UNO professor emeritus of criminal justice Samuel Walker is one of those hard to sum up subjects because he’s a man of so many interests and passions and accomplishments, all of which is a good thing for me as a storyteller but it’s also a real challenge trying to convey the totality of someone with such a rich life and career in a single article. As a storyteller I must pick and choose what to include, what to emphasize, what to leave out. My choices may not be what another writer would choose. That’s the way it goes. What I did with Walker was to make his back story the front story, which is to say I took an experience from his past – his serving as a Freedom Summer volunteer to try and register black voters in Mississippi at the peak of the civil rights movement – as the key pivot point that informs his life’s work and that bridges his past and present. That experience is also juxtaposed with him growing up in a less then enlightened household that saw him in major conflict with his father. My cover profile of Walker is now appearing in the New Horizons newspaper.
Justice Champion Sam Walker Calls It as He Sees It
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in the New Horizons
And justice for all
You could do worse than label UNO professor emeritus of criminal justice Samuel Walker a dyed-in-the-wool progressive liberal. He certainly doesn’t conceal his humanist-libertarian leanings in authoring books, published articles and blog posts that reflect a deep regard for individual rights and sharp criticism for their abridgment.
He’s especially sensitive when government and police exceed their authority to infringe upon personal freedoms. He’s authored a history of the American Ciivil Liberties Union. His most recent book examines the checkered civil liberties track records of U.S. Presidents. He’s also written several books on policing. His main specialization is police accountability and best practices, which makes him much in demand as a public speaker, courtroom expert witness and media source. A Los Angeles Times reporter recently interviewed him for his take on the Albuquerque, NM police’s high incidence of officer-involved shootings, including a homeless man shot to death in March.
“I did a 1997 report on Albuquerque. They were shooting too many people. It has not changed. There’s a huge uproar over it,” he says. “In this latest case there’s video of their shooting a homeless guy (who reportedly threatened police with knives) in the park. Officers approached this thing like a military operation and they were too quick to pull the trigger.”
As an activist police watchdog he’s chided the Omaha Police Department for what he considers a pattern of excessive use of force. That’s made him persona non grata with his adopted hometown’s law enforcement community. He’s a vocal member of the Omaha Alliance for Justice, on whose behalf he drafted a letter to the U.S. Justice Department seeking a federal investigation of Omaha police. No Justice Department review has followed.
The alliance formed after then-Omaha Pubic Safety Auditor Tristan Bonn was fired following the release of her report critical of local police conduct. Walker had a hand in creating the auditor post.
“Our principal demand was for her to be reinstated or for someone else to be in that position. We lobbied a couple mayors. We had rallies and public forums,” he says.
All to no avail.
“The auditor ordinance is still on the books but the city just hasn’t funded it. It’s been a real political struggle which is why I put my hopes in the civic leaders.”
After earning his Ph.D. in American history from Ohio State University in 1973, the Ohio native came to work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He met his life partner, Mary Ann Lamanna, a UNO professor emeritus of sociology, in a campus lunchroom. The couple, who’ve never married, have been together since 1981. They celebrated their 30th anniversary in Paris. They share a Dundee neighborhood home.
Though now officially retired, Walker still goes to his office every day and stays current with the latest criminal justice research, often updating his books for new editions. He’s often called away to consult cities and police departments.
He served as the “remedies expert” in a much publicized New York City civil trial last year centering around the police department’s controversial stop and frisk policy. Allegations of widespread abuse – of stops disproportionally targeting people of color – resulted in a lengthy courtroom case. Federal district judge Shira Scheindlin found NYPD engaged in unconstitutional actions in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. In her decision, she quoted from Walker’s testimony about what went wrong and what reforms were needed.
Walker’s work is far more than an exercise in academic interest. It’s a deeply personal expression of beliefs and values formed by crucial events of the ’60s. The most momentous of these saw him serve as a Freedom Summer volunteer in the heart of the Jim Crow South at the height of the civil rights movement while a University of Michigan student. Spending time in Mississippi awakened him to an alternate world where an oppressive regime of apartheid ruled – one fully condoned by government and brutally enforced by police.
“There was a whole series of shocks – the kind of things that just turned your world upside down. The white community was the threat, the black community was your haven. I was taught differently. The police were not there to serve and protect you, they were a threat. There was also the shock of realizing our government was not there to protect people trying to exercise their right to vote.”
His decision to leave his comfortable middle class life to try and educate and register voters in a hostile environment ran true to his own belief of doing the right thing but ran afoul of his father’s bigotry. Raised in Cleveland Heights, Walker grew up in a conservative 1950s household that didn’t brook progressivism.
“Quite the reverse. My father was from Virginia. He graduated from Virginia Military Institute. He had all the worst of a Southern Presbyterian military education background. Deeply prejudiced. Made no bones about it. Hated everybody, Catholics especially. Very anti-Semitic. Later in life I’ve labeled him an equal opportunity bigot.
“My mother was from an old Philadelphia Quaker family. It was a mismatch, though they never divorced. She was very quiet. It was very much a ’50s marriage. You didn’t challenge the patriarch. I was the one in my family who did.”
Walker’s always indulged a natural curiosity, streak of rebelliousness and keen sense of social justice. Even as a boy he read a lot, asked questions and sought out what was on the other side of the fence.
As he likes to say, he not only delivered newspapers as a kid, “I read them.” Books, too.
“I was very knowledgeable about public affairs by high school, much more so than any of my friends. I could actually challenge my father at a dinner table discussion if he’d say something ridiculous. Well, he just couldn’t handle that, so we had conflict very much early on.”
He also went against his parents’ wishes by embracing rock and roll, whose name was coined by the legendary disc jockey, Alan Freed. The DJ first made a name for himself in Akron and then in Cleveland. In the late 1940s the owner of the Cleveland music store Record Rendezvous made Freed aware white kids were buying up records by black R&B artists. Walker became one of those kids himself as a result of Freed playing black records on the air and hosting concerts featuring these performers. Freed also appeared in several popular rock and roll movies and hosted his own national radio and television shows. His promotion contributed to rock’s explosion in the mainstream.
As soon as Walker got exposed to this cultural sea change, he was hooked.
“I’m very proud to have been there at the creation of rock and roll. My first album was Big Joe Turner on Atlantic Records. Of course, I just had to hear Little Richard. I loved it.”
Like all American cities, Cleveland was segregated when Walker came of age. In order to see the black music artists he lionized meant going to the other side of town.
“We were told by our parents you didn’t go down over the hill to 105th Street – the center of the black community – because it was dangerous. Well, we went anyway to hear Fats Domino at the 105th Street Theatre. We didn’t tell our parents.”
Then there was the 1958 Easter Sunday concert he caught featuring Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis headlining a Freed tour.
“My mother was horrified. I think my generation was the first for whom popular cultural idols – in music and baseball – were African- Americans.”
In addition to following black recording artists he cheered Cleveland Indians star outfielder Larry Doby (who broke the color barrier in the American League) and Cleveland Browns unning back Jim Brown.
More than anything, he was responding to a spirit of protest as black and white voices raised a clarion call for equal rights.
“Civil rights was in the air. It was what was happening certainly by 1960 when I went to college. The sit-ins and freedom rides. My big passion was for public interest. The institutionalized racism in the South struck us as being ludicrous. Now it involved a fair amount of conflict to go to Miss. in the summer of ’64 but what I learned early on at the most important point in my life is that you have to follow your instincts. If there is something you think is right or something you feel you should do and all sorts of people are telling you no then you have to do it.
“That has been very invaluable to me and I do not regret any of those choices. That’s what I learned and it guides me even today.”
Walker on far left of porch of a Freedom Summer headquarters shack in Gulfport, Miss.
He never planned being a Freedom Summer volunteer. He just happened to see an announcement in the student newspaper.
“It’s a fascinating story of how so much of our lives are matters of chance,” he says. “It was a Sunday evening and I didn’t want to study, I wanted to go to a movie. I was looking in the paper and there was no damn movie. Instead, I saw this notice that Bob Moses (Robert Parris Moses) was to speak on the Mississippi Summer Project. It sounded interesting. Moses was a legend in his own time. He really was the guiding spirit of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.”
Walker attended the March ’64 presentation and was spellbound by the charismatic and persuasive Moses, who also led the Council of Federated Organizations that organized the Freedom Summer effort.
“If you heard him speak for 10-15 minutes you were in, that was it, it was over. He was that eloquent. He was African-American, Northern, Harvard-educated, and he could speak in terms that white college students could relate to. It was just our language, our way of thinking.
So it was really just a matter of chance. If there had been a good movie that night my life would have been different.”
Walker applied to join the caravan of mostly white Northern college students enlisted to carry the torch of freedom in the South.
Applicants went to Oberlin (Ohio) College to be screened.
“They didn’t want any adventure seekers. We had to come up with $500 in reserve as bail money in case we got arrested. I had that, so I was accepted.”
He says his father “was absolutely furious” with his decision, adding, “We had fallen out the year before and so this was no surprise.” Meanwhile, he says his mother “was quietly supportive.”
Walker joined hundreds of other students for a one-week orientation at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio.
“The training was very intense.”
He learned about the very real risks involved. As Northerners intruding into a situation white Mississippians considered a sovereign state rights issue, the students were considered troublemakers, even enemies. Most whites there held deep resentment and contempt for outsiders attempting to interfere with their way of life and order of things.
“Intellectually we knew the danger, that was explained to us, and we had ample opportunity to bail out. There were some people who were accepted who apparently did not show up. I’m not sure I could have lived with myself if I chickened out.”
In June Walker and three others set out in a station wagon belonging to one of his Eastern compatriots.
“It had New York plates and of course that was a red flag we were outside agitators. We went down through Ala. and then crossed over…I have a vivid recollection of crossing the line into Miss. that morning on this clear soon-to-be hot June day. I was assigned to Gulf Port, next door to Biloxi. Gulf Port was the ‘safest’ area in the state. Not far from New Orleans. Tourism. There’s an U.S. Air force Base down there. So they were accustomed to having outsiders.”
Nothing Walker witnessed surprised him but seeing the strict segregation and incredible poverty first-hand did take him aback.
Volunteers stayed with host black families in humble shanties.
The men in the family he boarded with worked as longshoremen. There were separate white and black locals of the International Longshoremen’s Association and having a union voice gave the black workers some protections many other blacks lacked.
Walker variously went out alone or paired up with another volunteer.
“We would go up these unpaved roads to these shacks and try to convince people they should register to vote. Only 7 percent of potentially eligible African Americans were registered. I was going door to door talking to people and looking them in the eye and seeing the fear. They would say, ‘Yes sir, yes ma’am,’ and it was plenty evident they weren’t going to make any effort. They knew we could leave and they knew they were going to be there stuck with the consequences.
“It gave me a sense more than anything else of the human price of segregation and all the terror that supported it.”
While the stated objective was not achieved the initiative helped break some of the isolation blacks experienced in that totalitarian state.
“The goal was voter registration and we registered almost no one. It wasn’t until the Voter Rights Act a year later any progress was made. But we had to do it. The major accomplishment was we established our right to be there. It changed the political-legal climate of Mississippi.”
Temporary Freedom Schools were formed, convened in black churches, homes, even outdoors, as resources to teach literacy, basic math, black history and constitutional rights to youths and adults alike.
Walker personally witnessed no violence and never encountered any direct threat.
“I don’t remember being scared at any point.”
The one glint of intimidation came while going door to door when a white man in a pickup began cruising up and down the road. On another occasion, he says, “we did get some people to go down to the courthouse and march and some people were arrested.”
The danger was real though. Within days of his arrival three young civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner went missing. Goodman had been in one of Walker’s training sessions. The worst was feared and later confirmed: murder.
Walker says, “When we heard the news three people were missing it came as no surprise and we knew they were dead even though they didn’t find the bodies until 44 days later. We just knew.”
The terror campaign went far beyond The Mississippi Three to include beatings of residents and volunteers and the burnings of dozens of black homes, churches and businesses.
As disturbing as this was it didn’t give him any second thoughts.
“You couldn’t retreat in the face of death. They were not going to chase us out even at the cost of murder. We were there and we were going to stay and finish this.”
One of many public protests against NYPD’s stop and frisk policy
Walker was committed enough that he returned to Miss. early the next year and stayed through much of 1966. The experience was foundational to setting the course of his life’s work. “Absolutely, totally and completely. We began to see things through the prism of race.” It also made him aware of disparities in his own backyard. Even today, in the middle of a thriving Midwest economy, he says, “There are really two Omahas.” One of privilege and the other of poverty.
His activism resumed upon returning to Ann Arbor, where he participated in civil rights fundraisers and protests. He actively opposed the war in Vietnam. The military draft was in full swing to feed the war machine. He’d been classified 1-Y for medical reasons.
“On April 3, 1968 I turned in my draft card as part of a mass rally in Boston. Hundreds also did that day in Boston, and I think it was thousands across the country. The cards were all sent to the Justice Department. And that is how I acquired my FBI file.”
Like many activists, he accepts his FBI file as a badge of honor for fighting the good fight in the tumultuous ’60s.
By training he’s an expert in ethnic violence of the 19th century, and he thought he had an urban studies job lined up at UNO in the newly formed College of Public Affairs and Community Service only to discover the position disbanded. Then someone told him the university had received a big criminal justice grant. Walker talked with then criminal justice dean Vince Webb, who hired him.
“I got a job and the job became a career and I never looked back. Pure chance.”
Walker says his urban history expertise translated well to examining the urban racial violence of the 20th century.
“Once in policing my focus gravitated to police community relations.– this wasn’t too many years after the riots – and from there to citizen review of police and then to what I now define my field as – police accountability.
He says policing’s come a long way.
“The world of policing has changed. There’s been some genuine improvement. The composition of police forces is very different in terms of African-Americans, Latinos and women. Police thinking in the better departments is much more responsive to their local communities. The reform impulse has really come from the community, from the ground up, from people complaining about incidents, people lobbying city councils and mayors. Lawsuits, even if they don’t succeed, raise the issue and create a sense there’s a problem that needs correcting. At various points along the way the better police chiefs say, ‘Yeah, we have a problem here.'”
Walker says the control of deadly force is a good example.
“There were some police chiefs who said, ‘We can’t just send our people out there with guns and no instructions,’ which we used to do prior to ’72. They’d get hours and hours of training on how to clean the damn thing and no instructions on when you should shoot and when you should not shoot. It was, ‘Use good judgement.’ That was it. The fleeing felon rule was in effect, so if an officer saw someone he believed had committed a felony, a burglary let’s say, even though the person was unarmed, that officer could shoot to kill and could in fact kill that person within the law. There’s been a whole change there because of the community policing movement.”
In his work Walker says, “I’ve learned much more about how police departments work internally in terms of holding their officers accountable. That’s my expertise.”
In the case of the NYPD’s overly aggressive stop and frisk policy he says officers were required to have a reasonable suspicion someone had committed a crime or was about to. The overwhelming number of detentions were of people of color and Walker says “well over 80 percent of the time there was no arrest nor a ticket, so the officers guessed wrong. They had a heavy hand.” He says one of the main rationales officers put down in their reports was “high crime neighborhood,” which Walker found inexcusable. “A neighborhood is a place, not a behavior. It’s where you live, it’s not what you’re doing. They were making you a criminal suspect for living where you live.”
He says the most common reason given for stops was “furtive movement,” which he found far too ambiguous.
“It was a runaway profiling policy. This went on for 14 years and sparked several lawsuits. The police commissioner and the mayor did not listen to the complaints and protests. They dug their heels in and didn’t look at the evidence.”
He says his “fairly straight forward testimony” recommended a new policy on how to conduct stops. better training, a mid-management accountability system and a broader early intervention system with a computerized data base to track officer performance. He laid out remedies enacted in other police departments.
He believes the case could encourage legal challenges of profiling in other states but he cautions, “The difference is the NYPD turned it into a massive program, which is more easily challenged. In most departments, it is used, but not on a massive basis and a matter of official policy. This makes it far more difficult to challenge.”
(NOTE: Last fall a federal appeals court blocked the ruling that altered the NYPD astop and frisk policy and removed Judge Shira Scheindlin from the case.)
He says. “Theres a very real connection between Miss. in 1964 and being on the witness stand in New York in 2013 and race is the connection. It’s the lens through which I saw that and understood it.”
In this pervasive video and social media age police incidents are increasingly captured on camera and shared with the masses, as happened with some Omaha incidents. Walker says despite the prospect the whole world may be watching alleged police misconduct still occurs “because the habits are so deeply engrained that among some officers this is just second nature. Officers label someone a bad guy, so he’s not worthy of respect, and they do what they want.”
At its worst, he says, problematic attitudes and behaviors become systemic, accepted parts of police culture. The longer they go unchecked, without consequences, the more engrained they become.
“If it happens on the street, who’s to know,” he says. “Changing a large department after it has declined and certain habits have become engrained is a serious challenge. You need clear policies of all the critical incidents – deadly force, use of physical force, domestic violence, high speed pursuits. And then the training has to be very clear as to what those policies are. The supervision is really the critical thing. Everybody knows on the street supervision is where it’s at. A sergeant over 8 to 10 officers – that’s the heart and soul right there. When there’s some incident a sergeant has to say, ‘I don’t like the way you handled that, I don’t want to see it again.'”
He says no police department should feel itself immune from oversight.
“We know what the problems are, we know what to do. There are experts on particular subjects around the country and they can come in and help with things like use of force and domestic violence policies.”
He says police reform efforts should include public forums where all players can express their views. City governments, community groups and police departments can draw on best practices for policy guidance.
His work in words
The second edition of his book The New World of Police Accountability just came out in December. “I had to redo the whole thing, so much had changed in just a few years and my understanding of things had changed. It’s an exciting challenge to stay current.”
He says his his book The Police in America has been the best selling textbook on policing since it came in 1983. “I did a textbook on the police because there wasn’t a decent one.”
He did the book The Color of Justice with two colleagues. “It was really the first decent textbook on race, ethnicity and criminal justice. A lot of people wonder how is it there’s this huge racial disparity on who goes to prison. It’s a lot more complicated than people think. First, we’ve got some basic social inequalities. The short version of it is there’s a racial bias in policing. Then when you get to plea bargaining and sentencing and probation that’s accentuated a little further and so the end result is the accumulation of these incremental things .”
He says his book In Defense of American Civil Liberties is “probably the best thing I’ve done.” It took him five years. “I learned so much from it just about the history of this country. I knew some of the tent poles of major controversies – the Japanese American internment, the Pentagon Papers, Watergate – but it was a very rewarding experience and I still get inquiries from people based on it 24 years later.”
His new book Presidents and Civil Liberties reveals some surprises and contradictions in the records of Oval Officer holders.
With his national reputation Walker could have moved long ago to a bigger university but he says “being involved in the community is very much a part of my life and so that’s a reason for staying.” His involvement includes spending much of his free time seeing movies at the downtown art cinema Film Streams, where he annually curates a repertory series. Then there’s the extensive collection of vinyl records, album cover art, sheet music and political posters he’s accumulated. An exhibition of his jazz album covers by illustrator David Stone Martin showed at UNO, which also hosted a display of his political posters.
He’s a devoted fan of jazz, R&B and folk music Duke Ellington is a favorite. He and Mary Ann are also known to drop everything to go see Bruce Springsteen in concert.
Though the university and city he came to 40 years ago are “much transformed,” he’d like to its see leaders strive for higher standards.
As the events in Miss. 50 years ago are never far from his mind and inform so much of who he is and what he does, he’s proud to relive them. He attended a 30th anniversary of Freedom Summer in Jackson and a 40th anniversary of the orientation in Oxford, Ohio. In June he’ll return to Jackson for the 50th anniversary of when freedom rang.
Art Imitates Life for ‘Having Our Say’ Stars, Sisters Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moore, and Their Brother Ray Metoyer
Americans are notorious for having short memories and that’s unfortunate when people and actions that merit rememberance are so quickly and easily forgotten. A pair of Omaha sisters, Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moors, are starring in an Omaha Community Playhous production of the Emily Mann play Having Our Say that features the real-life experiences of the Delany sisters, whose lives intersected with much of the African-American experience in the late 19th century and most of the 20th century. The Metoyer sisters are struck by the close parallels between the high achieving, activist Delany family and their own. In doing interviews to promote the play the Metoyers are getting the chance to educate the public about the important work their parents Ray and Lois Metoyer did in the civil rights movement here. My story about this art imitating life experience includes comments from the Metoyers’ brother, Ray.
Lanette Metoyer Moore and Camille Metoyer Moten
Art Imitates Life for ‘Having Our Say’ Stars, Sisters Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moore, and Their Brother Ray Metoyer
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Art imitates life when siblings Camille Metoyer Moten and Lanette Metoyer Moore evoke the Delany sisters in the African-American oral-history show Having Our Say at the Omaha Community Playhouse.
Just as the play’s real-life Sadie and Bessie Delany followed their family’s barrier-breaking path the Metoyers hail from high achievers and activists. The black branch of the Delanys’ mixed race Southern lineage produced land owners and professionals. Their father was the first black bishop of the Episcopal Church in America. Sadie became a teacher. Bessie, a dentist. Similarly, the Metoyers trace the mixed heritage on their father’s side to the Melrose Plantation in La. where ancestors formed a black aristocracy, Their mother and her family made the black migration from Miss. to the North for a better life.
The Metoyers, both veteran Omaha theater performers, say they’ve never before played roles whose familial-cultural threads adhere so closely to their own lives. Like their counterparts, the Metoyers put much stock in faith and education. The play’s also giving the sisters and their brother Raymond Metoyer, an Atlanta, Ga. broadcast journalist whose news career started in Omaha, a platform to discuss the vital work done by their late parents, Ray and Lois Metoyer, in the struggle to secure equal rights here. The couple were involved in the Nebraska Urban League, which the senior Metoyer once headed, the local chapter of the NAACP and the Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties (4CL). They participated in marches. They had their family integrate a neighborhood. They sent their kids to white schools.
Their father was active in the 4CL’s predecessor, the De Porres Club.
“We knew our parents were trailblazers but we held a lot inside and this ([play) gives us a voice to be able to elevate them,” Lanette says.
“I’m really happy about this opportunity to bring to light all the things our parents did and worked so hard for,” Camille says.
“I’m very proud of my parents,” Raymond says. “They were very much strong foot soldiers in the civil rights movement in Omaha. They were part of a collective effort to improve housing, education and employment for minorities. They were more interested in the results than in individual glory, which seems to be something lost today. Working together to make things better was very much part of what they believed in and pushed for as a part of that collective.
“They instilled in us that same striving for being better.”
The siblings say their parents shared the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream that blacks “will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Lanette says her kid brother, L.A. musician Louis Metoyer “became exactly what our parents wanted for all of us because he got to reap all the benefits of us moving into an all-white neighborhood. He was able to play with white kids and make lasting friendships.”
Camille says, “Out of all of us I think he is the one who sees no color.”
Raymond says his folks believed in “leading by example” and thus his aspirational father, a Boys Town senior counselor and owner of the family’s barbecue joint on North 24th Street, took great pains with his appearance and speech.
“It wasn’t just about getting there. it was about how you handled yourself when you got there that made a difference,” he says.. “Our father always carried himself with dignity and strength. He projected the image he wanted people to see African-Americans could portray. He was just trying to show he belonged, that he was a significant member of the community because he had a right to be. My mother had that same persona. Both our parents instilled that in us. too.”
Raymond’s continued this leadership legacy in the National Association for Black Journalists and in his civil rights documentaries (Who Killed Emmett Till?). He admires his sisters for continuing the legacy as well.
“I’m so proud of my sisters being in this play because they’re carrying themselves with the same dignity they were brought up with.”
As kids the siblings got caught up in some of their folks’ activism.
Camille was 8 when she was taken out of school to accompany her parents in a 1963 4CL demonstration for open housing at City Hall.
The marchers proved well-schooled in nonviolent civil disobedience.
“We were walking around in a circle in the chambers carrying placards,” recalls Camille. “We were asked to disperse and of course we refused, and then they called the police in and we all sat down on the floor. I was with my dad in his lap when the police literally picked the two of us up and carried us out with me still on his lap.”
Before Metoyer, with Camille in tow, got transported to police headquarters officers let him down. As he carried Camille in his arms a news photographer snapped a picture of this dignified, loving black father comforting his adorable little girl, who sported braids and with tortoise shell frame eyeglasses. The photo made the wires.
The events made an impression on Camille.
“I remember being excited because there was so much energy. I knew what we were doing was something very important and I knew it was about fighting for our rights as black people. I remember being just a little bit scared by the police but my dad was there so I felt very safe with him.”
Lanette Metoyer Moore and Camille Metoyer Moten
Social justice was discussed in the Metoyer home.
“We were the family that all sat down to dinner together,” says Camille, “and all the conversation was about what was going on.”
The Metoyer children often tagged along with their progressive parents to meetings and gatherings. It meant getting to hear and meet Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson, in 1964 and 1969, respectively. Between those events the Metoyers integrated the Maple Village neighborhood in northwest Omaha in 1966.
“We knew it was something kind of groundbreaking but we were prepared because all of our lives we’d been taught to be on the frontlines,” says Lanette.
Raymond recalls the angry stares the family got just while driving through all-white areas. A petition circulated to try and prevent them from moving in. On move-in day some neighbors gathered outside to glare. At night his armed father and grandfather stood guard inside. It reminded his mother of what she thought she’d left behind in Miss. The house only got egged and shamed neighbors hosed off the mess.
Camille and Lanette remember threatening phone calls, nails scattered in the driveway, strange cars pulling up at night to train headlights in the windows, tense looks, awkward exchanges. At their various schools the kids encountered racism. They followed the example and admonition of their parents, whom Camille says “always addressed discrimination from an educational standpoint,” adding, “They were like, ‘Don’t get mad, just be enlightened.'”
Little by little the Metoyers found acceptance if not always fairness.
The OCP production of the Tony-nominated Having Our Say by Emily Mann, a past Great Plains Theatre Conference guest playwright, is a catharsis for the sisters.
“Doing this play has helped us in our relationship as sisters,” says Lanette. “We love to laugh just like the Delanys do. We’re storytellers like them. That tie between us now is stronger, especially after going through what Camille went through this past year (breast cancer).”
On another personal note, the play honors figures like their parents who had the courage of their convictions to stand up and be counted.
“It’s like finally they’re having their say,” says Camille.
The play runs through Feb. 9. For show times-tickets, visit http://www.omahacommunityplayhouse.com.
I was honored to recently author two iBooks for the Omaha Public Schools‘ Making Invisible Histories Visible project. Both have to do with civil rights. One is on the Great Migration as seen through the eyes of some Omaha women who migrated here from the Deep South. The other is about discrimination as seen through the eyes of Omahans who integrated Peony Park. Omaha artists made wonderful illustrations for the books and OPS teachers devised curriculum around the books’ themes for use in classrooms.
You can download these and other iBooks as part of the project at-
You can link to a PDF of the Great Migration iBook at-
You can link to a PDF of the Peony Park iBook at-
- ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’ author Leo Adam Biga doing book events Nov. 19, Nov. 23, Nov. 26, Dec. 3 and Dec. 11 (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha Lit Fest Offers a Written Word Feast (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
There can’t be too many people who’ve done what Dan Goodwin and Robert Armstrong of Omaha have done. Both men we’re at the historic 1963 March on Washington that became famous for Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In 1995 Goodwin went to D.C,.for the Million Man March. In 2009 Armstrong journeyed to the nation’s capital for Barack Obama’s first presidential inaugration. That’s a lot of history between these two African American gentlemen. Those weren’t their only brushes with history either. They recently spoke with me about their memories from the ’63 March on Washington for the following story to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com). My path has interesected with them before. You’ll find on this blog a cover story I did about Goodwin and his Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barber Shop that I refer to in the story. That earlier piece is called “We Cut Heads and Broaden Minds Too.” Also available on the blog are two cover stories I did about the noted race documentary A Time for Burning, which as I allude to in the story shot some pivotal scenes at the shop. And I was embedded with a group of Nebraskans, among them Armstrong, who bused to the 2009 O’Bama inauguration. That story can be found under the heading, “Freedom Riders: A Get on the Bus Inauguration Diary.”
Omahans Recall Historic 1963 March on Washington
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omahans Robert Armstrong and Dan Goodwin were among the estimated quarter of a million people gathered 50 years ago on the National Mall for the historic event. As young black men active in the civil rights movement they went to show solidarity for the cause of equality. Each was a military veteran and family man. Each had felt the sting of racism and gotten busy confronting it.
Armstrong had been a member of the NAACP Youth Council in his native St. Joseph, Mo., where he participated in demonstrations. He led the integration of a movie theater in his hometown. By 1963 Omaha native Goodwin already made his Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barbershop a haven for political discourse. It’s where Ernie Chambers held court en route to winning election to the Nebraska Legislature. Goodwin was involved in the social action group 4CL and its efforts to combat discrimination. Goodiwin helped organize a local speaking appearance by Omaha native Malcolm X the next year and his shop played a prominent role in the 1968 race documentary A Time for Burning.
At the time of the march Armstrong was teaching high school with his wife Edwardene in east Texas. The couple moved to Omaha a year later. She embarked on a teaching career with the Omaha Public Schools, whose quota of black male teachers denied him getting on there. He broke barriers as the first black professional to work at Mutual of Omaha’s home office and went on to a city government career, eventually heading the Omaha Housing Authority.
He attended the 1963 march to honor his late father, an AFL-CIO field representative. The union co-organized the march. In 1960 the family home hosted AFL-CIO titan Walter Reuther, other labor leaders and King. Mere months before the ’63 march Armstrong’s father, who was slated to attend, was killed in an automobile accident and his son felt compelled to go in his place.
Goodwin says he attended the march because “I felt I needed to be involved…” He shared the expectations of Armstrong and others that it would foster change. “We hoped it would bring people together. Of course we needed more than a feel good moment.”
Despite oppressive heat that summer day the crowds were larger than anticipated and none of the predicted disturbances occurred. Neither Armstrong nor Goodwin had ever seen that many folks assembled at one time. They couldn’t get anywhere close to the Lincoln Memorial, where the presenters were, and the sound from the speakers wasn’t always clear but both men were struck by the prevailing calm mood.
“The atmosphere was tremendous, it was awesome,” recalls Goodwin. “In a word what I saw was unity. People felt for the day or for that period of time empowered. It made you feel like some things were really going to change.”
Armstrong remembers “the sense of purpose of people knowing why they were there – the fight for freedom, integration,” adding, “We had no idea of the magnitude of the people that were going to be there. That was overwhelming, seeing all the people from so many different places.”
Before King came on civil rights stalwarts Reuther, A. Philip Randolph, John Lewis, Whitney Young and Roy Wilkins spoke. Artists Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Mahalia Jackson and Marion Anderson performed. As the program drew on the crowd grew a bit restless, anxious to get out of the sun. That changed when King launched into what became known as the “I Have a Dream” speech.
“About three minutes into it you realized this is a different kind of speech,” says Armstrong. “You could hear the attention go back to the podium. When he got to the point about the blank check (“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check.”) people really got into listening to what he was saying. From that point all attention was on him.
“When people talk about Dr. King’s speech they concentrate on the ‘I Have a Dream’ portion because that’s what people wanted to hear. But they seem to have forgotten he also talked about accountability and responsibility…We saw his speech as a call to action.”
It was the culmination of a black pride-filled gathering.
“I felt like it was our day,” says Goodwin. “I just felt like we really had something going on.”
Armstrong says, “You felt good about the day, the day had gone well. We’d heard a great speech and we hoped the nation would rally to offer more freedom, jobs, integration.” Back home, pragmatic reality set in that “the discrimination you faced yesterday” was still there.
“People went back and fought for the things they talked about that day. It still took a lot of work by a lot of people in different locations in different ways to make these things happen.”
Goodwin saw the march as a positive thing that ushered in major civil rights protections but he says the dream MLK and others envisioned is far from being fulfilled.
“I feel a strong sense of disappointment about the way things are today. Racism is hot and heavy in this country.”
Both Goodwin and Armstrong returned to the site of the ’63 march for more recent history-making occasions, In 1995 Goodwin bused into D.C. for the Million Man March and in 2009 Armstrong and his wife joined other area residents on a bus trip to the Obama inauguration.
Armstrong says Obama’s swearing in as the nation’s first black president “was a much happier occasion than the March on Washington,” adding, “The inauguration was a celebration – the march was a plea for justice.” Goodwin feels Obama’s presidency has been rendered more symbolic than anything by partisan politics.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.
- Obama to speak on 50th anniversary of March on Washington (upi.com)
- March on Washington leader John Lewis: ‘This is not a post-racial society’ (theguardian.com)
- 50th anniversary of King speech to be marked (newsday.com)
- Obama says income inequality could worsen racial tensions (thegrio.com)
Great Migration Stories: For African Americans Who Left the South for Omaha, the Specter of Down Home is Never Far Away
No matter where African Americans live today there’s a very high probability that someone in their family tree and maybe even several someone got up and out of the South before the major Civil Rights protections took effect. Making the move north or west of east was all about pursuing a better life. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) offers a small window into a few migration stories.
And you can download these and other iBooks as part of the project at-
Great Migration Stories: For African Americans Who Left the South for Omaha, the Specter of Down Home is Never Far Away
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The July 31-August 5 Native Omaha Days will feature metro-wide black heritage celebrations that on the surface don’t seem to have much to do with the American South. But when local African American families gather for the biennial Days most can point to someone in their family tree who migrated from the South.
The same holds true for almost any black family gathering of any size here. Whatever the occasion, there’s likely a Southern strain rich in history, tradition and nostalgia.
The Great Migration saw millions of African Americans leave the oppressive pre-civil rights South for parts all over the nation from the 1920s through the 1960s. Everyone who participated in the movement has a story. That’s certainly the case with two Omaha women who made the migration during its waning years, Luriese Moore and Lorraine Jackson.
Moore, 72, came from Boligee, Ala. in 1959 in her late teens. Her family had been sharecroppers but eventually become land owners.
“My grandparents lived and worked on the white man’s land,” she says. “Most everything went to the white man. They didn’t have a chance to show anything for their labors. That’s why my daddy was so inspired to get something of his own. He made it reality, too, when he saved up enough to buy 98 acres of land. He farmed it on weekends when home from his steel mill job in Tuscaloosa.
“My brothers and I grew up working the land. You got up when the sun rose and you almost worked until the sun set.”
The family still retains the property today.
Lorraine Jackson, 66, migrated from Brookhaven, Miss. in 1964 at age 17. Her grandparents were sharecroppers but eventually bought the cotton-rich land they toiled on and handed the 53 acres down to Jackson’s parents. Picking cotton was a back-breaking, finger-cutting chore. Adding insult to injury, you got cheated at the end of the day.
“You were supposed to get $3 for picking a hundred pounds but it seemed like you could never get a hundred pounds because the scales were loaded. But if you wanted to make money you picked cotton. I saved my money,” says Jackson.
The land she sweated on is still in the family’s hands.
Jackson says by the time she graduated high school she couldn’t stand being a second-class citizen anymore. She and her friends wanted out.
“That was the thing to do, you got out, you left.”
When Mississipians who’d already made the migration wrote or called or came back with news of plentiful jobs and things to do, it acted as a recruitment pitch.
“They would tell you about all the bright lights in the big cities and all the places you could go. They told you can have a better life. It made an impression that I needed to get away. I thought it was right for me. Besides, I was kind of rambunctious. I wasn’t the type to just sit there and say nothing or do nothing.
“I remember about a month before I left threatening my mom that I was going to sit at the Woolworth’s counter in town and she about had a heart attack. I said, ‘Mama, all they’re going to do is ask me to leave.’ It was time for me and I said, ‘I’m outta here.'”
Jackson came by train eager to start her new life.
Moore came by Greyhound bus and she says on the way here she was filled with mixed emotions of excitement and fear.
Each woman was among the movement”s last generation.
Another Omaha woman, Emma Hart, 87, was born in rural Ark. in 1926 but raised here, making her a child of the Great Migration.
Many other Omahans are variously fathers and mothers, sons and daughters of the migration. Few first generation migrants survive. A large extended family in Omaha made their exodus here from Evergreen, Ala. over a generation’s time. A group of Christians from Brewton, Ala. migrated here in 1917 to found Pilgrim Baptist Church. Practically every black family, church, club or organization has its own migration connection and story.
The precise circumstances and motivations for leaving the South varied but the common denominator was a desire for “a better way of life,” says Hart. That’s what drove her parents to come in 1921. The Big Four packinghouses were booming then. The promise of steady work there was still a powerful lure decades later when Moore and Jackson’s generation made the move north.
Migrants may not have thought of it in these terms, but implicit in their pursuit of a better life was the search for self-determination. Only by leaving the South, they felt, could they fully engage with and benefit from all that America offered.
Moore’s parents could not exercise their right to vote in the South without courting danger. She says her father risked his anyway by driving black protestors to voting rights marches. He left her a legacy and bequest she couldn’t ignore.
“My dad sacrificed his life. He could’ve got killed doing what he was doing, just to get the vote. My mother was concerned about Daddy getting killed because if you had a lot of people in your car during that time when the protests were happening the Klan would think you were freedom riders coming from the North.
“Daddy always preached to us, ‘Hey, when y’all get the chance to vote you vote,’ and I’ve never missed voting. The people before us gave their lives so we could vote.”
Moore married in Ala. Her husband moved to Omaha ahead of her to find work and a place to live. After she joined him they started a family. She worked for a time in a packinghouse, then she got on at J.L. Brandeis & Sons Department Store downtown. Her three brothers all moved here for a time and worked packings jobs. Those jobs were vital for many black families getting a foothold here.
“That’s where we really got our start, my husband and I,” she says. “We ended up buying two homes. It was good paying money at the time compared to other jobs we could get.”
Always looking to better herself Moore attended a local beauty college and she eventually opened her own salon – something she likely would not have been able to do then down South. Her clientele here included white customers, which would have never happened there.
Jackson, who married and raised a family in Omaha, worked in he Blackstone Hotel kitchen before going to beauty school and opening her own shop. She catered to customers of all races. An older brother preceded her to Omaha and drove a city bus for 35 years.
Both women continue doing hair today.
Emma Hart married and raised a family in Omaha, where she was almost never without work. She and many of her relatives worked in the packinghouses. Her first job came in a military laundry during World War II. Then she got on at Cudahy and when it closed she performed an undisclosed job in a sensitive area at Strategic Air Command. Two first cousins, brothers William and Monroe Coleman, enjoyed long, distinguished careers as Omaha Police Department officers. They could not have managed equivalent careers in the South then and even if they could it’s doubtful Monroe could have reached the post of acting deputy director he achieved here.
Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Story of America’s Great Migration, says, “The only way blacks could be recognized (as citizens) was to leave one part of their own country for another part. That’s why they’re like immigrants but they’re not immigrants. To me, it makes the story even more poignant because they had to do what immigrants had to to do just to become (full) citizens.”
“It wasn’t a political movement in the formal sense of the word but it had the impact of seeking political asylum or defection, almost in comparison to the Cold War when people tried to get on the other side of the Iron Curtain and had to go to great lengths to do so. This is a similar kind of defection that occurred within the borders of our own country and yet the people who were part of it didn’t see themselves as part of any demographic wave, they saw themselves as making a decision for themselves and their families. Ultimately this was about a search for freedom.”
Life outside the South was hardly paradise. Blacks still encountered segregation and discrimination in employment, housing, education, recreation. The De Porres Club and the 4CL staged marches and demonstrations against inequities here. Late 1960s civil disturbances in northeast Omaha expressed rage over police misconduct. Moore and Jackson experienced first hand blacks’ confinement to a small swath of North Omaha by housing covenants and red lining. Public places were not always accommodating. Many local businesses and organizations used exclusionary practices to deny or discourage black employment and patronage.
“To a certain point there were no restrictions,” says Jackson, “but there were some undertones. You could go anywhere. There were no signs that said you couldn’t. But because I lived it I could feel it but nobody really could do anything about it. You know subtle things when you see them.”
She recalls being made to feel invisible by the way people ignored her or talked past her.
In terms of housing barriers, she says, “My goal was to move past 30th Street because I couldn’t for so long, and I did. Some goals you just had to accomplish.”
Still, restrictions here were nothing like what they were in places like Mississippi, where state-sanctioned apartheid was brutally enforced.
“MIssissippi didn’t play, It was like a foreign country,” says Jackson.
When a member of her own family got into a dispute with a white person he had to skip town in the dead of night and stay way for years before it was safe to return.
Many blacks saw no option but to pack up everything they owned and leave everything they knew to start all over in some strange new city.
“I think the fact they would go to such great lengths is an indication of the desire and desperation and hopefulness they had that this next place will be a good place for me,” says Wilkerson.
This epic internal movement of a people wasn’t an organized thing but an organic response to harsh social-economic conditions. Punitive Jim Crow laws severely curtailed the rights of blacks. Widespread drought and blight forced many blacks off the land they worked as sharecroppers or farmers. The prospect of better paying industrial jobs in places like Omaha and Chicago, where packinghouses and railroads hired minorities, was all the reason people needed to move.
“Ultimately a migration is about determining for one’s self how one’s life is going to be and merely by living they are fulfilling the destiny and imperatives of their migration,” says Wilkerson. “For those who decided they could no longer live with the repression, they opted to plot out a course of their own choosing, and that is what a migration truly is. By just leaving they are doing the very thing they’re seeking to achieve. The leaving itself is the act of self-determination and courage.”
Those who made the trek to forge new lives elsewhere encouraged others to follow. Thus, an uninterrupted stream of migrants flowed from the South to forever change the makeup and dynamic of cities in the East, the North and the West.
Some streams fed into receiving cities located on direct rail lines from the South. Where black enclaves from certain states got established up North, they became magnets that drew ever more blacks. While Omaha received migrants from all parts of the South it primarily drew transplants from Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. Ironlcally, where Omaha once offered more opportunity than the South, the situation has reversed and countless Omaha blacks, many of them children and grandchildren of the Great Migration, have made a reverse migration.
But when Luriese Moore came in the late ’50s there was no doubt the Midwest was an improvement over the South. “I found it much better,” she says. For starters, there was nothing like the overt segregation she knew growing up.
“Everything was black and white just all over (there). It was just a way of life. We didn’t like it but it’s what was happening. They had one side of the street for colored and the other side for white. They had one water fountain for the black people and one for the white people. When you went into a store you just didn’t get in on the white side because you knew where you were supposed to be. We couldn’t go in some exclusive stores in my hometown that sold very fine clothes. They didn’t want us to try on hats and things.
“Up here the integration and everything was all new to me. It was just totally different from where we were. I didn’t see the signs we saw in Ala. for blacks only or whites only. You could just go to anywhere you wanted to here. You could go to any store you wanted to.”
Blacks were not immune from harassment, intimidation, threats, outright violence in places like Omaha – witness the 1919 lynching of Will Brown and resulting race riot – but the South was a much more treacherous landscape.
Lorraine Jackson says while she never laid eyes on the Ku Klux Klan during the time she lived in Miss., their presence was felt in incidents like cross burnings.
“They were there. They were killing people. We saw a lot of cross burnings in front of people’s houses. We knew those people, we went to church together. That was scary. You never get that fear out of your mind. It was a fear that you had because really you hadn’t done anything, you were just black and that’s all you had to be.”
She says blacks perceived to be too aspirational or ambitious by the white ruling class could be targets. A cross burning was a message to stay in you place.
“I mean, you really had to walk careful,” says Jackson. “You were expected to work in the fields and things like that.”
Moore recalls similar menace in Alabama.
“There was one town right out from Birmingham that was known to be very dangerous and to hang black people, You could not be on the highway too much at night either because they would end up shooting you or running you off the road. Oh, I don’t even want to think about it. I had kind of pushed it out of my mind.
“My parents were wonderful parents because we were sheltered from a lot of things going on down there, Those were very crucial times. Where I came from if you didn’t do what they told you to then then they would start going around your house and everything. If they wanted your property they made it awfully painful for you to keep it. They’d start doing things to your family, pestering you, messing with you, like running you off the road. People would say, so and so had an accident, well they wouldn’t have an accident, they would be run off the road. It was mean. It was not a pleasant thing. We saw a lot of that down there.”
Moore appreciates how far African Americans have come in her lifetime.
“We’ve come to a place where things are much better and I thank God for it. We have come a long ways. When we sing ‘we shall overcome,’ well, we have overcome. I’m glad we’ve moved past that. During the time it was happening it was a bitter feeling. I felt angry. i was looking at race as the human race and they were looking at color. I just couldn’t see how a person could treat another person like that .Sin causes people to lose sight of life and to do terrible things to each other.”
Jackson says the root of racism people’s “fear of what they don’t know.”
Emma Hart doesn’t recall her parents mentioning any specific fear they fled. The poor sharecroppers just went where the jobs were and when two relatives came and made a go of it here, Emma’s parents followed.
Where Emma’s relatives in the South attended all black country schools she attended integrated Omaha grade and high schools and where her relatives lived strictly segregated lives she lived in an integrated South Omaha neighborhood.
“Everything was mixed in South Omaha,” she says.
On one of only two visits she made to the South she experienced the hand of Jim Crow when the passenger train she was on left St. Louis for Ark. and blacks were forced to change cars for the segregated leg of the trip. That same racial protocol applied when Jackson took the train and Moore rode the bus in Jim Crow land.
Even when Moore made auto trips to the South she was reminded of what she’d left behind. “There were certain places they wouldn’t even sell us gas,” she says. “We couldn’t even get any food to eat, we had to pack up our own food to take south and to come back until we hit the St. Louis line.”
Hart may not have grown up in the South but she’s retained many Southern traditions she was brought up in, from fish fries to soul food feasts featuring recipes handed down over generations.
Lorraine Jackson keeps her Southern heritage close to her. “I brought my traditions – like Sunday dinners with the family. I raised my kids with the same culture and the same core values. There isn’t much I changed. I remained who I was – a daughter of the South. I’m very proud of it.”
Every now and then, she says, she just has to prepare “some fried chicken and biscuits from scratch” for that taste of home.
She’s sure the way she and her siblings were raised helps explain why they’ve all done well.
“All of us graduated from high school. Some of us went to college. A sister has a master’s degree. It’s amazing we’re successful. I think it was the upbringing. In that time we lived in we had to be strong, we had to be respectful. We had a work ethic – that was another good thing. Faith was a big factor, too.”
Jackson and Moore have made regular pilgrimages to the South since moving to Omaha. They marvel at its transformation.
Moore says she never dreamed her hometown of Boligee would have a black mayor, but it does. She’s also pleasantly surprised by all the open interracial relationships, blended church congregations and mixed gatherings she sees.
Jackson says, “When I go back to Mississippi it almost shocks me to see the change. Sometimes it catches me by surprise and I think, Where am I? It’s almost better than it is here.”
Both women say that when they gather with family or friends who share their past it’s the good times they recall, not the bad times. And whether their kids and grandkids know it or not, the family’s Southern roots get expressed in the food they eat and in the church they attend and in various other ways. These Daughters of the South may have left but their hearts still reside down home.
- The Jungle and The Great Migration (piperhuguley.com)
- 2013 Stroll Down Memory Lane: Native Omaha Days Celebration (yperspective.wordpress.com)
- To Remember the Great Northern Migration (local.answers.com)
- Following My Father’s Footsteps In A 2011 Cadillac CTS-V Coupe (automobilemag.com)
Documentary Shines Light on Civil Rights Powerbroker Whitney Young, Producer Bonnie Boswell to Discuss the Film and Young
The name is familiar to some and totally unknown to others, but a new documentary leaves no doubt about the significant role Whitney Young Jr. played in the civil rights movement. The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights makes a compelling case for Young being an overlooked giant of that progressive and momentous social justice effort to give African Americans the equality promised by law and practiced in every day life they were so long denied. The film’s producer, Bonnie Boswell, is the niece of the late Whitney Young, whose work to secure better lives for his people was largely done behind the scenes, in boardrooms and offices, rather than in public forums. My story about the film, Boswell’s motivation to do it, and her take on Young is in the current issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com). A screening and discussion with Boswell is scheduled March 28 at Film Streams in Omaha, where Young served as head of the Urban League of Nebraskas in the early 1950s.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
While Malcolm X moved with his family from Omaha as a child and only returned once as an adult, Young served as Urban League of Nebraska president from 1950 to 1953. Young faced racism first-hand growing up in the South and serving in the U.S. Army. In Omaha he found blacks severely restricted in terms of where they could live, work, eat and recreate. He worked with DePorres Club president Father John Markoe and Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown in mounting challenges to discrimination and segregation. He forged alliances with local business and civic leaders to try and improve opportunities for minorities.
Those mediating experiences undoubtedly informed his later work as National Urban League executive director from 1961 until his untimely death in 1971, a tenure that coincided with momentous civil rights events.
Young. who’s been called “the inside man of the black revolution,” is the subject of a new documentary produced by his niece, television journalist Bonnie Boswell. A free 7 p.m. screening of her PBS-telecast film, The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights, is set for March 28 at Film Streams. A Q&A with Boswell follows.
Boswell says she was motivated in part to do the project to ensure Young’s role in history got “the credit” it deserved because his contributions had become obscured over time. “The other reason I wanted to do the film,” she says, “is that I think it’s important to lift up people like Whitney Young, of whom there are many, who do work behind the scenes people don’t necessarily know about, who get things done, who make cities work. I think it’s important for future generations to have a sense of, as they start thinking about their lives, it’s not necessarily about getting your name in the newspaper or your picture on the front of some magazine but about being effective and getting a job done. I think we need to encourage people to take pride in that.”
Whitney Young and Bonnie Boswell
The most enduring images from the struggle for self-determination remain the public protests, marches and speeches that pricked the heart and conscience of a nation divided by race. Beyond the raised fists and voices, however, was the largely unseen and unheard back room maneuvering of activists, lawyers, politicians, ministers and others. These social justice soldiers brokered most of the change that delivered equal rights protections to African Americans.
Young was perhaps the most significant inside player among this largely unheralded vanguard of freedom fighters. Trained as a social worker, he used his pragmatist problem solving and people skills to gain access to corporate boardrooms and the White House to advance the case for equality as a good thing for America. Though famous in his time, his work was overshadowed by that of Martin Luther King Jr., who remains the enduring face of the movement.
Boswell says she fixed on doing the film after speaking at a Whitney Young health center in 2002 and reflecting on how her uncle’s diplomatic approach to facilitating compromise amid the tumultuous ’60s could be instructive for leaders negotiating our own ultra partisan, divisive times.
“I was concerned America was continuing to engage in overseas wars and the gap between rich and poor was widening, and I was like, Can’t we do better? Then as I studied the role he played as a mediator and a bridge-builder I thought, This is exactly the kind of person we need to have as a role model and more people need to know his story so he really can be that role model.”
Young with LBJ
Young with JFK
Now that she’s helped reclaim his legacy, what does she imagine Young would make of America today?
“I think he would be gratified and also disappointed. I think we’ve clearly made a lot of progress in many areas. We have a lot of work to do for true equity and we should be about continuing that job. I think he would want us to be picking up the baton that others left.”
Boswell says viewers would do well to remember that both MLK and Young challenged America to live up to its larger ideal of creating a better America.
“It went far beyond race, it was about the beloved community, the just society, our democracy, so we have to continue that work.”
The documentary is also extremely personal. Boswell’s early rearing came at the hands of her uncle’s and mother’s parents at the Lincoln Institute in Kentucky, where her grandfather was principal. She learned the same values her grandparents taught them. As a girl she adored her uncle but as a afro-wearing young woman caught up in Black Power fervor she favored the militancy of Stokely Carmichael to the diplomacy of Whitney Young. Her film makes clear the movement required many approaches to affect needed change.
As a middle-aged woman today, she says, “I certainly have come to appreciate Whitney’s role and the subtleties of things he was dealing with that I didn’t have the maturity to really understand. I was much more emotional about discrimination, period. He grew up in a time when you couldn’t afford to be so emotional and I didn’t understand that. I can definitely appreciate his legacy more today.”
The civil rights champion’s name adorns schools, organizations and empowerment programs around the nation. In Omaha the Urban League of Nebraska’s Whitney Young Jr. Academy offers life and career skills to youths.
Ticket reservations for the film screening-discussion are recommended. Call 402-933-0259 or visit http://www.filmstreams.org.
- ‘Independent Lens: The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights’ (Review) (popmatters.com)
- Boardrooms And Beyond: Remembering Civil Rights ‘Power Broker’ Whitney Young (npr.org)
- New film tells story of unsung civil rights leader Whitney Young Jr (thegrio.com)
- New Film Tells Story Of Unsung Civil Rights Leader (huffingtonpost.com)
- ‘The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights’ a New PBS Documentary (atlantablackstar.com)
Beaty’s One-Man Dramatization of the Diaspora Considers What Freedom Looks Like for African Americans
In the theater few artists have what it takes to pull off a one-man or one-woman show that requires creating multiple characters of all different ages and persuasions and that are both believable and compelling. Daniel Beaty is such a rare artist. He’s performing his one-man show Emergency Feb. 15 at the Holland Performing Arts Center in Omaha and it’s a must-see for its thought-provoking and entertaining take on what freedom means to African Americans in the context of the specter of slavery amidst the land of liberty. My story will soon be appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com).
Beaty’s One-Man Dramatization of the Diaspora Considers What Freedom Looks Like for African Americans
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
When writer-actor-composer Daniel Beaty conjures the 25-plus characters he portrays in his provocative one-man show, Emergency, it’s well to remember his riffs on the African-American experience are informed by his own life.
His award-winning play, which he performs Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Holland Performing Arts Center, is a bold meditation on freedom. It imagines a slave ship rising out of the Hudson River in front of the Statue of Liberty in present-day New York City. When this worst symbol of slavery rears its ugly head before our greatest symbol of freedom it throws into relief the inconvenient truth that liberty still eludes many African Americans.
“This is a metaphor for what stands in front of our freedom,” Beaty says. “Emergency is an exploration of what it means to be free – free to love, free to have hope, free to find one’s purpose and to live a life that’s bold and fully expressed.”
He says the ideas behind the show come from his own growing up as well as observations he made as a former New York City public schools arts educator, where every day reality contradicted America’s promise of equal opportunity.
“Because of my own personal upbringing and life story I really saw myself reflected in the lives of so many of these young people dealing with similar issues of parents battling incarceration or addiction or poverty,” he says. “It really clarified my purpose as a writer and performer to ask the questions, Why are we here? How can things be better? What world are we leaving for our children? It became clear to me the unhealed legacy of slavery is still impacting the hearts and minds of so many people. It goes back to the breakdown of the family that happened during slavery and our children not being told the story of our history in this country and not understanding the roots of economic disparity.”
For Beaty, the cyclical, generational problems that hold many blacks back have their origins in the psychic shackles of slavery.
“Why do you think there are more black people who are poor and in prison than any other group? Because we’re inferior? No. The ghetto is a modern-day plantation. And don’t get it twisted, I’m not just talking about poor people. You can have a six-figure income, a Ph.D., and still be a slave in your mind.
“I don’t believe in telling the story as excuse-making. People overcome and do the extraordinary every day. But I do believe in telling the story for the sake of context and saying, ‘You may have been born in the ghetto and your mom and your grandmother may have been in the ghetto and there’s a root for this economic disparity. But the same way there’s a root for that disparity there is a story of tremendous overcoming and possibility that can also inspire you to be greater than your circumstances may cause you to believe you can be.”
Beaty’s a case in point. The Dayton, Ohio native’s father became a career criminal and heroin addict. With his father in and out of prison Beaty and his older brother were raised by their social worker mother, Shirley Magee.
“My mother is a phenomenal woman. She grew up very poor in a small North Carolina town. She and her family participated in boycotts and sit-ins. She saw the becoming and the challenges of that period in our history. She’s just a fighter by nature, so in the midst of my father’s incarceration and addiction she made sure we were provided for at the expense of her own rest. She worked long hours and took care of her children.”
Daniel’s prodigious writing and speaking skills set him on a path to higher education. The Yale University and American Conservatory Theater graduate has written a string of solo (Through the Night) and ensemble (Resurrection) plays that have garnered acclaim.
Dedicated to being an “artist activist,” he says his activism is “rooted in everything I write anyway but I’m more and more being asked to participate in causes, in conversations around social issues. I personally believe that with a platform of fame or celebrity comes the responsibility to be a participant in the social discourse. With the privilege of people saying we listen to you, we want to hear from you comes a responsibility to give voice to those who don’t have that voice. That’s a big lesson I was taught by some of my mentors like Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis and Bill Cosby, who used the platform of their celebrity or performance to talk about important issues.”
He feels there’s also a healing and bridging his work offers audiences.
“One of the main reasons I choose to perform and write solo plays is because I believe inherent in seeing one person portray dozens of characters in a truthful, three-dimensional manner is the message that we are all connected. I sincerely believe our greatest problems as a world are rooted in the illusion we are separate from one another and different from one another. Certainly there are points of difference but I sincerely believe we are more alike than we are unalike,” he says.
“I think it’s in the space of understanding our shared humanity that we have the best possibility of healing the social economic disparities and ending the violence that plague societies. We are responsible to each other and for each other.”
He says his work falls in line with the African-American oral tradition and its contemporary spoken word off-shoots.
“One of the framing devices of the play is a nationally televised competition of slam poets called ‘America’s Next Top Poet,’ It’s a riff on the reality TV talent competitions we have today and a platform for various characters in the show who are thematically responding to the various things happening in the play.
“I look at slam poetry as having its roots in the black arts movement of the 1960s and while I certainly have respect for certain hip hop artists and particularly the roots of hip hop the slam poetry I endeavor to write is poetry about uplift, and investigating a social-political human scene in need of urgent, passionate exploration. I don’t write about things I would consider every day, mundane or not in support of us becoming our best selves as human beings. I write about things I feel are very urgent, like the state of our young people, the state of our families.”
Outside the New York theater scene he’s perhaps best known for having been a Def Poetry Jam regular. His performance there of the poem “Knock, Knock,” taken from his own Emergency, became a YouTube sensation. He uses slam poetry and spoken word as testimonies that comment on the incendiary events of his plays. He likes what can be expressed through the slam style.
“I actually call the moments of heightened poetic expression in my shows soul arias. They’re moments of direct address that are these passionate two to three minute explosions of poetic expression that crystalize not only an idea or theme but an emotional feeling in a powerful, poignant way that can parallel the aria in opera or the soliloquy in Shakespeare.
“‘Knock, Knock’ is a perfect example.”
The searing poem affirms that parents’ bad decisions need not define their children’s lives.
Knock knock for me.
For as long as you are free,
These prison gates cannot contain my spirit.
The best of me still lives in you.
Knock knock with the knowledge that you are my son,
But you are not my choices.
Yes, we are our fathers’ sons and daughters,
But we are not their choices.
For despite their absences,
We are still here,
With the power to change this world
One little boy and girl at a time.
“Ultimately what I discovered is that no matter where we come from or where we are in terms of challenges or difficulties we have the power to create our lives,” Beaty says. “My deepest pain was the path to my highest purpose. By really dealing with the challenges of my past and looking at them straight in the face I discovered I have a story to tell. I’m able to create the kind of life I want out of clarity of who I’m choosing to be, not out of fear of who I could be based on my past.”
It’s a message he’ll share with youths during his Sherwood Foundation-sponsored Omaha visit in workshops at North, South and Central high schools and with the Young, Gifted & Black teen troupe at The Rose Theater.
For updates about the artist visit http://www.danielbeaty.com.
For tickets to Emergency, visit TicketOmaha.com.
- Kelly: Yale grad bringing show – a ‘powerful’ statement on race – to Omaha (omaha.com)
- Def Jam Poetry: Daniel Beaty’s “Knock Knock”…Oldie, but a goodie! (komplexkulture.wordpress.com)
Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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