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Her mother’s daughter:  Charlene Butts Ligon carries on civil rights legacy of her late mother Evelyn Thomas Butts

January 28, 2018 Leave a comment

Her mother’s daughter: 

Charlene Butts Ligon carries on civil rights legacy of her late mother Evelyn Thomas Butts

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in February 2018 issue of the New Horizons

 

Chances are, you’ve never heard of the late Evelyn T. Butts. But you should know this grassroots warrior who made a difference at the height of the civil rights movement in the Jim Crow American South.

A new book, Fearless: How a poor Virginia seamstress took on Jim Crow, beat the poll tax and changed her city forever, written by her youngest daughter, Charlene Butts Ligon of Bellevue, Neb. preserves the legacy of this champion for the underserved and underrepresented.

Defying odds to become civil rights champion

Evelyn (Thomas) Butts grew up with few advantages in Depression Era Virginia. She lost her mother at 10. She didn’t finish high school. Her husband Charlie Butts came home from World War II one hundred percent disabled. To support their three daughters, Butts, a skilled seamstress, took in day work. She made most of her girls’ clothes.

When not cooking, cleaning, caring for the family, she volunteered her time fighting for equal rights, She became an unlikely force in Virginia politics wielding influence in her hometown of Norfolk and beyond. Both elected officials and candidates curried her favor.

She fought for integrated schools, equal city services and fair housing. Her biggest fight legally challenged the poll tax, a registration fee that posed enough of a financial burden to keep many poor blacks from  exercising their right to cast a ballot. The Twenty-fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had ruled poll taxes illegal in federal elections but the practice continued in southern state elections as a way to disenfranchise blacks. Butts’ case, combined with others. made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. in 1966, Thurgood Marshall argued for the plaintiffs. In a 6-3 decision, the court abolished the poll tax in state elections and Butts went right to work registering thousands of voters.

Devoted daughter documents mom’s legacy in book

More than 50 years since that decision and 25 years since her mother’ death in 1993, Ligon has written and published a book that chronicles Evelyn Butts’ life of public service that inspired her and countless others.

Ligon and her husband Robert are retired U.S. Air Force officers. The last station of their well-traveled military careers was at Offutt Air Force Base from 1992 to 1995. When they retired, the couple opted to make Nebraska their permanent home. They are parents to three grown children and five grandchildren.

By nature and nurture, Ligon, inherited her “mama’s” love of organized politics, community affairs and public service. She’s chair of the Sarpy County Democrats and secretary of the Nebraska State Democratic Party. As the party’s state caucus chair, she led a nationally recognized effort that set up caucuses in all 93 counties and developed an interactive voting info website.

Former Nebraska Democratic Party executive director Hadley Richters knows a good egg when she sees one.

“In politics, you learn quickly the people who will actually do the work are few, and even fewer are those who strive to do it even better than before. Charlene Ligon is definitely a part of that very few. I have also learned those few, like Charlene, are who truly uphold our democracy. Charlene works tirelessly to further participation in the process, selflessly driven by rare and deep understanding of what’s at stake. She is a champion for voices to be heard, and when it comes to protecting the democratic process, defending fairness, demanding access, and advocating for what is right, I can promise you Charlene will be present, consistent, hard-working and fearless.”

Ligon is a charter member of Black Women for Positive Change, a national policy-focused network whose goals are to strengthen and expand the American middle-working class and change the culture of violence.

Besides her mother, she counts as role models: Barbara Jordan, Shirley Chisholm and Dorothy Height.

In addition to participating in lots of political rallies, she’s an annual Omaha Women’s March participant.

Like her mother before her. she’s been a Democratic National Convention delegate, she’s met party powerbrokers and she’s made voting rights her mission.

“It all goes back to that – access and fairness. That’s how I see it.”

Even today, measures such as redistricting and extreme voter ID requirements can be used to suppress votes. She still finds it shocking the lengths Virginia and other states went to in order to suppress the black vote.

“Virginia’s really shameful in the way it did voting,” she said. “At one time, they had what they called a blank sheet for registration. When you went to register to vote you had to know ahead of time what identifying information you needed to put on there. It wasn’t a literacy test. By law, the registrar could not help people, so people got disqualified. Well, the black community got together and started having classes to educate folks what they needed to know when they went to register.”

The blank sheet was on top of the poll tax. An unintended effect was the disqualification of poor and elderly whites, too. In a majority white state, that could not hold and so a referendum was organized and the practice discontinued.

“The history books tell you they did it because of white backlash, not because of black backlash,” Ligon said.

Virginia’s regerettable record of segregation extended to entire school districts postponing school and some schools closing rather than complying with integration

“It always amazes me they did that,” she said.

 

Speaking her mind and giving others a voice

As a Norfolk public housing commissioner, Butts broke ranks with fellow board members to publicly oppose private and public redevelopment plans whose resulting gentrification would threaten displacing black residents.

“She really gave them a fit because they weren’t doing what they should have been doing for poor neighborhoods and she told them about it. They weren’t really ready for her to bring this out,” Ligon said of her mother’s outspoken independence.

“Mama could be stubborn, too. She was authoritarian sometimes.”

Butts became the voice for people needing an advocate.

“They called her for all kinds of things. They called her when they needed a house, when they were having problems with their landlord. They called her and called her. They knew to call Mrs. Butts and that if you call Mrs. Butts, she’ll help you. Nine times out of ten she could get something for them. She had that reputation as a mover and shaker and they knew she wasn’t going to sell them out because it wasn’t about money for her.”

Ligon fights the good fight herself in a different climate than the one her mother operated in. It makes her appreciate even more how her mom took on social issues when it was dangerous for an African-American to speak out. She admires the courage her mother showed and the feminist spirit she embodied.

“My mama always spoke up. She didn’t cow. She talked kind of loud. I got that from her. She looked them in the eye and said, ‘Yeah, this is the way it needs to be.’ They didn’t always pay attention to her, but she just always was ready to say what needed to be said.  Of course, the establishment didn’t want to hear it. But she actually won most people’s respect.”

Growing up, Ligon realized having such a bigger-than-life mother was not the norm.

“She stood out in my life. I started to understand that my mom was different than most people’s moms. She was always doing something for the neighborhood. There were so many things going on in the 1950s through the early 1960s that really got her going.”

Her mother was at the famous 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Charlene wanted to go but her mother forbade it out of concern there might be violence. Being there marked a milestone for Evelyn – surpassed only by the later Supreme Court victory.

“It meant a lot to her. That was the movement. That was what she believed,” Ligon said. “And it was historic.”

Long before the march, Butts saw MLK speak in Petersburg, Virginia. He became her personal hero.

“She was already moving forward, but he inspired her to move further forward.”

Decades later, Ligon attended both of Obama’s presidential inaugurations. She has no doubt her mother would have been there if she’d been alive.

“I wish my mom could have been around to see that, although electing the nation’s first black president didn’t have the intended effect on America I thought it would. It gave me faith though when he was elected that the process works, that it could happen. He could not have won with just black votes, so we know a lot of white people voted for him. We should never forget that.

“It just really made me proud.”

Ligon shook hands with President Obama when he visited the metro. She’s met other notable Democrats, such as Joe Biden, Hilary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Jim Clybern, Doug Wilder, Ben Nelson and Bob Kerrey.

The day the Supreme Court struck down the poll tax, her mother got to meet Thurgood Marshall – the man who headed up the Brown vs. Board of Education legal team that successfully argued for school desegregation.

“She was really thrilled to meet him.”

Then-U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy was in the courtroom for the poll tax ruling and Evelyn got to meet the future presidential candidate that day as well.

Butts was vociferous in her pursuit of justice but not everyone in the movement could afford to be like her.

“As I look back on the other prominent people in the movement,” Ligon said, “they had their ways of contributing but there were a lot of people who had what they considered something to lose. For instance, teachers just wouldn’t say a word because they were afraid for their jobs. There were lots of people that wouldn’t say anything.”

Her mother exuded charisma that drew people to her.

“People liked her. Mama was an organizer. She was the person that got them all together and she was inspirational to them, I’m sure. She had a group of ladies who followed her. They were like, “Okay. Mrs. Butts, what are we going to do today? Are we going to register voters? Are we going to picket?”

Evelyn Butts formed an organization called Concerned Citizens for Political Education that sought to empower blacks and their own self-determination. It achieved two key victories in the late 1960s with the election of Joseph A. Jordan as Norfolk’s first black city council member since Reconstruction and electing William P. Robinson as the city’s first African-American member of the state House of Delegates.

Charlene marveled at her mother’s energy and industriousness.

“I was always proud of her.”

Having such a high profile parent wasn’t a problem.

“I never felt uncomfortable or had a negative feeling about it.”

Even when telling others what she felt needed to be done, Ligon said her mother “treated everybody with respect,” adding “The Golden Rule has always been my thing and I’m sure my mom taught me the Golden Rule.”

Telling the story from archives and memories

As big a feat as it was to end the poll tax, Ligon felt her mother’s accomplishments went far beyond that and that only a book could do them justice. So, in 2007, she and her late sister Jeanette, embarked on the project.

“We thought people needed lo know the whole story.”

Ligon’s research led her to acclaimed journalist-author Earl Swift, a former Virginian Pilot reporter who wrote about her mother. He ended up editing the book. He insisted she make it more specific and full of descriptive details. Poring through archives, Ligon found much of her mother’s activities covered in print stories published by the Pilot as well as by Norfolk’s black newspaper, the New Journal and Guide. Ligon also interviewed several people who knew her mother or her work.

Writer Kietryn Zychal helped Ligon pen the book.

Much of the content is from Charlene and her sister’s vivid memories growing up with their mom’s activism. As a girl, Charlene often accompanied her to events.

“She took me a lot of places. I was exposed.”

Those experiences included picketing a local grocery store that didn’t hire blacks and a university whose athletics stadium restricted blacks to certain sections

“The first time i remember attending a political-social activism meeting with Mama was the Oakwood Civic League about 1955 during the same time the area was under annexation by the city of Norfolk. My next memory is attending the NAACP meeting at the church on the corner from our house concerning testing to attend integrated schools. I have vivid memories of attending the court proceedings of a school desegregation case. Mama took me to court every day. She was called to testify by the NAACP lawyers.”

Charlene joined other black teenage girls as campaign workers under the name the Jordanettes, for candidate Joe Jordan. Her mom made their matching outfits.

“We passed out literature, campaign buttons, bumper stickers at picnics, rallies and meetings. Hanging out with my mom and doing the campaign stuff definitely had an influence. I was always excited to tag along.”

At home, politics dominated family discussions.

“My mom did what she did all the time and she talked about it all the time, and so I always knew what was going on, She involved us. She would update my dad. We were always in earshot of the conversation. My sisters and I were expected to be aware of what was happening in our community. We were encouraged to read the newspaper. We participated in some picketing.”

Always having Evelyn’s back was the man of the house.

“He was behind her a hundred percent,” Ligon said of her father, who unlike Evelyn was quiet and reserved. He didn’t like the limelight but, Charlene said, “he never fussed about that – he was in her corner.”

“He might not have done that (activism) personally himself but yeah he was proud she was out there doing that. As long as she cooked his dinner.”

Because Evelyn Butts was churched, she saw part of her fighting the good fight as the Christian thing to do.

“We attended church but my mama wasn’t really a church lady. She just always believed in what the right thing to do would be. I guess that inner thing was in all of us as far as social justice.

“She taught me there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do if I put my mind to it. She taught me not to be afraid of people because I was different.”

When it came time for Ligon to title her book, the word fearless jumped out.

“That’s what she was.”

Where did that fearless spirit come from?

After her mother died, she was raised by her politically engaged aunt Roz. But headstrong Evelyn took her activism to a whole other level.

“I remember Roz telling mama to be careful. She said, ‘Evelyn, you better watch out, they’re going to kill you.'”

The threat of violence, whether implied or stated, was ever present.

“That’s just the way it was. In Virginia, we had some bad things happen, but it wasn’t like Mississippi and the civil rights workers getting killed. We had a few bombings and cross burnings. It still amazes me how she was able to put up with what she did. A lot of people were frightened. Not far from where we lived. racists were bombing houses near where she was picketing. She wasn’t frightened about that and she always made us feel comfortable that things were going to be okay.”

Butts drew the ire of those with whom she differed, white and black. For example, she called out the Virginia chapter of the NAACP for moving too slowly and timidly.

“My mom was considered militant back in the day, but she was also pragmatic about it. There was so much ground to cover. There’s still a lot of ground to cover.”

 

Progress won and lost in a never-ending struggle

Ligon rues that today’s youth may not appreciate how fragile civil rights are, especially with Donald Trump in office and the Republicans in control of Congress.

“I don’t think young people realize we’re losing ground. They aren’t paying attention. They take things for granted, I’m old enough to remember when everything was segregated and how restrictive it was. I may not want to go anywhere then someplace where all the people look like me, but I need to have that choice.

“We’ve lost almost all the ground we made when Barack Obama was president. People who wanted change said we don’t need the status quo and I would say, yes we do, we need to hold it a little bit.”

She’s upset Obama executive orders are under assail. Protections for DACA recipients are set to end pending a compromise plan. Obamacare is being undone. Sentences for nonviolent drug offenders are being toughened and lengthened.

Perhaps it’s only natural the nation’s eyes were taken off the prize once civil rights lost an identifiable movement or leader. But Ligon chose a Corretta Scott King quotation at the front of her book as a reminder that when it comes to preserving rights, vigilance is needed.

Struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won –you earn it in every generation.

“I think the struggle is always going to be there for us minorities, specifically for African-Americans,” Ligon said. “It’s my belief we’re always going to have it. Each generation has to continue to move forward. You can’t just say, ‘We have it now.'”

She’s concerned some African-Americans have grown disillusioned by the overt racism that’s surfaced since Trump emerged as a serious presidential candidate and then won the White House.

“With the change that’s happened in the United States, I think a lot of them have lost faith. They seem to have given up. They say America is white people’s country. I remind them it’s our country. Do you know how much blood sweat and tears African-Americans have invested in America? Somewhere down the line we did not instill that this is our country. It’s okay to be patriotic and call them out every day. You can do both.”

How might America be different had MLK lived?

“Hopefully, we would be a little bit further along in having a more organized movement,” said Ligon.

She’s distressed a segment of whites feel the gains made by blacks have come at their expense.

“Some white people feel something has been taken from them and given to the minorities, which is sad, because it’s not really so. But they feel that way.”

She feels the election of Trump represented “a backlash” to the Obama presidency and his legacy as a progressive black man in power.

If her mother were around today, Charlene is sure she would be out registering voters and getting them to the polls to ensure Trump and those like him don’t get reelected or elected in the first place.

In her book’s epilogue, Charlene suggests people stay home from the polls because they believe politics is corrupt and dirty but she asserts Mama Butts would have something to say about that.

If my mother could, I know she’d say this: If you don’t vote, you can be assured that corrupt politicians will be elected.

“And that’s the truth,” Ligon said.

Drawing strength from a deep well

Just where did her mother get the strength to publicly resist oppression?

“It probably came from a long line of strong women. My grandmother’s sisters, including Roz, who raised my mom, and women from the generation before. The men, I suspect, were pretty strong too. You just had to know my mom and the other family ladies, and the conclusion would be something was in the genes that made them fighters. They were fighters, no doubt. They all were civic-minded, too.”

Going back even earlier in the family tree reveals a burning desire for freedom and justice.

“My great-great-grandfather Smallwood Ackiss was a slave who ran away from the plantation during the Civil War after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and went to Norfolk. He went on to fight for the Union for two years,” Ligon said. “In 1865, he came back to the plantation. John Ackiss II, who was the plantation owner and his owner, had been fighting for the Confederacy at the same time. We do know Smallwood was given 30 acres of land. He lost the property, but we still have a family cemetery there that’s now on a country club in a real exclusive area of Virginia Beach.”

From Smallwood right on down to her mother and herself, Charlene is part of a heritage that embraces freedom and full participation in the democratic process.

“I guess I was always interested and Mom always took me with her. I always saw it. Even in the military, when stationed in South Dakota, I chaired the NAACP Freedom Fund in Rapid City.

“It’s always been there.”

She feels her time in the service prepared her to take charge of things.

“The military strengthens leadership. It’s geared for you to get promoted to become a leader.”

Then there’s the fact she is her mother’s daughter.

Entering the service in the first place – as a 26-year-old single mother of two young children – illustrated her own strong-willed independence. It was 1975 and the newly initiated all-volunteer military was opening long-denied opportunities for women.

“I was divorced, had two kids and I needed child care and a regular salary. I didn’t want to have to depend on anyone else for it but me. It was difficult entering the military as a single parent, but I saw it as security for me and my kids. I was really fortunate I met a great guy whom I married and we managed to finish out our careers together.”

Ligon made master sergeant. She worked as a meteorologist.

“I didn’t want a traditional job. I didn’t want to be an administrative clerk in an office.”

She ended her career as a data base programmer and since her retirement she’s done web development work. She also had her own lingerie boutique, Intimate Creations, at Southroads Mall. Democratic Party business takes up most of her time these days.

Charlene’s military veteran father died in 1979. He supported her decision to serve her country.

Bittersweet end and redemption 

While off in the military, Charlene wasn’t around to witness her mother falling out of favor with a new regime of leaders who distanced themselves from her. Mama Butts lost bids for public office and was even voted out of the Concerned Citizens group she founded. This, after having received community service awards and being accorded much attention.

Personality conflicts and turf wars come with the territory in politics.

“For a long time, my mom didn’t let those things stop her.”

Then it got to be too much and Evelyn dropped out.

Upon her death, Earl Swift wrote:

Evelyn Butts’ life had become a Shakespearean tragedy. She’d dived from the heights of power to something very close to irrelevance. This is someone who should have finished life celebrated, rather than forgotten. History better be kind to this woman. Evelyn Butts was important.

The family agreed her important legacy needed rescue from the political power grabs that tarnished it.

“The Democratic Party really was not nice to my mom. That was another reason I wrote the book – because I wanted that to be known,” Charlene said. “I didn’t know all that had gone on until 1993 when she died. I wanted to present who she was. how she came to be that way and the lessons you can learn from her life. I think those lessons are really important for young people because we need to move forward, we need to stay focused and know that we can’t give up – the struggle is still there.

“People need to vote. That’s what they really need to do. They need to participate. Voting is their force and they don’t realize it, and that’s really disheartening. Even in Norfolk, my hometown, the registered voter numbers  and turnout for elections among blacks is horrible – just like it is here. In north and south Omaha, they don’t turn out the way they could – 10 to 15 percent less than the rest of the city. That should not be.

“When John Ewing ran for Congress he lost by one and a half points. A little bit of extra turnout in North Omaha would have put him over the top. The same thing happened when Brenda Council ran for mayor of the City of Omaha. If they had turned out for Brenda, Brenda would have been elected. That discourages me because they feel like they’re only a small percentage of the population. Yes, it’s true, but you can still make a difference and when you make that difference that gives you a voice. When you can swing an election, candidates and elected officials pay attention. When black voters say ‘they don’t care about us,’ well I guess not, if you don’t have a voice.”

If anything, the work of Evelyn Butts proved what a difference one person can make in building a collective of activated citizens to make positive change.

To Ligon’s delight, her mother is fondly remembered and people want to promote her legacy. A street and community center are named after her. A church houses a tribute display. Endorsements for the book came from former Virginia governor and senator Chuck Robb and current Norfolk mayor Kenneth Cooper Alexander, who wrote the foreword.

Ligon was back home in Norfolk in January for a book signing in conjunction with MLK Day. She’s back there again for more book signings in February for Black History Month.

In Omaha, Fearless is available at The Bookworm, other fine bookstores and select libraries.

Fittingly, the book has been warmly received by diverse audiences. Long before intersectionality became a thing, Ligon writes in her book, her mother practiced it.

She was black. She was a woman. She was poor. She had dropped out of high school. She was overweight and she spoke loudly with confidence in her opinions in a voice that disclosed her working-class, almost rural upbringing. But this large, black poor woman was in the room with politically powerful white people, making policy and advocating for the poor, and it drove some suit-wearing, educated, well-heeled, middle-class male ministers nuts. Some wanted her place. Or, they believed her place should be subservient to a man.

When her public career ended, my mother retreated to private life … She occupied her time by being a mother, a grandmother, a caregiver, a homemaker and a fantastic cook. To say that her post-political years were tragic is to miss how much strength and satisfaction she drew from those roles. She may have retreated, but she was not defeated.

We will never come to consensus on why Evelyn Butts lost her political power. There will always be people in Norfolk who thought her ‘style’ made her unelectable, that she brought about her own demise … Whatever her failings, her legacy is not in dispute. She will always exist in the pages of the U.S. Supreme Court case, in brick and mortar buildings that she helped to create, and in the memories of people …

For me, her last surviving daughter, Evelyn Butts will always be a great American hero.

If there’s a final lesson Charlene said she’s taken from her mother it’s that “there are things bigger than yourself to fight for – and so I do what I do for my kids and grandkids.”

She’s sure her mom would be proud she followed in her footsteps to become a much decorated Democratic Party stalwart and voting rights champion.

“I haven’t thought about a legacy for myself. I hope people will remember me as a hard worker and as a pragmatic, fair fighter for social justice and civil rights.”

Visit evelyntbutts.com or http://www.facebook.com/evelyntbutts.

 

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In Their Own Words – The Greatest Generation on World War II


Omaha Magazine remembers World War II in its May-June 2017 issue. This is the second of two stories I wrote for that issue that I’m posting on my social media. Omahans Shawn Schmidt and Jill Anderson are putting aside their divergent political beliefs to collaborate on a documentary, “48 Stars,” that tells personal stories of World War II through the words and eyes of veterans and others who lived through that epoch. 

 

In Their Own Words

The Greatest Generation on World War II

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Appearing in the May-June 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com

Members of the Greatest Generation tell their own stories in a locally produced documentary, 48 Stars. The in-progress film features personal testimonies from World War II veterans.

War buff Shawn Schmidt conceived the project. His co-director is Jill Anderson. The Omaha filmmakers are unlikely collaborators. He’s a holistic health care provider and former race car owner-driver. She’s a singer-actress. He’s unabashedly patriotic. She’s not. But they’re both committed to telling authentic stories of resilience.

They met while she was a patient under his care. After sharing CDs of her Celtic music, he was taken by her rendition of “Fare Thee Well.”

“It was not just the music, but Jill’s voice. That song fits everything this film has to say about that generation,” Schmidt says. “They’re disappearing, and the interviews we did are like their final swan song. It gave them a final chance to have their say about their country, their life, where America is today, where America is going.”

Originally hired as music director, Anderson’s role expanded. Filmmaker Aaron Zavitz joined the team as editor and creative consultant.

Forty-plus interviews were captured nationwide, mostly with veterans ranging across different military branches and racial-ethnic backgrounds. Some saw combat. Some didn’t. Civilians were also interviewed about their contributions and sacrifices, including women who lost spouses in the war. Even stories of conscientious objectors were cultivated. Subjects shared stories not only of the war, but of surviving the Great Depression that preceded World War II.

With principal photography completed, editing the many hours of footage is underway. The filmmakers are still seeking funding to finish the post-production process.

The film’s title refers to the number of stars—representing states—displayed on the American flag during World War II. Each interviewee is framed with or near a particular 48-starred flag that inspired the project. Schmidt rescued it from a junk store. On a visit to Pearl Harbor’s war memorials, he had the flag raised on the USS Arizona and USS Missouri.

He grew up respecting veterans like his late father, Richard W. Schmidt—a Navy Seabee in the Pacific theater. His father died without telling his story for posterity.

“It dawned on me I could interview other veterans and have them hold this flag, almost like a testimonial to what this piece of fabric is about,” Schmidt says.

He added that combat veterans’ accounts of warfare teem with emotion.

“There’s a distinct difference in energy, pain, and identification with their country and flag from the ones who did not have to kill. The ones who did kill are still hurting, and they’ll hurt till the day they die,” he says.

Whatever their job during the war, Anderson says, “There were discoveries with every new person we talked to. It’s humbling that people trust you with some of their most soulful experiences and memories.”

Schmidt says, “They opened up with stories sometimes they’d never shared with their family. I think, for a lot of them, it’s a catharsis.”

There are tales of love and loss, heroism and hate, improbable meetings, close calls, intersections with infamy, history, and fate.

Not all the attitudes expressed are sunny. Some folks became anti-war activists. Others returned home to endure Jim Crow bigotry.

Anderson says the film intentionally depoliticizes the flag: “It can’t be about God and country or honoring glory because that doesn’t match with the testimony.”

Schmidt feels an urgency to finish the project. “The generation that has the most to teach us is leaving,” he says.

He won’t rush it though.

“It’s a serious responsibility,” Schmidt says. “[The film] needs to honor these individuals who gave their time, and it’ll be done when it’s exactly right.”

Visit 48stars.org for more information.

This article appears in the May/June 2017 edition of Sixty-Plus, a periodical within Omaha Magazine.

 

The Tail-Gunner’s Grandson Ben Drickey revisits World War II experiences on foot and film


Omaha Magazine remembers World War II in its May-June 2017 issue. This is one of two stories I wrote for that issue. It tells the story of the late Wendell Fetters through the eyes of his grandson, Omaha filmmaker Ben Drickey, who accompanied his grandfather on a trip to Europe visiting the sites of some intense and bittersweet wartime experiences. The emotional trip gave Drickey, who was there to document it all, a new path for this life’s work. His footage of that experience brought things full circle for his grandfather and gave his family the precious gift of an intimate look back into the past.

 

 

The Tail-Gunner’s Grandson

Ben Drickey revisits World War II experiences on foot and film

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Appearing in the May-June 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com

Filmmaker Ben Drickey’s lifelong fascination with history turned personal in 2001. That’s when he documented his grandfather’s return to Germany, revisiting the sites where the U.S. Army Air Corps serviceman crashed and was captured during World War II.

Drickey’s video of the emotional trip has only been seen by family, but the project inspired him to make video production his career after years working with still photography and politics. Today, he creates documentaries and branded film content through his studio, Torchwerks.

Growing up, Drickey was spellbound by family patriarch Wendell Fetters’ stories of being a tail-gunner on a B-26 Marauder flying with the 9th Air Force, 391st bomb group.

On an ill-fated daylight bombing run during the Battle of the Bulge on Dec. 23, 1944, his plane crossed the English Channel and delivered its payload over the Ahrweiler bridge. Enemy artillery and fighter flak killed the left engine, igniting a fire, but the crew bailed out before the plane went down.

Fetters’ chute pitched him into a tree. The impact broke an ankle, but he cut himself down. Alone, injured, and afraid, the 20-year-old Iowa native took a sun reading and hobbled west behind enemy lines in sub-zero cold and snow. Two days later, militia captured him. A family housed him over Christmas, and he spent the next four months in a POW camp before the war in Europe ended. After a stay-over in England, he came home to resume his life. He worked, married, and raised a family.

Ben Drickey of Torchwerks

Fast forward nearly six decades. Drickey was attending a family reunion, where he learned of his grandfather’s plans for returning to Germany to visit the plane’s crash site. German amateur historian Hermann Josef Stolz found its debris and used a piece stamped with identifying information to trace the plane’s manufacturer, bomber group, and crew. He invited Fetters to come pick through remnants.

“The rest of us were totally intrigued and we quickly realized this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says Drickey, who, along with his mother, two aunts, and an uncle, joined his grandparents on the summer 2001 trip. Drickey went as a video documentarian even though he was strictly working as a still photographer at the time.

“I had no formal experience creating a moving image. I borrowed a friend’s camera and pirated a copy of Final Cut Pro. But I just knew I had to go do it,” he says.

With Stolz as guide, the Americans traveled to the site, where a cross memorializes the remains of the pilot, Jack Haynes, who died in the crash.

Even all this time later, Drickey says, “pieces of fiberglass, aluminum, and rubber” are strewn about. “I was picking up things to take home.” He displays one piece on his desk in the Mastercraft Building.

He says his “ecstatic” grandfather “was like a little kid being reunited with something from his past.”

The Americans next went to the nearby two-story wood and stucco farmhouse of Josef Hayer, the man who—at age 14—first arrived on the scene of the 1944 crash. Hayer had salvaged things from the smoldering debris. Among his finds was a tailpiece with a yellow triangle on a canvas peak.

“It was the first time on our trip where my grandfather was presented with the past in such a dramatic way,” Drickey says. “You could see on his face the memories just flooding back.”

Fetters then wanted to return to Eisenschmitt, the village his captors paraded him through to the home he was billeted in. He recalled a tannenbaum atop a table and framed photos of two German Army conscripts hanging on a wall. He was fed dinner and slept in the barn, then he was taken to the rail depot for transport to the POW camp.

After nearly giving up the search for the home all those years later, Fetters noticed a familiar landmark. Sure enough, just beyond the hill sat the house. Through translation, the elderly woman occupant said she remembered that war-torn Christmas when an American airman was brought to the house. She was 9 years old then. She recognized Fetters standing before her 56 years later.

She explained that the uniformed men in the photos were her brothers, and the pictures still hung in the same spot. She invited Fetters to see for himself. He refused.

“My grandfather said, ‘No, no, no, let’s go,’” Drickey says. “He went to the car and wouldn’t come out. He was visibly shaken. We didn’t know what to do, but we were standing there in awe reliving this history with him.”

As the visitors drove off, the woman hurried behind clutching oranges as a gesture of friendship. She handed them to Fetters. A family meeting ensued. Fetters held firm. Drickey explained he’d come too far not to go back, so he did.

“In my business, I would rather beg for forgiveness than ask for permission most of the time,” Drickey says.

He filmed inside the house and interviewed the woman, one of many interviews he conducted for the project.

The experience gave him a career path and archived a precious family legacy.

“I’m so glad I did it. It was such a learning experience for me about myself, my eye, and my ability to capture an image,” he says.

“So many things happened on this trip,” and Drickey says he can only appreciate them all by re-watching the footage.

His grandfather lived to see the video. “He thanked me for taking the time to do it,” Drickey says. “He was very pleased it will live on past him.”

Drickey has gone on to produce slick corporate videos, commercials, and short films. He also worked as cinematographer on the feature film It Snows All the Time, but nothing compares to that first personal project.

His grandfather—the airman who also served in the Korean War—passed away July 31, 2015.

Visit torchwerks.com for more information.

This article appears in the May/June 2017 edition Sixty-Plus, a publication within Omaha Magazine.

Mural Man – Artist Mike Giron Captures the Heart of South Omaha


Murals are the great mash-up the art world. Their size and themes lend themselves to big, bold visions landing somewhere between paintings, posters and frozen film images characterized by dynamic swirls of figures, places, events and symobls. Mike Giron is one of Omaha’s busiest muralists and he’s the subject of an Omaha Magazine  (http://omahamagazine.comprofile I wrote that appears in the May-June 2017 issue. Giron’s work for the ongoing South Omaha Mural Project has taken him and his partner artists deep inside that district and its ethnic neighborhoods. But he does more than murals. He makes studio art and he also teaches art at Metropolitan Community College. And he helped design the exhibition spaces for the recently opened South Omaha Museum. 

 

 

Mural Man

Artist Mike Giron Captures the Heart of South Omaha

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Appearing in the May-June 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine  (http://omahamagazine.com

Visual artist Mike Giron’s creative life spans studio practice, teaching, and working with A Midsummer’s Mural and South Omaha Mural Project teams.

“In my studio work, I have no idea what’s going to happen—I just go. I’m not forcing or insisting on anything. The work creates itself in some crazy way,” Giron says. “When it comes to murals, it’s a lot more deliberate. You have to propose a design before you begin. So, I live in these two different worlds, and I think it’s keeping me balanced.”

The New Orleans native came to Omaha in the early 1990s by way of Colorado, where he met his ex-wife, an Omaha native. After her father died, the couple moved here with the intent of restoring her family home, selling it, and returning to Colorado. But Omaha proved a good place to raise their two children, so they stayed.

Giron, 45, taught art at Bellevue University and ran the campus gallery. Today, he’s a Metropolitan Community College adjunct instructor.

Without knowing it, he prepared to be a muralist through his experience painting Mardi Gras floats in New Orleans. Walls are not so different from float structures—they’re big and imperfect. And just as he used cut-out panels on floats, he does the same with murals.

“The Polish mural is the clearest example,” he says. “There was a downspout, a chimney, and a fence around an air conditioning unit, and we used cut-outs to hide those things. It gave a 3D pop-up look effect. It also breaks the frame to extend beyond the box of the building.”

Patience is a virtue for a muralist.

“Murals take a long time—maybe two months,” he says. “Unless you really practice your Zen, you’ve got to make it enjoyable to keep on doing it every day.”

The social contract of public art and the collaborative nature of murals means you’d better like people. He does. You’d better like working big, too.

“Once you experience large-scale production, it’s hard to go back to small paintings,” he says. “Although I still consider myself a studio painter, there’s also something about doing large work. You can’t help but see a wall and go, ‘Oh, that would be perfect for this statement.’ And then the physicality of the work feels good. You’re carrying stuff all the time; you’re up and down ladders. The brush strokes are not just a flick of the wrist.”

But Giron says the real reason he and his fellow muralists do it is because “we’re channeling the voices of people who can’t do this, and we take pride in that.” He says, “We feel good about delivering something that people feel does express them.”

The process for the South Omaha murals involves deep community immersion.

“The more you immerse and personally connect with the people on a street level, the more you’re going to be trusted by that community, and the more they’ll open up and allow you in,” he says.

The South O murals feature diverse looks.

“Some fall into naturalism, and others go into some other place,” he says, “That’s interesting to me because it’s not the same. Rather than a signature style, I would prefer they look like they were done by different people.”

They are. Giron works with Richard Harrison, Rebecca Van Orman, and Hugo Zamorano. Neighbors contribute stories and ideas at community meetings. Residents and students participate in paint days and attend unveiling celebrations.

The works are an extension of the new South Omaha Museum, whose director, historian Gary Kastrick, conceived the murals project. Giron serves on the museum board. He enjoys digging through Kastrick’s artifact collection and preparing exhibits, including a replica of an Omaha Stockyards pen.

The idea is for the museum, the murals, and Kastrick’s history tours to spark a South O renaissance keying off the district’s rich heritage and culture. Muralists like Giron share a bigger goal to “make Omaha a destination for public art.” He says murals are a great way to enhance the city’s visual aesthetic and to engage the community. Besides, he says, murals “demonstrate to the public there is an arts community here” in a visible way galleries cannot.

Giron is impressed by the Omaha arts explosion. “There’s so much going on and so many young artists hitting the scene making a big impact,” he says.

Meanwhile, he continues to create studio art. His series On the Brighter Side of Post-Apocalyptic Minimalism employed fire-singed materials to make their satirical marks.

“With the process-oriented stuff I’m doing now, there’s a huge amount of variety, even though I’m just using grids,” he says, explaining that his personal artworks have moved away from rules of perspective and representational dictates of realism.

“When you don’t use any of that, all you have is the process and the visual reality of things—line, shape, value, color, texture, and space,” he says. “When you start playing in that area, where there’s no limits in terms of defining what things should be or should look like, you find it’s actually inexhaustible.”

He intends to follow “the course of my curiosity,” adding, “If you are really free as an artist, then you just follow whatever’s interesting to you.”

New murals keep beckoning, though. “I get pulled into all this work. You set yourself up for a fall, but the fall is where all the good stuff happens,” he says.

Having completed Czech, Lithuanian, Polish, Mexican, Metropolitan Community College, and Magic City murals for the South O project, Giron and company are now working on a Croatian mural. Irish, Italian, African-American, and Stockyards murals are still to come.

Visit amidsummersmural.com for more information.

This article was published in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

A melting pot magic city gets its own museum

April 13, 2017 Leave a comment

South Omaha’s history is a heady brew of industry, working class families, immigrants, refugees and migrants, tight-knit ethnic neighborhoods, high spirits and fierce pride and though it took more than a century to get one, it finally has its own museum to celebrate all that rich heritage. This is my recent El Perico story about the newly opened South Omaha Museum. It’s a true labor of love for the three men most responsbile for pulling it together: Gary Kastrick, Marcos Mora and Mike Giron. But the heart and soul of it, not to mention most of the collection it displays, comes from Mr. South Omaha, Gary Kastrick, a historian and educator whose dream this museum fufills.

 

A melting pot magic city gets its own museum

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

Just like the community that forged him, the dreams of South Omaha native and historian Gary Kastrick don’t die easy. The educator developed the Project Omaha teaching museum at South High but when he retired the school didn’t want it anymore.

For years he stored his collection’s thousands of artifacts at his home while seeking a venue in which to display them. An attempt at securing a site fell through but a new one recently surfaced and has given birth to the South Omaha Museum. The nonprofit opened March 15 to much fanfare. Fittingly, it’s located in a building at 2314 M Street he helped his late father clean as a boy. It’s also where he found his first artifact.

Building owner Marcos Mora of the South Omaha Arts Institute wanted Kastrick’s font of history to have a permanent home.

“He’s got this knowledge and we need to share it with  everybody,” said Mora. “If we don’t preserve that history now, it’s going to go away.”

 

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A $10,000 City of Omaha historical grant helped but it still took 12-hour days, sweat equity and hustle to open it. Kastrick’s family, friends and former students pitched in. Artist Mike Giron designed the exhibit spaces.

Funding is being sought. Donations are welcome.

The founders are pleased by the strong early response.

“People are overwhelmed,” said Kastrick.

“People come in with expectation and come out with gratitude,” Giron said.

Offers of artifacts are flooding in.

The free admission museum marks the third leg of Kastrick’s three-pronged campaign to spark interest in “a South Omaha renaissance.” Between the museum, historical walking tours he leads and the South Omaha Mural Project he consults, he aims to bring more people to this history-rich district.

“My main goal is to generate traffic.”

The museum’s opening exhibition, “The Smell of Money,” which runs through April 15, chronicles the stockyards and meatpacking plants that were South O’s lifeblood and largest employer.

Kastrick said, “There was a pride in this industry. The owners did everything first-rate. They put money into it. They made innovations. They created state-of-the-art sheep barns. They did everything right. It’s why Omaha’s stockyards kept growing. It wasn’t expected to be bigger than Chicago but in 1955 it became the world’s largest livestock market.”

He estimates it generated $1.7 million a day.

“It was an extremely wealthy area.”

Ancillary businesses and services sprung up: bars, cafes, hardware stores, feed stores, rendering plants, leather mills, a railway, a newspaper, a telegraph office, grocers, banks, brothels. South O’s red light district The Gully offered every vice. The Miller Hotel was notorious.

Fast growth earned South O the name Magic City.

Rural families taking livestock to market also came for provisions and diversions.

“This was their visit to the big city,” Kastrick said, “so they’d do their shopping, playing, gambling here. It was a treat to come into South Omaha.”

For laborers, the work was rigorous and dangerous.

“There was a comradeship of hard labor. It defined who we were and that definition gave us a color and a flavor other parts of the city don’t have,” Kastrick said. “We’ve always been tougher than those who have it easy.”

 

 

The packing plants drew European immigrants and African-American migrants. Then the antiquated plants grew obsolete and got razed. The loss of jobs and commerce triggered economic decline. The South 24th Street business district turned ghost town. New immigration sparked revival. New development replaced the yards and plants. Only the repurposed Livestock Exchange Building remains. Kastrick’s museum recalls what came before through a scale model layout of the yards, photos, signs, posters, narratives. He has hundreds of hours of interviews to draw on.

“It’s a fascinating history.”

He envisions hosting classes and special events, including a scavenger hunt and trivia night.

Future exhibits will range from bars, brothels and barber shops to Cinco de Mayo to ethnic groups.

Kastrick, Mora and Giron all identify with South O’s melting pot heritage as landing spot and gateway for newcomers.

“There’s that common gene in South Omaha of the immigrant,” said Kastrick, whose grandparents came from Poland. “Wherever people are from, they uprooted themselves from security to come here and start over. It takes a lot of guts. It’s a great place because you run into so many different nationalities. We’re such a compact area – it’s hard not to be with each other.”

Mora, whose grandparents came from Mexico, said

“South Omaha is in our heart.”

Giron, the son of Cuban emigre parents, said, “What I see and identify with here is the underdog. People willing to sacrifice, to work hard, to do what it takes but also knowing how to have a good time. It isn’t an area where everybody takes everything for granted.” Giron said the museum’s “not just about history and facts, it’s about people’s lives,” adding, “It’s like you’re touching or expressing their experience.”

Once a South Omahan, always a South Omaha, said

Mora. “People might have moved out, but they still have that connection. Those roots are still down here. It’s a neighborhood community and extended family network.”

Kastrick said, “We have our own unique identity. It’s       something special to be from here. We enjoy who we are. We have kind of a defiant pride because we’ve always been looked down as the working class, the working poor and everything else. We don’t care. We created our own nice little world with everything we need.”

Through changing times and new ethnic arrivals the one constant, he said, “is the South Omaha culture and concept of who we are – tough, good people” who “won’t be stopped.”

For hours, visit http://www.southomahamuseum.org.

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Holocaust stories


Holocaust Stories

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

In the late 1990s a man I never heard of before, the late Ben Nachman, called to encourage me to start interviewing and profiling Holocaust survivors living in and around Omaha. Ben was a retired Omaha dentist who lost his entire extended family to the Holocaust. He set about a life’s mission to record survivor stories and that journey led him to amass a large collection of books on the topic, to befriend researchers, to become an official Shoah Visual Archive interviewer and to enlist me to capture and publish individuals’ stories. I ended up telling some two dozen Holocaust stories, mostly about survivors but also about rescuers, educators and scholars. I also wrote about Ben’s passion for doing the work he did in bringing Holocaust stories to light. Ben introduced me to many remarkable individuals. Thanks to him I was privileged to share the testimonies of survivors,  the heroics of rescuers who saved others and the depths of experiences that shaped the Holocaust.

Several years ago the Institute for Holocaust Education in Omaha acquired some of these stories for visitors to read on its website. In this post are links to those stories and to other Holocaust stories I have written.

Founded in 2000, the Institute has a goal to ensure that the tragedy and history of the Holocaust is remembered. The nonprofit organization provides appropriate, fact-based instruction and materials to students, educators and the public to enhance Holocaust studies in the hope of inspiring communities to create a more just and equitable society.

The IHE has reached hundreds of teachers and more than 100,000 students in Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas with its educational resources, workshops, survivor testimony and integrated arts programming. The Institute also supports Holocaust survivors in our community.

For more information about the Institute’s work, visit–

http://www.ihene.org/

 

 

Marlin Briscoe: The Magician Finally Gets His Due

December 27, 2016 Leave a comment

Marlin Briscoe has a story straight out of Hollywood and so it’s only right that a major motion picture about his life is in the works. The Omaha native made history on the field by becoming the first black starting quarterback in the National Football League but he achieved an even greater feat off the field by recovering from a serious drug addiction he developed after retiring from the game. The title of the soon to start production film “The Magician” comes from the nickname Briscoe was given during his legend-in-the-making collegiate career at then-University of Omaha when he’d improvise plays in the broken field with his arm, legs and head for big gainers and touchdowns. He played much the same way the one and only year he was given a chance to play quarterback in the NFL. Undeterred when teams denied him the opportunity to play signalcaller again, he made himself into a top-notch wide receiver who won All-Pro honors with the Buffalo Bills and back to back Super Bowls with the Miami Dolphins. All through his NFL caereer he encountered obstacles and he took them all on and won, including an anti-trust lawsuit. But the biggest fight of his life lay ahead and he licked that, too. At the time Briscoe made history and overcame his demons, little was made of it, but in the ensuing years more and more recognition and love have come his way, includng induction in the College Football Hall of Fame. The movie should help cement his case for eventual inclusion in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. My new Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) story about Marlin touches on these and other threads of his life.

Link to more Marlin Briscoe stories I’ve written at–
https://leoadambiga.com/?s=marlin+briscoe+

Link to my Omaha Black Sports Legends series at–

 

briscoe-cover

Marlin Briscoe

The Magician Finally Gets His Due

December 22, 2016
©Photography by Contributed
Appearing in the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

Omaha native Marlin Briscoe made history in 1968 as the NFL’s first black starting quarterback. His success as a signal-caller carried huge symbolic and practical weight by disproving the then-popular misconception that blacks lacked the intelligence and leadership to play the position.

The same racist thinking not only applied to quarterbacks but to other so-called thinking-man positions on the field (center, safety, middle linebacker) and on the sidelines (head coach, general manager).

briscoe4Even in those racially fraught times, Briscoe’s myth-busting feat went largely unnoticed. So did the rest of the story. After overcoming resistance from coaches and management to even get the chance to play QB, he performed well at the spot during his rookie professional season, never to be given the opportunity to play it again. That hurt. But just as he overcame obstacles his whole life, he set about winning on his own terms by learning an entirely new position—wide receiver—in the space of a month and going on to a long, accomplished pro career. He made history a second time by being part of a suit that found the NFL guilty of anti-trust violations. The resulting ruling, in favor of players, ushered in the free agency era.

After retiring, Briscoe faced his biggest personal hurdle when a serious crack-cocaine addiction took him to the bottom of a downward spiral before he beat that demon, too.

Now, nearly a half-century since making history and a quarter-century since regaining sobriety, Briscoe’s story is finally getting its due. His 2002 autobiography spurred interest in his tale. Major media outlets have featured his story. Modern-day black quarterbacks have credited his pioneering path, and several lauded him in video tributes played at an event titled “An Evening with the Magician,” held in his honor in September at Omaha’s Baxter Arena. A life-size statue of his likeness was dedicated at the tribute event. Also in the fall of 2016, he received the Tom Osborne Leadership Award. In December he was enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Now, he’s preparing to watch actor Lyriq Bent portray him in a major motion picture about his life, The Magician, set to film this spring.

If the movie, produced by his old Omaha University teammate-turned-actor John Beasley, is a hit, it will bring Briscoe’s role as a civil rights soldier to a much wider audience than ever before. Now in his early 70s, Briscoe fully appreciates all that has led up to this moment. He has no doubt he’s ready for whatever may come. Growing up in South Omaha’s melting pot, no-nonsense mentors and peers steeled him for life’s vagaries. Fierce competition toughened him.

“The training I grew up with was the best training any young man or woman could have,” Briscoe says.

On playing fields and courts, in streets and classrooms, he found an inner resolve that served him well through life’s ups and downs.

“That’s where I learned resilience—from my mom, my sister, and all my mentors, and neighbors. They all had this type of mentality and grit. It rubbed off on me and some of the kids I grew up with. It prepared me for anything. If I had not learned core values from growing up where I did, the things I did, the obstacles I overcame would never have happened.”

His cousin Bob Rose and Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson’s oldest brother Josh Gibson were among a cadre of local coaches who inspired youngsters of Briscoe’s generation. 

briscoe1

“You had to go through them if you wanted to do something wrong, and you didn’t want to go through them,” Briscoe says. “Our mentors were down at the Northside Y, at Kellom School, Kountze Park, St. Benedict’s. They cared about where we were going in life.”

When Briscoe was bullied as boy, Rose gave him a “magic box” filled with the tools of various sports—a baseball, football, basketball, and boxing gloves—with the admonition that if he mastered these, he wouldn’t be bothered. He did and wasn’t. The magic box became the gateway for the Magician to do his thing.

Briscoe grew up respecting adults, all adults, even winos, hustlers, and prostitutes.

“They told you to do something, you did it, and went on about your business,” he says.

He conducted himself in a way that in turn earned him respect as a young leader. Virtually all the athletic teams he played on growing up consisted primarily of white players, which meant his entire athletic life he was advancing diversity. Long before he found immortality with the Broncos, he was the first black quarterback on youth teams, at South High, and then at Omaha University (now known as UNO).

Though he lived in South Omaha, Briscoe made a point of going to the proving grounds of North Omaha, where there were even more great athletes and a particular endurance test and rite of passage.

“Off Bedford [Avenue] by Adams Park, there used to be The Hills. It was like the barrier and motivational place where top ballplayers like Gale Sayers and myself would go and work out. Sometimes, I would be up there early in the morning by myself running those hills. I always tell young people today, ‘It is what you do when nobody sees you that defines and determines your work ethic and how you will turn out.’

briscoe3

“There were plenty of guys with more ability than myself—who were bigger, stronger, faster—and while they worked hard when eyes were on them, they slacked off when they were alone. A lot of guys who never made it regretted not putting out the effort to match their ability.”

Briscoe might never have made history if not for some good fortune. He started at quarterback for Omaha University his sophomore and junior years, putting up good numbers and earning the nickname “Magician” for an uncanny ability to escape trouble and extend plays with highlight reel throws and runs. Just before what was supposed to be his senior year, 1966, he got undercut in an all-star basketball game at Bryant Center and took a hard spill. He went numb and was rushed to the hospital, where doctors decreed he was injury-free. He started the ’66 season football opener versus Idaho State with no ill effects. He had a monster game. Then, late in the contest, he took a hit that caused his neck to swell. When rushed to the ER this time, X-rays revealed a fractured vertebra. He’d competed with a broken neck.

Doctors told him his days playing contact sports were over. He accepted the harsh news and dived into his studies, ready to move on with life sans football. Then during a medical checkup, tests confirmed his bones recalcified, and he was cleared to play again. He got a medical hardship waiver from the NAIA and went on to have a huge senior season in 1967, earning small college All-American honors and getting picked in the 14th round of the NFL draft.

He’s convinced he wouldn’t have taken snaps in Denver, which drafted him as a defensive back, if he hadn’t negotiated his own contract to include a clause he be given a three-day tryout at quarterback. He so dazzled the media and the public during the open practices that once the season began and Denver QBs went down due to injury or were benched for poor play, he got his shot and ran with it.

Briscoe’s larger-than-himself magic enabled him to make history in a crucible year for America—a year of riots, anti-war protests, assassinations, and civil rights struggles.

“For some reason, divine intervention maybe, it just seemed the stars were aligned in 1968 for a black man to break the barrier at that position,” he says. “It just seems 1968 was the pivotal year for all African-Americans, for all Americans period. For me to do it in ’68 is just eerie, the way that happened.”

So much of his NFL experience, he says, involved fighting “injustices.” Released by Denver and denied playing quarterback again, he excelled at a new position. Blackballed by the league for challenging its power, he won a hard-fought battle for himself and fellow players.

He insists he was not resentful for being shortchanged at quarterback.

“I wasn’t bitter, I was disappointed,” he says. “When you’re bitter, you give up, you take all this stuff personally, and you quit. I tell young people, ‘You’re going to have disappointments, and you’re going to be treated unfairly, but you can’t be bitter about it.’ Instead, you roll up your sleeves and fight whatever negative things come your way. Plan A doesn’t work? You go to Plan B. Life is just that way.”

Only after walking away from the game to be a broker in Los Angeles did he meet a foe—crack cocaine—that got the better of him. Before his recovery, he lost everything: his home, his fortune, his family. 

briscoe5“Here I was on a park bench trying to get some sleep in the heart of L.A. after owning homes and property,” he says.

What was so maddening about it is that he had done everything right. “It was not like I left the game with nothing,” he says. “I left the game correctly, sitting on easy street. I had wise investments. I prepared to leave the game by going to school and getting additional degrees. I was not hurt. I was in perfect physical condition.”

But in the vacuum of his post-athletic life, without the daily disciplines of workouts and team dynamics, he slipped into an unhealthy lifestyle.

“I let my guard down. I wasn’t really prepared for the L.A. scene because my whole life was always about precision, being responsible,” he says. “Then, when I didn’t have to meet all these different obligations and being single, I wasn’t rooted in one direction—I was just partying. You know, bring it on.”

No one who knew Briscoe before could believe he was in the grip of something that controlled him so completely, least of all himself.

“I had been a player rep. I was the one they always came to just as I was when I was a kid. I was the one people always came to for sage advice. And I never did drugs in the NFL,” Briscoe says.

But there he was, enslaved to a habit he couldn’t kick. Through it all, even losing his Super Bowl rings as collateral for a bank loan, he never forgot who he was inside and what he had done. Though homeless, penniless, and stuck in a jail cell when Doug Williams became the first black quarterback to lead a team to an NFL title, Briscoe felt he shared in that victory, too.

“I felt proud on one hand, and disappointed in myself on the other hand,” he says.

He sank lower than he ever thought possible, but he came back to whip that challenge, too: “The thing is, I always knew I would let go of that descent. I always knew and prayed I’d get back to that person all Omaha knew as this accomplished individual who conquered the NFL and enjoyed all these triumphs. The people that knew me are so elated now I’ve overcome my post-career meltdown because I had been a champion for them, fighting the NFL. I was always fighting for them and fighting for myself. I put myself in positions as a player where my voice could be heard.”

Even though it was decades ago, he believes defying and defeating the NFL’s monied interests left a blemish on his career that got further stained when he was traded several times as persona non grata.

“I’m not bragging or anything, but if I had been any other player, I guarantee you, I’d have been in the NFL Hall of Fame a long time ago. Nobody had ever done it—making history as the first black starting quarterback. People don’t realize I was also the first black holder on extra points. Counting cornerback and wide receiver, I played four different positions in the NFL, and I’m not sure anybody did that before. Then you add in the fact I made All-Pro as a receiver within two years of switching positions and went on to win two Super Bowls.”

Efforts are underway to rectify his absence as a Canton inductee via a write-in campaign to the Hall’s Veterans Committee.

Just as Briscoe wasn’t bitter about being shut out from playing quarterback after his rookie year, he wasn’t bitter that other blacks followed him into the league at that position.

“If I had not succeeded in 1968, James Harris would not have gotten drafted by the Bills as a quarterback out of Grambling in 1969. If I would have failed, they would have brought James in as a tight end. But the fact I was a litmus test and succeeded, they could take a chance on a black quarterback, and James was drafted.

“Ironically, he and I ended up being roommates in Buffalo. We knew each other’s plight. We would have conversations after practice. I would tell him different things that were going to happen to him and to be prepared for them.”

While Briscoe is known as the first black starting QB, another black man, Willie Thrower, briefly got into two games as a QB with the Bears 15 years before Briscoe’s experience with the Broncos. High off his rookie year success, Briscoe had a chance meeting with Thrower in Chicago. The two men hit it off.

briscoe6Briscoe, Harris, Doug Williams, and Warren Moon have formed an organization called The Field General that uses the still-exclusive legacy of the black quarterback to educate and inspire young people. Blacks still comprise but a fraction of the professional QB ranks. The same is true of head coaches, coordinators, and general managers. That fact, combined with the journey each man had to make to get to those rarified places, reveals just how far the nation and league still have to go.

Never in his wildest dreams did Briscoe imagine his story would get so much attention this many years after he played.

“It just goes to show that, if you never give up, a lot of these things will come your way. Sometimes things come late, like this movie project about my life,” he says.

Briscoe says he only agreed to let his story be told in a movie if it stayed true to who he is and to what happened.

“It’s not for self-gratification,” he says. “It’s hopefully as an inspiration for others that you can overcome any obstacle if you really want it. I look back on my life and see what it can do for others. It’s not just a football movie. If it were, I probably wouldn’t be a part of that interpretation of my life. My life is a lot more than just football.”

He’s sure the movie’s message of “if you never give up, you’ve got a chance” will resonate with diverse audiences. He’s proud to be living proof that anything can happen when you keep fighting.

Visit marlinbriscoemovie.com for more information.

 

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