the fear. They would say, ‘Yes sir, yes ma’am,’ and it was plenty evident they weren’t going to make any effort. They knew we could leave and they knew they were going to be there stuck with the consequences.
“It gave me a sense more than anything else of the human price of segregation and all the terror that supported it.”
While the stated objective was not achieved the initiative helped break some of the isolation blacks experienced in that totalitarian state.
“The goal was voter registration and we registered almost no one. It wasn’t until the Voter Rights Act a year later any progress was made. But we had to do it. The major accomplishment was we established our right to be there. It changed the political-legal climate of Mississippi.”
Temporary Freedom Schools were formed, convened in black churches, homes, even outdoors, as resources to teach literacy, basic math, black history and constitutional rights to youths and adults alike.
Walker personally witnessed no violence and never encountered any direct threat.
“I don’t remember being scared at any point.”
The one glint of intimidation came while going door to door when a white man in a pickup began cruising up and down the road. On another occasion, he says, “we did get some people to go down to the courthouse and march and some people were arrested.”
The danger was real though. Within days of his arrival three young civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner went missing. Goodman had been in one of Walker’s training sessions. The worst was feared and later confirmed: murder.
Walker says, “When we heard the news three people were missing it came as no surprise and we knew they were dead even though they didn’t find the bodies until 44 days later. We just knew.”
The terror campaign went far beyond The Mississippi Three to include beatings of residents and volunteers and the burnings of dozens of black homes, churches and businesses.
As disturbing as this was it didn’t give him any second thoughts.
“You couldn’t retreat in the face of death. They were not going to chase us out even at the cost of murder. We were there and we were going to stay and finish this.”
One of many public protests against NYPD’s stop and frisk policy
Walker was committed enough that he returned to Miss. early the next year and stayed through much of 1966. The experience was foundational to setting the course of his life’s work. “Absolutely, totally and completely. We began to see things through the prism of race.” It also made him aware of disparities in his own backyard. Even today, in the middle of a thriving Midwest economy, he says, “There are really two Omahas.” One of privilege and the other of poverty.
His activism resumed upon returning to Ann Arbor, where he participated in civil rights fundraisers and protests. He actively opposed the war in Vietnam. The military draft was in full swing to feed the war machine. He’d been classified 1-Y for medical reasons.
“On April 3, 1968 I turned in my draft card as part of a mass rally in Boston. Hundreds also did that day in Boston, and I think it was thousands across the country. The cards were all sent to the Justice Department. And that is how I acquired my FBI file.”
Like many activists, he accepts his FBI file as a badge of honor for fighting the good fight in the tumultuous ’60s.
By training he’s an expert in ethnic violence of the 19th century, and he thought he had an urban studies job lined up at UNO in the newly formed College of Public Affairs and Community Service only to discover the position disbanded. Then someone told him the university had received a big criminal justice grant. Walker talked with then criminal justice dean Vince Webb, who hired him.
“I got a job and the job became a career and I never looked back. Pure chance.”
Walker says his urban history expertise translated well to examining the urban racial violence of the 20th century.
“Once in policing my focus gravitated to police community relations.– this wasn’t too many years after the riots – and from there to citizen review of police and then to what I now define my field as – police accountability.
He says policing’s come a long way.
“The world of policing has changed. There’s been some genuine improvement. The composition of police forces is very different in terms of African-Americans, Latinos and women. Police thinking in the better departments is much more responsive to their local communities. The reform impulse has really come from the community, from the ground up, from people complaining about incidents, people lobbying city councils and mayors. Lawsuits, even if they don’t succeed, raise the issue and create a sense there’s a problem that needs correcting. At various points along the way the better police chiefs say, ‘Yeah, we have a problem here.'”
Walker says the control of deadly force is a good example.
“There were some police chiefs who said, ‘We can’t just send our people out there with guns and no instructions,’ which we used to do prior to ’72. They’d get hours and hours of training on how to clean the damn thing and no instructions on when you should shoot and when you should not shoot. It was, ‘Use good judgement.’ That was it. The fleeing felon rule was in effect, so if an officer saw someone he believed had committed a felony, a burglary let’s say, even though the person was unarmed, that officer could shoot to kill and could in fact kill that person within the law. There’s been a whole change there because of the community policing movement.”
In his work Walker says, “I’ve learned much more about how police departments work internally in terms of holding their officers accountable. That’s my expertise.”
In the case of the NYPD’s overly aggressive stop and frisk policy he says officers were required to have a reasonable suspicion someone had committed a crime or was about to. The overwhelming number of detentions were of people of color and Walker says “well over 80 percent of the time there was no arrest nor a ticket, so the officers guessed wrong. They had a heavy hand.” He says one of the main rationales officers put down in their reports was “high crime neighborhood,” which Walker found inexcusable. “A neighborhood is a place, not a behavior. It’s where you live, it’s not what you’re doing. They were making you a criminal suspect for living where you live.”
He says the most common reason given for stops was “furtive movement,” which he found far too ambiguous.
“It was a runaway profiling policy. This went on for 14 years and sparked several lawsuits. The police commissioner and the mayor did not listen to the complaints and protests. They dug their heels in and didn’t look at the evidence.”
He says his “fairly straight forward testimony” recommended a new policy on how to conduct stops. better training, a mid-management accountability system and a broader early intervention system with a computerized data base to track officer performance. He laid out remedies enacted in other police departments.
He believes the case could encourage legal challenges of profiling in other states but he cautions, “The difference is the NYPD turned it into a massive program, which is more easily challenged. In most departments, it is used, but not on a massive basis and a matter of official policy. This makes it far more difficult to challenge.”
(NOTE: Last fall a federal appeals court blocked the ruling that altered the NYPD astop and frisk policy and removed Judge Shira Scheindlin from the case.)
He says. “Theres a very real connection between Miss. in 1964 and being on the witness stand in New York in 2013 and race is the connection. It’s the lens through which I saw that and understood it.”
In this pervasive video and social media age police incidents are increasingly captured on camera and shared with the masses, as happened with some Omaha incidents. Walker says despite the prospect the whole world may be watching alleged police misconduct still occurs “because the habits are so deeply engrained that among some officers this is just second nature. Officers label someone a bad guy, so he’s not worthy of respect, and they do what they want.”
At its worst, he says, problematic attitudes and behaviors become systemic, accepted parts of police culture. The longer they go unchecked, without consequences, the more engrained they become.
“If it happens on the street, who’s to know,” he says. “Changing a large department after it has declined and certain habits have become engrained is a serious challenge. You need clear policies of all the critical incidents – deadly force, use of physical force, domestic violence, high speed pursuits. And then the training has to be very clear as to what those policies are. The supervision is really the critical thing. Everybody knows on the street supervision is where it’s at. A sergeant over 8 to 10 officers – that’s the heart and soul right there. When there’s some incident a sergeant has to say, ‘I don’t like the way you handled that, I don’t want to see it again.'”
He says no police department should feel itself immune from oversight.
“We know what the problems are, we know what to do. There are experts on particular subjects around the country and they can come in and help with things like use of force and domestic violence policies.”
He says police reform efforts should include public forums where all players can express their views. City governments, community groups and police departments can draw on best practices for policy guidance.
His work in words
The second edition of his book The New World of Police Accountability just came out in December. “I had to redo the whole thing, so much had changed in just a few years and my understanding of things had changed. It’s an exciting challenge to stay current.”
He says his his book The Police in America has been the best selling textbook on policing since it came in 1983. “I did a textbook on the police because there wasn’t a decent one.”
He did the book The Color of Justice with two colleagues. “It was really the first decent textbook on race, ethnicity and criminal justice. A lot of people wonder how is it there’s this huge racial disparity on who goes to prison. It’s a lot more complicated than people think. First, we’ve got some basic social inequalities. The short version of it is there’s a racial bias in policing. Then when you get to plea bargaining and sentencing and probation that’s accentuated a little further and so the end result is the accumulation of these incremental things .”
He says his book In Defense of American Civil Liberties is “probably the best thing I’ve done.” It took him five years. “I learned so much from it just about the history of this country. I knew some of the tent poles of major controversies – the Japanese American internment, the Pentagon Papers, Watergate – but it was a very rewarding experience and I still get inquiries from people based on it 24 years later.”
His new book Presidents and Civil Liberties reveals some surprises and contradictions in the records of Oval Officer holders.
With his national reputation Walker could have moved long ago to a bigger university but he says “being involved in the community is very much a part of my life and so that’s a reason for staying.” His involvement includes spending much of his free time seeing movies at the downtown art cinema Film Streams, where he annually curates a repertory series. Then there’s the extensive collection of vinyl records, album cover art, sheet music and political posters he’s accumulated. An exhibition of his jazz album covers by illustrator David Stone Martin showed at UNO, which also hosted a display of his political posters.
He’s a devoted fan of jazz, R&B and folk music Duke Ellington is a favorite. He and Mary Ann are also known to drop everything to go see Bruce Springsteen in concert.
Though the university and city he came to 40 years ago are “much transformed,” he’d like to its see leaders strive for higher standards.
As the events in Miss. 50 years ago are never far from his mind and inform so much of who he is and what he does, he’s proud to relive them. He attended a 30th anniversary of Freedom Summer in Jackson and a 40th anniversary of the orientation in Oxford, Ohio. In June he’ll return to Jackson for the 50th anniversary of when freedom rang.
I was honored to recently author two iBooks for the Omaha Public Schools‘ Making Invisible Histories Visible project. Both have to do with civil rights. One is on the Great Migration as seen through the eyes of some Omaha women who migrated here from the Deep South. The other is about discrimination as seen through the eyes of Omahans who integrated Peony Park. Omaha artists made wonderful illustrations for the books and OPS teachers devised curriculum around the books’ themes for use in classrooms.
You can download these and other iBooks as part of the project at-
You can link to a PDF of the Great Migration iBook at-
You can link to a PDF of the Peony Park iBook at-
- ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’ author Leo Adam Biga doing book events Nov. 19, Nov. 23, Nov. 26, Dec. 3 and Dec. 11 (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
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Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film
Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Crossing Bridges: A Priest's Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden," "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film" (a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker) "Open Wide" a biography of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, Leo Adam Biga's My Inside Stories at leoadambiga.com, is an online gallery of his work. The blog feeds into his Facebook page, My Inside Stories, as well as his Twitter, Google, LinkedIn, Tumblr, About.Me and other social media platform pages.
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