A Brief History of Omaha’s Civil Rights Struggle Distilled in Black and White By Photographer Rudy Smith
Rudy Smith was a lot of places where breaking news happened. That was his job as an Omaha World-Herald photojournalist. Early in his career he was there when riots broke out on the Near Northside, the largely African-American community he came from and lived in. He was there too when any number of civil rights events and figures came through town. Smith himself was active in social justice causes as a young man and sometimes the very events he covered he had an intimate connection with in his private life. The following story keys off an exhibition of his work from a few years ago that featured his civil rights-social protest photography from the 1960s. You’ll find more stories about Rudy, his wife Llana, and their daughter Quiana on this blog.
A Brief History of Omaha’s Civil Rights Struggle Distilled in Black and White By Photographer Rudy Smith
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Coursing down North 24th Street in his car one recent afternoon, Rudy Smith retraced the path of the 1969 summer riots that erupted on Omaha’s near northside. Smith was a young Omaha World-Herald photographer then.
The disturbance he was sent to cover was a reaction to pent up discontent among black residents. Earlier riots, in 1966 and 1968, set the stage. The flash point for the 1969 unrest was the fatal shooting of teenager Vivian Strong by Omaha police officer James Loder in the Logan Fontenelle Housing projects. As word of the incident spread, a crowd gathered and mob violence broke out.
Windows were broken and fires set in dozens of commercial buildings on and off Omaha’s 24th Street strip. The riot leapfrogged east to west, from 23rd to 24th Streets, and south to north, from Clark to Lake. Looting followed. Officials declared a state of martial law. Nebraska National Guardsmen were called in to help restore order. Some structures suffered minor damage but others went up entirely in flames, leaving only gutted shells whose charred remains smoldered for days.
Smith arrived at the scene of the breaking story with more than the usual journalistic curiosity. The politically aware African-American grew up in the black area ablaze around him. As an NAACP Youth and College Chapter leader, he’d toured the devastation of Watts, trained in nonviolent resistance and advocated for the formation of a black studies program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he was a student activist. But this was different. This was home.
On the night of July 1 he found his community under siege by some of its own. The places torched belonged to people he knew. At the corner of 23rd and Clark he came upon a fire consuming the wood frame St. Paul Baptist Church, once the site of Paradise Baptist, where he’d worshiped. As he snapped pics with his Nikon 35 millimeter camera, a pair of white National Guard troops spotted him, rifles drawn. In the unfolding chaos, he said, the troopers discussed offing him and began to escort him at gun point to around the back before others intervened.
Just as he was “transformed” by the wreckage of Watts, his eyes were “opened” by the crucible of witnessing his beloved neighborhood going up in flames and then coming close to his own demise. Aspects of his maturation, disillusionment and spirituality are evident in his work. A photo depicts the illuminated church inferno in the background as firemen and guardsmen stand silhouetted in the foreground.
The stark black and white ultrachrome prints Smith made of this and other burning moments from Omaha’s civil rights struggle are displayed in the exhibition Freedom Journeynow through December 23 at Loves Jazz & Arts Center, 2512 North 24th Street. His photos of the incendiary riots and their bleak aftermath, of large marches and rallies, of vigilant Black Panthers, a fiery Ernie Chambers and a vibrant Robert F. Kennedy depict the city’s bumpy, still unfinished road to equality.
The Smith image promoting the exhibit is of a 1968 march down the center of North 24th. Omaha Star publisher and civil rights champion Mildred Brown is in the well-dressed contingent whose demeanor bears funereal solemnity and proud defiance. A man at the head of the procession holds aloft an American flag. For Smith, an image such as this one “portrays possibilities” in the “great solidarity among young, old, white, black, clergy, lay people, radicals and moderates” who marched as one,” he said. “They all represented Omaha or what potentially could be really good about Omaha. When I look at that I think, Why couldn’t the city of Omaha be like a march? All races, creeds, socioeconomic backgrounds together going in one direction for a common cause. I see all that in the picture.”
Images from the OWH archives and other sources reveal snatches of Omaha’s early civil rights experience, including actions by the Ministerial Alliance, Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties, De Porres Club, NAACP and Urban League. Polaroids by Pat Brown capture Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his only visit to Omaha, in 1958, for a conference. He’s seen relaxing at the Omaha home of Ed and Bertha Moore. Already a national figure as organizer of the Birmingham (Ala.) bus boycott and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he’s the image of an ambitious young man with much ahead of him. Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, Jr. joined him. Ten years later Smith photographed Robert F. Kennedy stumping for the 1968 Democratic presidential bid amid an adoring crowd at 24th and Erskine. Two weeks later RFK was shot and killed, joining MLK as a martyr for The Cause.
Omaha’s civil rights history is explored side by side with the nation’s in words and images that recreate the panels adorning the MLK Bridge on Omaha’s downtown riverfront. The exhibit is a powerful account of how Omaha was connected to and shaped by this Freedom Journey. How the demonstrations and sit-ins down south had their parallel here. So, too, the riots in places like Watts and Detroit.
Acts of arson and vandalism raged over four nights in Omaha the summer of ‘69. The monetary damage was high. The loss of hope higher. Glimpses of the fall out are seen in Smith’s images of damaged buildings like Ideal Hardware and Carter’s Cafe. On his recent drive-thru the riot’s path, he recited a long list of casualties — cleaners, grocery stores, gas stations, et cetera — on either side of 24th. Among the few unscathed spots was the Omaha Star, where Brown had a trio of Panthers, including David Poindexter, stand guard outside. Smith made a portrait of them in their berets, one, Eddie Bolden, cradling a rifle, a band of ammunition slung across his chest. “They served a valuable community service that night,” he said.
Most owners, black and white, never reopened there. Their handsome brick buildings had been home to businesses for decades. Their destruction left a physical and spiritual void. “It just kind of took the heart out of the community,” Smith said. “Nobody was going to come back here. I heard young people say so many times, ‘I can’t wait to get out of here.’ Many went away to college and never came back. That brain drain hurt. It took a toll on me watching that.”
Boarded-up ruins became a common site for blocks. For years, they stood as sad reminders of what had been lost. Only in the last decade did the city raze the last of these, often leaving only vacant lots and harsh memories in their place. “Some buildings stood like sentinels for years showing the devastation,” Smith said.
His portrait of Ernie Chambers shows an engaged leader who, in the post-riot wake, addresses a crowd begging to know, as Smith said, “Where do we go from here?’
Smith’s photos chart a community still searching for answers four decades later and provide a narrative for its scarred landscape. For him, documenting this history is all about answering questions about “the history of north Omaha and what really happened here. What was on these empty lots? Why are there no buildings there today? Who occupied them?” Minus this context, he said, “it’d be almost as if your history was whitewashed. If we’re left without our history, we perish and we’re doomed to repeat” past ills. “Those images challenge us. That was my whole purpose for shooting them…to challenge people, educate people so their history won’t be forgotten. I want these images to live beyond me to tell their own story, so that some day young people can be proud of what they see good out here because they know from whence it came.”
An in-progress oral history component of the exhibit will include Smith’s personal accounts of the civil rights struggle.
- Carole Woods Harris Makes a Habit of Breaking Barriers for Black Women in Business and Politics (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Blacks of Distinction II (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- The Great Migration Comes Home: Deep South Exiles Living in Omaha Participated in the Movement Author Isabel Wilkerson Writes About in Her Book, ‘The Warmth of Other Suns’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Making the Case for a Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Part I of a Four-Part Q & A with Pulitzer-Winner Isabel Wilkerson On Her Book, ‘The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Part II of a Four-Part Series with Pulitzer-Winner Isabel Wilkerson, Author of ‘The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Part III of a Four-Part Q & A with Pulitzer-Winner Isabel Wilkerson on Her Book, ‘The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Part IV of a Four-Part Q & A with Pulitzer-Winner Isabel Wilkerson on Her Book, ‘The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Photojournalist Nobuko Oyabu’s Own Journey of Recovery Sheds Light on Survivors of Rape and Sexual Abuse (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Photojournalist Nobuko Oyabu’s Own Journey of Recovery Sheds Light on Survivors of Rape and Sexual Abuse Through Her Project STAND
Photojournalist Nobuko Oyabu has dedicated herself to a lifetime project portraying the individual hunanity of persons who have suffered rape or sexual abuse. Her intent is to beyond the label of victim to show who these people are. The work is dear to her for many reasons, not the least of which is her own recovery from rape. She delivers a message to the world in her pictures and in her words that the hurt survivors feel is real and profound but that healing is possible. She lets survivors, their families and friends, and the public know that the assault or the abuse and its aftermath need not define women. She delivers this message through a support organization she formed, through photographs she takes of survivors, through educational presentations she gives, and through writing she does on the subject, including her autobiography (Stand, published in Japan). She has been much honored for her work. I wrote the following profile of Nobuko several years ago, when she still lived in Omaha, Neb., where she’d come to work for the Omaha World-Herald. She and her family have since moved on elsewhere but her work continues, as does the praise for her efforts.
Photojournalist Nobuko Oyabu’s Own Journey of Recovery Sheds Light on Survivors of Rape and Sexual Abuse Through Her Project STAND
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Omaha City Weekly
Omaha photojournalist Nobuko Oyabu’s work on rape and sexual abuse first made waves in the States. Now it’s stirring things up in her native Japan. On visits there in the last year she’s exhibited her intimate portraits of survivors and given talks about her own story and her subjects’ stories of survival.
She was raped in 1999.
She’s also returned to her homeland to promote her new book, Stand (Forest Press). Published in October, it’s made best seller lists there. The book reveals the trauma of sexual assault through the prism of her personal odyssey and of the men and women she’s chronicled. Her book’s title is drawn from a national project she launched in Omaha to document survivors from across America and in Canada.
Some survivors want to be photographed at the very site they were abused. It isn’t always possible. When it is, it’s an emotional scene. The survivor seeks to reclaim power and control lost in the attack. It’s about closure. In one image a man weeps in the cabin he was molested in as a boy. Some images reveal artifacts of human suffering. A woman shows scars from cuts she makes on herself. Oyabu said self-mutilation is common among survivors as a way of dealing with post-traumatic stress. Another holds a photo of herself as a child made-up as a whore by her abusive dad. Innocence lost. Others choose places and poses that represent their recovery.
Oyabu said Stand is an expression of “how I stood up to the tragedy that happened to me and also of the stands of other survivors. Part of the meaning as well is that sometimes you can’t do anything but just stand there and wait. You can’t always be brave or do something great.”
The fact she’s openly discussing such traditionally taboo subjects in Japan has made her something of a sensation there. Major media outlets in Tokyo, her hometown of Osaka and other cities have profiled her.
“I think I’m the very first person speaking out” on this issue there, she said. In Oyabu’s view Japan harbors, much like the U.S., dysfunctional attitudes about rape and sexual abuse rooted in denial.
“A lot of women tend to be very quiet about it and just suffer silently. It’s really hard for them to be open about it,” she said.
She said a Japanese columnist questioned in print whether she’s actually a survivor after one of her upbeat presentations. Yes, the subject is sober but that doesn’t mean she has to be.
“This particular writer thought that was not appropriate at all. He wrote, ‘I wonder if it really happened to her?’ I wasn’t what he thought a survivor should look like,” she said. “So how should I look? Do I always have to be depressed? I mean, c’mon, I have a daughter. I have a responsibility to make her happy. I can’t be depressed.”
Oyabu said, “It’s kind of hard to attach faces to the issue” amid such perceptions, “It’s kind of hard to see the reality and people don’t really want to see it. But it’s not like all survivors are in depression, stigmatized and bitter. I certainly don’t see myself that way. I’ve found a lot of people don’t see themselves that way.
“If you have a preconceived idea of how a survivor looks, you can never get the real person in the picture.”
Faces of Rape and Sexual Abuse
©photos of survivors by Nobuko Oyabu
Before her own attack, she said, “I admit I had the same attitude toward rape victims. I thought rape belongs to somebody else. I didn’t know there are so many different kinds of survivors until I met them.”
Oyabu’s black and white images express the full spectrum of survivors in terms of education, occupation, income, race, ethnicity, age, shape, size. She said, “I consciously selected these people” to represent they are not just one thing or another. Sexual assault does not discriminate along demographic lines. “It happens to everyone,” she said. Just as survivors are not all rich or poor, black or white, they are not all grim or mad. Many are content, confident, proud, defiant. Count Oyabu among these. Her self-portrait on her book’s cover shows an assertive, ever curious woman poised with camera in hand.
“My resistance was the key for me,” she said.
While large urban papers in Japan gave her positive coverage, reprinting some of her images, she said smaller rural papers displayed a more close-minded attitude and refused to run her pics. She found that “odd” considering her images are in no way graphic but merely portraits. She thinks such reluctance stems from outdated notions that survivors should not be seen or heard — a byproduct of a larger bias that fixes blame or shame on survivors.
“With sexual assault there’s so much gray area still,” she said. “Too many people think it’s the victim’s fault. In this country as well.”
That the blame game should persist in Japan, she said, is ironic given it “is the capital of pornography in the world. There’s so much human trafficking and child porn going on…and somehow the blame is shifted to the victims.” She said sex is right out front in Japan, as it is here, “and yet when it comes to sexual violence people don’t want to acknowledge it,” much less talk about it. Similarly, she said America and Japan don’t want to examine the implications of sex being so pervasive yet rarely discussed at home or school. “Not talking about it,” she said, results in high rates of sexual assault, sexually transmitted diseases, promiscuity, prostitution. This pregnant silence, she said, explains why most sexual assaults go unreported.
“A lot of people are in denial,” she said, “especially parents who grew up in a home where abuse took place. A lot of people have no idea what to say — they just don’t know how to talk about it. Survivors don’t know who to talk to or where to go.”
In lieu of information, she said, some people suffer abuse not realizing they’ve been victimized. She notes a disturbing trend among young people she speaks with who routinely tell her they’ve been molested or raped but pass it off “as no big deal” — as if it’s a rite of passage. “It’s really sad,” she said.
Then there’s the way rape is historically minimized by society, drawing light sentences for actions that have long lasting effects.
Oyabu noted, “One of the survivors put it like this: ‘The rapist gets three to five years, the victims get life.’ And that’s exactly it. It’s not just a one-time incident. For a lot of people it takes a lifetime to get over it. I find it disturbing that society doesn’t see rapists as high risk criminals.”
The reaction her work’s elicited in Japan is not unlike its reception in the U.S. Her STAND: Faces of Rape and Sexual Abuse Survivors Project has been a traveling exhibition across America. Her work with survivors and her personal identification with them and their trauma has made her a sought-after figure. She’s testified before Congress about the issue. She’s spoken to medical, health and law enforcement professionals. She’s presented at women’s and survivors conferences as well as colleges and universities. She’s served as visiting faculty at the Poynter Institute (Fla.) for a seminar on how the media reports rape. She and her work have been part of national awareness campaigns and a Lifetime documentary. She’s written articles for publications here and abroad.
In 2003 she received the Visionary Award from the DC Rape Crisis Center along with comedian Margaret Cho and poet Alix Olsen.
Still, her work is not always appreciated. She said while on staff at the Omaha World-Herald in 2000-2002 senior editors there nixed her doing a photo-essay series on sexual assault survivors. The material, she was told, was too intense for the paper. She said some journalists criticize her for crossing ethical lines as a reporter who documents fellow survivors like herself.
“But if you can use your personal experience to get an exclusive story,” she asks, “then why not use it as a tool?”
Although she defines herself a photojournalist rather than survivor or advocate, her work’s inextricably linked to her experience. Stand centers on the aftermath of her rape — the turmoil she felt and the healing she found. In this light, she said, the images she makes, the talks she delivers, the testimonies she shares serve an educational purpose. “The work of journalism is educating people,” she said. More than anything, she wishes to give survivors names and faces just like her own.
Oyabu was a young, single, up-and-coming photographer with the Moline (Ill.) Dispatch in 1999 when she was raped. She had come to the States only a few years before to pursue her post-secondary education. She wanted to write but found her niche with a camera at Columbia College in Chicago. She went on to shoot a diverse range of subjects for newspapers in the Quad Cities.
Her life and career were full of bright promise when she suffered the ultimate violation and everything grew dark. The rape occurred far from her family in Osaka, where her father pastors a Christian church and her mother teaches preschool. It would be six years before she told her parents what happened. She said, “I didn’t want to worry them too much…I didn’t have the courage to tell,” In the wake of her revelation, she said, “my family has been very supportive.”
The violent act took place at night in her own home. She was sleeping in the bedroom of her locked apartment when the male perpetrator, a former neighbor she didn’t know, broke in using a crowbar. The petite Oyabu never stood a chance. As soon as the stranger left she ran to neighbors and called 911. The cops that caught the case treated her with care on the scene and at the hospital ER they took her to. The medical staff respectfully collected what they needed for the “rape kit” that police and prosecutors use to help convict rapists.
While treated well, Oyabu said she did overhear a doctor ask a nurse, Why is she crying? As she’s since discovered, the law enforcement and medical communities are not always as sensitive as they could be. At a 2005 University of Nebraska Medical Center presentation she told doctors, nurses and students that most sexual assaults are committed by a relative, friend, acquaintance or colleague, meaning victims “take a huge risk even to come out to the ER. You are among the first to respond to these victims when they reach out for help,” she implored the audience, “so please be compassionate to these people.”
Care must be taken with victims, she said, as the trauma of rape is exacerbated by the trauma of examination and interrogation and the suggestion — intentional or not — that somehow the victim’s at fault.
Oyabu provided police a description of her assailant, who left behind the crowbar, his hand prints, hair and other incriminating details. He was caught after only three days. The fact her rapist was captured at all, much less so swiftly, is atypical, she said. The remainder of that year is a blur of counseling sessions, depositions, trial proceedings and attempts to get on with her life. Due to the overwhelming evidence she was spared having to testify. The repeat offender was given the maximum sentence by the judge — 20 years — and is currently serving his time in an Illinois state pen. Again, she said, that is not the norm.
Even with some closure, Oyabu endured flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety attacks and depression. She lived in fear. She rarely let her guard down around men.
The counselor she was referred to at a Quad Cities family services center helped Oyabu work through her emotions. “She made sure I understood that it (the rape) wasn’t my fault. That’s one of the biggest steps for healing.”
A counselor friend suggested she keep a journal. Oyabu said journaling provided a healthy release. Later, her entries proved a key resource for her book. That same friend asked Oyabu to participate in a project that had victims’ harsh self-portraits and words printed on T-shirts. “All I saw was shame and anger on them,” she said. “These T-shirts were faceless. I didn’t belong there — I have feeling and hope. I’m not just a statistic.” This picture of bitter fruit was not the image she had of herself or other survivors, a term she prefers to victims.
“Well, I don’t want to be bitter forever,” she said. “Survivors don’t want you to feel sorry for them or see them as some kind of damaged goods.”
She’d already discovered survivors could be anyone. After her rape several friends came forward with their own stories. “It was really a shock to me all these close friends from college were rape survivors. I didn’t know it,” she said. “I guess my friends didn’t know how to start the conversation about it. Once I was victimized they felt like they could talk now.”
Four of the five women she served on a panel with at the Poynter Institute turned out to be survivors. Smart, successful professionals like her. They’re everywhere.
Oyabu came to Omaha not just for a job but to escape the place where she was raped. “I couldn’t really stay in the same city,” she said. Also, Omaha had a lower incidence of sex crimes. The thought of it happening again plagued her. She wanted to feel safe. But that took time and work. It came with the help of Dee Miller, a fellow writer and survivor in Council Bluffs, and Pastor William Barlowe, pastor of Omaha’s Grace Apostolic Church, where she met her husband, IT specialist Patrick McNeal. The couple have a 2-year-old daughter, Ellica.
Another turning point came when she wrote a letter to her rapist. “As soon as I dropped the letter in the mailbox,” she said, “I felt a kind of joy I’d never experienced. I started to smile and laugh again. I felt like I was totally set free.” Forgiveness is a work in progress.
The next piece of her recovery was her faces of survivors work. When the Herald balked at doing anything she bolted in frustration and liberation. “I was like, Forget them, I’ll do it on my own. She did, too, largely self-funding what became the Stand project. Fees from speaking engagements and exhibits helped.
She said the project’s been “part of my healing, It’s been healthy for me.” She’s met some survivors who can’t move on or can’t find closure — still mired in their pain. “That’s totally understandable. I was there.” She’s met others who dedicate themselves to the cause — working to make a difference with survivors and first responders. Others lead fulfilling lives and careers outside the issue. She keeps in contact with many. For herself, she said, “sometimes I just can’t believe how far I’ve come and how much I’ve done the past six, seven years. I’m alive.”
The prospect of writing about her survival scared her until she found she could divorce herself from the emotion of that trauma. The process was cathartic. She’s now translating Stand for an English language edition to be published in the U.S. by year’s end. Her photo project lay dormant the past few years as she worked on the book and adjusted to motherhood. This year she may capture new images for the project on two trips she’s making to Japan, where survivors who surfaced after her last appearances there requested to be part of her archive. In the future she may revisit her original portrait subjects to further chart their journey of recovery.
Meanwhile, she’s contemplating her next project. Exploring sexual assault in Asian countries interests her. Whatever she does, she won’t be afraid to take a stand.
NATIONAL SEXUAL VIOLENCE RESOURCE CENTER
Nobuko is a honorary board member of NSVRC. NSVRC serves as the nation’s principle information and resource center regarding all aspects of sexual violence.
Clothesline Project of Japan
a project of survivors and their remained families of sexual abuse express their thought in drawing on T-shrits.(in Japanese)
Parents United of the Midlands
a site whose mission to bring light to the darkness of sexual abuse
free resource for victims and their families
Welcome to Barbados
a Tori Amos inspired website for rape and sexual abuse survivors
- Supporting Survivors of Sexual Assault (healthyheels.wordpress.com)
- April Is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) (kcareyinfante.com)
- The Medical Minute: Sexual abuse can have long-term effects (medicalxpress.com)
- Self-esteem, recovery from sexual abuse (gwizlearning.wordpress.com)
- 39 Million Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (livingstonparentjournal.wordpress.com)
A subject I’ve longed writing about is David Krajicek, a reporter and author whose niche telling true crime stories has made him a very nice career. My mini-profile that follows, which by the way is soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com), doesn’t allow nearly the space I need to do true justice to his story, but I figure it’s a good start because I’m confident I’ll be revisiting his life and work again down the road. Among his new best-sellers on Kindle are True Crime: Missouri and Death by Rock ‘n’ Roll. I have yet to read those, but I have read his Murder, American Style and I can vouch for it. The Omaha native got his start in journalism in his hometown but made his mark in New York City, with the Daily News. He’s freelance now but he still has a prominent slot with the News as author if its long-running Justice Story feature. Krajicek still makes it back to his old Omaha haunts and I look forward to catching up with at one of these this fall.
Murder He Wrote: Reporter-Author David Krajicek Finds His Niche as a True Crime Storyteller
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to be published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
South Omaha native son David Krajicek’s crime writing has branded him Mr. Murder, so it’s only apt he looks the heavy with his bearded mug, bouncer glare and imposing size. This tabloid poet and rebel, who hails from a long line of barkeeps and meatpackers, gets his rabble-rouse on playing old-school R&B.
The ex-New York Daily News crime reporter and bureau chief still writes the rag’s Justice Story feature but mainly authors Kindle best seller true crime books. The Catskills resident is back touting True Crime: Missouri and Death by Rock ‘n’ Roll. He did a signing at his folks’ Lodge Bar & Cafe in LaPlatte, Neb. “My literary home base,” he calls it. He’s done his share of bartending and elbow bending there.
Fittingly, it was at a bar he and a buddy fixed on taking a UNO class together, Introduction to Mass Communications, only because it seemed easy. Krajicek, then studying business, changed majors and the course of his life when instructor Warren Francke “absolutely turned me on to the possibilities of journalism.”
At Ryan High Krajicek got an inkling he might be writer-material. “I was in Sr. Rita’s writing class when she looked across the table at me and said, ‘You know, you could do this for a living.’ That was kind of the first clue I had some knack.”
Observing things and spinning tales came naturally. “I definitely was a watcher and a collector of stories from the time I was a little kid.” The bars he grew up in served local color alongside beers and shots. “Bars to me were like theaters. They really captivated me. To this day I love to go into a bar, almost any bar, and sit at the far corner, where I get a view of everything.”
“It was an invaluable experience working with a lot of really smart people,” he says. “One night the police reporter called in sick and Carl (Keith) looked over at me and said, ‘Do you know where the police station is?’ ‘I can find it,’ I said. I had three bylines in the next morning’s paper.”
He says he learned the beat from mentors Jim Fogarty, “a legendary courts reporter,” and Keith, “who showed me journalism is both a craft and an art.”
In 1984 Krajicek decided to prove his mettle in a larger market. First, though he applied at the prestigious Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and was accepted. Thus began his ongoing affair with New York. He credits Columbia with “opening my eyes to the possibilities of the business” and “taking journalism from black and white to technicolor.” Among the profs who “inspired” him was Dick Blood, an old Daily News editor who told Krajicek he had what it took to make it in the “rough and tumble” tabloids world. Sure enough, Krajicek flourished there.
“There were things I would have gotten fired for at the World-Herald I probably would have gotten a bonus for at the Daily News. They encouraged you to cross lines and trespass and things like that. I guess I was bold. I was no shrinking violet. I hope I’m sensitive, but I’m big. I think I proved that even though I was from the hinterlands I felt comfortable moving around New York City talking to anybody about anything.”
Krajicek covered all manner of mayhem, from crack deals gone bad to mafia last stands. He co-wrote the first major profile of John Gotti and received threats. He gained a rep as a standout writer of terse, staccato prose and vivid details.
“I don’t like frou-frou language, I don’t like extraneous stuff, I don’t like over-describing,” says this Raymond Chandler and Raymond Carver devotee. “I love telling stories and stories from the police and criminal justice blotter are the greatest stories to be told in journalism.”
Six years of it though took its toll.
“It was just one horrible inhumane story after another, and it wore on me. Over time I lost my belief in the basic goodness of human kind.”
Krajicek addressing (UNO) University of Nebraska at Omaha students, ©photo by Jeremy Lipschultz
He switched gears to teach full-time at Columbia, where he’d been an adjunct. Eight years into his scholarly role he authored Scooped!, an acclaimed memoir-critical analysis of criminal justice reporting, and then left, abandoning almost sure tenure, to return to crime writing. Only on his terms.
“I relish telling these old true crime stories. I love the historical connection that I’m one of the last living remnants of True Detective magazine. These stories used to appear everywhere but print’s given over the true crime franchise to television.”
He makes occasional TV appearances as a true crime expert but mainly mines old cases for his stories. His next local book event is Nov. 9 at noon at the Jewish Community Center. Visit Krajicek’s Author’s Page at Amazon.com.
- Crime and Justice News: 8-11-2011 (alaskacure.wordpress.com)
Hidden In Plain View, Rudy Smith’s Camera and Memory Fix on a Critical Time in Struggle for Equality
Rudy Smith’s own life is as compelling as any story he ever covered as a photojournalist. Both as a photographer and as a citizen, he was caught up in momentous societal events in the 1960s. This article for The Reader (www.thereader.com) examines some of the things he trained his eye and applied his intellect and gave his heart to — incidents and movements whose profound effects are still felt today. Rudy’s now retired, which only means he now has more time to work on a multitude of personal projects, including a book collaboration with his daughter Quiana, and to spend with his wife, Llana. This blog contains stories I did on Quiana and Llana. I have a feeling I will be writing about Rudy again before too long.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
It was another August night in the newsroom when word came of a riot breaking out on Omaha’s near northside. If the report were true, it meant for the second time that summer of 1966 minority discontent was turning violent. Rudy Smith was the young Omaha World-Herald photojournalist who caught the story. His job at the newspaper was paying his way through then-Omaha University, where the Central High grad was an NAACP Youth Council and UNO student senate activist. Only three years before, he became the first black to join the Herald’s editorial staff. As a native north Omahan dedicated to his people’s struggle, Smith brought instant credibility to his assignments in the black community. In line with the paper’s unsympathetic civil rights stance at the time, he was often the only photographer sent to the near northside.
“And in many cases my colleagues didn’t want to go. They were fearful of the minority community, and so as a result I covered it. They would just send me,” said Smith, a mellow man whose soft voice disguises a fierce conviction. “As a result, the minority community that never had access to the World-Herald before began to gain access. More stories began to be written and more of the issues concerning north Omaha began to be reported, and from a more accurate perspective.”
It was all part of his efforts “to break down the barriers and the stereotypes.”
Archie Godfrey led the local NAACP Youth Council then. He said Smith’s media savvy made him “our underground railroad” and “bridge” to the system and the general public. “Without his leadership and guidance, we wouldn’t of had a ghost of an understanding of the ins and outs of how the media responds to struggles like ours,” said Godfrey, adding that Smith helped the group craft messages and organize protests for maximum coverage.
More than that, he said, Smith was sought out by fellow journalists for briefings on the state of black Omaha. “A lot of times, they didn’t understand the issues. And when splinter groups started appearing that had their own agendas and axes to grind, it became confusing. Reporters came to Rudy to sound him out and to get clarification. Rudy was familiar with the players. He informed people as to what was real and what was not. He didn’t play favorites. But he also never hid behind that journalistic neutrality. He was right out front. He had the pictures, too. This city will probably never know the balancing act he played in that.”
As a journalist and community catalyst, Smith has straddled two worlds. In one, he’s the objective observer from the mainstream press. In the other, he’s a black man committed to seeing his community’s needs are served. Somehow, he makes both roles work without being a sell out to either cause.
“My integrity has never been an issue,” he said. “As much as I’d like to be involved in the community, I can’t be, because sometimes there are things I have to report on and I don’t want to compromise my professionalism. My life is kind of hidden in plain view. I monitor what’s going on and I let my camera capture the significant things that go on — for a purpose. Those images are stored so that in the next year or two I can put them in book form. Because there are generations coming after me that will never know what really happened, how things changed and who was involved in changing the landscape of Omaha. I want them to have some kind of document that still lives and that they can point to with pride.”
For the deeply religious Smith, nothing’s more important than using “my God-given talents in service of humanity. I look at my life as one of an artist. An artist with a purpose and a mission. I’m driven. I’m working as a journalist on an unfinished masterpiece. My life is my canvas. And the people and the events I experience are the things that go onto my canvas. There is a lot of unfinished business still to be pursued in terms of diversity and opportunity. To me, my greatest contributions have yet to be made. It’s an ongoing process.”
The night of the riot, Smith didn’t know what awaited him, only that his own community was in trouble. He drove to The Hood, leaving behind the burnt orange hard hat a colleague gave him back at the office.
“I knew the area real well. I parked near 20th and Grace Streets and I walked through the alleys and back yards to 24th Street, and then back to 23rd.”
Most of the fires were concentrated on 24th. A restaurant, shoe shine parlor and clothing store were among the casualties. Then he came upon a church on fire. It was Paradise Baptist, where he attended as a kid.
“I cussed, repeating over and over, ‘My church, my church, my church,’ and I started taking pictures. Then I heard — ‘Hey, what are you doing here?’ — and there were these two national guardsmen pointing their guns at me. ‘I’m with the World-Herald,’ I said. I kept snapping away. Then, totally disregarding what I said, they told me, ‘Come over here.’ This one said to the other, ‘Let’s shoot this nigger,’ and went to me, ‘C’mon,’ and put the nuzzle of his rifle to the back of my head and pushed me around to the back of the building. As we went around there, I heard that same one say, ‘There ain’t nobody back here. Let’s off him, he’s got no business being here anyway.’ I was scared and looking around for help.
That’s when I saw a National Guard officer, the mayor and some others about a half-block away. I called out, ‘Hey! Hey! Hey!’ ‘Who is it?’ ‘Rudy Smith, World-Herald.’ ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ ‘I’m taking pictures and these two guys are going to shoot me.’ The officer said, ‘C’mon over here.’ ‘Well, they aren’t going to let me.’ ‘Come here.’ So, I went…those two guys still behind me. I told the man again who I was and what I was doing, and he goes, ‘Well, you have no damn business being here. You know you could have been killed? You gotta get out of here.’ And I did. But I got a picture of the guardsmen standing in front of that burning church, silhouetted by the fire, their guns on their shoulders. The Herald printed it the next day.”
Seeing his community go up in flames, Smith said, “was devastating.” The riots precipitated the near northside’s decline. Over the years, he’s chronicled the fall of his community. In the riots’ aftermath, many merchants and residents left, with only a shell of the community remaining. Just as damaging was the later North Freeway construction that razed hundreds of homes and uprooted as many families. In on-camera comments for the UNO Television documentary Omaha Since World War II, Smith said, “How do you prepare for an Interstate system to come through and divide a community that for 60-70 years was cohesive? It was kind of like a big rupture or eruption that just destroyed the landscape.” He said in the aftermath of so much destruction, people “didn’t see hope alive in Omaha.”
Today, Smith is a veteran, much-honored photojournalist who does see a bright future for his community. “I’m beginning to see a revival and resurgence in north Omaha, and that’s encouraging. It may not come to fruition in my lifetime, but I’m beginning to see seeds being planted in the form of ideas, directions and new leaders that will eventually lead to the revitalization of north Omaha,” he said.
His optimism is based, in part, on redevelopment along North 24th. There are streetscape improvements underway, the soon-to-open Loves Jazz and Cultural Arts Center, a newly completed jazz park, a family life center under construction and a commercial strip mall going up. Then there’s the evolving riverfront and Creighton University expansion just to the south. Now that there’s momentum building, he said it’s vital north Omaha directly benefit from the progress. Too often, he feels that historically disenfranchised north Omaha is treated as an isolated district whose problems and needs are its own. The reality is that many cross-currents of commerce and interest flow between the near northside and wider (read: whiter) Omaha. Inner city residents work and shop outside the community just as residents from other parts of the city work in North O or own land and businesses there.
“What happens in north Omaha affects the entire city,” Smith said. “When you come down to it, it’s about economics. The north side is a vital player in the vitality and the health of the city, particularly downtown. If downtown is going to be healthy, you’ve got to have a healthy surrounding community. So, everybody has a vested interest in the well-being of north Omaha.”
It’s a community he has deep ties to. His involvement is multi-layered, ranging from the images he makes to the good works he does to the assorted projects he takes on. All of it, he said, is “an extension of my faith.” He and his wife of 37 years, Llana, have three grown children who, like their parents, have been immersed in activities at their place of worship, Salem Baptist Church. Church is just one avenue Smith uses to strengthen and celebrate his community and his people.
With friend Edgar Hicks he co-founded the minority investment club, Mite Multipliers. With Great Plains Black Museum founder Bertha Calloway and Smithsonian Institute historian Alonzo Smith he collaborated on the 1999 book, Visions of Freedom on the Great Plains: An Illustrated History of African Americans in Nebraska. Last summer, he helped bring a Negro Leagues Baseball Museum exhibit to the Western Heritage Museum. Then there’s the book of his own photos and commentary he’s preparing. He’s also planning a book with his New York theater actress daughter, Quiana, that will essay in words and images the stories of the American theater’s black divas. And then there’s the petition drive he’s heading to get Marlin Briscoe inducted into the National Football League Hall of Fame.
Putting others first is a Smith trait. The second oldest of eight siblings, he helped provide for and raise his younger brothers and sisters. His father abandoned the family after he was conceived. Smith was born in Philadelphia and his mother moved the family west to Omaha, where her sister lived. His mother remarried. She was a domestic for well-to-do whites and a teenaged Rudy a servant for black Omaha physician W.W. Solomon. Times were hard. The Smiths lived in such squalor that Rudy called their early residence “a Southern-style shotgun house” whose holes they “stuffed with rags, papers, and socks. That’s what we call caulking today,” he joked. When, at 16, his step-father died in a construction accident, Rudy’s mother came to him and said, “‘You’re going to take over as head of the family.’ And I said, ‘OK.’ To me, it was just something that had to be done.”
Smith’s old friend from the The Movement, Archie Godfrey, recalled Rudy as “mature beyond his years. He had more responsibilities than the rest of us had and still took time to be involved. He’s like a rock. He’s just been consistent like that.”
“I think my hardships growing up prepared me for what I had to endure and for decisions I had to make,” Smith said. “I was always thrust into situations where somebody had to step up to the front…and I’ve never been afraid to do that.”
When issues arise, Smith’s approach is considered, not rash, and reflect an ideology influenced by the passive resistance philosophies and strategies of such diverse figures as Machiavelli, Gandhi and King as well as the more righteous fervor of Malcolm X. Smith said a publication that sprang from the black power movement, The Black Scholar, inspired he and fellow UNO student activists to agitate for change. Smith introduced legislation to create UNO’s black studies department, whose current chair, Robert Chrisman, is the Scholar’s founder and editor. Smith also campaigned for UNO’s merger with the University of Nebraska system. More recently, he advocated for change as a member of the Nebraska Affirmative Action Advisory Committee, which oversees state departmental compliance with federal mandates for enhanced hiring, promotion and retention of minorities and women.
The camera, though, remains his most expressive tool. Whether it’s a downtown demonstration brimming with indignation or the haunted face of an indigent man or an old woman working a field or Robert Kennedy stumping in North O, his images capture poignant truth. “For some reason, I always knew whatever I shot was for historical purposes,” he said. “When it’s history, that moment will never be revisited again. Words can describe it, but images live on forever. Just like freedom marches on.”
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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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