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RANDOM INSPIRATION

November 19, 2015 2 comments

 

RANDOM INSPIRATION
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:

 

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Two families suffer Omaha’s segregation and waken the conscience of a nation

November 9, 2015 3 comments

My newest cover story appears in the November 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com) and it explores dimensions of race in America through the prism of a 1970 book whose events and themes still have relevance and resonance with today. Lois Mark Stalvey’s book The Education of a WASP largely grew out of her experience learning the architecture and construction of racism from black friends in Omaha and Philadelphia whose lives were, by necessity, built around barriers constricting their lives. The inequality and discrimination blacks faced came as a revelation to the White Anglo Saxon Protestant Stalvey, whose education into social awareness and consciousness changed the arc of her life.  Two of her primary educators in Omaha were Ernie Chambers and the late Dr. Claude Organ. By the time the book came out Chambers had won election to the Nebraska Legislature and Organ enjoyed a noted career as a surgeon educator at Creighton University.  Along the way, Chambers played a prominent role in a famous race documentary shot in Omaha, A Time for Burning, and the Organs, whom Stalvey tried to get to integrate her neighborhood, built a new home in a neighborhood and parish that didn’t appreicate their presence.  They stayed anyway.

 

Two families suffer Omaha’s segregation and waken the conscience of a nation

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the November 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

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A WASP’s racial tightrope resulted in enduring book

©by Leo Adam Biga

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.

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

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.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Free Radical Ernie Chambers subject of new biography by author Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson

December 5, 2012 4 comments

 

Ernie Chambers.  His name variously polarizes, raises blood pressure, inspires, confounds, sparks discussion and debate, and generally elicits some kind of response .  If you’re a Nebraskan, past or present, than you not only know the name but the context for why the mere mention makes it virtually impossible to take a neutral stand about this vociferous, independent, lone wolf figure who is an open book in some ways and an enigma in other ways.  His name’s traveled widely outside Nebraska as well.  He first gained local and national noteriety back in the 1960s for his stirring presence in the documentary A Time for Burning.  He parlayed the stage that gave him and his grassroots work as activist, advocate, guardian, and spokesperson for Omaha’s African-American community to win election to the Nebraska Legislature.  He served as that body’s only black representative for 38 years, finally leaving office because of term limits, but he’s just returned to his old District 11 seat after defeating incumbant Brenda Council in the Nov. 6 general election.  When he was in office before he took many controversial and brave stands and he never, ever backed down from a fight, often employing his sharp wit and procedural mastery to humble opponents and win concessions.  He’s back alright, armed with much the same rhetoric he’s used since the  height of the black power and civil rights movements, which begs the question:  What does the 75-year-old social justice warhorse have to offer his district in an era when many of his constituents need more education, relevant job skills, living wage jobs, and transportation solutions and want economic development in North Omaha that includes them, not excludes them?  Is he in touch with younger generation and professional blacks who perhaps see things differently than he does and want specific, tangible progress now?  This story doesn’t address those things but a future story I write just might.  Instead, the following piece for an upcoming issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com) looks at a new political biography about Chambers by Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson, who offers some insights and opinions about the man she’s long admired.  The book is aptly titled, Free Radical: Ermest Chambers, Black Power and the Politics of Race.

Ernie Chambers, ©photo courtesy the Nebraska Legislature

 

Free Radical Ernie Chambers subject of new biography by author Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson 

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

It’s fitting a new book taking the measure of Nebraska politico legend Ernie Chambers is out just as this old social justice warhorse has proven he still owns the people’s will.

In the Nov. 6 general election the 75-year-old Chambers demonstrated the pull he still maintains by decisively beating incumbent Brenda Council to regain his old state legislative seat. Public disclosure of Council’s misuse of campaign funds to support a gambling addiction undoubtedly hurt her. But she would likely have found Chambers a formidable opponent anyway.

Amid the struggle for racial equality in the 1960s, Chambers emerged as a black activist straight out of central casting. The longtime state senator was everything the white establishment feared or loathed: a young, brash, angry black man with an imposing physique, a rare eloquence, a brilliant mind, a devoted following and a dogged commitment. His goatee and muscle shirt effectively said, Fuck off.

When he saw a wrong he felt needed remedy he would not give in or remain silent, even in the face of surveillance, threat and arrest.

The Omaha native was forged from centuries of oppression and the black nationalist militancy of his times yet remained fiercely independent. He paid allegiance only to his grassroots, working poor base in northeast Omaha, whose District 11 residents elected him to nine terms in office. He stayed real cutting hair and holding court at Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barbershop for many years. He was forced out of office in 2009 only because of term limits, a petition effort widely seen as targeting him specifically.

At a Nov. 3 Community Day rally in North Omaha Chambers said:

“I don’t come to these kind of gatherings regularly. It’s not easy for me, even though I enjoy being around my brothers and sisters. But I’m a solitary person. Basically, I am a loner, and experience has created that persona for me because I’m in situations where bad things can happen and if I’m relying on somebody else and they don’t come through – I know what I would do but I don’t know what somebody else would do. I can’t depend on anybody else.

“So if I see an issue that needs to be addressed it’s for me to address it. I don’t go to committees, I don’t go to organizations, I don’t ask anybody for anything, and it’s not that I’m ungrateful or unappreciative. I just have to survive and my survival depends ultimately on me. So that’s why I do what I do.”

Author Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson well captures his enigmatic essence in the main title of her political biography, Free Radical, as he’s been a singularly reactive yet stable force these many decades. The subtitle, Ernest Chambers, Black Power and the Politics of Race, refers to the context of his public service role.

Chambers was not the first black leader in Nebraska. Nor was he the first to hold public office. But he was the first to command wide respect and wield real power. During a 38-year run in the legislature that made him the longest-serving state senator in Unicameral history he mastered the art of statecraft. Trained as an attorney and possessing a facile mind even his critics admired, he adeptly manipulated legislative rules and procedures. Though he represented a small, poor constituency and uttered divisive rhetoric, fellow senators needed his support if they wanted their bills advanced. He couldn’t be ignored.

The arc of his political career is a major focus of Johnson, who at one point was in charge of his personal papers.

“She had access to information that other people didn’t have access to,” he says of his biographer.

Overall, he’s pleased with the final product and its depiction of his career.

“I don’t have any objection to what she did.”

In terms of fairly and accurately capturing his work as an elected official, he says it’s right on “as far as it went,” adding, “Many articles have been written that go into more depth on some things than Tekla wrote about in her book.” He says he understands “there are things someone will emphasize that I wouldn’t and there are things I would emphasize that they wouldn’t. But that’s the way it goes. No two people see a complex issue the same way. Even people called historians are really interpreters. They can’t write everything about everything, so they select what they think is important in order to convey the message they have in mind.”

He says he had little input into the manuscript.

“There may have been something when she got through that she sent and I dealt primarily with grammar and inconsequential things. I didn’t try to change the thrust of it or tell her what to write.”

Johnson confirms the same, saying she only sought his opinion on certain matters and even then they sometimes disagreed. In order to maintain her scholarly freedom she says she only began writing the book after she left his employ and then had little contact with him during the writing process.

In the end, he’s flattered his political life has been documented.

“I appreciate the fact that somebody thought enough of the work that I’ve done to compile material between two covers of a book and make that available to whomever may choose to read it.”

He says he’s doing interviews in support of the book “mainly because of Tekla, the amount of time and effort she put into the work, and I don’t want to say or do anything that would diminish in any respect what she has done or the value that I place on it.”

Perhaps the most telling vantage point of Chambers she gained came when she worked as his legislative aide.

“I actually got to see the day to day process,” she says of the experience.

 

bio_johnson_tekla.jpg

Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson

The book began as Johnson’s history thesis at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She served as a consultant to the Great Plains Black History Museum in Omaha and helped catalog its collection. Today, she’s an assistant professor of history at Salem College (N.C.). Her Texas Tech University Press published book is available wherever books are sold.

Johnson says when she hit upon the idea of making Chambers her thesis study a professor told her, “That’d be great, except he won’t let you. He won’t let anybody that close to him.” She found a way in, however. “I decided to go to his office. I didn’t actually ask him. I talked to his legislative aide, Cynthia Grandberry, and said, ‘Look, I want to write my dissertation on Sen. Chambers,’ and she said, ‘Sure, if you help me clean up the office.'”

This was 2001.

“He produced such enormous volumes of materials that despite an excellent filing system he literally had overrun the file cabinets many years before. I actually spent the first two years of the project processing his papers,” says Johnson.

The project was a labor of love about a figure she idolized as a girl.

“I grew up knowing about Sen. Chambers. I’m from North Omaha and he was always sort of somewhere there in the background. As a young woman I would occasionally see him speaking at an event, especially if there was something dire that had happened in the community.”

Immersing herself in his vast collection she says she acquired a new appreciation for his advocacy and for how her own coming-of-age intersected with his work.

“One of the things I first noticed in working on the collection is that almost a third, but a full fourth for sure, of his papers are about police violence and killings, police harassment, complaints from citizens in North Omaha. It took up a large section of one of the four rooms his papers are housed in. It was enormous.

“I also found I traced back to myself. I came across police incidents that happened when I was young that I remembered Sen. Chambers speaking out against. One of those was when I was 10 years old and living in Lincoln (Neb.). On our corner Sherdell Lewis was shot (and killed). We knew him. My sister and I were his papergirls. He was shot on his doorway by Lincoln police. Shortly after the shooting the black community came to my mother’s house because they needed a place nearby (to mourn and vent).”

Johnson says many questioned whether the shooting was justified.

“I had totally forgotten about that. There’s a picture in the book of Sen. Chambers leading a protest march along with the victim’s mother.”

Similarly, she says Chambers was a vocal critic of the shooting of Vivian Strong that sparked urban unrest in Omaha in 1969 and of other cases where excessive force was used.

She says any understanding of him must start with “the deep dedication of North Omahans to Sen. Chambers because even at his own expense he would not back down when he felt like the community was endangered or when he felt there was no respect for the lives and the civil rights and human rights of people in the community.” She says coming from a bi-racial home (her father’s African American and her mother’s Caucasian) she “sort of got to peek” at how blacks and whites viewed Chambers from different lenses. She also got to know how he understood that his rails against police brutality played differently to different audiences.

“He knew it was hard to believe for whites who lived in west Omaha or small towns. because those things were so far out of their experiences.”

She admires how he never let go of what he deemed important. His response to allegations of extreme police misconduct is illustrative, she says.

“In most cases when there was a police killing in the community he would request an investigation by the city. If that wasn’t done, if it was deemed a no-fault killing, if nobody were to be held accountable, then he went to other authorities. There are several (incidents) documented in the book where he filed for federal investigations into killings with the Department of Justice.”

She says one of his lasting achievements was sponsoring and winning passage of legislation requiring a grand jury be convened and an investigation be done anytime someone dies in police custody or in jail.

“I remember him having said, “We’re tired of our people being killed.’ So this is definitely an important part of the book to me. What he says happened in North Omaha I know it happened. It was real.”

Bad things continue happening. He grieves for the gun violence plaguing his community today, much of it black on black. In too many cases innocent folks are caught in the crossfire.

“I can’t tell you all what it does to me when I see something horrible happen to a young person, to anybody,  but the helpless ones, the trusting ones, the ones who are trying for something better from us…they need help and we’re not there to offer it,” he said at the Nov. 3 rally.

In a public setting like the Community Day rally, the preacher’s son comes out in Chambers. the presumed agnostic, whose elocution has the melodic flair of the late jazz musician-radio host-lecturer Preston Love Sr. He holds an audience through his impassioned delivery and sheer magnetic presence. He sprinkles in metaphors and allegories from the Bible. It’s in settings like these the affinity between Chambers and the people becomes clear.

“He’s really in step with them. While Sen. Chambers didn’t form a group or join a group his ongoing dialogue with the community is the reason he maintained their trust and respect and why he actually was a liberating figure,” Johnson says. “To do that he insisted on passage of legislation that legislators could get collect calls, so he was able to get calls from all of his constituency. He also kept his job at the barbershop for years, in the summers and on the weekend, so people would have a place to come and talk with him personally.”

 Ernie Chambers, Bill Youngdahl in A Time for Burning

Ernie cutting heads and broadening minds in A Time for Burnng

Chambers himself says that even when he lost his legislative seat he was still the person District 11 residents turned to for help, not black elected officials. That doesn’t surprise Johnson, who says he long ago earned people’s trust.

“He wasn’t the first person to take the role of leader in the community. Charlie Washington was a point person before him community members would go to.

But Sen. Chambers, because of his unusual ability intellectually, rhetorically, in terms of statecraft and the law and just his down to earth nature, earned an enormous following.”

Another of his greatest achievements, say Johnson and others, was getting district elections for the Omaha City Council, the Omaha School Board and the Douglas County Board of Commissioners. It’s resulted in many black elected officials for North Omaha. His open disdain for many of those representatives, whom he considers stooges for the white power structure, has distanced him from portions of the black elite class. Chambers being Chambers, he doesn’t much care.

“I think what has happened is they have been absorbed by the Democratic party and he chose to remain independent and I think that is probably the biggest divide,” says Johnson. “He was and is utterly completely free.”

Johnson believes he arrived at a point where he realized that as the lone black representative in the legislature representing a poor black constituency, the most he could do was to be their voice.

“All the legislators have to list their occupation and for a number of years he listed barber, but I think when he changed his written vocation to ‘Defender of the Downtrodden,’ it actually marked a change and a decision on his part that sort of is fatalistic. He decided that because of the politics and power lobbying that go on within the formal political parties and because of his own independence and insistence on speaking for the most disenfranchised, the poorest, and insisting government should haven in place support for their needs, he got to the point when he thought he would not be able to change the way that government in Neb. functions with respect to low income people.

“I think it was also the point when he was refused chairmanship again and again of the judiciary committee.”

In terms of legacy, she says, “he was at once respected but feared and unpopular among some of the senators. He would stop their bills if he didn’t get some of what he wanted and what he wanted was legislation or concessions that protected his people, that didn’t allow, for example, the Omaha Housing Authority to go into closed session and make decisions without public input. He did all kinds of things like that. He fought tooth and nail legislation to reduce allocations to people on aid to families with dependent children. He really fought those battles.”

“He’d get so frustrated, saying, ‘Y’all don’t know what it takes to make it on $320.’ Yes, it was rhetoric but it was heartfelt. He’s seen people struggling and he felt it was within the power of the state legislature to provide some relief. He felt at times they didn’t do it because of petty politics, because of western Neb. versus eastern Neb., because of racism, because of just indifference, and that made him angry.”

Ernie holding court at the barbershop today, ©danielj-v.tumblr.com

She says even though he often stood alone, he knew how to play politics.

“He never compromised his principles but he is a politician. He would come in on the weekends during the summer when session was out – this is what I gained from being able to actually observe – because he wanted to read up on all the other bills. He read up on what the interests of the other senators were. He knew their backgrounds, he knew everything about them. It’s not just the rules he employed, he played politics in terms of, ‘Look, if you want something from me, if you don’t want me to stop your bill or to filibuster, then you’re going to have to provide some concessions to things my constituents need.'”

Johnson says, “I don’t think he could have been more effective by doing it any other way. They dubbed him Dean of the Legislature because he was maximum effective for that base. I think the only way he could have been more effective is if those other senators had read as much about him and learned as much about the community he served and actually taken an interest, and I’m not saying a few didn’t, in how do we raise the standard for everybody in the state. If they had taken that position and cooperated with him more then he could have been more effective.”

Chambers operated much like his black peers in other states.

“African-American legislators across the country tended to be fairly effective just like Sen. Chambers in stopping legislation and not as effective at passing legislation. The ones who tend to be the most effective in working for the community tended to be on the out with the majority because they were battling all the time and they were always having to stand firm.”

Johnson wishes Chambers prepared the way for a successor.

“I do have a critique of him and it’s something I’ve openly talked to him about. He didn’t groom anybody (to replace him). It’s something I wish would have happened.”

As far as legacy, she feels his efforts in making Neb. the first state to pass any resolution for divestment of state funds from South Africa in protest of its apartheid practices “may be the thing he’s remembered for.”

Though serving 38 years in the legislature involved “self-sacrifice” on his part, she says it clearly hurt him when he could not run in 2008.

“I think he was not just disappointed because he had to leave for four years but the subtext for his career, besides trying to end police violence and confronting racism, was to gain political power for his constituency relative to other legislative districts in the state. His having to leave office made him feel that what he’d worked for had gone backwards because he felt the will of the people was being overridden by term limits. His constituency couldn’t elect him if they wanted to.”

She notes he ran unopposed several times and that he kept running because “I don’t think he saw anybody else as talented as he was who could really do the job as well as he did. That and the fact people let him know they wanted him to run again.” Now that he’s returning to the legislature she’s fascinated by how he and his new colleagues will work together.

“The body has changed because of term limits. The expertise that was there is no longer there. It hasn’t necessarily served Neb. well to have a constantly revolving, often times very young body at the helm. Who knows, maybe they’ll be more open to working with him. Maybe they’ll be less entrenched.”

An obvious advantage he’ll have, she says, is his vast experience.

Remarking on what people can expect from him, Chambers says, “For better or worse people have to see what it is that I am. They have to know what they’re getting if they come this way, and if they don’t like what it is I’m not the least offended. I probably wouldn’t like somebody like me. I would respect somebody like me. But likability is not an anything I cultivate because it doesn’t mean anything, it doesn’t achieve anything.”

He simply promises to be the same person he’s always been, which is to say someone “who never yields, never wavers, never accepts handouts from anybody, and whose only loyalty to a group is to this community.”

Academy Award-nominated documentary “A Time for Burning” captured church and community struggle with racism

December 15, 2010 3 comments

Cover of

Cover of A Time for Burning

Rarely has a film, fiction or nonfiction, captured a moment in time as tellingly as did A Time for Burning, the acclaimed 1967 documentary that exposed racism in Omaha, Neb. through the prism of a church and a community’s struggle with issues of integration at a juncture when the nation as a whole struggled with the race issue.  The film really is a microcosm for the attitudes that made racial dialogue such a painful experience then.  In truth, when it comes to race not as much has changed as we would like to think.  It is still America’s great open wound and it will likely remain so for the foreseeable future.  The following two articles appeared, as Part I and Part II, of a two-part series exploring the context for the film and the impact it had here and nationwide.  The stories appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) around the time of the film’s 40th anniversary.  If you’ve never seen the documentary, then by all means seek out a DVD copy or a screening.  It’s a powerful piece of work that will provoke much thought and discussion.  In fact, from the time the film was first released to this very day it is used by educators and activists and others as an authentic glimpse at what lies beneath the racial divide.

 

“A Time for Burning”

Part I

Academy Award-nominated documentary captured church and community struggle with racism

What Would Jesus Do Today?

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

On the eve of the 1968 Oscars, a nominee for best documentary feature, filmed in Omaha, foretold the violence that was ripping America apart. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination six days earlier in Memphis was the match that lit the fire. The riots that followed spread to more than 100 cities.

About once every generation a seminal film takes an unblinking look at race in America. Crash took the incendiary subject head-on in the 2000s. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing hit all the hot buttons in the 80s. Roots offered a hard history lesson in the 70s. A Time for Burning arguably made the most righteous contribution to the topic in the 60s.

The movie took a heavy toll locally, splitting Omaha’s largest and most established Lutheran congregation on the year of its 100th anniversary.

Produced at the height of the civil rights movement, Burning captures honest, in-the-moment exchanges about race. Shot here in 1965 and released in late ‘66, Burning’s candid, unadorned style was revolutionary then and remains cutting-edge today.

Turned down by the three major networks, it premiered on PBS to national acclaim. Burning earned an Oscar nomination and became a staple of school social studies curricula and workplace diversity programs. Selected for the National Film Registry in 2005 to be preserved by the Library of Congress, the picture may be viewed in a new DVD release.

Burning holds special significance for Omaha. The film that was a litmus test for racism then and is a prism for measuring progress today. Then the mood was rapidly turning acidic. The black frustration expressed in the film first erupted in violent protest mere months after production wrapped. The race riots of the late 60s tore apart the North Omaha community as the promise of a better future was dashed against new injustices piled on a century of oppression.

The film came at a crossroads moment in Omaha history. At a time when racism was on the table for discussion, the opportunity to address it was lost.

Burning follows self-described “liberal Lutheran” pastor Rev. Bill Youngdahl, on a quest for his all-white congregation at Augustana Lutheran Church to do some fellowship with black Christians living “less than three blocks away.” The son of a popular former Minnesota governor, Youngdahl had recently come from a Lutheran Church of America post in New York, where he led the national church body’s social justice ministry. He marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington, D.C. He traveled the country working for the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act.

All of which led director Bill Jersey and producer Bob Lee to seek him out when he came to minister in that most typical American city — Omaha.

His “inclusive ministry” posed problems from the start of his arrival at Augustana. Church elders earlier made it clear he should steer clear of the homes of black families when evangelizing in the neighborhood. “I said, ‘I can’t do that. I won’t do that.’” The film project brought everything to a head.

“After filming began, some people began to question what was being documented. ‘Why aren’t they filming the smorgasbord and the choir?’ So, that became an issue,” Youngdahl said. “I had to call those two (Jersey and Lee) back from New York to appear before the council. We talked several hours and finally affirmed going ahead with the film as Bill wanted to do it.”

Members of the church council try to get this brash upstart to tone down calls for diversity. Caught in the fray is member Ray Christensen, who goes from the timid ranks of “we’re moving too fast” to vocal advocate of outreach.

Militant sage Ernie Chambers, pre-state senator days, dissects it all. Chambers held court then in Dan Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barbershop, where he cut heads and blew minds with his razor sharp activist ideology. A famous scene finds Chambers lecturing Youngdahl, who’s come to the shop to float his idea for interracial fellowship. The pastor sweats as Chambers, wary of this do-gooder’s intentions, critically analyzes him and foretells his fate.

As the film plays out, the black Christians stand ready to break bread and talk straight with whites, most of whom repeat the mantra “the time is not right.” Youngdahl asks his bishop, “If not now, when?”

Cinema Verite

Unseen but felt throughout is the guiding hand of Jersey — one of America’ most noted and honored documentarians. His projects range from the Renaissance to the Jim Crow era to a recent film on propaganda in modern society. He applied cinema verite techniques with his hand-held camera and available lighting. The approach registers an intimate naturalism. Point-of-view narration and jump cuts heighten the conflict. He was assisted on the shoot by the late Barbara Connell, who also cut the film.

“Nobody in that film appears because a filmmaker dragged them in,” said Jersey. “Everyone appears because they were in some way directly involved with what was going on in that community. I feel that is, in fact, its strength — it’s a story of individuals who faced one another and confronted one another. No one was ever set up to expose their prejudice.”

Jersey admits he influenced situations to further the story, suggesting a couples exchange to Youngdahl, sensing it would stir up trouble.

The climax comes when Youngdahl proposes the exchange with ten volunteer couples from Augustana meeting with ten couples at nearby black churches Calvin Memorial Presbyterian Church and Hope Lutheran Church. The mere idea of meeting for fellowship in each others’ homes polarized the Augustana congregation. The adult visits never come off, but a youth exchange does, setting off a firestorm.

Former Calvin member Wilda Stephenson helped escort the youths to Augustana. The retired Omaha educator recalled “the people in the congregation became very upset that they were there and participating, especially in their communion service. That bothered me. I wouldn’t have gone if I had thought we weren’t going to be received well that Sunday.”

The visit followed a warmly received visit by white Augustana youths to Calvin.

“We were really glad to see that happen and welcomed them,” Stephenson said. “And that was the situation whenever any white people attended our church. We just always made them feel welcome. For our youths to have been treated otherwise, I was really shocked about that.”

The Calvin youths who went to Augustana that Sunday included Central High students Johnice (Pierce) Orduna and Francine Redick. Orduna said they were not made to feel “unwelcome” by anything overtly said or done. Such is the “insidious face of racism.” They only learned of the upset their visit caused when Jersey, who always stirred the pot, told them what his cameras and mikes caught. He gathered the students for an on-camera forum in which they pour out their disappointment.

“There was a fair amount of anger, certainly some frustration, but I would say outrage and real surprise that Christians we thought had similar ideas about humanity and how to live lives would behave that way,” Redick said. “The visit seemed like such a small thing. I mean, it’s not like we wanted to marry their children. It was people worshiping together. At one point in the film I utter something like, ‘How can people who profess to be Christians and Christian ministers respond in this way?’ Even today that seems outrageous to me.”

“I’m sure whatever Bill preached was not that radical,” then-Calvin pastor Rev. James Hargleroad said. “The whole gist of the film is how such a minor thing could lead to such a momentous result when racism is rampant in a community. The civil rights movement was well under way then, but it was a little late getting to Omaha.”

Burning documents the fallout, including rounds of frank discussion that expose people’s naked fears and prompt serious soul searching, as the divisive climate increasingly makes Youngdahl’s position untenable.

Commissioned by Lutheran Film Associates to show a positive portrayal of the church engaged in racial ministry, Jersey made a film tacitly critical of its efforts.

“It didn’t spark conflict, it sparked dialogue,” Jersey said. “We didn’t do a film about Omaha. We didn’t really even do a film about a church. We did a film about individuals in a church structure struggling with the issue of race in a way that I think represented how America was dealing with race at the time,” he said. “Not the crazies in the South who were using fire hoses and attack dogs. Not the urbanites who were frustrated for many other reasons and setting fires to the banks. But average people being who they are authentically.

What Would Jesus Do Today?

The figure who most poignantly grapples onscreen with his own views is Christensen. His crisis of conscience marks some of Burning’s most human moments. At one point, he said, he wanted to quit the project. Everything was topsy-turvy. The placid church that once comforted him had turned battleground. Jersey convinced him the film was too important for him to abandon it.

 

 

 

“This was scary. I wanted to bail out. I was unsure. We were all unprepared,” Christensen said.

“The church was a retreat where you go to recharge your batteries and sing beautiful hymns — it’s not where you go to be disturbed and bothered. And then Bill (Youngdahl) wakes you up. Waking up is bothersome.”

But Christensen stayed the course, one that got even rougher when he and his late wife June were ostracized by old friends in the church. A moving scene depicts the couple in a state of emotional exhaustion. A tearful June says, “I just can’t do it anymore.” She appears opposed to going forward. The unseen back story is that she was sick with cancer. The rebuffs she and Ray endured took a further toll.

Far from disagreeing, he said, “We were totally together. As a matter of fact, we had agreed that whatever Bill said, we’d support. That’s how unified we were. It’s too bad the film implies otherwise. When she says she’s tired, she’s tired of the radiation treatments, the phone calls, the cold shoulders, the loss of her friends. She’d founded the altar guild and the acolyte guild and now she’s on the outside.”

“She’s crying for the people of the church,” he says in the DVD.

As Jersey explains in the DVD, “There’s a universal important lesson in the film — that change is hard. That change can be costly, but that resistance to change is a killer. It makes even the simplest efforts impossible.”

Youngdahl said the film is an accurate snapshot of where America and the church were then with regard to race. “Our country had not advanced very far.” Churches included. At its core, Jersey said Burning examines the human tendency for one group to distrust “the other.” “It’s fear that immobilizes people,” he said.

All along Jersey meant to “find a situation where there’s a potential conflict” but never intended showing the church turning its back on racial accord.

“I offered Lutheran Church officials the option to cancel the project and to take the footage, but I wasn’t going to change a thing. And to their ever lasting credit, they said, ‘No, this is the story. It’s an honest film — keep making it.’”

Still, “this isn’t what the church wanted to say about itself,” he said.

In the end though, Bob Lee said, officials “felt it was more important to see the church wrestling with the problem than to have a pat solution…The consensus was the film was a good way to deal with this problem because it generated all kinds of discussion and still does. That’s one of the reasons it’s out in DVD. It talks about the issue and is relevant today.”

Reaction by local church officials was not as positive. Nebraska Lutheran leaders filed a protest with the national executive council, branding the film “a disgrace to the church.”

Soon after its original PBS airing, the film ignited national discourse in reviews and essays. Jersey, Lee, Youngdahl and Chambers were much quoted. The earnest pastor and militant barber even made a joint speaking appearance. Their association with the film made them public figures. But Youngdahl was too embroiled in healing the divided house of his church to care. In the end, he couldn’t square his beliefs with the rancor and resistance at Augustana.

For Johnice Orduna, Burning still has the power to illuminate racism. “The film is a gift in that it reminds us we’re not there yet. It’s not a short war. I’m not going to see it ended in my lifetime,” she said. Racism, she said, is “still there, just a little more hidden, a little better couched. But it’s still burning. We still need to put some heat under it.”

Orduna’s done mission development work for the Lutheran church to promote integration, including anti-racist training workshops. She said, “I find the movie itself is a wonderful microcosm of the time. Watching can be a real wonderful remembrance, but it’s also a real frustration. I’m still dealing with the same frustration of, Why don’t they get it?”

Some years ago she consulted Augustana on blended worship services and found resistance still alive. She said bruised feelings remain among old-liners.

“They’re angry over the film. They feel they got set up. That it showed them at their very worst,” she said. “But that would have been any (white) congregation in this city 40 years ago. The fact it was them is sad for them. I think at their core they’re good people.”

She said few Omaha churches are integrated today. New Life Presbyterian Church — a merger of Calvin and Fairview — is an exception. She said Burning reminds us how far we have to go. “I think it’s wonderful it’s still making people itch…because the things that make us uncomfortable force us to change.”

 

“A Time for Burning “

Part II

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Forty-two years have not cooled the incendiary 1966 documentary A Time for Burning. Its portrayal of a failed social experiment in interracial outreach at Omaha’s Augustana Lutheran Church, 3647 Lafayette Ave., still burns, still illuminates.

What members were led to believe was a paean to the all-white congregation’s attempts at fellowship with the surrounding African American community turned into a de facto critique.

As pastor William Youngdahl and others pushed “civil rights” at the church, things were stirred up at Augustana. When a group of black high school students worshiped there one Sunday in 1965 — returning a visit white youths made to Calvin Memorial Presbyterian Church — it caused a ripple. When white couples considered hosting black couples in their homes it made waves. Burning captured the wake. The fallout led to a rift within the church’s leadership that resulted in Youngdahl’s ouster. Hundreds of members eventually left.

Augustana faced its biggest crisis on the 100th anniversary of its founding.

The film, shot hand-held style, immediately became a sensation for the naked emotions and stark black-and-white imagery that framed the problem of racism against the backdrop of the church. The dark-suited, male-centric piece has a chic Mad Men look today that belies the angst of its real-life, as-it-happened drama.

Near the end of the film the late Reuben Swanson, the church’s former pastor, asks how people can be persuaded “to change their hearts? This is the burning question … ”

Augustana’s remaining members could have closed their hearts and minds to introspection, growth, renewal. Instead, they pursued the more difficult path of facing and overcoming their bias.

“It wasn’t all a political thing, it was a spiritual struggle for people, and a very deep one,” said Vic Schoonover, who helped heal and guide the church in Burning’s aftermath. “This was a struggle for one’s soul and what they really believed.”

Omaha and New York City

This Friday, Oct. 17, the UNL College of Journalism will screen Burning at 1 p.m. with a Q & A to follow with Director Bill Jersey. On Saturday, Oct. 18. Film Streams will again screen Burning, at 2 p.m., with a panel discussion to follow, moderated by current Augustana Pastor Susan Butler . Jersey will participate, along with two key figures in the film. Ray Christensen is the Augustana member who had a change of heart — moving from opponent to timid supporter, and then to outspoken witness for change. Johnice Orduna is one of the teenagers from Calvin Memorial Presbyterian, who speaks out strongly against the response her youth group’s visit evokes at Augustana. On Sunday, Augustana Lutheran will be hosting an interfaith service at 10:30 a.m.

Similar programs are happening the following Monday in New York, where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is sponsoring a screening of Burning and panel discussion. Longtime Nebraska state Sen. Ernie Chambers, who plays a prominent “role” in the film, is appearing with filmmaker Bill Jersey.

‘Stirred people to their bones’

Today, Augustana is a beacon for an inclusiveness, crossing racial/ethnic lines, to sexual preference/identity. Butler said that as the only Reconciling Church in Christ congregation in the Nebraska Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Augustana “is welcoming, affirming and supporting of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered believers.”

What transpired at Augustana wasn’t unprecedented. Ministers often get people’s backs up for taking unpopular stances. Tensions rise, disputes erupt. Members of First United Methodist Church in Omaha have endured their own schism, only over same sex marriage, not race.

What set Augustana apart is that its wrestling with controversy and discord was caught on film and aired nationwide. One could argue the parish might never have come to brand itself “a progressive, thinking, Christian church,” as it does today, without Burning as a backdrop for discussion, examination, inspiration and transformation. Longtime member Janice Stiles said the film initially “created a lot of hard feelings” within the church.

“I felt and most of the people felt they only picked out the bad parts,” she said.

Her perspective changed because, wherever she traveled, she met people familiar with the film, and they wanted to discuss it.

“I was really astounded. It gave me another outlook you might say; that maybe it did something good. Much more than we thought. It really was a blessing that we did that,” she said. “It really brought up the feelings and the discussion out into the open, and it needed to be done very much.”

Since the film’s release, the parish has fielded inquiries from around the world.  People ask:

“How’s Augustana doing?” It still sparks discussion wherever it’s played. That is what Lutheran Film Associates intended when Burning was commissioned.

“Some of these memories are going to be brought back up again, for better or worse,” Augustana member Mark Hoeger told a recent gathering of church members who watched the film as part of adult forums he led there. The forums were meant to generate discussion and they succeeded, Hoeger said. He also screened a 1967 CBS special on the impact of Burning.

Butler views the programs at Augustana and at Film Streams as educational opportunities.

“My intention is to use this reunion weekend as a time to revisit a particular part of Augustana’s history,” she said. “I think it is always productive to review one’s story from time to time in order to see where we have come from, where we are now and where we are going.”

Butler said reviewing church history can only be healthy.

“I don’t think there is any healing that needs to be done at Augustana. I think we have moved on quite healthily,” she said.

The CBS News special about the aftermath of Burning was entitled A Time for Building.

Moderator Charles Kuralt, Burning co-director Bill Jersey, executive producer Bob Lee and Lutheran pastor Philip A. Johnson discussed reaction to the film.

For the special, Jersey had traveled nationwide and captured audience reactions, including church congregations.

The program ended with members of all-white Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Seaford, N.Y. deciding to proceed with an interracial exchange. Pastor Bob Benke’s benediction offered thanks “for the willingness of the Augustana congregation to let themselves be seen; for we are well aware of the fact that we have problems here, too.”

Forty years later, Benke is in Portland, Ore., a town Youngdahl also calls home, though the two have not met. Our Redeemer did follow through with interracial youth fellowship, but Benke confirmed the attempt was not well received within his church.

Willing or not, Augustana members found their weaknesses laid bare on screen. for all to see, becoming a mirror for others to do their own inventories and ministries. Introducing the program, Kuralt described the buzz Burning had generated: “It is a film that has stirred people to their bones … “

 

 

 

 

‘A social tide’

The Hoeger-led forums at Augustana were attended by dozens of parishioners. Most had seen Burning. Few had seen Building. There were lots of questions. For newer members, the most obvious was “What happened next?” The answer is best informed by the context of the film’s troublesome times. The mid-’60s marked the height of the civil rights movement. A great social tide was moving forward and an old-line, inner-city Swedish-American congregation in the Midwest like Augustana felt threatened by change that might disrupt its homogeneous traditions.

More blacks were moving into the area. Cries for black power, equal rights and change by any means necessary (as the late Malcolm X famously put it) disturbed many. Black discontent is well expressed in the film by a young Ernie Chambers as well as Earl Person, Rev. R.F. Jenkins and students from Central High/Calvin Memorial Presbyterian Church.

The exclusion blacks felt was tangible. Omaha’s pronounced geographic and social segregation meant whites and blacks lived parallel lives, separate and unequal. The era of white flight saw scores of Augustana members move to The ‘Burbs, a pattern that played out in inner cities across America. The tinderbox of racial tension exploded in riots here and elsewhere during the late ’60s.

Schoonover said those who left Augustana in the decade following the film did so for many reasons, “but the rapidity and the intensity of it I directly attribute to A Time for Burning.” Now a retired minister, he’s an active member of Augustana.

White-black interaction was so thoroughly circumscribed that the mere suggestion of interracial exchange concerned enough Augustana members that the proposal was defeated and Youngdahl forced to resign.

Heated discussions ensued, prejudices surfaced, conflict escalated and resistance held fast. Filmmakers Jersey and Barbara Connell captured fears and doubts that usually remain hidden or silent. The film is a prism for viewing all people’s struggles with race.

Burning uncovered racism among otherwise decent, churchgoers. Unfortunately, Augustana took the fall for the bigotry, cowardice and hypocrisy of the larger white Christian church and society. Its members scarred with the celluloid scarlet letter, when virtually any white congregation would have looked that way under the same scrutiny.

“I think A Time for Burning was a slice of the American church wherever you would have cut it in those days,” Schoonover said. “There was racial tension all over the city and the country. White congregations were not really ready to face the whole racism issue. They wanted it to go away.”

He said the film resonated with audiences everywhere.

“If people across the country hadn’t identified with that on a personal level as well as a just oh-my-gosh level, it would never had had the popularity that it did. It hit chords in people,” Schoonover said.

Hoeger agreed, saying “ … this was not the story of a single congregation, it was the story of our society, our community in general. People could see in this bunch of white Lutherans themselves.”

But for Augustana members, a stigma was attached to their church that made it/them a symbol or scapegoat for prejudice.

“To a certain extent the congregation was sacrificed for a greater good and in that sense probably deserves some credit,” Hoeger said. “The pain and suffering they went through as an institution led to a larger, better good. And frankly, we think, it’s a better congregation than if it had not gone through that experience.”

Indeed, as Building brought out, people admired Augustana for initiating steps to deal with race. Hoeger and Schoonover said they elected to worship there because of the church’s role in the film, not in spite of it.

Hoeger first saw Burning in grad school, where it was held up as the pinnacle of American cinema verite. He recalls being struck this searing drama set in his native Nebraska. When he and his wife moved to Omaha in 1980 their “church shopping” brought them to Augustana without realizing its connection to the film. The day they went there, Schoonover led the congregation in confessing their sexism, typical of the radical liberal sermons he delivered.

It was only then, Hoeger said, “it clicked in my head this was THAT church” from the film.

He was hooked. He was also intrigued by how Augustana had so drastically changed in 15 years. Hoeger discovered it had been a process led by Schoonover, fellow pastors and a lay leadership willing to “embrace change.” The groundwork for that change can be traced to Burning.

In 1969 Schoonover accepted a call to lead Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries in his hometown of Omaha. His social justice mission tasked him with confronting racism in the Lutheran Church and wider community. Following Youngdahl’s exodus Augustana had a “quiet-things-down, not-rock-the-boat” pastor in Merton Lundquist who, to his and his lay leadership’s credit, began doing more minority outreach, Stiles said.

Schoonover joined Augustana and within a decade was asked to pastor there. He shepherded to completion a year-long self-study begun by Lundquist at the church on its future. Ironically, the church that drove off Youngdahl got a bigger troublemaker in Schoonover.

 

 

Vic Schoonover today

 

 

‘Hit square in the jaw’

When Schoonover began preaching he sounded-off on integration, police-community relations, poverty, prejudice — both from the pulpit and in his work with the activist group COUP — Concerned Organized for Urban Progress. He quoted Stokeley Carmichael. He once called America “a structured racist prison.”

COUP’s overtures to and advocacy for the black community made Schoonover a target. “I had to move my family into a motel because we had anonymous threats of doing harm to us and to our property,” he said.

His less militant stands led him to co-found a handful of social service programs still active today, including the Omaha Food Bank, Together Inc. and One World Health.

Schoonover was attracted by what he found at Augustana. “I thought, here was a congregation that at the very least was forced to begin to look at the issues and maybe had made some progress,” he said.

The people were, he said, “in any other circumstance some of the most generous people I’ve ever known.”

“They would do anything for you. Really good-hearted. But on that issue (race) it was a blind spot,” Schoonover said. “It’s a dichotomy. But that’s what they were taught. Because I don’t think it’s possible for any white person to be raised in our country without being raised a racist and a sexist. I just think it’s in the air you breathe and in the systems you get socialized in.

That’s the milieu in which you live and — that’s what you absorb.”

Janice Stiles acknowledged the blind spot she had in those days. She recalled her feelings when blacks moved in.

“All I could think of was the price of my house going down,” she said.

She recalls when her son Mark became friends with a black schoolmate. At first, she was bothered by it. She gradually changed.

“I started looking at people and seeing what’s on the inside instead of the outside. I’m glad I got to know black people as people.”

Schoonover was also the product of a myopic vision. He grew up on Omaha’s north side, where his family kept moving, in white flight mode, as neighborhoods were integrated. His own “baptism” or “awakening” came as a young minister in Kansas City, where he “took a class taught by black clergy called Black Power for White Churchmen,” he said. “It cleared my eyes open to some of the problems.”

After interacting with Augustana members, he said, he “really became aware of their anguish” over the film and how it held them back.

Some felt it unfairly made them an example. Some accused the filmmakers of betraying their trust. Others believed the film presented a gross distortion of them and their church. After all, much of the conflict in the film went on behind the scenes, in private, in the inner circle of the church council. That’s why most members who went to the Omaha premiere were shocked by the friction Burning depicted.

“They all traipsed to the world premiere at the Joslyn in their best bib-and-tucker and got hit square in the jaw,” Schoonover said.

 

 

 

As if being exposed in that way were not enough, the film became a phenomenon — the subject of untold screenings, reviews, essays, articles, public programs, debates.

Burning aired coast to coast, prompting the CBS special. The film earned an Oscar nomination. It’s been used in film/social studies programs and diversity training. In 2005 it was selected for the National Film Registry.

Thirty-odd years ago the wounds were still fresh enough that Schoonover discovered members didn’t want to relive the film. Understandably, they didn’t appreciate being a whipping post, as they saw it, for a national dialogue on race. When he became co-pastor there in 1976, he decided to bring it out of the closet.

“It wasn’t mentioned, it wasn’t something talked about, it was something avoided in the congregation,” he said. “They were traumatized. They felt totally betrayed, misled. I knew we could never get healthy without confronting it, so we bought a copy of the film and began showing it. The young people were especially interested.”

Thus, Burning became a conscience or barometer for the parish to measure itself. Older members may not have realized it, but outside its walls Burning wasn’t viewed as an indictment or condemnation of Augustana, but as a challenge for America to confront the nation’s racial divide. That’s why the film endures beyond being a mere artifact of ’60s racial tension. Instead, this document of a congregation struggling with its worse nature was the impetus for that same congregation, and presumably others, to realize their better angels.

‘You’re already dead’

At the end of Augustana’s year-long self-study, the congregation was faced with several options. Stay and expand the ministry, merge/relocate, close or continue as is. The parish council recommended remaining and expanding its inner-city ministry. Put to a vote of the general membership, a majority opted for the council’s recommendation.

“It was a test for the parish and to their credit they said, yes, and we did,” Schoonover said.

His sermons helped sway the congregation to stay its new course. He cautioned against being mired in old ways, old attitudes.

“The past cannot be brought back,” he told them, “and the way things were is irretrievable.”

Janice Stiles said his preaching exerted much influence.

“Oh, yes, he opened our eyes to so many things,” she said. Rather than criticism she said “it was more like a challenge.”

Despite empathy for his flock’s distress, Schoonover didn’t let them off the hook or allow them to rationalize or minimize their reluctance to accept diversity.

“I told them, ‘Look, I understand your pain, but what the black people have felt far surpasses any pain you have felt.’ I was extremely blunt about what they faced and what it meant and what it would require of them. I said, ‘If you don’t do this, you’re already dead. You’ve got to change. You don’t have any choice.’”

One of his sermons put it this way: “ … There is no place you and I can go to hide from change. We might wish things would leave us alone but this will not be … Organized religion has often been in the conservative role of resisting change. This has often been at the cost of truth and integrity. A congregation can lose touch if it is static and immovable. It’ll become irrelevant … ”

From that crucible, Augustana evolved into the progressive place it is today. The rupture that divided the church allowed Augustana to reinvent itself.

“By splitting the church and creating this schism,” Hoeger said, “those who were left were the core of folks who were more socially aware, concerned, interested in embracing change then the folks that were upset … There are still some people here who I would consider very conservative, but what differentiates them is they were willing to stick with it.”

The film that created this house divided also helped repair the breach.

“In the end run I think whether they realize it or not the film was worth it … It certainly changed the direction of that congregation, that’s for sure,” said Schoonover.

It’s meant Augustana engaging in urban, interfaith service-mission ministries.

For example, the church is active in the ecumenical social action group Omaha Together One Community, OTOC offices there. Augustana’s Cornerstone Foundation addresses the inner city’s shortage of affordable-livable housing by buying-fixing up homes for low-price resale, or refurbishing residences that owners don’t have the means to renovate.

In the late ’60s Augustana and nearby Lowe Avenue Presbyterian Church launched Project Embrace, a summer youth enrichment program for minority kids. At one time, Embrace included an after-school tutoring program serving thousands of kids at six churches. It has dwindled to a summer-only program at Augustana and two other churches. The integrated Danner day care operated for years at Augustana.

Schoonover carried those relationships over to the larger black community through Augustana, where he performed weddings, funerals and confirmations for blacks. Some blacks began attending the church. A few became members. As did Hispanics. Several Laotians, whose immigration the church sponsored, joined Augustana. He said those experiences “helped win the congregation over.” Stiles was among them.

“It was our occasion of getting to know a different race,” she said.

Even as barriers at Augustana have vanished, blacks still comprise only a small fraction of the parish rolls.

Vic Schoonover would say Janice Stiles is representative of the changed hearts that can move institutions forward. He acknowledged much work remains to be done.

“I go from hope to despair on the whole racial issue,” he said. “From thinking, ‘Yeah, we have made some progress, to thinking, Geez, we’re not any further along. We’ve just become more subtle, more guarded about it. Not much has changed.’”

As Bill Jersey said in Building: “Until the individual is willing to say what I can do, we’re going to continue with all this pious dialogue and get nowhere.”

The tragedy in that, everybody agrees, is that as the beat goes on, the flames still burn. Who will put out the fire? And what will heaven say if we had the chance but didn’t act?

 

Man on fire: Activist Ben Gray’s flame burns bright

September 2, 2010 2 comments

A flame from a burning candle

Image via Wikipedia

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.

Coloring History: A long, hard road for UNO Black Studies

August 25, 2010 6 comments

Campus Unrest

Image by jen-the-librarian via Flickr

If you’re surprised that Omaha, Neb. boasts a sizable African-American community with a rich legacy of achievement, then you will no doubt be surprised to learn the University of Nebraska at Omaha formed one of the nation’s first Black Studies departments.  The UNO Department of Black Studies has operated continuously for more than 40 years. The following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) charts the long, hard path that led to the department‘s founding and that’s provided many twists and turns on the road to institutional acceptance and stability.  At the time I wrote this piece and that it appeared in print, the UNO Department of Black Studies was in an uneasy transition period. Since then, things have stabilized under new leadership at the university and within the department.

 

Coloring History: A long, hard road for UNO Black Studies

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

When 54 black students staged a sit-in on Monday, Nov. 10, 1969 at the office of University of Nebraska at Omaha’s then-president Kirk Naylor, they meant their actions to spur change at a school where blacks had little voice. Change came with the start of the UNO department of black studies in 1971-72. A 35th anniversary celebration in April 2007 featured a dramatic re-enactment of the ’69 events that set the eventual development of UNO’s black studies department in motion.

Led by Black Liberators for Action on Campus (BLAC), the protesters occupied Naylor’s administration building suite when he refused to act on their demands. The group focused on black identity, pride and awareness. When they were escorted out by police, the demonstrators showed their defiant solidarity by raising their fists overhead and singing “We Shall Overcome,” which was then echoed by white and black student sympathizers alike.

The group’s demands included a black studies program. UNO, like many universities at the time, offered only one black history course. Amid the free speech and antiwar protests on campuses were calls for equal rights and inclusion for blacks.

 

 

Ron Estes, who was one of the sit-in participants in 1969, said, “We knew of the marches and sit-ins where people stood up for their rights, and we decided to make the same stand.” Joining Estes on that Monday almost 40 years ago was Michael Maroney who agreed, “We finally woke up and realized there was something wrong with this university and if we didn’t take action it wasn’t going to change.”

Well-known Omaha photojournalist Rudy Smith, who was then a student senator said, “We approached it from different perspectives, but the black students at the time were unified on a goal. We knew what the struggle was like, and we were prepared to struggle.”

The same unrest that was disrupting schools on the coasts, including clashes between students and authorities, never turned violent at UNO. The sit-in, and a march three days earlier, unfolded peacefully. Even the arrests went smoothly. Also proceeding without incident was a 1967 “teach-in”; Ernie Chambers, who was not yet a state senator but who was becoming a prominent leader in the community, and a group of students demonstrated by trying to teach the importance of black history to the administration, specifically the head of the history department.

The sit-in’s apparent failure turned victory when the jailed students were dubbed “the Omaha 54” and the community rallied to their cause. Media coverage put the issues addressed by their demands in the news. Black community leaders like Chambers, Charles Washington, Rodney Wead and Bertha Calloway continued to put pressure on the administration to act. Officials at the school, which had recently joined the University of Nebraska system, felt compelled to consider adding a formal black studies component. From UNO’s point-of-view, a black studies program only made sense in an urban community with tens of thousands African-Americans.

 

photo

Rudy Smith

 

 

Within weeks of the sit-in and throughout the next couple of years, student-faculty committees were convened, studies were conducted, and proposals and resolutions were advanced. Despite resistance from entrenched old white quarters, support was widespread on campus in 1969-70. Once a consensus was reached, discussion centered on whether to form a program or a department.

The student-faculty senates came out in favor of it, as did the College of Arts and Sciences Dean Vic Blackwell, a key sympathizer. Even Naylor; he actually initiated the Black Studies Action Committee chaired by political science professor Orville Menard that approved creating the department. Much community input went into the deliberations. The University of Nebraska board of regents sealed the deal.

No one is sure of the impact that the Omaha 54 made, but they did spur change. UNO soon got new leadership at the top, a black studies department and more minority faculty. Its athletic teams dropped the “Indians” mascot/name. A women’s studies program, multicultural office and strategic diversity mission also came to pass.

“I think we helped the university change,” Maroney said. “I think we gave it that impetus to move this agenda forward.”

Before 1971, federally funded schools were not requireed to report ethnicity enrollment numbers. In 1972, 595 students, or about 4.7 percent of UNO’s 12,762 total students, were black. In 2006, 758, or about 5.2 percent of the school’s 14,693 total students were black.

Omaha 54 member and current UNO associate professor in the Department of Educational Administration and Supervision Karen Hayes said, “We were the pebble that went in the pond, and the ripples continued through the years for hopefully positive growth.”

During that formative process, the husband-wife team of Melvin and Margaret Wade were recruited to UNO in 1970 from the University of California at Santa Barbara’s black studies department. Wade came as acting director of what was still only an “on-paper black studies program.” His role was to help UNO gauge where interest and support lay and formulate a plan for what a department should look like. He said he and Margaret, now his ex-wife, did some 200 interviews with faculty, staff and students.

Speaking by phone from Rhode Island, Wade said the administration favored a program over a department, but advocacy fact-finding efforts turned the tide. That debate resurfaced in the 1980s in the wake of proposed budget cuts targeting black studies. In en era of tightened higher education budgets, according to then-department chair Julien Lafontant and retiring department associate professor Daniel Boamah-Wiafe, black studies seemed always singled out for cutbacks.

“Every year, the same problem,” Lafontant said. That’s when Lafontant did the unthinkable — he proposed his own department be downgraded to a program . Called a Judas and worse, he defended his position, saying a program would be insulated from future cuts whereas a department would remain exposed and, thus, vulnerable. A native of Haiti, Lafontant found himself in a losing battle with the politics of ethnicity that dictate “a black foreigner” cannot have the same appreciation of the black experience here as an African-American who is born in the United States.

Turmoil was not new to the department. Its first two leaders, Melvin Wade and Milton White, had brief tenures ending in disputes with administrators.

In times of crisis, the black community’s had the department’s back. Ex-Omahan A. B. “Buddy” Hogan, who rallied grassroots support in the ’80s, said from his home in California that rescues would be unnecessary if UNO had more than “paternalistic tolerance” of black studies.

“I don’t think the university ever really embraced the black studies department as a viable part,” Maroney said. “It was more a nuisance to them. But when they tried to get rid of it, the black community rose up and so it was just easier to keep it. I don’t think it’s ever had the kind of funding it really needs to be all it could be.”

UNO black studies Interim Chair Richard Breaux said given the historically tenuous hold of the department, perhaps it’s time to consider a School of Ethnic Studies at the university that includes black studies, Latino studies, etc.

Still Fighting

In recent interviews with persons close to the department, past and present, The Reader found: general distrust of the university’s commitment to black studies, despite administration proclamations that the school is fully invested in it; the perception that black studies is no more secure now than at its start; and the belief that its growth is hampered by being in a constant mode of survival.

After 35 years, the department should be, in the words of Boamah-Wiafe, “much stronger, much more consolidated than it is now.”

Years of constant struggle is debilitating. Lafontant, who still teaches a black studies course, said, “Being in a constant struggle to survive can eliminate so many things. You don’t have time to sit down and see what you need to do. Even now it’s the same thing. It’s still fighting. They have to put a stop to that and find a way to help the black studies department to not be so on guard all the time.”

Is there cause to celebrate a department that’s survived more than thrived?

“I think the fact it has endured for 35 years is itself a triumph of the teachers, the students, certainly the black community and to a certain extent elements of the university,” former UNO black studies Chair Robert Chrisman said by phone from Oakland, Calif. However he questions UNO’s commitment to black studies in an era when the school’s historic urban mission seems more suburban-focused, looking to populations and communities west of Omaha, and less focused on the urban community and its needs closer to home. It wasn’t until 1990 that UNO made black studies a core education requirement. College of Arts and Sciences Dean Shelton Hendricks has reiterated UNO’s commitment to black studies, but to critics it sounds like lip service.

Chrisman’s call for black studies in his prestigious Black Scholar journal in the late ’60s inspired UNO student activists, such as Rudy Smith, to mobilize for it. Smith said the department’s mere presence is “a living symbol of progress and hope.”

For Chrisman the endurance of black studies is tempered by “the fact the United States is governed by two major ideological forces. One is corporate capitalism and the other is racism, and that’s run through all of the nation’s institutions … . Now we tend to think colleges and universities are somehow exempt from these two forces, but they’re not … Colleges and universities are a manifestation of racism and corporatism and in some cases they’re training grounds for it.”

 

 

Robert Chrisman

 

 

He said the uncomfortable truth is that the “primary mission of black studies is to rectify the dominant corporate and racist values of the society in the university itself. You see a contradiction don’t you? And I think that’s one of the reasons why the resistance is so reflexive and so deeply ingrained.”

Smith said the movement for the discipline played out during “a time frame when if blacks were going to achieve anything they had to take the initiative and force the issue. Black studies is an outgrowth of the civil rights movement.”

Along these lines, Chrisman said, small college departments centered around western European thought, such as the classics, “are protected and maintained” in contrast with black studies. He said one must never forget black studies programs/departments arose out of agitation. “Almost all of them were instituted by one form of coercion or another. There was the strike at San Francisco State, the UNO demonstration, the siege at Cornell University, on and on. In the first four years of the black studies movement, something like 200 student strikes or incidents occurred on campuses, so the black studies movement was not welcomed with open arms … . It came in, in most instances, against resistance.”

In this light, Hogan said, “there’s a natural human tendency to oppose things imposed upon you. It’s understandable there’s been this opposition, but at some point you would have thought there would have been enough intellectual enlightenment for the administration to figure out this is a positive resource for this university, for this community and it should be supported.”

Organizing Studies

The program versus department argument is important given the racial-social-political dynamic from which black studies sprang. Boamah-Wiafe said opponents look upon the discipline “as something that doesn’t belong to academia.” Thus any attempt to restrict or reduce black studies is an ugly reminder of the onerous second-class status blacks have historically endured in America.

As Wade explained, “A program really means you have a kind of second-class status, and a department means you have the prerogative to propose the hire of faculty who are experts in black studies. In a department, theoretically, you have the power to award tenure. With a program, you generally have to have faculty housed in other departments, so faculty’s principal allegiances would be to those departments. So if you have a program, you are in many respects a step-child — always in subservience to those departments … ”

Then there’s the prestige that attends a department. That’s why any hint of messing with the department, whose 2006/2007 budget totaled $389,730, smacks some as racism and draws the ire of community watchdogs. When in 1984 Lafontant and then-UNO Chancellor Del Weber pushed the program option, Breaux said, “There was tremendous outcry from people like Charlie Washington [the late Omaha activist] and Buddy Hogan [who headed the local NAACP chapter]. They really came to bat for the department of black studies. A lot of people, like Michael Maroney — who were part of that Omaha 54 group that got arrested — said, ‘Now wait a minute, we didn’t do this for nothing.’” The issue went all the way to the board of regents, who by one vote preserved the department.

As recently as 2002, then-NAACP local chapter president Rev. Everett Reynolds sensed the university was retreating from its stated commitment to black studies. He took his concerns to then-chancellor Nancy Belck. In a joint press conference, she proclaimed UNO’s support for the department and he expressed satisfaction with her guarantees to keep it on solid footing. She promised UNO would maintain five full-time faculty members in black studies. Breaux said only three of those lines are filled. A fourth is filled by a special faculty development person. Breaux said black studies has fewer full-time faculty today than 30 years ago.

“So you ask me about progress and my answer is … not much. We’re talking 30 years, and there’s not really been an increase in faculty or faculty lines,” Breaux said.

Hendricks said he’s working on filling all five full-time faculty lines.

Sources say the department’s chronically small enrollment and few majors contribute to difficulty hiring/retaining faculty in a highly competitive marketplace and to the close scrutiny the department receives whenever talk of cutting funds surfaces.

Wade said black studies at UNO is hardly alone in its plight. He said the move to reduce the status of black studies on other campuses has led to cuts. “It has happened in enough cases to be noted,” Wade said. “I was affiliated with the black studies program at Vassar College, and that’s one whose status has been diminished over the years … . In other words, the struggle for black studies is being waged as we speak. It’s still not on the secure foundations it should be in the United States.”

Some observers say black studies must navigate a corporate-modeled university culture predisposed to oppose it. “That means at every level there’s always bargaining, conniving, chiseling, pressuring to get your goals. Every year the money is deposited in a pot to colleges, and it’s at the dean’s discretion … where and how the money’s distributed,” Chrisman said. Robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul machinations are endemic to academia, and critics will tell you black studies is on the short end of funding shell games that take from it to give to other units.

Chrisman feels an over-reliance on part-time, adjunct faculty impedes developing “a core to your department.” At UNO he questions why the College of Arts and Sciences has not devoted resources to secure more full-time faculty as a way to solidify and advance the program. It’s this kind of ad hoc approach that makes him feel “the administration really doesn’t quite respect the black experience totally.” He said it strikes him as a type of “getting-it-as-cheap-as-possible” shortcut. Hendricks said he believes the ratio of part-time to full-time faculty in the department is comparable to that in other departments in UNO’s College of Arts and Sciences. He also said part-time, adjunct faculty drawn from the community help fulfill the strong black studies mission to be anchored there.

Breaux’s successor as Interim UNO black studies chair, Peggy Jones, is a tenured track associate professor. Her specialty is not black studies but fine arts.

Boamah-Wiafe feels with the departures of Breaux and himself the department “will be the weakest, in terms of faculty” it has been in his 30 years there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Struggle Continues

Critics say UNO’s black studies can be a strong academic unit with the right support. The night of the Omaha 54 reenactment Michael Maroney, president/CEO of the Omaha Economic Development Corporation, made a plea for “greater collaboration and communication” between Omaha’s black community and the black studies department. “It’s a two-way street,” he said. Omaha photojournalist Rudy Smith said the incoming chair must work “proactively” with the community.

Chrisman, too, sees a need for partnering. He noted while the black community may lack large corporate players, “you can have an organized community board which helps make the same kind of influence. With that board, the black studies chair and teachers can work to really project plans and curriculum and articulate the needs of black people in that community. It’s one thing for a single teacher or a chair to pound on the dean’s door and say, ‘I need this,’ but if an entire community says to the chancellor, ‘This is what we perceive we need as a people,’ I think you have more pressure.

“That would be an important thing to institute as one of the continuing missions of black studies is direct community service because there’s so much need in the community. And I think black studies chairs can take the initiative on that.”

He said recent media reports about the extreme poverty levels among Omaha’s African-American populace “should have been a black studies project.”

Breaux said little if any serious scholarship has come out of the department on the state of black Omaha, not even on the city’s much-debated school-funding issue. Maroney sees the department as a source of “tremendous intellectual capital” the community can draw on. Smith said, “I’m not disappointed with the track record because they are still in existence. There’s still opportunity, there’s still hope to grow and to expand, to have an impact. It just needs more community and campus support.”

What happens with UNO black studies is an open question considering its highly charged past and the widely held perception the university merely tolerates it. That wary situation is likely to continue until the department, the community and the university truly communicate.

“The difference between potential and reality is sometimes a wide chasm,” Hogan said. “The University of Nebraska system is seemingly oblivious to the opportunities and potential for the black studies department at UNO. They don’t seem to have a clue. They’ve got this little jewel there and rather than polish it and mount it and promote it, they seem to want to return it to the state of coal. I don’t get it.”

 

Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barber Shop: We Cut Heads and Broaden Minds, Too

April 29, 2010 13 comments

Growing up, I knew of a certain barbershop in northeast Omaha for one reason and one reason alone, it is where former Nebraska State Sen. Ernie Chambers held court as a barber and firebrand activist.  I never drove past Goodwin’s Spencer Streeet Barber Shop nor walked into it until a few years ago, when I went there to file a story on the special place it holds in the local African-American community beyond the usual gathering and gossip stops that barber and beauty shops serve.

Chambers is one part of the story, but another is the shop’s namesake, Dan Goodwin, who in his own way is an activist every inch that Chambers is. When they worked the shop together at the height of the civil rights movement and racial tensions in Omaha, they made a formidable duo of strong, socially conscious black men cutting their way to freedom.

 

 

 

 

Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barber Shop: We Cut Heads and Broaden Minds, Too

©by Leo Adam Biga

A version of this story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) in 2006

The splintered front window of Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barber Shop, 3116 North 24th Street, might as well read: We Cut Heads and Broaden Minds, Too. Amid all the jive, the shop’s a forum for street-wise straight talk, scholarly debate, potent ideology and down home lessons from its owner and master barber, Dan Goodwin, and the gallery of young fellas and Old Gs (old guys) that hang there.

That was never more true than during the Black Power movement and Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s and ‘70s. That’s when the Spencer was a must-stop for anyone partaking in the vital brew of philosophy, polemic, dialectic and rhetoric coursing through black America. The “star” attraction was a then-young Ernie Chambers, the barber-provocateur-activist turned-politician. Between razor cuts, relaxers and jeri curls, he and Goodwin made like Malcolm and Langston, interpreting the times in an eloquent spoken word style that was part call-and-response sermon and part lecture. They were variously protagonists or antagonists. The customers and curious onlookers, their disciples or students or foils.

“It was like open line every day of the week down there,” said Omaha photojournalist Rudy Smith. “All the conversation topics were about relevant things that were not talked about on radio/TV or written about in newspapers or discussed in school. Whenever you went there you were always intellectually challenged and stimulated.

“People would always bring in books and articles and things, and they would read them there and discuss them. Sometimes, people would come there and not even get their hair cut. They’d just come to listen. Others would come just to vent.”

“You’d go at ten in the morning and you may not leave until two or three in the afternoon. You’d sit around and listen to a lot of positive things,” Omahan Richard Nared said. “You’d go and get a lot of ‘mother wit’ (knowledge).”

Things could get intense. Smith said Goodwin, Chambers and company “could be confrontational. Sometimes they’d take the opposite position just to stimulate your thinking and to broaden your perspective. But it wasn’t meant to destroy you — it was meant to strengthen you. Now, I didn’t always agree with ‘em, but I didn’t always oppose ‘em either. I enjoyed it and other people did, too.”

 

 

Ernie Chambers, Bill Youngdahl in A Time for Burning

Ernie Chambers and Bill Youngdahl
Ernie Chambers and Rev. Bill Youngdahl at the shop in scene from A Time for Burning

Smith said “the salient” subjects batted around included “Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Hughie Newton, racism, economic development, the lack of black teachers in the public school system, housing discrimination, police violence” and any “issues relating to our people.”

Memories of Vivian Strong and other victims of police gunfire still elicit strong responses. Goodwin refers to the 1969 fatal shooting of the 14-year-old Strong as “murder.” The incident ignited disturbances that he said were branded a riot.

Unlike some leaders who’ve done more reading about The Struggle than living it, Goodwin speaks from the harsh experience of a man who’s encountered his share of police harassment and brutality, including the cold hard steel of a double barrel shot gun pressed to his temple and the butt of that same gun jammed into his gut. He’s been rousted and arrested for “driving while black.”

His social consciousness was stirred in the U.S. Navy. He left Tech High at age 17 to enlist. “It was a good experience. But I went through a lot in the military. I went through boot camp with only one other black in my company. In the tent I was in in the Philippines, I was the only black. I’d hear things. I didn’t start nothin’, but I wouldn’t take nothin’. Every time I had a fight, they thought they could just say anything — the ‘n’ word, you name it — and I didn’t take it. But, you know what, it wasn’t that I was tough. I was dealing with cowards and they weren’t looking for much of a reaction. I must admit sometimes after I finished off one of those people, the other Caucasians would say, ‘Man, he had it coming.’”

Back home, he hit the streets protesting injustice as a member of the 4CL (Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties). Unlike other organizations here reluctant “to confront” the system, the 4CL “believed in going out and demonstrating. It was an action group,” he said. “We integrated different places and we petitioned for jobs and open housing. We marched on city hall. We did things like this that brought about some changes. We were considered troublemakers and that’s what it takes to get the changes.”

He marched on Washington in 1963, a witness to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. He helped sponsor a 1964 Omaha speaking appearance by Malcolm X, a personal favorite whom he met. In 1996, Goodwin got on the bus and went to Washington again for the Million Man March.

Over the years, he’s filed complaints about police misconduct and other improper behavior directed at him and his people, making enemies along the way. All that’s bound up in him and in his shop is symbolized in the cracked glass out front he’s never fixed. Bullets hit it one night years ago. It’s a reminder of past incidents. Once, he got an anonymous call saying cops shot out the window at his old place. A warning to tone it down and to play like Uncle Tom. For many, the broken glass at the present site symbolizes hostility toward blacks. It’s also a defiant proclamation that Goodwin will not be intimidated or silenced or run off.

“I can handle anything that comes down,” Goodwin said.

As a visceral reminder of that resolve, he’s made the shop a fertile ground for developing not just the mind, but the body, too. The muscular Chambers introduced weight training there. Goodwin started lifting at age 40. With a ripped body that testifies to his dedication, Goodwin has in recent years become a world-class power lifter in the masters division. He’ll wear you out in the makeshift gym he has in a corner of the shop or wear you down with his treatise-like arguments. Some of the trophies, plaques and ribbons he’s won take up one side of the shop, whose walls are filled with clippings/photos of some of the sports greats to get their hair cut there (Bob Gibson, Bob Boozer, Gale Sayers, Ron Sayers, Ron Boone, Johnny Rodgers, etc.).

Along with the Fair Deal Cafe, the shop was the place to be for any politically aware person interested in serious dialogue about the black experience.

 

 

If you were a Black Muslim or Panther or garden variety activist, then you went there to hear the latest thinking. Whether you supported Malcolm or Martin, read Cleaver or Chrisman and marched in step with the NAACP or the Urban League, you were ripe for the Spencer Street indoctrination.

“Dan Goodwin and Ernie Chambers had a great influence on us. They made sure we were accountable. They had high standards for us,” said Frank Peak, a former Black Panther member in Omaha. “They were mentors.”

If you were a minister, you’d better go prepared to recite the Bible chapter and verse or defend your theology. If an elected official or a candidate seeking the black vote, you tested the waters there.

If you were an idealistic white student or adult civil rights sympathizer, you came as an acolyte to learn at the feet of the black men who, by virtue of the oppression they endured and resisted, earned the right to hold court there.

If you were a reporter looking to measure the pulse of the community, you no sooner flipped open a note pad or switched on a tape recorder then you got more than you bargained for in the way of unvarnished views.

“It wasn’t always serious, now,” Smith said. “There was a lot of laughter. And sometimes people laughed to keep from crying.”

Nothing much has changed. The same issues persist, only the incendiary talk has been somewhat muted and the rallies that got their start there have been relegated to the history books except for an occasional revival.

At age 77 Goodwin commands respect from young and old alike for still being a relevant spokesman and soul brother.

“He’s like the father of this barbershop,” customer Charles Taylor said. “I’ve noticed a lot of the young men that come in here refer to him as Mr. Goodwin. That shows respect.”

Goodwin’s not lost the fervor to fight injustice or to do the right thing. But there is an edge of resignation in his words and in his voice today. Chalk it up to all the shit he’s seen go down from his perch on North 24th, where the promise of a better tomorrow hasn’t been realized the way he hoped.

“I feel a lot of frustration. I was naive enough to believe that by now it would be different for our youngsters,” he said. “Racism is everywhere. It’s just a little more sophisticated now, that’s all.”

 

For sixty years the "Goodwin

 

His vintage red brick building, only a stone’s throw from Lothrop Magnet Center, Littlefield’s Beautyrama and Church of Jesus Christ Whole Truth, is a symbol for the once teeming area gone to seed. The upper floor windows are boarded up. On the north wall, a faded advertisement for “Uneda Biscuits, 5¢,” faces a vacant lot upon which other buildings and businesses once stood. The south wall is awash in a celebratory mural portraying “the way things used to be,” said Goodwin. The mural depicts a parade in which young people hold a banner that exclaims, “Beating the Path to Freedom,” something he’s invested the better part of his life doing.

It hurts him to see his community a shadow of its once vibrant self and to be still embroiled in the quest for equal rights, yet unable, in this era of divided ranks, to marshal the support a systemic movement takes.

“I think this community like all communities in the inner city in America has big problems and the problems are even bigger now than they have been. Schools are in trouble. The job situation is bad. Drugs. There are so many things plaguing us now. It’s really interfered with what we called The Struggle. In my judgment, were a lot more fragmented today, to the point where we can’t come together to bring about real change. I miss the unity and the organization — when people were more focused on trying to bring about improvements. A lot of our young people are not even enlightened about the things we did struggle to try to change. I don’t feel real good about it sometimes, but you can’t put up your hands. You just do what you can and keep pushing.”

 

 

 

 

He rues the loss of moral constraints that allows, as he sees it: an unjust war to continue; elected leaders to lie; war profiteers to flourish; corporate execs to cheat; celebrities to set an indecent example; and drugs and gangs to proliferate.

“There used to be rules. Nobody was perfect, but at least we knew right from wrong. There were certain lines you wouldn’t cross. Now, there’s no line. The message now is, Whatever you want to do, it’s OK. It’s out there. It’s a whole different culture, the drug and gang culture. I don’t blame kids. I blame my generation. We allowed the rule book to get thrown out. And I’m not a fool or anything. I’m not even into religion. I’m into right. I’ll believe in right till I die.”

He sees a corrupt ruling class setting a precedent of greed and malice that only serves to widen the gap between the haves and have nots and to reaffirm the anything-goes mantra.

“Too many people can’t see past what’s happening to them right now. They don’t look at the consequences of what they’re doing today,” he said. “There was a time when you really felt like there were people that really wanted to see some things different. But there just wasn’t enough people that wanted to see the right kind of change. Now we’ve reached a time when liberal has been turned into a dirty word and decent people run from it. That says a lot about this country. I don’t feel good about that or the fact black people get done in just for telling the truth.”

Lively discourse has always been part of the scene at the Spencer Street, but was at its peak when Goodwin took on Ernie Chambers, a loquacious minister’s son and law graduate who used his barber chair as a lectern. Chambers proffered doctrine there from the mid-’60s through the early ’90s, a period that saw him build a constituency, first as a grassroots leader, and then as a state senator (District 11). He was the only black in the Nebraska Legislature during the entire four-decades he served as a member of that conservative, otherwise lilly-white body.

 

 

photoRudy Smith

 

 

 

 

Chambers came to the shop after being fired from the U.S. Postal Service. The then-Creighton law student was an outspoken activist.  It was a perfect match.

In Goodwin, Chambers found a kindred spirit. “I liked the kind of person he was. We got along very well. He’s true to his beliefs. He rented me a chair and I stayed there for years and years,” Chambers said. In Chambers, Goodwin found “a young man who could articulate like nobody I’ve ever known. He always had answers. He did his homework. He knew what he was doing and saying. People were really impressed with him. And we communicated real good. We were really seeing things so much alike.” Not that they didn’t disagree. “Oh, we used to argue nose to nose. We had some good ones,” Goodwin said.

“It just so happened Ernie fit in with the atmosphere and then he began to exert himself,” Rudy Smith said. “I think the shop gave Ernie a platform to grow, as it did a lot of other people.”

They made a formidable team. Their give and take, something to behold. They were arrested together. They traveled together when Chambers made lecture stops.

“As Ernie grew, so did Dan,” Smith said. “Dan wasn’t an intellectual, but he became that as he expanded his knowledge and his sphere of understanding issues socially, politically, psychologically. Ernie spearheaded that. He’d stimulate him.”

“Dan didn’t go to college, but whatever conversation came up he could talk about it. No matter where he goes, people stop and talk to him” Richard Nared said.

The pair’s persuasive powers are immortalized in the 1967 Oscar-nominated documentary A Time for Burning. The film filters the era’s militancy through the charismatic figure of Chambers, who’s captured, alongside Goodwin, eloquently making points in the manner that made the shop a hotbed of impassioned ideas. Amid sports memorabilia on the walls were images/articles/cartoons that graphically illustrated the opression blacks lived under. An in-your-face reminder to pale-faced do-gooders of what The Struggle was all about.

“A lot of people came down to this barbershop to hear him speak to the problems. To be honest, a lot of people feared him because he spoke out so strong. He’s tough. Even now, he asks no quarters and he gives no quarters. He says what he wants to say and he’ll say it the way he wants to say it,” Goodwin said.

“A lot of people came to talk to me to discuss issues and it was a place where others would meet when they wanted to talk and just speak freely about what was on their mind. It was like a gathering place,” Chambers said.

 

 

 

 

 

Roger Sayers of Omaha said the shop was “kind of the northside human relations department for folks who felt their rights were being trampled on by the police or the school board or the city. If Dan and Ernie thought you had a case, they would try to help you resolve the problem with a letter or a referral or a phone call.”

Richard Nared said the duo were among the cooler heads to prevail at a time when agitators interpreted “by any means necessary” as a call to violence. “A lot of things happened in north Omaha,” Nared said. “People would come in and talk to them about wanting to hurt somebody that’d messed them over. ‘Man, I ought to go kill him.’ Well, Dan and Ernie would say, ‘Hey, man, do what you’re supposed to do, and walk away. It’s not that serious. Life is too short to get hung up on some petty mess. It’s not worth it. You’ll end up two ways — in jail or dead.’ I feel to this day Ernie and Dan were a big factor in keeping the peace.”

Even though Chambers long ago left his barber chair, the two men remain close. “We talk all the time,” Goodwin said. “He’s a great influence. I’m just impressed with his brilliance. So, it’s friendship and mutual respect.”

He loathes the possibility of Chambers being forced out of office by term limits. “It’ll be a big void. Nobody’s more committed. His whole life is what he does in the legislature. I mean, everyday he’s working on something involving the people.”

As much as Goodwin’s been influenced by Chambers, he’s his own man.

Goodwin set the agenda for the shop and made it into what Smith calls an “institution of higher learning.” “That’s exactly what it was,” Smith said. “It fostered an arena of ideas. It’s still going on — without fail. The barbers there were all like teachers and professors and in many ways they were more articulate in espousing their points of views. I was stimulated more sometimes in the barbershop than I was in college. It’s the only barbershop of it’s kind. It should be on the national historic registry.”

Goodwin’s much admired for remaining in the community, where he and his shop provide stability and continuity. “And especially when he continues to grow personally and intellectually,” Chambers said. “It lets people know that not everybody who could go someplace else is going to do that. This is home and this is where we stay.  People do need to see that, especially the young ones. When they can see people (like Goodwin) who are in a position where they don’t have to hang around, but they choose to, that lets them know there’s something of value in our community and a benefit to staying here.”

For Goodwin, staying put is a matter of “this is where I feel comfortable. I don’t even consider retiring. I’m doing what I like. I’m doing what takes care of me. It’s mine.” There’s no chance he’ll mellow. “I don’t believe in turning the other cheek. I do believe in non-violence. But the truth is the truth. I have to tell it like it is.”

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