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)
Another Omaha elder leader has passed. The Rev. Everett Reynolds spent the better part of his life fighting the good fight against injustice. The following in memoriam piece I wrote appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).
Rev. Everett Reynolds Gave Voice to the Voiceless
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Rev. Everett Reynolds was not from Nebraska but he’s remembered as someone who made a significant mark here.
The St. Louis, Mo. native passed earlier this week in Omaha at age 83.
As a United Methodist minister and community leader he led congregations, worked with parolees, headed the local chapter of the NAACP, founded Cox Cable television channel CTI-22 and advocated for civil rights.
His work followed that of his father and grandfather, who were preachers. But for a long time Reynolds resisted The Call.
As a youth, he moved with his family to Lincoln, Neb., where his father pastored a church. After his father took over at Clair Memorial United Methodist Church in Omaha, Reynolds attended Technical High School.
But school and church were far from his mind. He heeded another calling, music, to become a professional musician in touring dance bands. He sang ballads and blues and played bass violin. He sat in with such legends as Count Basie and Lionel Hampton. He also played for top Omaha Midwest touring bands led by Lloyd Hunter and Earl Graves.
It was a heady time, but as the years went by he got caught up in the night life. Women. Booze. His alcoholism made him a liability. Once, after a week-long bender, he woke up in Houston, unable to remember what happened. Exiled from the band, this Prodigal Son finally returned home.
In a 2004 interview he said after failing to kick his drinking habit, he asked for divine help, and this time he stayed dry. In 1950, he rejoined the church and married. He and his wife Shirley celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary last year. His fall from grace and his subsequent recovery and rebirth, he said, gave his ministry “a message” for anyone straying from The Word. “For I have been there.”
He made his ministry an extension of his work as a Nebraska parole officer. In his duals roles he said he often shared with youth his own experiences.
Reynolds, who held a theology degree and a doctorate, eventually took over his father’s pulpit at Clair Methodist. A consistent theme he delivered as a preacher is that “we’re all created equal in the sight of God. One blood are we.” Black or white, he said, shouldn’t matter. “When we reduce our faith to race, we’ve reduced our faith. Each time we make an advance, it’s for all people, not one.”
“My father was against any kind of inequitable treatment of people, of any people,” says Trip Reynolds, one of the late pastor’s three sons. “That’s his hallmark. Some people talk it — my dad was frequently acknowledged for practicing what he preached.”
Rev. Reynolds went on to pastor Lefler United Methodist Church. During his tenure, he assumed leadership of the Omaha NAACP. It was a tough time for the organization, locally and nationally, with declining memberships and a flagging mission.
As a NAACP spokesman he made his voice heard on hot button incidents like alleged police brutality. He raised awareness. He advocated dialogue. He organized protests. He called press conferences. The cable channel he founded, which originated as Religious Telecast Inc. before changing names to Community Telecast Inc., was created as a forum for minority voices to be heard. Trip Reynolds ran the channel with his father and today is general manager.
The late minister is remembered as the conscience of a community.
“He was very strong and intense in what he believed in,” says Metropolitan Community College liaison Tommie Wilson.”Powerful, intelligent. He knew civil rights backwards and forwards, and he stepped out there and he did it — fighting for justice for everybody. He was a fine man and quite a leader.”
“He took on some really difficult and sometime controversial cases, and he did that knowing what the consequences were and being unafraid to address those consequences,” says Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray. “He also helped create alternative programming and an opportunity for different voices.”
Along the way, Reynolds made clear the NAACP’s watchdog mission is still relevant. “Our struggle continues. People are still hurting because of inequities in such areas as education, employment, voting and the criminal justice system,” he once told a reporter.
When Reynolds stepped down as Omaha NAACP president in 2004, he recommended Tommie Wilson succeed him.
“I feel Dr Reynolds is responsible for me appreciating my history and me wanting to follow those big shoes he wore,” says Wilson. “When he asked me to take over it intensified in me my desire to do all I could to do to make a difference.”
Clair United Methodist Church, 5544 Ames Ave., is hosting a Friday wake service from 6 to 8 p.m., and a Saturday funeral service at noon.
- The Ties that Bind, One Family’s Celebration of Native Omaha Days (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Walking Behind to Freedom, A Musical Theater Examination of Race (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- An Omaha Legacy Ends, Wesley House Shutters after 139 Years – New Use for Site Unknown (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- North Omaha Champion Frank Brown Fights the Good Fight (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Letting 1,000 Flowers Bloom, The Black Scholar’s Robert Chrisman Looks Back at a Life in the Maelstrom
Six years ago a formidable figure in arts and letters, Robert Chrisman, chaired the Department of Black Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The mere fact he was heading up this department was symbolic and surprising. Squarely in the vanguard of the modern black intelligentsia scene that has its base on the coasts and in the South, yet here he was staking out ground in the Midwest. The mere fact that black studies took root at UNO, a predominantly white university in a city where outsiders are sometimes amazed to learn there is a sizable black population, is a story in itself. It neither happened overnight, nor without struggle. He came to UNO at a time when the university was on a progressive track but left after only a couple years when it became clear to him his ambitions for the academic unit would not be realized under the then administration. Since his departure the department had a number of interim chairs before new leadership in the chancellor’s office and in the College of Arts and Sciences set the stage for UNO Black Studies to hire perhaps its most dynamic chair yet, Omowale Akintunde (see my stories about Akintunde and his work as a filmmaker on this blog). But back to Chrisman. I happened to meet up with him when he was in a particularly reflective mood. The interview and resulting story happened a few years after 9/11 and a few years before Obama, just as America was going Red and retrenching from some of its liberal leanings. He has the perspective and voice of both a poet and an academic in distilling the meaning of events, trends, and attitudes. My story originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) and was generously republished by Chrisman in The Black Scholar, the noted journal of black studies for which he serves as editor-in-chief and publisher. It was a privilege to have my story appear in a publication that has published works by Pulitzer winners and major literary figures.
Letting 1,000 Flowers Bloom, The Black Scholar’s Robert Chrisman Looks Back at a Life in the Maelstrom
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com) and republished with permission by The Black Scholar (www.theblackscholar.org)
America was at a crossroads in the late 1960s. Using nonviolent resistance actions, the civil rights movement spurred legal changes that finally made African Americans equal citizens under the law. If not in practice. Meanwhile the rising black power movement used militant tactics and rhetoric to demand equal rights — now.
The conciliatory old guard clashed with the confrontational new order. The assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy seemed to wipe away the progress made. Anger spewed. Voices shouted. People marched. Riots erupted. Activists and intellectuals of all ideologies debated Black America’s course. Would peaceful means ever overcome racism? Or, would it take a by-any-means-necessary doctrine? What did being black in America mean and what did the new “freedom” promise?
Amid this tumult, a politically-tinged journal called The Black Scholar emerged to give expression to the diverse voices of the time. Its young co-founder and editor, Robert Chrisman, was already a leading intellectual, educator and poet. Today he’s the chair of the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) Department of Black Studies. The well-connected Chrisman is on intimate terms with artists and political figures. His work appears in top scholarly-literary publications and he edits anthologies and collections. Now in its 36th year of publication, The Black Scholar is still edited by Chrisman, who contributes an introduction each issue and an occasional essay in others, and it remains a vital meditation on the black experience. Among the literati whose work has appeared in its pages are Maya Angelou and Alice Walker.
From its inception, Chrisman said, the journal’s been about uniting the intellectuals in the street. “We were aware there were a lot of street activists-intellectuals as well as academicians who had different sets of training, information and skills,” he said. “And the idea was to have a journal where they could meet. By combining the information and initiative you might have effective social programs. That was part of the goal.”
Another goal was to take on the core issues and topics impacting African Americans and thereby chart and broker the national dialogue in the black community.
“We were aware there was a tremendous national debate going on within the black community and also within the contra-white community and Third World community on the forward movement not only of black people in the United States but also globally and, for that matter, of white people. And so we felt we wanted to register the ongoing debates of the times with emphasis upon social justice, economic justice, racism and sexism.
“And then, finally, we wanted to create an interdisciplinary approach to look at black culture and European-Western culture. Because one of the traditions of the imperialist university is to create specialization and balkanization in intellectuals, rather than synthesis and synergy. We felt it would be contrary to black interests to be specialists, but instead to be generalists. And so we encouraged and supported the interdisciplinary essay. We also felt critique was important. You know, a long recitation of a batch of facts and a few timid conclusions doesn’t really advance the cause of people much. But if you can take an energetic, sinewy idea and then wrap it and weave it with information and build a persuasive argument, then you have, I think, made a contribution.”
No matter the topic or the era, the Scholar’s writing and discourse remain lively and diverse. In the ’60s, it often reflected a call for radical change. In the 1970s, there were forums on the exigencies of Black Nationalism versus Marxism. In the ’80s, a celebration of new black literary voices. In the ’90s, the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill imbroglio. The most recent editions offer rumination on the Brown versus Board of Education decision and a discussion on the state of black politics.
“From the start, we believed every contributor should have her own style,” Chrisman said. “We felt the black studies and new black power movement was yet to build its own language, its own terminology, its own style. So, we said, ‘let a thousand flowers bloom. Let’s have a lot of different styles.’”
But Chrisman makes clear not everything’s dialectically up for grabs. “Sometimes, there aren’t two sides to a question. Period. Some things are not right. Waging genocidal war is not a subject of debate.”
The Meaning of Things
In an essay refuting David Horowitz’s treatise against reparations for African Americans, Chrisman and Ernest Allen, Jr. articulate how “the legacy of slavery continues to inform institutional as well as individual behavior in the U.S. to this day.” He said the great open wound of racism won’t be healed until America confronts its shameful part in the Diaspora and the slave trade. Reparations are a start. Until things are made right, blacks are at a social-economic disadvantage that fosters a kind of psychic trauma and crisis of confidence. In the shadow of slavery, there is a struggle for development and empowerment and identity, he said.
“Blacks produce some of the most powerful culture in the U.S. and in the world. We don’t control enough of it. We don’t profit enough from it. We don’t plow back enough to nurture our children,” he said. “Part of that, I think, is an issue of consciousness. The idea that if you’re on your own as a black person, you aren’t going to make it and another black person can’t help you. That’s kind of like going up to bat with two strikes. You choke up. You get afraid. Richard Wright has a folk verse he quotes, ‘Must I shoot the white man dead to kill the nigger in his head?’ And you could turn that around to say, ‘Must I shoot the black man dead to kill the white man in his head?’ The difference is that the white man has more power (at his disposal) to deal with this black demon that’s obsessing him.”
In the eyes of Chrisman, who came of age as an artist and intellectual reading Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Robert Hayden, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx, Che Guevara, Pablo Neruda, Mao Tse-tung and the Beat Generation, the struggle continues.
“The same conditions exist now as existed then, sadly. In 1965 the Voting Rights Act was passed precisely to protect people from the rip off of their votes that occurred in Florida in 2000 and in Ohio in 2004. Furthermore, with full cognizance, not a single U.S. senator had the courage to even support the challenge that the Congressional Black Caucus made [to the 2000 Presidential electoral process].”Raging at the system only does so much and only lasts so long. In looking at these things, one makes a distinction between anger and ideology,” he said.
“There were a number of people in the 1960s who were tremendously angry, and rightfully so. Once the anger was assuaged … then people became much much status quo. A kind of paretic example is Nikki Giovanni, who in the late ’60s was one of those murder mouth poets. ‘Nigguh can you kill. Nigguh can you kill. Nigguh can you kill a honky …’ At the end of the ’70s, she gets an Essence award on television and she sings God Bless America. On the other hand, you take a fellow like Ray Charles, who always maintained a musical resistance, which was blues. And so when Ray Charles decides to sing — ‘Oh beautiful, for spacious skies …’ — all of the irony of black persecution, black endurance, black faith in America runs through that song like a piece of iron. ‘God shed His grace on thee’ speaks then both to God’s blessing of America and to, Please, God — look out for this nation.”
Chrisman said being a minority in America doesn’t have to mean defeat or disenfranchisement. “I think we are the franchise. Black people, people with a just cause and just issues are the franchise. It’s the alienated, confused, hostile Americans that vote against their own interests [that are disenfranchised],” he said. “Frederick Douglass put it another way: ‘The man who is right is a majority.’”
Just as it did then, Chrisman’s own penetrating work coalesces a deep appreciation for African American history, sociology art and culture with a keen understanding of the contemporary black scene to create provocative essays and poems. Back when he and Nathan Hare began The Black Scholar in ’69, Chrisman was based on the west coast. It’s where he grew up, attended school, taught and helped run the nation’s first black studies department at San Francisco State College. “There was a lot of ferment, so it was a good place to be,” he said. He immersed himself in that maelstrom of ideas and causes to form his own philosophy and identity.
“The main voices were my contemporaries. A Stokley Carmichael speech or a Huey Newton rally. A Richard Wright story or a James Baldwin essay. Leaflets. Demonstrations. This was all education on the spot. I mean, they were not always in harmony with each other, but one got a tremendous education just from observing the civil rights and black power movements because, for one thing, many of the activists were very well educated and very bright and very well read,” Chrisman explained. “So you were constantly getting not only the power of their ideas and so on, but reading behind them or, sometimes, reading ahead of them. And not simply black activists, either. There was the hippy movement, the Haight Ashbury scene, the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society]. You name it.”
When he arrived at San Francisco State in 1968, he walked into a firestorm of controversy over students’ demands for a college black studies department.
“The situation was very tense in terms of continued negotiations between students and administrators for a black studies program,” Chrisman said. “Then in November of 1968, everybody went out on strike to get the black studies program. The students called the strike. Black teachers supported the strike. In January of 1969 the AFL-CIO, American Federation of Teachers, Local 1352, went out also. I was active in the strike all that time as one of the vice presidents of the teachers union. And I don’t think the strike was actually settled until March or April. It’s still one of the longest, if not the longest, in the history of American universities.”
The protesters achieved their desired result when a black studies program was added. But at a price. “I was reinstated, but on a non-tenured track — as punishment or discipline for demonstrating against the administration. Nathan (Hare) was fired,” Chrisman said. “Out of all that, Nathan and I developed an idea for The Black Scholar. Volume One, Number One came out November of 1969. So, we were persistent.”
Voicing a Generation
Chrisman didn’t know it then, but the example he set and the ideas he spread inspired UNO student activists in their own fight to get a black studies department. Rudy Smith, now an Omaha World-Herald photojournalist, led the fight as an NAACP Youth Council leader and UNO student senate member.“We knew The Black Scholar. It was written by people in touch with things. We read it. We discussed it,” Smith said. “They sowed the seeds for our focus as a black people in a white society. It kept us sane. He has to take some of the credit for the existence of UNO’s black studies program.” Formed in 1971, it was one of the first such programs.
The poet and academics’ long, distinguished journey in black arts and letters led him to UNO in 2001. Soon after coming, concerns were raised that the program, long a target of cuts, was in danger of being downsized or eliminated. Chrisman and community leaders, including then-Omaha NAACP president Rev. Everett Reynolds, sought and received assurances from Chancellor Nancy Belck about UNO’s commitment to black studies, and the department has been left relatively unscathed.
Chrisman said the opposition black studies still faces in some quarters is an argument for its purpose and need. “A major function of black studies is to provide a critique of Western and American white society — for all kinds of reasons. One is to apprise people of the reality of the society in the hope that constructive ways will be developed to improve it. Some people say racism doesn’t exist anymore. Well, of course it exists,” he said. “What was struck down were the dejure forms of racism, but not defacto racism.” As an example, he points to America’s public schools, where segregation is illegal but still in place as whites flee to the more prosperous suburbs while poor, urban neighborhoods and schools languish.
“If you look at the expansion of Omaha, you have this huge flow of capital heading west and you have this huge sucking sound in the east, which is the black, Hispanic working-class community that gets nothing. This is a form of structural racism and its consequences, and the ruling class refuses to see it.”
He said integration by itself is not the answer.
“People sometimes confuse integration with equality. Equality is always desirable, but it’s not always achieved with integration.” He said a black studies perspective provides a new way of viewing things. “A function of black studies has always been cultural enrichment, not only for blacks, but also for whites, which is why some of our black studies are required. It also gives people practical information about the nature of black people and institutions. It can be almost like a think-tank of information about the characteristics of a black population that can be put to use by policy makers.”
A new black power movement is unlikely in the current climate of fear and apathy. Chrisman said the public is baffled and brainwashed by the conglomerate media and its choreographed reporting of information that promulgates multi-national global capitalist ideologies. Then there’s the Bush administration’s hard line against detractors.
“This is the most intimidated I’ve seen the American people since the ’50s. People are afraid of being called leftist or disloyal in wartime,” Chrisman said. “Hegemony’s been surrendered to the white establishment. If a movement develops, it will have to be a different movement … and on its own terms. What people need to do is organize at the local level on fundamental local issues and, if necessary, have a coalition or interest group or party which can act as issues come up.”
- Clarence B. Jones: Remembering Ten Black Christian Leaders (huffingtonpost.com)
- The Mecca of Black America (online.wsj.com)
- 14 African American Game Changers That Started as Rhodes Scholars (bossip.com)
- What Happens to a Dream Deferred? Beasley Theater Revisits Lorraine Hansberry’s ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
I am reposting this article because the person profiled in it is the subject of a new young reader’s book, Lucky Ears: The True Story of Ben Kuroki, World War II Hero. Author Jean Lukesh’s biography tells the inspirational story of how Kuroki, a Nebraska-born, Japanese-American, fought two wars — one against prejudice and one against the Axis Powers. I told the same story in a series of articles I wrote about Kuroki a few years ago, when he was receiving various honors for his wartime and lifetime contributions to his country and when a documentary about him was premiering on PBS.
Ben Kuroki, who grew up in Hershey, Neb., was one of 10 children and did not experience discrimination until he and his brother tried to join the Army right after the Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor. Ben was Nisei – an American born of Japanese parents. Kuroki had to fight like hell for the right to fight for his own country.
Finally allowed to become a gunner on a B-24 and flew his first mission in December of 1942. Life expectancy for a bomb crew member was ten missions. Kuroki flew 58 missions — and became the only American during WWII to fly for four separate Air Forces — and the only Japanese American to fly over Japan in combat in WWII.
As Kuroki friend Scott Stewart reported to me and other friends, on Nov. 10 in Washington D.C. Kuroki received the prestigious Audie Murphy Award — named after the most decorated American veteran in WWII. The American Veterans Center’s will present the award to Ben Kuroki at their annual conference gala.
Kuroki received little official recognition for his war efforts during his time in the service, but since 2005 the flood gates opened and the honors started flowing.
*Distinguished Service Medal — the Army’s third highest award in 2005 at a ceremony in Lincoln followed by the Nebraska Press Association’s highest honor, the President’s Award and the University of Nebraska honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters.
*2007, Lincoln hosted the world premier showing of the PBS documentary on the Kuroki war story Most Honorable Son.
*Presidential Citation from President George W. Bush in May 2008
*Smithsonian dedicated a permanent display on Ben war record, May 2008
At his acceptance speech on Saturday Kuroki will say “words are inadequate to thank my friends who went to bat for me and bestowed incredible honors decades later. Without their support, my war record would not have amounted to a hill of beans. Their dedication is the real story of Americanism and democracy at its very best. I now feel fully vindicated in my fight against surreal odds and ugly discrimination.
As I mentioned above, this article is one of several I wrote about Kuroki around the time the documentary about him, Most Honorable Son, was premiering on PBS. I am glad to share the article with first time or repeat visitors to this site.
The Two Wars of Ben Kuroki, Honors Keep Rolling in for Nebraskan Who Defied Prejudice to Become a War Hero
After Pearl Harbor, Ben Kuroki wanted to fight for his country. But as a Japanese-American, he first had to fight against the prejudice and fear of his fellow Americans. The young sergeant from Hershey, Neb., proved equal to the task.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in Nebraska Life Magazine.
“I had to fight like hell just for the right to fight for my own country,” said Hershey, Neb., native Ben Kuroki. During World War II, he became one of only a handful of Japanese-Americans to see air combat, and was America’s only Nisei (child of Japanese immigrant parents) to see duty over mainland Japan.
For Kuroki, just being in the U.S. Army Air Corps was an anomaly. At the outset of war, Japanese-American servicemen were kicked out. Young men wanting to enlist encountered roadblocks. Those who enlisted later were mustered out or denied combat assignments. But Kuroki was desperate to prove his loyalty to America, and persisted in the face of racism and red tape. As an aerial gunner, he logged 58 combined missions, 30 on B-24s over Europe (including the legendary Ploesti raid) and 28 more on B-29s over the Pacific.
Between his European and Pacific tours, the war department put Kuroki on a speaking tour. He visited internment campswhere many of his fellow Japanese-Americans were being held. He spoke to civic groups, and one of his speeches is said to have turned the tide of West Coast opinion about Japanese-Americans.
Few have faced as much to risk their life for an ungrateful nation. Even now, the 90-year-old retired newspaper editor asks, “Why the hell did I do it? I mean, why did I go to that extent? I was just young. I had no family – no children or wife or anything like that. I was all gung-ho to prove my loyalty.”
A new documentary film about Kuroki, “Most Honorable Son,” premiered in Lincoln in August and will be broadcast on PBS in September. For filmmaker Bill Kubota, who grew up hearing his father tell of Kuroki’s visit to the camp at which he was interned, Kuroki’s story is unique.
“It’s very rare you find one person that can carry a lot of different themes of the war with their own personal experience,” Kubota said. “He saw so many different things… It’s a remarkable story no matter who it is, but throw in the fact he’s basically the first Japanese-American war hero and you have even more of a story. He’s more than a footnote in Japanese-American history. One that needs to be better understood and more heard from. It’s a unique, different story that not only Asian Americans can relate to, but all Americans. That’s why I like this story.”
For years after the war he kept silent about his exploits. The humble Kuroki, like most of his generation, did not want a fuss made about events long past. He married, raised a family and worked as a newspaper publisher-editor, first with the York (Neb.) Republican and then the Williamston (Mich.) Enterprise. He later moved to Calif. where he worked as an editor with the Ventura Star-Free Press.
His story resurfaced with WWII 50th anniversary observances in the 1990s. At the invitation of the Nebraska State Historical Society he cut the ribbon for a new war exhibit. On the anniversary of Pearl Harbor he was the subject of a glowing New York Times editorial. More recently, he’s been feted with honors by the Nebraska Press Association and his alma mater, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. As a result of all the new-found attention Kuroki and Shige have been invited guests to the White House on several occasions, most recently in May.
One key to what Kuroki calls his “all guts no brains” loyalty is his upbringing. His parents “pounded it into their children to never bring shame to yourself or your family,” he says in the film. “I hated the fact I was born Japanese. I wanted to try and avenge what they (Japan) had done for causing what we considered shame.”
From his home in Camarillo, Calif., where he lives with his wife, Shige, Kuroki added, “But I think in the long run I have to thank my Nebraska upbringing, my Nebraska roots for playing a real credible role in giving me a solid foundation for patriotism. It really was a way of life. Freedom was always something really I had the best of.”
Kuroki came from a poor family of 10 children. His parents emigrated from Japan with scant schooling and speaking no English. His father, Sam, arrived in San Francisco and worked his way west on Union Pacific section crews. The sight of fertile Nebraska land was enough to make the former sash salesman stay and become a farmer.
A small Japanese enclave formed in western Nebraska. Times were hard during the Great Depression and the years of drought, but Ben enjoyed a bucolic American youth, playing sports, hunting with friends and trucking potatoes down south and returning with fresh citrus.
Though accepted by the white majority, the newcomers were always aware they were different. “But at the same time,” Kuroki said, “I never encountered racial prejudice until after Pearl Harbor.”
On December 7, 1941, he was in a North Platte church basement for a meeting of the Japanese American Citizens League, a patriotic group fighting for equality at a time of heightened tensions with Japan. Mike Masaoka from the JACL national office was chairing the meeting when two men entered the hall and, without explanation, said something to Masaoka and led him out.
“Just like that, he was gone. We were just baffled,” Kuroki said, “so we just sort of scattered and by the time we got outside the church someone had a radio and said, ‘My God, Pearl Harbor has been bombed by the Japanese.’ That was a helluva experience for us the way we found out… It really was a traumatic day.”
They soon learned that Masaoka had been arrested by the FBI and jailed in North Platte. “I guess all suspects, so to speak, were taken into custody,” Kuroki said. Masaoka was soon released, but his arrest presaged the restrictive measures soon imposed on all Japanese-Americans. As part of the crackdown, their assets – including bank accounts – were frozen. As hysteria built on the West Coast, Executive Order 9066 forced the evacuation and relocation of individuals and entire families. Homes and jobs were lost, lives disrupted. As the Kurokis lived in the Midwest, they were spared internment.
Soon after Pearl Harbor, Kuroki and his younger brother Fred were surprised when their father urged them to volunteer for the armed services. As Kuroki recalls in the film, their father said, “This is your country, go ahead and fight for it.”
They went to the induction center in North Platte. They passed all the tests but kept waiting for their names to be called. “We knew we were getting the runaround then because all our friends in Hershey were going in right and left,” Kuroki said. The brothers left in frustration. “It was about two weeks later I heard this radio broadcast that the Air Corps was taking enlistments in Grand Island and so I immediately got on the phone and asked the recruiting sergeant if our nationality was any problem, and he said, ‘Hell, no, I get two bucks for everybody I sign up. C’mon down.’ So we drove 150 miles and gave our pledge of allegiance.”
The Omaha World-Herald ran a picture of the two brothers taking their loyalty oaths.
While on the train to Sheppard Field, Texas, for recruit training, the brothers got a taste of things to come. Kuroki recalled how “some smart aleck said, ‘What the hell are those damn Japs doing in the Army?’ That was the first shocker.”
Things were tense in the barracks as well. “I’ll never forget this one loudmouth yelled out, ‘I’m going to kill myself some goddamned Japs.’ I didn’t know whether he was talking about me or the enemy and I just felt like I wanted to crawl in a damn hole and hide.”
But at least the brothers had each other’s back. Then, without warning, Fred was transferred to a ditch-digging engineers outfit.
“My God, I feared for my life then,” Kuroki said.
As Kuroki learned, it was the rare Japanese-American who got in or stuck with the Air Corps – almost all served in the segregated 442nd Infantry Regiment that earned distinction. The brothers corresponded a few times during the war. Fred ended up seeing action in the Battle of the Bulge.
From Sheppard Field, Kuroki went to a clerical school in Fort Logan, Colo., and then to Barksdale Field (La.) where the 93rd Bomber Group, made up of B-24s, was being formed. As a clerk, he got stuck on KP several days and nights.
“I knew damn well they were giving me the shaft,” he said. “But I wasn’t about to complain because I was afraid if I did, the same thing would happen to me that happened to my brother – that I’d get kicked out of the Air Corps in a hurry.”
He took extra precautions. “I wouldn’t dare go near one (a B-24 bomber) because I was afraid somebody would think I’m going to do sabotage. That’s the way it was for me for a whole year. I walked on egg shells worried if I made one wrong move, if I was right or wrong, that would be the end of my career,” he said.
Then his worst fear came to pass. Orders were cut for him to transfer out, which would ground him before he ever got over enemy skies. That’s when he made the first of his pleas for a chance to serve his country in combat. He got a reprieve and went with his unit down to Fort Myers, Fla. – the last stop before England. But after three months training, he once again faced a transfer.
“I figured if I didn’t go with them then I’d be doing KP for the rest of my Army life,” he said. “And so I went in and begged with tears in my eyes to my squadron adjutant, Lt. Charles Brannan, and he said, ‘Kuroki, you’re going with us, and that’s that.’ All these decades later I’m forever grateful… because if it wasn’t for him I probably would never have gotten overseas.”
He made it to England – the great Allied staging area for the war in Europe – but he was still a long ways from getting to fly. He was still a clerk. But after the first bombing missions suffered heavy losses, there were many openings on bomber crews for gunners. Not leaving it to chance, he took his cause directly to his officers.
“I begged them for a chance to become an aerial gunner and they sent me to a two-week English gunnery school. I didn’t even fire a round of ammunition.”
In late ’42, Kuroki got word his outfit was headed to North Africa… and he was going with it. It took beseeching the 93rd’s commander, Ted Timberlake, whose unit came to be called The Flying Circus, before Kuroki got the final go-ahead. He was delighted, even though he had “practically no training.” As he would later tell an audience, “I really learned to shoot the hard way – in combat.”
Training or not, he finally felt the embrace of brother airmen around him.
“Once I got into flying missions with a regular crew and I was with my own guys, the whole world changed,” he said. “On my first mission I was just terrified by the enemy gunfire but I suddenly found peace. I mean, for the first time I felt like I belonged. And by God we flew together as a family after that. It was just unbelievable, the rapport. Of course we all knew we’re risking our lives together and fighting to save each others’ lives.”
One of his crewmates dubbed Kuroki “The Most Honorable Son.” It became the nickname of their B-24.
At the same time, Kuroki was reading accounts of extremists calling for all Japanese-Americans to be confined to concentration camps. Some nativists even suggested Japanese-Americans should be deported to Japan after the war.
But by then, Kuroki’s own battles were more with the enemy than with the military apparatus. His first action came on missions targeting the shipping lines of the “Desert Fox,” Erwin Rommel, whose Panzer tank divisions had caused havoc in North Africa. Kuroki was on missions that hit multiple locations in North Africa and Italy.
Kuroki and his crewmates made it through more than a dozen missions without incident. Then, on a return flight in ’43, their plane ran out of fuel and made an emergency landing in Spanish Morocco. Armed Arab horsemen converged on them. They feared for their lives, but Spanish cavalry rode to their rescue. The Spanish held the crew more as reluctant guests than as prisoners. But Kuroki tried to escape.
“I just had to prove my loyalty,” he says in the film. He was caught.
What ensued next was a limbo of bureaucratic haggling over what to do with the captured airmen. They were taken to Spain, where they were told they might sit out the rest of the war. For a time, it was welcome news for the crew, who stayed in luxurious quarters. But soon they felt they were missing out on the most momentous events of their lifetime.
Finally, the way was cleared for them to rejoin the 93rd, which soon moved to England for missions over Europe. Of all those bombing runs, the August 1, 1943 raid on Ploesti, Rumania, is forever burned in Kuroki’s memory. In a daylight mission, 177 B-24s came in at treetop level against heavily-fortified oil refineries deep in enemy territory. Nearly a third of the bombers failed to return. Hundreds of American lives were lost.
The legend of Kuroki grew when he reached the 25-mission rotation limit and volunteered to fly five more. His closest call came on his 30th trip, over Munster, when flak shattered the top of his plexiglass turret just as he ducked.
On an official leave home in early 1944, Kuroki was put to work winning hearts and minds. At a Santa Monica, Calif., rest/rehab center, he gave interviews and met celebrities. Stories about him appeared in Time magazine and the New York Times.
Then he was invited to speak at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club. In preparation for the talk, Sgt. Bob Evans asked him to outline his experiences on paper, which Evans translated into the moving speech Kuroki gave. “He did a terrific job,” Kuroki said.
But before making the speech, Kuroki tried getting out of it. He was intimidated by the prospect of speaking before white dignitaries, and feared a hostile reception. A newspaper headline announced his appearance as “Jap to Address S.F. Club,” and the story ran next to others condemning Japanese atrocities during the Bataan Death March. Even the officer escorting Kuroki worried how the audience would react. Kuroki was the first Japanese-American to return to the West Coast since the mass evacuation.
“I realized I had a helluva responsibility,” Kuroki said.
Kuroki’s speech was broadcast on radio throughout California, and received wide news coverage.
“I learned more about democracy, for one thing, than you’ll find in all the books, because I saw it in action,” Kuroki told the audience. “When you live with men under combat conditions for 15 months you begin to understand what brotherhood, equality, tolerance and unselfishness really mean. They’re no longer just words…”
He went on to recount how a crewmate caught a piece of flak in his head on a mission. The co-pilot came back to give him a morphine injection, but Kuroki waved him off, remembering training that taught morphine could be fatal to head injuries at high altitude. The wounded airman recovered.
“What difference did it make” what a man’s ancestry was? “We had a job to do and we did it with a kind of comradeship that was the finest thing…”
He described his “nearly continuous struggle” to be assigned a flight crew. How he “wanted to get into combat more than anything in the world, so I kept after it.” How he was “waging two battles – one against the Axis and one against intolerance of my fellow Americans.” The prejudice he felt in basic training was so bad, he said, “I would rather go through my bombing missions again than face” it.
Reports refer to men crying and to a standing ovation that lasted 10 minutes. Kuroki confirmed this. Even his escort was in tears.
The reaction stunned Kuroki. He didn’t realize what it all meant until a letter from Club doyen Monroe Deutsch, University of California at Berkeley vice president, reached him overseas and reported what a difference the address made in tempering anti-Japanese sentiment.
Filmmaker Bill Kubota’s research convinces him that the address brought the matter “back to the forefront around the time it needed to be.” It helped people realize that “this is an issue they should think about and deal with.” Kubota said the speech is little known to most Japanese-American scholars because the JA community was prevented from hearing the talk; vital evidence for its profound effect is in Kuroki’s own files, not in public archives.
Before Kuroki went back overseas he appeared at internment camps in Idaho, where his visits drew mixed responses – enthusiasm from idealistic young Nisei wanting his autograph, but hostility from bitter older factions.
Kuroki’s ardent American patriotism and virulent anti-Japan rhetoric elicited “hissing and booing from some of those dissidents,” he said. “Some started calling me dirty names. This one leader called me a bullshitter. It got pretty bad. I didn’t take it too well. I figured I’d risked my life for the good of Japanese-Americans.”
Among the young Nisei who idolized Kuroki was Kubota’s father, a teenager who was impressed with the dashing, highly-decorated aerial gunner.
“My dad regards him as a hero, which is how pre-draft age Japanese-Americans saw him,” Kubota said. Because of the personal tie, the film “means more to me because it means more to my father than I had earlier realized.”
Liked or not, Kuroki said of his public relations work that he “felt very much used and I wasn’t cut out for that sort of thing. I got my belly full of it. I wanted to quit.”
Once back overseas, his bid for Pacific air duty was soon stalled. When Monroe Deutsch learned that a regulation stood in Kuroki’s way, he and others pressured top military brass to make an exception. Secretary of War Henry Stimson wrote a letter granting permission.
“They certainly were unusual people to go to bat for me at that time when war hysteria was so bad,” Kuroki said.
Even with his clearance, Kuroki still encountered resistance. Twice federal agents tried to keep him from going on flights – once at Kearney (Neb.) Air Base, and then again at Murtha Field (Calif.), where the agents carried sidearms. Each time he had to dig in his barracks bag to produce the Stimson letter.
“My pilot and bombardier were so damn mad because by this time they figured we were just getting harassed for nothing,” he said.
His B-29 crew flew out of Tinian Island, where their bomber was parked next to Enola Gay, the B-29 that would soon drop the first atomic bomb. Meanwhile, the fire bombings of Japanese cities left a horrible imprint.
While on Tinian, Kuroki could move safely about only in daylight, and then only flanked by crewmates, as “trigger-happy” sentries were liable to shoot anyone resembling the enemy. And after completing 58 missions unscathed, Kuroki was nearly murdered by a fellow American. When a drunken G.I. called Kuroki “a dirty Jap,” Kuroki started for him, but was waylaid by a knife to the head. The severe cut landed him in the hospital for the war’s duration.
“Just a fraction of an inch deeper and I wouldn’t be here talking today,” he said. “And it probably would never have happened if he hadn’t called me a Jap.”
As he says in the film, “That’s what my whole war was about – I didn’t want to be called a Jap.” Not “after all I had been through… the insults and all the things that hurt all the way back even in recruiting days.”
The irony that a fellow American, not the enemy, came closest to killing him was a bitter pill. Yet Kuroki has no regrets about serving his country. As Kubota said, “I think he knows what he did is the right thing and he’s proud he did it.”
“My parents were very proud, especially my father,” said Kuroki, who earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses during the war. “I know my dad was always bragging about me.” Kuroki presented his parents with a portrait of himself by Joseph Cummings Chase, whom the Smithsonian commissioned to do a separate portrait. When he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal in 2005, Kuroki accepted it in his father’s honor.
Outside of Audie Murphy, Kuroki may have ended the war as the best known enlisted man to have served. Newspapers-magazine told his story during the war and a 1946 book, Boy From Nebraska, by Ralph Martin, told his story in-depth. When the war ended, Kuroki’s battles were finally over. He shipped home.
“For three or four months I did what I considered my ‘59th mission’ – I spoke to various groups under the auspices of the East and West Association, which was financed by (Nobel Prize-winning author) Pearl Buck. I spoke to high schools and Rotary clubs and that sort of thing and I got my fill of that. So I came home to relax and to forget about things.”
Kuroki didn’t know what he was going to do next, only that “I didn’t want to go back to farming. I was just kind of kicking around. Then I got inspired to go see Cal (former O’Neill, Neb., newspaperman Carroll Stewart) and that was the beginning of a new chapter in my life.”
Stewart, who as an Army PR man met Kuroki during the war, inspired Kuroki to study journalism at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. After a brief stint with a newspaper, Kuroki bought the York Republican, a legal newspaper with a loyal following but hindered by ancient equipment.
He was held in such high esteem that Stewart joined veteran Nebraska newspapermen Emil Reutzel and Jim Cornwell to help Kuroki produce a 48-page first edition called “Operation Democracy.” The man from whom Kuroki purchased the newspaper said he’d never seen competitors band together to aid a rival like that.
“Considering Ben’s triumphs over wartime odds,” Stewart said, the newspapermen put competition aside and “gathered round to aid him.” What also drew people to Kuroki and still does, Stewart said, was “his humility, eagerness and commitment. Kuroki was sincere and modestly consistent to a fault. He placed everyone’s interests above his own.”
Years later, those same men, led by Stewart, spearheaded the push to get Kuroki the Distinguished Service Medal. Stewart also published a booklet, The Most Honorable Son. Kuroki nixed efforts to nominate him for the Medal of Honor, saying, “I didn’t deserve it.”
“That’s the miracle of the thing,” Kuroki said. “Those same people are still going to bat for me and pulling off all these things. It’s really heartwarming. That’s what makes this country so great. Where in the world would that sort of thing happen?”
- Frank Emi, Defiant World War II Internee, Dies at 94 (nytimes.com)
- Ansel Adams’ Japanese American Internment Camp Photos At MoMA. Shhh! (greg.org)
- A search for truth for Japanese-American internees (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
My work as a reporter intersected with history when I embedded myself with a group of Omahans traveling by motorcoach to witness the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama in January 2009. The University of Nebraska at Omaha‘s Department of Black Studies organized the trip and kindly invited me along and The Reader (www.thereader.com) newspaper generously picked up my tab. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I am glad I had. My diary or journal like story appeared in truncated form in The Reader.
All a journalist like me can hope to do in a situation like the frenzy around the inauguration is to try and get the facts straight and to make sense of a bigger-than-life event. I believe I succeeded.
NOTE: You can see photos from my trip and even spot me (I’m in a light blue-grey ski jacket with a blue stocking cap and I have eyeglasses on) at the following site: http://www.unomaha.edu/blst/
SPECIAL SCREENING: UNO Department of Black Studies chair Omowale Akintunde led the trip. Akintunde, who is also a filmmaker (see my story “Deconstructing What Race Means in a Faux Post-Racial World” about his feature debut, Wigger) directed an Emmy Award-winning documentary about the trip, An Inaugural Ride to Freedom. The doc has shown at festivals and a special screening of the film is scheduled for October 26 at 7 p.m. at Film Streams, 1340 Mike Fahey Street. A post show Q & A with Akintunde will follow.
Because the film has generated some buzz, I am reposting my inauguration journey story here. In this light, my story is a kind of companion piece to the documentary.
Freedom Riders: A Get On the Bus Inauguration Diary
©by Leo Adam Biga
A version of the story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Fifty of us from the metro area signed up to intersect with history. The chance to be at Barack Obama’s inauguration came via a special bus trip organized by the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Department of Black Studies and sponsored by UNO’s College of Arts and Sciences.
Dubbed An Inaugural Ride to Freedom: The Legacy of a People, a Movement and a Mission, the trip’s mode of transportation, a Navigator charter bus, was both practical and symbolic. Buses figured heavily in marshaling foot soldiers for the civil rights movement and addressing segregation in public schools.
The UNO trip’s “freedom riders” included folks with direct ties to the movement, including older African Americans for whom this journey held deep meaning. Some are retired now and others still engaged in the struggle. Edwardene Armstrong is a UNO Black Studies adjunct faculty member. Her husband Bob Armstrong, former Omaha Housing Authority director, consults with public housing officials across America and the globe. James Freeman directs UNO’s multicultural affairs office.
Leading the university figures along for the ride was charismatic UNO Black Studies Chair Omowale Akintunde. Several UNO students joined us. One high school student was on board as well: Omaha North senior Seth Quartey. Most students were sponsored by UNO.
Community members, such as activist Katrina Adams, Youngblood’s Barber Shop owner Clyde Deshazer and gospel playwright Janette Jones, had no direct ties to UNO but strong convictions about our mission. Friends, couples and families made the trip. The youngest rider, 10-year-old Carter Culvert, traveled with his mother, Jackie Culvert. A few folks went on their own, including this journalist. All but a few made our first D.C. visit on this ride. What a time to go.
Precursor – Get to Know Each Other
A Jan. 7 briefing at UNO’s Milo Bail Student Center ballroom brings participants together for the first time. The group’s diversity is soon evident. Blacks, whites, Hispanics. Young, middle-aged, seniors. Students, working stiffs, professionals.
From the start it’s obvious Akintunde, a tall, lithe man with a brass band voice and a bigger-than-life presence, is in charge. Also a filmmaker, he’s chronicling the trip in a documentary. We all sign releases for our comments and images to be used.
(NOTE: The film premiered at UNO’s Malcolm X Festival in April 2009.)
As things develop the shooting threatens turning the trip into a tail-wags-the-dog scenario with all its set-ups and interviews. Some students serve as crew, holding the boom, operating lights/sound, carrying supplies. DP Andrew Koch flew in from the west coast for the gig. PA Stephanie Hearn did much of the prep work.
I leave the briefing with these thoughts: this will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience that sweeps us along on the tide of history; and we “tourists” constitute a microcosm of the broad-based support that made Obama’s election possible.
What follows are snapshots of our group’s four-day, 100-hour, 3,000-plus mile odyssey to embrace change and to participate in history.
Sunday, Jan. 18
Rolling Out – Get on the Bus
Lot C in UNO’s South Campus is our departure point. I arrive about 7:30 in the cold dim daylight. The bus is there, its engine idling, the lower baggage compartment opened. Some early arrivals have already loaded gear and settled in seats. I choose a mid-section spot befitting my middle-of-the-road nature. Over the next 75 minutes the bus fills out and the rituals of finding a place to sit, stowing away carry-ons in overhead bins and meeting-greeting fellow passengers ensues.
Obamamania appears low key for now. Only a few folks wear anything with Obama images or slogans. One woman climbing aboard is overheard telling another, “He’s not the chosen one.” The mood is a mix of sober expectancy and fan-filled ardor.
There are the usual stragglers and late arrivals. Some of us catch Zs, others chit chat. We’re finally all together and push off on time at 9. A 28-hour grind awaits us before we reach our hotel in Chestertown, MD, about 90 minutes from D.C.
All but a few seats are filled in what are cramped accommodations. For the biggest bodies the bus will mean contortions squeezing into narrow seats and relieving pressure on sore, stiff joints. Leg room is almost nonexistent. Everyone carves out a few inches of sanctuary in the tight quarters.
By the time we cruise I-80 in western Iowa, passing brown-white splotched fields sprouting hundreds of sculptural wind turbines, Akintunde’s filming is in full swing. He captures folks slumbering, reading, cell phoning, text messaging, you name it.
Reminders of this being a Soul Bus trip are the black themed movies that light up the tiny screens suspended overhead. By trip’s end we’ll have seen blockbusters like Ray to little gems like The Secret Life of Bees to old favs like Claudine to a Tyler Perry flick to a fresh bootlegged copy of Seven Pounds.
Akintunde, with Koch manning the digital video camera, grabs establishing shots and spot interviews where he can — on the bus, in parking lots, at rest stops, restaurants, the hotel. The two seemed joined at the hip in our close confines. The director, resplendent in jumpsuits, follows “emerging stories” in our ranks.
Some of us begin our own chronicles, snapping pics and journaling. One woman strides down the aisle, clicking away on her camera as she declares, “I’m going to get me some pictures right here.” In the case of this old-school reporter, notes are jotted on a pad and interviews committed to a micro cassette recorder.
We certainly all have our own story for being here. For retirees James and Jackie Hart it’s about bearing witness to the fulfillment of MLK’s vision.
“I can’t even describe how excited I am that we’re going to have a new black president,” Jim says. “I hope I’m around to see his eight years.”
“I Wanted to See It for Myself”
For Denise Howard, a wife, mother and student, it’s about being “part of change. I wanted to see it for myself, I wanted to feel the atmosphere. It was a must.”
For UNO public administration masters student Joe Schaaf it’s about being present at “a wound healing event, not only racially but politically. This is a huge breath of fresh air. There’s a momentum to change Washington. I view it as one of the top five moments in our country’s history.”
For Keisha Holloway the trip’s a homage to her late sister, Deanna Rochelle, who died only a week before. The two shared a passion for Obama. They voted together. “To kind of keep her legacy going I’m going for me and her,” says Keisha.
Bob Armstrong’s reasons are complex.
“My family’s life has been lived trying to fight for civil rights, especially for black people. Many of the civil rights leaders had been to my house to meet during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, including Dr. King,” says Armstrong, who was in D.C. for King’s ‘63 address. At the time, he said, “we didn’t know it was history. It became historic. It’s a different setting though (with Obama). This time we’re going knowing that history is being made and so here we are 45 years later for the culmination of all those activities with the election of a black president.”
The way Edwardene Armstrong sees it, Obama’s achievement is only possible because of the work done by many others before him. Freeman agrees. He was on the front lines of the civil rights movement at Tuskegee University, and he said Obama stands on the shoulders of countless freedom fighters.
“It means so much to me because we’ve gone through so much getting to this point,” Freeman says. “We’re not where we ought to be but we’ve come a long, long way. It wasn’t only black folks. During that time there was a sense of commitment and frankly I haven’t seen that until this campaign. Back when we used to march there were so many people of all colors, of all nationalities, and then you saw that this (past) year. Just an affirmation that now I see that vision come to pass. It makes you want to cry. I wish my dad and mom could have been here.”
Edwardene can’t help be struck by the fact the new president has a similar biracial background as her great-grandfather, the son of a black slave mother and white slave master. A black president seemed inconceivable to her.
Bob Armstrong never thought it would happen, period. “It’s such a historic moment I felt we had to be there,” he says. “It doesn’t mean all our problems are solved but it means it certainly gives black people the aspirations that they can do pretty much what they want to do if they’re willing to sacrifice and get themselves educated and do those things necessary to become successful. It’s an emotional time. You’re going to see a lot of tears shed when he takes the oath. Tears of happiness, tears of joy, tears of pride, tears of wonderment of thinking could this really be happening…”
The stories go on all day and into the night. We drive through light snow showers in Illinois and Indiana. We cross the gray-slated, ice-strewn Mississippi River. We skirt south of Chicago and Indianapolis. We pass through Columbus, Ohio. By the time we hit Maryland more snow showers appear.
Sleep is fitful for most. A blessed few sleep through anything: the racket/motion of the bus; the sound from the DVDs; the din from up front, where Akintunde and his self-described “big mouth” holds court, and in the back, where there’s often a conversation or card game going on. Laughter sporadically breaks out.
Call it a lesson in multiculturalism but the “soft music” we’re promised late at night turns out to be hardcore Hot Country, courtesy Rebel 105.9. The driver’s choice. Quite a contrast from Marvin Gaye. Rumblings of a mutiny go up. Most take it in good-humored stride. Thankfully, that driver’s relieved, as previously scheduled, in New Paris, Ohio. The drivers repeat the process on the return trip. The music goes off and order’s restored with an Earth, Wind and Fire concert DVD.
Monday, Jan. 19
The Day Before – Get Off the Bus
We roll across Maryland on I-70, traversing forested ridges. Fog hangs in the depressions. Mills line the riverways. Colonial-style brick homes predominate.
At a Shoney’s I’m treated to a spirited discussion by three UNO students. They embody the youth Obama ignited. Brandon Henderson says Obama’s message of unlimited possibilities “resonated for us. It brought that a lot closer. He’s not just a black candidate. All kind of people are going to be at this thing. It took everybody to get him to where he is right now — to elect him as president. I just want to be part of the atmosphere of Everything Obama.”
Joshua Tolliver-Humpal says Obama “did a great job tapping into that youthful idealism. The youth vote really came out strong. I just have to be there to see the most captivating figure in American politics get inaugurated.”
“Really this is the first significant, world-changing event in my lifetime,” Joseph Lamar says. “Everybody’s going to remember where they were at this particular time and I can say, ‘Hey, I was there.’”
Upon reboarding the bus after bathroom/food breaks Akintunde takes to saying, “Is anybody here that wasn’t here before?,’ or, ‘Is anybody not here that you saw before?’ It’s the ghetto roll check,” he explains.
We never lose anyone, but we do gain two members our second night. They’re Nigel Neary and Tom Manion, whose public housing corporation in Manchester, England Bob Armstrong consults. They “crash” our trip at his invitation. Their addition lends our trip an international perspective.
A sign of the times finds many wired to their cells, Ipods, Blackberries. A few break out lap tops, too. The result is a running commentary or living blog about this trip.
We cross the massive Chesapeake Bay Bridge, the fog shrouded ocean spread out before us and make it into Chestertown by mid-afternoon, where we’ll encamp overnight at a Comfort Suites. There’s a snafu with some room assignments but we manage checking in and freshening up for an evening sightseeing tour of D.C. Signs leading in and out of the capital warn of major delays tomorrow.
“I’m Going to Take My Foot”
In response to a Fox News report that space on the Mall will be constricted to one square foot per person, Clyde Deshazer says, “I’m going to take my foot.” Given the congestion no one’s sure what we’ll actually see tomorrow. “Whatever there is to see,” Deshazer says, “I want to see it. I haven’t seen any part of history.”
Like many elders on the trip Deshazer grew up in the South. He’s struck by how a fractious nation moves toward solidarity at Obama’s lead. “I am so glad all races are coming together and focusing in one direction. The people coming together for one common purpose — that’s what gets me. That’s a soft spot in my life.”
“It’s a beautiful thing,” adds Henderson.
For tonight’s jaunt into D.C. we’re joined by Willistine Harris, a former student of Akintunde’s who lives and works in the area. She’s the trip’s consultant.We spot our first vendors. Once in the thick of the government district we get an on-the-scene sense for the immensity of it all. Streets are choked with vehicles, including buses like ours. Tourists overrun the sidewalks. We sneak peaks of monolithic buildings and famous monuments. But we don’t leave the bus until on the waterfront, where we take in the harbor and an open-air seafood market. Dinner’s an everything-you-can-eat buffet at Phillips, which Akintunde selected “so you will see some flavor” of D.C., where he once taught.
On the bus back to the hotel Sharif and Gabriel Liwaru say what they most look forward to is being amid masses who crave the positive social change Obama advocates. They see his inauguration as a catalyst for themselves and thousands like them to go back home and inaugurate change in their communities. Sharif is president of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation.
At the hotel it’s soon lights out as we have an ungodly early-to-rise call. We’re slated to leave by 4:30 to beat the rush to the Mall.
Tuesday, Jan. 20
Inauguration Day – Get on the Mall
We’re psyched for the siege ahead. Braced for swarms of people. Schooled on the Metro rail system’s dos and donts. We’re to stay as one group. Harris has secured us Smart Cards to expedite our way through the stations. We pack all the necessities — sandwiches, snacks, drinks, maps. Layered clothing means double pants or thermal underwear for what will be hours in the frigid cold
As we gear up Akintunde tells me our diversity reflects the Obama phenomenon.
“What Barack Obama says is true. That despite our differences what really bonds us as a people is our commonality as Americans. And when we can get beyond the pettiness of racial divisiveness, difference of religious opinion, and start to think of ourselves as a collective unit, we can become a more powerful, more resolute people who can achieve anything we set our minds to.”
He’s pleased how smoothly the trip’s went thus far. “I mean, this could have gone so many different ways,” he says.
On the bus we’re sleep-deprived adventurers eager to grab some rest before the main leg of the journey unfolds. Janette Jones says our tiredness will soon seem trivial once “we see the fruit of our labor,” meaning the inauguration. “We’ve gone through the wilderness and we’re stepping over into the promised land now.”
“It’s worth it,” adds Andrew Gaines.
Nearing D.C. we get stuck in a traffic snarl on the Capital Beltway. Many others headed out early, too. Some folks abandon their vehicles and walk to the New Carrollton station. We inch along and after an hour or so finally make the station exit. Akintunde emphasizes, “Don’t panic…be vigilant…stay together… We’ll be cool.” We’re let out a couple blocks from the station. Parking’s at a premium. We break into small groups, huddling near for warmth. Prayers are offered. My group’s leader, Sharif, looking sharp in his dreds, says:
“Lord, we ask you this day to bless us on our journey, to keep us safe and to keep us warm, that we may enjoy this opportunity and that we may utilize this in our lives and in our communities when we get home, and to take the energy we’ve gathered here and use it to do good. Amen.” Amen.
Moving in formation, we come upon an ever-growing line outside the station that eventually stretches for blocks. Akintunde’s plea, “No gaps,” becomes our tongue-in-cheek clarion call. It’s easier said than done in what Deshazer calls “belly press” tight conditions. Our difficulty closing the gaps prompts Miletsky to crack, “Our civil rights marching is a little rusty — we haven’t had a movement in awhile.”
“Gracious and Great”
Everyone’s in a good mood. The positive energy visceral. You can’t help observe and feel it. A woman behind me sums up the vibe with, “This is how I feel — I’m feeling gracious and great today.” Perfect gratitude.
Zebulon Miletsky, UNO Black Studies’ resident historian, puts the situation in context. “It’s just a beautiful moment to be here, to document it, and that’s what we’re all doing — we’re all documenting this history for ourselves, and to me that’s the highest form of history. That’s our history as African Americans — oral tradition. To pass that oral history along to each generation And this story will be passed down and it will be written about. It’s already being written about. And so many times our history has been written by other people. Here we are as a people witnessing and documenting our own history and serving as the primary source.”
Gaines says he feels “so blessed” to be here with family — daughters Frelima Gaines and Gabriel Liwaru and son-in-law Sharif Liwaru — “and to experience this with so many diverse people. We’ve all come together for this historic moment I think in hope and great expectation for that better part of us that’s being expressed today,” he says. “It’s an excellent feeling. Indescribably great.”
Katrina Adams rode the Obama Express to this place as a grassroots supporter. She prays this is not the end. “This is one of those moments when I stepped up and felt like I could do something — to open the lines of communication, to let people know that regardless of what stance you’re taking you can always do more. You can speak your voice and let that be heard,” she says. “I just hope that feeling we started off with when Obama announced his candidacy replenishes itself and that people are not only touched and inspired but they’re called into action.”
Her fondest wish is that as her son “grows up as a biracial child he’ll understand there’s no limit to himself.”
Speaking of mothers and sons, Jackie Culvert brought 10-year-old Carter “so he will be able to see the change for America and be able to remember this moment.”
Every few minutes cheers go up as trains arrive and depart, moving us nearer the station. Security helicopters hover above. At 8:45 we finally make it inside. There, the crowd packs in even tighter. No shoving though. We’re connected to some living, breathing organism that moves in fits and starts. We’re one.
Akintunde says, “I don’t know why I’m not getting angry, I’m just getting more excited.” “More energized,” a woman says.
Terri Jackson-Miller marvels how “everybody’s in the same spirit…very cooperative. No one’s pushing or throwing attitudes, and I just think that’s all part of what’s out there right now, what’s happening today. Truly a blessed day. This breaks ground. The unknown is now known. It’s going to be a life changing experience.”
Between the magnanimity of the people and the cool-headed actions of cops and Metro workers, who closely monitor traffic flow, thousands safely snake through the station. Only a certain number are allowed on the platform. Once out of the crowd’s grip it’s a release and relief. Amazingly, the entire UNO contingent makes it through intact, amid hoops and hollers, all boarding the same Orange Line train. The empty cars fill in no time. It’s 10:30.
Our prearranged stop: Foggy Bottom. A half-hour ride. From there, a 20-minute walk to the Lincoln Memorial, our target area for watching the big event.
Jackson-Miller says the teeming crowds who’ve come from everywhere “really show the magnitude of this whole thing.” Confirmation is as near as the woman sitting beside me. She’s with the Red Rose Sisters from Miami, Fla. She “just had to be part of history.” Later, a man from Ireland joins me. He says Obama’s election night victory speech inspired him to cross the pond for this moment.
Akintunde announces our Foggy Bottom stop and we’re off, charging into daylight on the George Washington University campus. Vendors galore greet us, hawking Obama caps, buttons, key chains, T-shirts — “My President is Black” reads one. Food trucks do a brisk business. As Akintunde promised, “Everybody and their mamas’ selling things.” The cordoned-off district funnels a constant stream of people into the street, onto the sidewalks. A few on bikes. One atop a skateboard. We move in unison. So much activity, yet so quiet, so still. We’re like a great flock of believers bound for church. Serene. Sharing a sense of purpose and faith in a new era. A placards reads, “We Have Overcome — A New Age of Freedom.”
National Guard troops patrol select intersections.
We reach the base of the Lincoln Memorial at 11:15 and soon find the monument overrun with spectators. We make our way down to a grass field lining the reflecting pool, where thousands gather to watch a jumbo screen. We’re a mile from the Capitol, the whole of the National Mall spread out before us. It’s a grand sight with all the people, the flags, the monuments, the pageantry. Magisterial.
So many families are here. Indeed, it’s like a giant family reunion picnic. You don’t know most of the faces but you’re all linked. It’s our Woodstock.
“This is It, This is It”
Though removed from the pomp, circumstance and fanfare we’re still participants in this ritual and reverie. We angle within 25 yards of the screen, our eyes fixed on the ceremony. The mood, upbeat and solemn. Respectful. Swells of cheers and muffled applause rise as Michelle Obama and Joe Biden are intro’d. Aretha Franklin’s soulful “My Country, Tis of Thee” sets it off again. Biden’s oath of office elicits a big response. Rick Warren’s invocation is well-received. The buzz for Obama’s oath grows. When a classical musical interlude ends the crowd senses what’s next. “This is it, this is it,” a mother tells her girl, holding her tightly. The swearing-in rates a huge response, chants of “O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma” lifted up. Many folks hold cameras aloft to steal away what they can for posterity. Others share the moment with friends and loved ones on their cells. Tears well up in Katrina Adams’ eyes. Mine, too. Hugs and kisses.
The love-in’s repeated again upon Obama introduced as the 44th President of the United States. People’s faces betray awe, joy, pride. His address merits rapt attention. He hits all the right notes with his call for resolve, common purpose and a new era of responsibility, moving the crowd to shout out approval.
At “Thank you and God bless you” another crescendo, more words invoked, the Star Spangled Banner, and then it’s over. In the afterglow people don’t quite know what to do. Many, including our troupe, tour the Lincoln Memorial, lingering to soak in the panorama. One more tangible link to this moment. Much picture-taking. We do the same at the Vietnam War Memorial. The procession out of the Mall an orderly exodus. Even two hours after the inauguration the people file by.
Some of us get separated in the human stream. After the long walk back getting inside the Foggy Bottom stop takes an hour due to the logjam of people. We’re exhausted, chilled, overladen with souvenirs but still of good cheer.
Impressions from our members:
Janette Jones: “It was exhilarating. It was not so much the fact of him being black, it’s just the point America has come together for the first time in unity, and that’s what his message was all about — unity. It was very inclusive.”
Daryl Hunt“I feel like I’ve made it to the top of the mountain. It’s an awesome feeling.”James Freeman“It gives everybody hope because the door has been opened and so now we can come in.”
Katrina Adams: “It’s confirmed, it’s done, he’s safe, his family’s safe, and we’re going to be OK. I can’t feel my fingers but I’m happy.”
Andrew Gaines: “I’m ecstatic. I feel very hopeful we’re going to experience a new resolve as a country — to reenergize, refurbish, redevelop, reexplore…to make this American Dream we have more of a reality. I’m excited for the future. I’m engaged now.”
Omowale Akintunde: “Wasn’t it beautiful? We actually have a black president. It means we’ve evolved as a nation. You can literally feel the weight lifted. I’m amazed.”
Seth Quartey: “I feel real proud. I know with this change everything’s going to be alright.”
We all make it back to the Carrollton station and bus. Akintunde leads us in singing the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, and the “Star Spangled Banner.” Linda Briggs offers a prayer thanking God for seeing us through. At dinner that night the event-filled day’s relived over and over. It’s a blur. Sleep comes easy.
The Day After – Get on Home
The enthusiasm’s waned some. We’re still recovering, still digesting. The trip home is long but we have the satisfaction of achieving our mission. James Hart gives thanks for our being delivered back where we started. The bus empties, the cameras record. Goodbyes said.
Joining the enormous throng for this slice of Americana gave each of us a personal stake in history, in something far greater than ourselves. Whether riding the human waves on the Mall, milling about the masses on monument row or navigating the gridlock in the Metro, we found ourselves literally and figuratively carried away. No matter how small, we played our parts in this celebration, culmination, commemoration. We made this more perfect union and fervent prayer sing. Hallelujah!
- Dan Beckmann: So Where Did All the Hope and Change Go? (huffingtonpost.com)
- Obama: ‘Much work to be done’ (politico.com)
- Letters: Why Is the Seat Next to Me Empty? (nytimes.com)
- Greenest Inauguration in American History (envtalengg.wordpress.com)
- Obama’s Second Inaugural Address (themoderatevoice.com)
- Letting 1,000 Flowers Bloom, The Black Scholar’s Robert Chrisman Looks Back at a Life in the Maelstrom (leoadambiga.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.”
- Letting 1,000 Flowers Bloom, The Black Scholar’s Robert Chrisman Looks Back at a Life in the Maelstrom (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- UNO Wrestling Dynasty Built on a Tide of Social Change (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Quiana Smith’s Dream Time (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha Native Steve Marantz Looks Back at the City’s ’68 Racial Divide Through the Prism of Hoops in His New Book, ‘The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Once More With Feeling, Loves Jazz & Arts Center Back from Hiatus (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Native Omaha Days: A Black is Beautiful Celebration, Now, and All the Days Gone By (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Native Omahans Take Stock of the African-American Experience in Their Hometown (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- From the Archives: Photographer Monte Kruse Works Close to the Edge (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Miss Leola Says Goodbye (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Overarching Plan for North Omaha Development Now in Place, Disinvested Community Hopeful Long Promised Change Follows (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
If you’re surprised that Omaha, Neb. boasts a sizable African-American community with a rich legacy of achievement, then you will no doubt be surprised to learn the University of Nebraska at Omaha formed one of the nation’s first Black Studies departments. The UNO Department of Black Studies has operated continuously for more than 40 years. The following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) charts the long, hard path that led to the department‘s founding and that’s provided many twists and turns on the road to institutional acceptance and stability. At the time I wrote this piece and that it appeared in print, the UNO Department of Black Studies was in an uneasy transition period. Since then, things have stabilized under new leadership at the university and within the department.
Coloring History, A Long, Hard Road for UNO Black Studies
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
When 54 black students staged a sit-in on Monday, Nov. 10, 1969 at the office of University of Nebraska at Omaha’s then-president Kirk Naylor, they meant their actions to spur change at a school where blacks had little voice. Change came with the start of the UNO department of black studies in 1971-72. A 35th anniversary celebration in April 2007 featured a dramatic re-enactment of the ’69 events that set the eventual development of UNO’s black studies department in motion.
Led by Black Liberators for Action on Campus (BLAC), the protesters occupied Naylor’s administration building suite when he refused to act on their demands. The group focused on black identity, pride and awareness. When they were escorted out by police, the demonstrators showed their defiant solidarity by raising their fists overhead and singing “We Shall Overcome,” which was then echoed by white and black student sympathizers alike.
The group’s demands included a black studies program. UNO, like many universities at the time, offered only one black history course. Amid the free speech and antiwar protests on campuses were calls for equal rights and inclusion for blacks.
Ron Estes, who was one of the sit-in participants in 1969, said, “We knew of the marches and sit-ins where people stood up for their rights, and we decided to make the same stand.” Joining Estes on that Monday almost 40 years ago was Michael Maroney who agreed, “We finally woke up and realized there was something wrong with this university and if we didn’t take action it wasn’t going to change.”
Well-known Omaha photojournalist Rudy Smith, who was then a student senator said, “We approached it from different perspectives, but the black students at the time were unified on a goal. We knew what the struggle was like, and we were prepared to struggle.”
The same unrest that was disrupting schools on the coasts, including clashes between students and authorities, never turned violent at UNO. The sit-in, and a march three days earlier, unfolded peacefully. Even the arrests went smoothly. Also proceeding without incident was a 1967 “teach-in”; Ernie Chambers, who was not yet a state senator but who was becoming a prominent leader in the community, and a group of students demonstrated by trying to teach the importance of black history to the administration, specifically the head of the history department.
The sit-in’s apparent failure turned victory when the jailed students were dubbed “the Omaha 54” and the community rallied to their cause. Media coverage put the issues addressed by their demands in the news. Black community leaders like Chambers, Charles Washington, Rodney Wead and Bertha Calloway continued to put pressure on the administration to act. Officials at the school, which had recently joined the University of Nebraska system, felt compelled to consider adding a formal black studies component. From UNO’s point-of-view, a black studies program only made sense in an urban community with tens of thousands African-Americans.
Within weeks of the sit-in and throughout the next couple of years, student-faculty committees were convened, studies were conducted, and proposals and resolutions were advanced. Despite resistance from entrenched old white quarters, support was widespread on campus in 1969-70. Once a consensus was reached, discussion centered on whether to form a program or a department.
The student-faculty senates came out in favor of it, as did the College of Arts and Sciences Dean Vic Blackwell, a key sympathizer. Even Naylor; he actually initiated the Black Studies Action Committee chaired by political science professor Orville Menard that approved creating the department. Much community input went into the deliberations. The University of Nebraska board of regents sealed the deal.
No one is sure of the impact that the Omaha 54 made, but they did spur change. UNO soon got new leadership at the top, a black studies department and more minority faculty. Its athletic teams dropped the “Indians” mascot/name. A women’s studies program, multicultural office and strategic diversity mission also came to pass.
“I think we helped the university change,” Maroney said. “I think we gave it that impetus to move this agenda forward.”
Before 1971, federally funded schools were not requireed to report ethnicity enrollment numbers. In 1972, 595 students, or about 4.7 percent of UNO’s 12,762 total students, were black. In 2006, 758, or about 5.2 percent of the school’s 14,693 total students were black.
Omaha 54 member and current UNO associate professor in the Department of Educational Administration and Supervision Karen Hayes said, “We were the pebble that went in the pond, and the ripples continued through the years for hopefully positive growth.”
During that formative process, the husband-wife team of Melvin and Margaret Wade were recruited to UNO in 1970 from the University of California at Santa Barbara’s black studies department. Wade came as acting director of what was still only an “on-paper black studies program.” His role was to help UNO gauge where interest and support lay and formulate a plan for what a department should look like. He said he and Margaret, now his ex-wife, did some 200 interviews with faculty, staff and students.
Speaking by phone from Rhode Island, Wade said the administration favored a program over a department, but advocacy fact-finding efforts turned the tide. That debate resurfaced in the 1980s in the wake of proposed budget cuts targeting black studies. In en era of tightened higher education budgets, according to then-department chair Julien Lafontant and retiring department associate professor Daniel Boamah-Wiafe, black studies seemed always singled out for cutbacks.
“Every year, the same problem,” Lafontant said. That’s when Lafontant did the unthinkable — he proposed his own department be downgraded to a program . Called a Judas and worse, he defended his position, saying a program would be insulated from future cuts whereas a department would remain exposed and, thus, vulnerable. A native of Haiti, Lafontant found himself in a losing battle with the politics of ethnicity that dictate “a black foreigner” cannot have the same appreciation of the black experience here as an African-American who is born in the United States.
Turmoil was not new to the department. Its first two leaders, Melvin Wade and Milton White, had brief tenures ending in disputes with administrators.
In times of crisis, the black community’s had the department’s back. Ex-Omahan A. B. “Buddy” Hogan, who rallied grassroots support in the ’80s, said from his home in California that rescues would be unnecessary if UNO had more than “paternalistic tolerance” of black studies.
“I don’t think the university ever really embraced the black studies department as a viable part,” Maroney said. “It was more a nuisance to them. But when they tried to get rid of it, the black community rose up and so it was just easier to keep it. I don’t think it’s ever had the kind of funding it really needs to be all it could be.”
UNO black studies Interim Chair Richard Breaux said given the historically tenuous hold of the department, perhaps it’s time to consider a School of Ethnic Studies at the university that includes black studies, Latino studies, etc.
In recent interviews with persons close to the department, past and present, The Reader found: general distrust of the university’s commitment to black studies, despite administration proclamations that the school is fully invested in it; the perception that black studies is no more secure now than at its start; and the belief that its growth is hampered by being in a constant mode of survival.
After 35 years, the department should be, in the words of Boamah-Wiafe, “much stronger, much more consolidated than it is now.”
Years of constant struggle is debilitating. Lafontant, who still teaches a black studies course, said, “Being in a constant struggle to survive can eliminate so many things. You don’t have time to sit down and see what you need to do. Even now it’s the same thing. It’s still fighting. They have to put a stop to that and find a way to help the black studies department to not be so on guard all the time.”
Is there cause to celebrate a department that’s survived more than thrived?
“I think the fact it has endured for 35 years is itself a triumph of the teachers, the students, certainly the black community and to a certain extent elements of the university,” former UNO black studies Chair Robert Chrisman said by phone from Oakland, Calif. However he questions UNO’s commitment to black studies in an era when the school’s historic urban mission seems more suburban-focused, looking to populations and communities west of Omaha, and less focused on the urban community and its needs closer to home. It wasn’t until 1990 that UNO made black studies a core education requirement. College of Arts and Sciences Dean Shelton Hendricks has reiterated UNO’s commitment to black studies, but to critics it sounds like lip service.
Chrisman’s call for black studies in his prestigious Black Scholar journal in the late ’60s inspired UNO student activists, such as Rudy Smith, to mobilize for it. Smith said the department’s mere presence is “a living symbol of progress and hope.”
For Chrisman the endurance of black studies is tempered by “the fact the United States is governed by two major ideological forces. One is corporate capitalism and the other is racism, and that’s run through all of the nation’s institutions … . Now we tend to think colleges and universities are somehow exempt from these two forces, but they’re not … Colleges and universities are a manifestation of racism and corporatism and in some cases they’re training grounds for it.”
He said the uncomfortable truth is that the “primary mission of black studies is to rectify the dominant corporate and racist values of the society in the university itself. You see a contradiction don’t you? And I think that’s one of the reasons why the resistance is so reflexive and so deeply ingrained.”
Smith said the movement for the discipline played out during “a time frame when if blacks were going to achieve anything they had to take the initiative and force the issue. Black studies is an outgrowth of the civil rights movement.”
Along these lines, Chrisman said, small college departments centered around western European thought, such as the classics, “are protected and maintained” in contrast with black studies. He said one must never forget black studies programs/departments arose out of agitation. “Almost all of them were instituted by one form of coercion or another. There was the strike at San Francisco State, the UNO demonstration, the siege at Cornell University, on and on. In the first four years of the black studies movement, something like 200 student strikes or incidents occurred on campuses, so the black studies movement was not welcomed with open arms … . It came in, in most instances, against resistance.”
In this light, Hogan said, “there’s a natural human tendency to oppose things imposed upon you. It’s understandable there’s been this opposition, but at some point you would have thought there would have been enough intellectual enlightenment for the administration to figure out this is a positive resource for this university, for this community and it should be supported.”
The program versus department argument is important given the racial-social-political dynamic from which black studies sprang. Boamah-Wiafe said opponents look upon the discipline “as something that doesn’t belong to academia.” Thus any attempt to restrict or reduce black studies is an ugly reminder of the onerous second-class status blacks have historically endured in America.
As Wade explained, “A program really means you have a kind of second-class status, and a department means you have the prerogative to propose the hire of faculty who are experts in black studies. In a department, theoretically, you have the power to award tenure. With a program, you generally have to have faculty housed in other departments, so faculty’s principal allegiances would be to those departments. So if you have a program, you are in many respects a step-child — always in subservience to those departments … ”
Then there’s the prestige that attends a department. That’s why any hint of messing with the department, whose 2006/2007 budget totaled $389,730, smacks some as racism and draws the ire of community watchdogs. When in 1984 Lafontant and then-UNO Chancellor Del Weber pushed the program option, Breaux said, “There was tremendous outcry from people like Charlie Washington [the late Omaha activist] and Buddy Hogan [who headed the local NAACP chapter]. They really came to bat for the department of black studies. A lot of people, like Michael Maroney — who were part of that Omaha 54 group that got arrested — said, ‘Now wait a minute, we didn’t do this for nothing.’” The issue went all the way to the board of regents, who by one vote preserved the department.
As recently as 2002, then-NAACP local chapter president Rev. Everett Reynolds sensed the university was retreating from its stated commitment to black studies. He took his concerns to then-chancellor Nancy Belck. In a joint press conference, she proclaimed UNO’s support for the department and he expressed satisfaction with her guarantees to keep it on solid footing. She promised UNO would maintain five full-time faculty members in black studies. Breaux said only three of those lines are filled. A fourth is filled by a special faculty development person. Breaux said black studies has fewer full-time faculty today than 30 years ago.
“So you ask me about progress and my answer is … not much. We’re talking 30 years, and there’s not really been an increase in faculty or faculty lines,” Breaux said.
Hendricks said he’s working on filling all five full-time faculty lines.
Sources say the department’s chronically small enrollment and few majors contribute to difficulty hiring/retaining faculty in a highly competitive marketplace and to the close scrutiny the department receives whenever talk of cutting funds surfaces.
Wade said black studies at UNO is hardly alone in its plight. He said the move to reduce the status of black studies on other campuses has led to cuts. “It has happened in enough cases to be noted,” Wade said. “I was affiliated with the black studies program at Vassar College, and that’s one whose status has been diminished over the years … . In other words, the struggle for black studies is being waged as we speak. It’s still not on the secure foundations it should be in the United States.”
Some observers say black studies must navigate a corporate-modeled university culture predisposed to oppose it. “That means at every level there’s always bargaining, conniving, chiseling, pressuring to get your goals. Every year the money is deposited in a pot to colleges, and it’s at the dean’s discretion … where and how the money’s distributed,” Chrisman said. Robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul machinations are endemic to academia, and critics will tell you black studies is on the short end of funding shell games that take from it to give to other units.
Chrisman feels an over-reliance on part-time, adjunct faculty impedes developing “a core to your department.” At UNO he questions why the College of Arts and Sciences has not devoted resources to secure more full-time faculty as a way to solidify and advance the program. It’s this kind of ad hoc approach that makes him feel “the administration really doesn’t quite respect the black experience totally.” He said it strikes him as a type of “getting-it-as-cheap-as-possible” shortcut. Hendricks said he believes the ratio of part-time to full-time faculty in the department is comparable to that in other departments in UNO’s College of Arts and Sciences. He also said part-time, adjunct faculty drawn from the community help fulfill the strong black studies mission to be anchored there.
Breaux’s successor as Interim UNO black studies chair, Peggy Jones, is a tenured track associate professor. Her specialty is not black studies but fine arts.
Boamah-Wiafe feels with the departures of Breaux and himself the department “will be the weakest, in terms of faculty” it has been in his 30 years there.
The Struggle Continues
Critics say UNO’s black studies can be a strong academic unit with the right support. The night of the Omaha 54 reenactment Michael Maroney, president/CEO of the Omaha Economic Development Corporation, made a plea for “greater collaboration and communication” between Omaha’s black community and the black studies department. “It’s a two-way street,” he said. Omaha photojournalist Rudy Smith said the incoming chair must work “proactively” with the community.
Chrisman, too, sees a need for partnering. He noted while the black community may lack large corporate players, “you can have an organized community board which helps make the same kind of influence. With that board, the black studies chair and teachers can work to really project plans and curriculum and articulate the needs of black people in that community. It’s one thing for a single teacher or a chair to pound on the dean’s door and say, ‘I need this,’ but if an entire community says to the chancellor, ‘This is what we perceive we need as a people,’ I think you have more pressure.
“That would be an important thing to institute as one of the continuing missions of black studies is direct community service because there’s so much need in the community. And I think black studies chairs can take the initiative on that.”
He said recent media reports about the extreme poverty levels among Omaha’s African-American populace “should have been a black studies project.”
Breaux said little if any serious scholarship has come out of the department on the state of black Omaha, not even on the city’s much-debated school-funding issue. Maroney sees the department as a source of “tremendous intellectual capital” the community can draw on. Smith said, “I’m not disappointed with the track record because they are still in existence. There’s still opportunity, there’s still hope to grow and to expand, to have an impact. It just needs more community and campus support.”
What happens with UNO black studies is an open question considering its highly charged past and the widely held perception the university merely tolerates it. That wary situation is likely to continue until the department, the community and the university truly communicate.
“The difference between potential and reality is sometimes a wide chasm,” Hogan said. “The University of Nebraska system is seemingly oblivious to the opportunities and potential for the black studies department at UNO. They don’t seem to have a clue. They’ve got this little jewel there and rather than polish it and mount it and promote it, they seem to want to return it to the state of coal. I don’t get it.” ,
- Black Studies Programs Lack Support At HBCUs (huffingtonpost.com)
- Faculty Senate approves new honors degree in neuroscience – the University of Delaware (udel.edu)
- Black Studies Scholar Manning Marable Dead at 60 (theroot.com)
- UNO Wrestling Dynasty Built on a Tide of Social Change (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Letting 1,000 Flowers Bloom, The Black Scholar’s Robert Chrisman Looks Back at a Life in the Maelstrom (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- What Happens to a Dream Deferred? Beasley Theater Revisits Lorraine Hansberry’s ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha Theater as Insurrection, Social Commentary and Corporate Training Tool (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A Change is Gonna Come, the GBT Academy in Omaha Undergoes Revival in the Wake of Fire (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Civil Rights and Social Justice Champion Lela Knox Shanks: A Woman of Conscience, An Advocate for Change
UPDATE: As the world turns these days I know when the subject of one of my stories on this blog is in the news by the corresponding uptick in views. When I noted dozens of viewers landing on my profile about Lela Knox Shanks I hoped for the best but suspected the worst, and sadly as some of you reading this right now already know she has passed away after a long illness. She is a woman worth remembering and if you haven’t read the story below yet I trust you’ll take the time to. If you don’t know nothing about her, then by all means familiarize yourself with some of her work and experiences in the civil rights and social justice struggle. If you knew her or her story, you still might find oout something new about her you didn’t know before. In either case, you’ll be honoring her memory by reading about her good works. Rest in peace, Lela.
New Horizons editor Jeff Reinhardt told me about the subject of this profile, Lela Knox Shanks, and I’m glad he did. I’d never heard of her, but she’s someone who deserves to be more widely known because she’s spent the better part of her 80-plus years doing the right thing in the struggle for freedom, justice, and equal rights. Jeff and I drove to meet with her at her home in Lincoln, Neb., and we were both captivated by her unwavering commitment to equality. She’s taken many brave stances in her life and she’s paid some dear prices, but she’s never backed down, never given up. She’s a model and an inspiration for us all. I think you’ll find as memorable and impressive as Jeff and I did.
Lela Knox Shanks: A Woman of Conscience, An Advocate for Change
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the New Horizons
Activist, humanitarian, scholar, speaker, feminist and author Lela Knox Shanks could be excused for getting weary after a lifetime of agitating for equal rights. As an 81-year-old African American who came of age in the Jim Crow South and fought many civil rights battles in the Midwest, she’s stood up against injustice. She’s picketed, protested, demonstrated. She’s written countless letters to elected officials.
Driving up to the cozy home in Lincoln, Neb. she’s resided in 43 years, expressions of her activism are visible in sloganed signs on her porch: “War is not the answer,” “Every human being is born legal,” “The State should be about life, not death.” She’s butted heads with the-powers-that-be. She’s advocated for the oppressed. At various times her activities have made her the object of harassment and surveillance. She’s been arrested but never convicted for her civil disobedience.
Her partner in life and in social justice causes was her husband of 50 years, the late Hughes Hannibal Shanks, who developed Alzheimer’s Disease in the mid-1980s.
A fellow product of the South, he fought his own battles on the job and in the community. Together, the couple proved an immovable force, never backing down from a perceived wrong, always striving to do the right thing. They saw much social progress flower in America, including gains by minorities in education, employment, housing. Their children, now grown with families of their own, are all professionals. The prospects for their grandchildren, bright, too.
AD marked the progressive loss of her best friend. She was Hughes’s primary caregiver when little information about the illness or how to care for loved ones afflicted with it existed. She did what she always does when confronted with an obstacle, she educated herself and threw herself into finding solutions.
Hughes had been the family radical. He presided over lively discussions at the dinner table. Everyone was expected to join in. He and Lela were kindred spirits with their keen social consciousness. As dementia stole more and more of him, she said, “the thing I missed most about my husband was that I didn’t have anybody that I could share that kind of intimacy of conversation with.”
Her odyssey caring for him was a profound experience. It led her to write a book, Your Name is Hughes Hannibal Shanks: A Caregiver’s Guide to Alzheimer’s, that received praise upon its initial 1996 publication and 1999 reprint. It was a fitting project for a woman who earned a college journalism degree and worked for the famous black newspaper, The Chicago Defender, but who abandoned a dreamed-of career as a writer in deference to Hughes’s wish she not work but raise the kids.
Reception to the book was so strong she became a much-in-demand public speaker, thus ushering in a new phase in her life as a lecturer and independent scholar. For years she’s shared her insights on caregiving with audiences around the country. She’s also given many talks about women’s empowerment, once serving on a United Nations panel addressing the subject.
She’s made many African American history presentations, too. Just as she became an expert on caregiving for AD by reading everything she could find on it, she researched black history so she could share this rich heritage with others.
“When I became a speaker on African American history for the Nebraska Humanities Council,” she said, “I made a comprehensive study of it.”
That’s the way Lela does things. No half measures. It’s all or nothing with her.
Her interest in history was stoked by the legacy of her great-grandmother, Hannah Mason McCrutcheon, who was born a slave. Lela knew her well and said this matriarch’s proudest moment was having seen Abraham Lincoln speak. This is why Lela’s so passionate to have history disseminated.
“I went to segregated schools (in Oklahoma) and in my school I took Negro history,” Lela said. “So I grew up learning it. Plus, I heard famous African Americans speak at my high school. Mary McLeod Bethune for one.”
Slavery was a taboo topic, however, in her family. Whenever Lela tried bringing it up with her elders, she said, “It was always, ‘Baby, we don’t talk about that.’ It was too awful.” It’s a painful enough history that generations later some descendants of slaves would rather not be reminded of it. “I have relatives today that don’t want me to ever say anything about that. I guess its’ so degrading.”
Linked as she is to that past Lela testified before the Nebraska Judiciary Committee last April in support of a resolution (LR284) that the state apologize for slavery.
“Words cannot really express the emotion I feel, living long enough to testify at such an historic hearing,” she told members. “An acknowledgement by this official body of the historical facts of injustices perpetrated on African Americans due to race, dating back to the Nebraska Territory, clears the air and provides an atmosphere in which honest racial healing and reconciliation can finally begin to take place in Nebraska.
“Passage of this official document can hopefully provide school administrators and teachers with the courage and the information and the permission to teach, finally, an inclusive American history not yet included in American history textbooks, thus preparing all Nebraska children with a better understanding of themselves and their prejudices…and to live in the larger, multicultural world…”
After Hughes died in 1998 there was a hole in her that could not be filled. No one could have blamed her if she’d retreated from her public life. But she’s gone right on fighting the good fight. That’s because adversity is her old friend. “We were born into it,” is how she puts it. Life in the South was a constant reminder to blacks of their second-class citizen status. “It was something I was constantly plagued by growing up,” she added. “One of the hardest things for me to accept was why I have to be treated this way. Why can’t I do something about this?” The experience toughened her for the hard times.
“My husband and I didn’t set out to be activists. We really just wanted to have whatever a so-called normal life was and raise our family, go to church and do the things that were acceptable, support the government where we could.”
Racism made that difficult. Said Lela, “From time to time as African Americans you get so tired of it all. You would like for it to just go away. You’d kind of like to not have to think about it. But we could not ignore it, there was just no way.”
She and Hughes, a World War II vet 10 years her elder, met at Lincoln University outside St. Louis. She graduated with a journalism degree and he with a law degree. He worked for the Social Security Administration. They started their family in segregated St. Louis. When denied the opportunity to apply for jobs he was qualified for he moved the family to Denver, Colo. in the early-’50s.
“Denver was like heaven,” she said, “because we could go to the swimming pools, we could go to the museums, we could go to restaurants. It was wonderful.”
But when the couple’s oldest child, Nena, was denied equal access to the education they wanted for her, Lela drew the line.
“I went to the Urban League, the NAACP, all the civil rights organizations, to see if there was anything they could do about the problem,” she said. “There wasn’t any help coming from anybody, and I just threw myself across the bed and cried, and then it just came to me — You’re the one who’s going to have to do something.”
Questioning authority is something Lela inherited from her Okie upbringing.
“I’m not sure my parents would have even known civil rights, it was just that my mother was given intuitively the ability to speak up for herself. She was not afraid to be her own advocate, and I always say I learned that at my mothers breast because I never had that problem. It’s a great feeling to feel like you always have the inner strength to speak for yourself. It was just given to me — that’s the only way I can explain it.”
Growing up under such “a powerful person” as her mother, who “defied whatever” was in her way, Lela knew she, too, could stand up for her rights.
This same sense of independence is something Lela and Hughes instilled in their own children. As a token of their admiration and appreciation for that lesson they presented her with a card that simply reads, “Question Everything.” It’s displayed on the mantel above her fireplace, next to some of her many awards.
“That’s what my children gave me because that’s what we had taught them — question us, because if you don’t question us and state yourself and stand up for yourself as a human being with us, you won’t stand up to other authority figures. And that’s what you have to do in life — you’ve got to be your own advocate. You can’t depend on somebody else being there for you.”
When the time came for Lela and Hughes to stand together, they never wavered.
“We were different in many ways but we were essentially the same when it came to what was important to us. When we were courting we talked about what was important to us in life. We wanted to help our people but what, of course, I came to realize was that I was helping myself.”
Faced with an unfeeling educational system and Hughes once running into a glass ceiling at work, the family left Denver for Kansas City, Kan. at the height of the civil rights movement. There, they butted heads with the public school board. She said boards then used such tactics as gerrymandered school boundaries, selective pupil transfers and feeder schools “to keep the schools separate and unequal.”
Upset by this bias the couple joined others in lodging complaints and finally withdrew their children from school to enroll them in a “protest school” they opened at home. Others joined the protest by removing their kids from the public schools and having them attend what students lovingly called Shanks University.
Ten children in all attended Shanks U that 1962-63 school year. Lela was their primary educator. The ruling class though took a dim view of this renegade school operating in defiance of the established order.
“We were going against the power structure so they weren’t about to certify us and that’s why we were arrested for truancy,” Lela said. “We didn’t trust any of the attorneys there and so we went to Topeka to retain Elijah Scott, the attorney who filed the original brief for the Brown vs. Board of Education case.”
The arraignment proved traumatic. Lela remembers: “Our attorney went to post the bond and while he was gone a couple deputies came over. One pulled on me from one side and the other pulled on me from another side, with my husband and children standing there. My husband knew not to move, not to say a word. The children though were yelling and screaming, ‘Mama, Mama,’ and hanging onto my legs, because it was obvious they were trying to take me away. That was the most terrifying thing about that experience.”
Scott returned just in time, her bond posted, and she was released. Lela and her family left the courthouse breathing a sigh of relief.
In retrospect Lela said, “I can’t even begin to imagine what would have happened to me if I had actually been jailed, because African Americans were telling us it was stupid what we were doing — that we were going to get killed. A lot of the parents wouldn’t let their children play with our children. They were afraid because they just knew whatever we were doing we weren’t going to win and something terrible was probably going to happen to us. In those days African Americans could be killed and nobody gave a second thought to it.”
Lela ran afoul of authorities again when she and others were arrested for picketing outside a federal building. By this time she was active in CORE or Congress for Racial Equality. She was ordered to appear before a federal grand jury. Hughes couldn’t be with her — he was in the nation’s capitol for Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic march and speech on the mall.
She stood up to that inquisition with uncommon grace and eloquence.
“The first question a juror asked me was, ‘What were you doing picketing the federal building?, and I said, ‘I was doing what my husband is doing right now, and that’s marching for my freedom.’”
Lela was acquitted but intrusions into her and her family’s private life continued.
She said their home phone was tapped and that on one occasion three FBI agents showed up unannounced when she was home alone with her youngest child, Eric, demanding she answer questions, “trying I’m sure to intimidate us.”
“They (the FBI) went on my husband’s job and they went on the jobs of several other people who had been picketing,” she said. “We received some death threats, just like all the rest of the people who spoke out.”
Despite the risks, the Shankses stood firm. “We would not have done what we did if we had let fear take us over,” Lela said.
Meanwhile, an integrated lay Catholic social action committee took up the fight to get black children an equal education. Lela welcomed the support.
“We decided it would not be wise to put our children back in public school. We were really afraid of reprisals. We had already had an incident with our oldest child,” she said. “The black teachers were afraid for their jobs. They knew that in integration the black teachers lost out initially. They were the first to be let go. A lot of these principals and teachers we’d gone to college with. They were my sorority sisters, his fraternity brothers. And those people didn’t want to have anything to do with us. We were pariahs, we were troublemakers.”
As Lela can attest, being an activist can be lonely.
“It was always a struggle. I’m a human being and I wanted a fine house and a fine this and a fine that, like anybody would want, but I just found I had to forego that to do what I knew deep within was the right thing to do. We had both agreed that trying to do away with segregation was more important than making money.”
After much wrangling the social action committee arranged for the Shankses and other parents to enroll their children in a Kansas City parochial school.
Hughes was transferred to Lincoln in 1965. The family found a home in an all-white district. He and Lela knew little about Nebraska besides it being the birthplace of Malcolm X and the home to a militant young barber, Ernie Chambers, “who dared to speak the truth to power.” Forty-three years later she praised the outgoing state senator at a dedication naming the capitol’s judiciary review room in his honor.
Before Hughes moved his family up north he went on ahead alone, unsure what reception awaited a black man in the Woods Park neighborhood. As a precaution, Lela said, he slept on a board in their home’s bathtub. When a week passed without incident, he had Lela and the kids join him. One neighbor, who later became a close friend, asked Lela if they wouldn’t feel more comfortable in the Malone area, a black section. Another neighbor circulated a petition “to get us out,” said Lela. Nothing happened. The family wasn’t going anywhere anyway.
Lincoln became home. The kids went to public schools — often the only blacks in their classes. Hughes still brooked no inequity at work. Once the nest was empty he finally relented and let Lela work — as a field supervisor for CETA with the Nebraska Department of Labor. She’s immersed herself in Nebraskans for Peace.
The journey that is her life is “an evolutionary process” to “break through the boundaries of tribes, ethnic groups, religions, nationalities” that, she said, separate us. Her search is to “find that common thread…that lives in all of us and links us one to the other.” She said this “unseen force pushes the human race forward to do new things, such as discover cures, invent the computer and to elect a Barack Obama. The change we need is already here. We just have to catch up with it.”
Like most folks Lela’s age the idea of a black president seemed remote and yet Obama’s attained the highest office. Did she think she’d see it happen in her lifetime? “No, I did not, but without a doubt I knew it was possible,” she said.
“Hughes would have celebrated Obama’s election. We would have hugged each other and cried together.” The way she sees it, Obama seized a moment in time when America was ready for historic change.
“Obama is a man for his time,” she said, “and this is his time right now. I think the time is more important than the person. I don’t think you can stop a thing when its time has come. You just can’t stop it. And he’s the man at this particular time.”
No matter what happens during his administration, she said, things will never be the same because his presidency has broken barriers once thought unbreakable.
“Even if he’s the worst president…it still will have changed this world, not just this country,” she said. “It’s inevitable that there will be psychological effects on peoples around the world, and that’s just for starters.”
The fact the White House is occupied by a strong black family presents an image that not all the marches during the entire civil rights movement could project. Obama’s victory is a culmination of what that movement and a lot of other efforts to combat discrimination and racism fought so hard to bring about.
Lela recalls how not so very long ago even the suggestion that blacks be portrayed in the popular media like anyone else amused or appalled producers, whose views, she said, reflected the demeaning way blacks were held.
“I remember when I would hear advertisers on television laughing when asked, ‘Why don’t you use African Americans in commercials?,’ and, ‘Why don’t African Americans ever kiss on television?’ These were big Madison Avenue advertisers and they thought it was funny to even ask the question,” said Lela. “Their reply was, ‘White people wouldn’t be interested in seeing African Americans kiss or caress. They don’t want to look at them on TV.’”
The Cosby Show disproved that notion. That was a situation comedy though. Oprah’s immense popularity has given lie to that thinking as well. But she’s a talk show host. The Obama presidency is on a whole different scale.
“Every day now there’s going to be a black face on TV for the world to see.” Lela said. “I mean, they’ll see his two little children and his wife, and him with his family, and see these people acting like what they are — human beings. That’s part of that psychological effect that it will have.”
Looking at things from a broad perspective, Lela believes the Obamas will do much to supplant the dehumanizing stereotypes that for so long have been used to denigrate African Americans. The First Family’s example won’t eradicate racism, she knows, but it will expose the fallacies of long ingrained beliefs that blacks are somehow inferior or different.
“The people who say that are people who have not yet discovered their common humanity,” she said. “That’s ignorance, sheer ignorance. That’s the way I would describe it, because when you discover that common humanity then you know at least intellectually that you have to accept everybody as they are. It’s the same with any of the differences (between people). When you get right down to it we’re all just people. All wanting the same thing pretty much, and all doing the same things pretty much every day. Why can’t we get this through our head?
“That doesn’t mean I’m going to agree with everything you say. I certainly don’t agree with some of the things Obama says. But you see when you discover that common humanity and you know that that DNA is virtually the same in all of us, you don’t think like that anymore.”
If nothing else, she hopes the Obama factor opens the door to multiculturalism.
“You know the great tragedy of the bigotry that we have so made a tradition in this country is that it denies us the enriching life we could have if we opened ourselves up to three fourths of the rest of the world’s population, because three fourths of the world’s population are people of color.”
Her extensive travels to speak across Nebraska convince her the state is a microcosm for a parochial outlook on the world.
“Nebraskans have not permitted themselves to really learn enough about the rest of the world,” she said, “and I think many Nebraskans still envision that the world is just like Nebraska — mostly all white.”
Along with a broader world view, she’s hopeful “a more inclusive history” — one that includes the whole of the African American experience — will be adopted and taught in schools, where there’s a paucity of materials from a black perspective. “You can graduate from college with a Ph.D. having never read a book written by an African American,” she said. It’s something dear enough to her she’s gone out of her way to promote it at teachers conferences.
“I made up a bibliography of books for children about black Americans in l986 to give to teachers. I took about 25 books with me to show to them. These were primarily children’s books about every aspect of African American history, culture and life. Some of the schools where I spoke in during the ‘80′s and ‘90′s either had no books or very few about African Americans, so for awhile I bought books and donated at least one to their school libraries in honor of Hughes.
“When I talk on African American history I say, ‘The important thing for you to know about the slaves first of all is that they laid the foundation for this country to be the number one economic power in the world through those 200 years of free labor.’ Nobody ever talks about that. Let’s talk about what African Americans were doing besides being slaves — they were inventors, they were artists, they were explorers, they were in every discipline of American life. There were always some free blacks, even in the midst of the darned slavery.”
At times she’s rankled by mainstream America boxing black history into one month, February. She said, “We ought to be talking about African American history in every month of the school year.”
In an even larger sense, she feels Obama’s presidency represents a return to the common origin of our species. “There’s always deeper meaning of things than just the obvious and I think symbolically he represents taking America and the world back to where we began. History’s been rewritten so much that people forget this is where it all started — in Africa — and symbolically he represents the possibilities of the uniting.”
One thing Lela won’t do is give Obama a free pass just because he’s black. “I know that being African American is just one part of who I am and so my judgments don’t go through that prism before they go through just common humanity.” She realizes Obama must tread carefully. “I understand what he’s going through. I know that as an African American he’s going to bend over backwards trying to make sure he doesn’t come across as a militant or these things that don’t put you in good standing with the public in general.”
Similarly, she doesn’t view Obama as some kind of savior figure. “I don’t feel that way about people. You have to be your own savior. And I’m not inferring I don’t believe in a higher power.” She does, explaining, while “I am not a member of an organized group, my faith is my anchor, my life. That is where I draw my strength from. My faith is what I hang on to. That is what keeps me going. Outer labels have different meanings for different people, so I avoid them. Ultimately, I believe it is our energy that tells people who we are.”
To Lela’s way of thinking, we’re each responsible for making our own path. “I think everybody can be a leader and certainly should be their own leader,” she said.
She’ll judge what kind of president Obama is on his own merits and it’s much too early yet to form an opinion. Lela will closely eye his decisions.
“Now whether he will be this person of peace, that’s to be seen, we don’t know that. Only time will tell,” she said. “He’s already calling for more troops in Afghanistan. He believes in the death penalty. Rev. (Jeremiah) Wright said he would be watching Obama just like he would anybody’s administration, and that’s exactly what I will be doing. And when I think he’s wrong…well, I already wrote him two or three letters during the campaign about things where I thought he was wrong. I have a file. One thing I may write him a letter about is — if Rev. Rick Warren is acceptable why is not Rev. Wright? That is something I would really like to ask him.”
If Lela’s learned anything it’s that the change we seek is within us. “With what I did in the civil rights movement, really the most important thing was that I changed myself. You’ve got to free itself. I learned I can’t free other people, but I can share my experience if people ask for it and maybe something will have some meaning for them. But ultimately something has to be triggered on the inside for each of us.”
In her book she writes about “finding the strength to face each new obstacle and a solution for each new problem. Difficulties can be transcended. There is always a new way. The choice is ours.” Through her trials Lela has learned the art of surrender. That’s why as trying as Hughes’s condition was, she said, “I knew it was a gift, I knew it had happened for a purpose, never dreaming that I would go all over the country speaking to people that they have a choice in life. That they don’t have to be a victim. That’s really what I try to do.”
For all her contentment, would Lela still be willing to go to jail for her convictions? “If my medical needs could be met, yes,” she said. If she could relive her life, would she be an activist again knowing the sacrifices it exacts? “Yes, I would, because it gives purpose, meaning and value to my life.”
Lela says one’s words or actions tell only so much. “The doing is the being. I think it’s what we transfer to each other in an unseen way that tells about you.” In that case then Lela Shanks Knox is a warm light in the cold darkness.
- In the Spirit of Juneteenth, Sixties Activist Timothy Fitzgerald Commemorates the Pillars of the Civil Rights Movement (prweb.com)
- Clarence Lusane: Racism, Shirley Sherrod and the Obama White House (huffingtonpost.com)
- NAACP takes on Tea Party’s ‘racist element’ (thegrio.com)
- Letting go of the past lifts a weight from caregivers (mayoclinic.com)
Part II: After Decades of Walking Behind to Freedom, Omaha’s African-American Community Tries Picking Up the Pace Through Self-Empowered Networking
Recently, two related cover stories of mine were published in The Reader (www.thereader.com) under the main headline, “Power Players.” The subject is the African-American Empowerment Network in Omaha. I submitted the stories at a combined 9,250 words, and they ended up in print at about 4,400 words. To put it mildly, that’s an unusually large amount of material to be excised. I was given no opportunity to participate in the editing process. Because I don’t read my published work, I can’t offer an opinion on the stories as they appeared in print, I can only surmise that much depth and context and detail that went into the stories as I wrote them got lost in translation after such massive cuts. As promised, I am now posting on this blog the articles as I prepared them. Part II follows immediately below. Part I is already on the site . I am making the Empowerment Network leadership and others in the community aware of what happened, as I spent a lot of time developing these stories, and I want the satisfaction of knowing that these pieces will at least now have a chance of being seen in the form in which they should have been published originally. I may also contact the local African-American newspaper, the Omaha Star, about printing my versions.
If you care to share any comments about the different versions, I would be interested in any such feedback. In the past, when something egregious like this happened with my work, I had little recourse. The online world offers me a way to get my work out there the way it was meant to be seen.
Part II: After Decades of Walking Behind to Freedom, Omaha’s African-American Community Tries Picking Up the Pace Through Self-Empowered Networking
©by Leo Adam Biga
All along, African-American Empowerment Network leaders have known that in order to transform north Omaha, the nonprofit must partner.
A measure of just how wide the Network’s cast its reach since forming three-and-a-half years ago is its established ties with: philanthropists, CEOs, social service agency executive directors, pastors, neighborhood association leaders, current or ex-gang members, school administrators, law enforcement officials, city planning professionals, local, county and state elected officials.
From the start, the Network’s taken a systematic approach to build community-wide consensus around sustainable solutions. North Omaha Contractors Alliance president Preston Love Jr. began as a critic but now champions the Network’s methodical style in gaining broad-based input and support:
“My compliment to them is even bigger than most because they stayed by their guns. I highly commend them because they did it the right way in spite of people like myself. They’ve gained my respect for their process because they have done it the hard way. They developed a process which has involved every level, from leadership on down to grassroots, for people to participate. That is the key to me.
“What looks like the easy road now was the hard road. It’s harder to work a game plan than it is to just go ahead and shoot from the hip. They had some real strategic things they felt they needed to do before they sought press or went public. All of that made sense but for those of us who are activists there’s stress in that because we wanted things to happen right away. As this thing has evolved there has been tremendous credibility built within and outside the organization and the results are now beginning to show themselves.”
For Empowerment Network facilitator Willie Barney, it’s all about making connections.
“When we started there were not enough forums and venues for people to come together and share ideas and solutions in an an environment where you felt comfortable no matter who you were,” he said. “If we take it down to our core, we’re about connecting people, connecting organizations, then identifying where the strengths are and where the gaps are, and then building on the strengths and filling in the gaps.
“It’s encouraging we have so many more partnerships now, almost to the point where it’s overwhelming. We get calls, e-mails, people stop in quite often just saying they want to help, they want to be a part of something. We’ve launched a lot of activities, helped launch organizations, started initiatives. Now we’re to a point where we’re working with residents at planning meetings, trying to get as many people as we can involved to tell us what is their vision for the targeted areas — what does it look like in north Omaha, what does it look like for African-Americans in the city, what would they like to see. ”
He refers to North Omaha Village Zone meetings at North High that invite community members to weigh in on developing plans for the: 24th and Lake, 16th and Cuming, 30th and Parker/Lake and Adams Park, Malcolm X and Miami Heights neighborhoods. At the May 27 meeting some 100 residents turned out to be heard.
A homeowner who lives in the Adams Park area said she’s interested in how development will affect her home’s resale value and improve quality of life.
“I’m very concerned about my investment, so anything that’s going on we want to know because it will eventually impact us,” said Thalia McElroy, who was there with her husband Greg. “It’s totally positive,” she said of the Network’s community-building focus. “They’re trying to make an effort to level the playing field. You know, when your community doesn’t even have a movie theater, that’s ridiculous. I’m hoping the redevelopment will get more more diversity as far as recreation activities and shopping.”
Greg McElroy said he appreciates how the development process is allowing residents to have a say in helping shape plans at the front end rather than the back end.
Wallace Stokes, who just moved here from Waterloo, Iowa with his small construction business, likes what’s he’s seen and heard thus far. “They’re trying to get the best ideas to redevelop north Omaha. They’re trying to empower the neighborhood and create jobs and also make it better for everybody else. All of that’s what I believe in,” said Stokes.
“I can honestly say I’ve never seen this happen before. I think there is a sincere invitation for people to experience this and to be a part of it, and the invitation is actually coming from the Empowerment Network. This appears to be something that’s got the appropriate amount of focus. City government’s there, a lot of the commercial companies are involved as well.”
While confident the Network “will continue to push forward for change,” Williams said “the real key” to sustainability “is going to be the other parties at the table” and how the economy affects their budgets and bottom lines.
Gannie Clark adds a cautionary note by saying. “The plight we have as black people is bigger than the Empowerment Network. It’s not about any one entity, it’s about people coming together so that the city can move forward, it’s about what is the city going to do to revitalize this part of town, it’s about us as people getting representation.”
“People are passionate about it, they want to see things done,” Barney said. “As this whole thing transitions, more and more individuals in the neighborhoods are getting engaged in what is it going to take to rebuild north Omaha, and that’s really encouraging. I think people need to see their ideas being respected, they want to be a part of what’s going on, they want to be at the table when decisions are made, they want to be active, they don’t want to just go along for the ride.”
Barney’s aware the community’s trust has been hard won. “I think at one point people were kind of like, What is it? Is this going to be a top down deal? I think people who have actually sat down at the table have realized their ideas count as much as anybody else.” He’s aware, too, of perceptions the Network is elitist, composed of middle-aged, highly-educated, high-earning managers, directors, owners, but insists there’s participation by a broad range of ages, education levels and socio-economic groups.
A segment missing from the leadership is age 30-and-unders. That’s why Dennis Anderson and others created the Emerging Leaders Empowerment Network. “We want to be heard at the table as well,” said Anderson, who has his own real estate business. “We have our own ideas and our own solutions we want to bring forward.” He said ideas generated by Emerging Leaders are presented to the larger Network. “Now we are being heard. They have been extremely supportive of us,” he said.
The larger Network revolves around a self-empowerment covenant that challenges people to do their part to improve themselves and their community. There are targeted areas for improvement, each with its own strategy.
So what makes the Network different beyond its covenant calling for African-Americans to harness change through self-empowerment? What do residents and neighborhoods stand to gain and how does the organization interact with them? Who’s holding the Network accountable? Where could this feel-good train get derailed?
These are important questions for a community that’s heard much talk these past 40 years but seen meager action. Stakeholders want to know why this time around should be any different and what mechanisms the Network has in place to ensure it will outlast what were previously mercy missions?
For one, it appears this initiative is an unprecedented collective of black leaders working and speaking as one to address comprehensive change.
“I don’t see any other kind of a way and I don’t see any other time that this has happened,” said Family Housing Advisory Services director Teresa Hunter, co-chair of the Network’s housing development covenant..
“There has not been the kind of movement like this in our community in a very long time. There have been attempts at it, and I have been a part of those attempts to bring community together, but the structure currently in place is a structure that has not been there before,” said Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray, chair of the violence intervention-prevention strategy.
Davis Companies CEO Dick Davis, who heads the economics covenant and a newly formed Economic Strategy Taskforce, said the Network represents a departure from past initiatives programmatically and philosophically in its approach to economic development. “The principles we set up are a market-driven merit-based economic model as opposed to the social justice, social equity models Omaha has been doing.” This new business-like approach he said requires experienced business people like himself out front and behind the scenes to analyze, guide, refer, partner, support.
Proposed development projects up for review before the Taskforce or its eight sub-taskforces, he said, are held to a rigorous set of “expectations and outcomes” to select sustainable initiatives. He said the economics have to be there for a project to work, whether it’s a grocery store, a radio station or anything else.
The goal isn’t just to vet and endorse projects or programs, he said, but to improve the landscape for African-American commerce and progress.
He said Taskforce members, who include elected and appointed public officials, are working to change public policies to “open up more contract, procurement opportunities” for African-Americans. He added that members are also woking with institutions of higher learning to enroll more black students and with lending institutions and venture capitalists to create more accessible lines of credit and capital.
Buttressing the Taskforce’s and the Network’s economic models, said Davis, “are substantial amounts of dollars I’m committing.” He’s living the “do my part” mantra of the Empowerment covenant by, among other things, constructing a new headquarters building for the Davis Cos. in NoDo, investing $10,000 in seed money in each of 10 small black-owned businesses over a decade’s time. He’s on his third one now. His Chambers-Davis Scholarship Program and Foundation for Human Development are some of his other philanthropic efforts.
Davis uses his own generosity as calling card and challenge.
“I go to white folks and black folks and say, OK, here’s how I’m stepping up, tell me how you’re going to step up? How you going to do your part? That doesn’t mean necessarily just by money, it’s by expertise, it’s by commitment, it’s by whatever the case may be. But once you step up I want you to be accountable for it, I don’t want you to say it’s somebody else’s fault.”
The idea is that as others put up personal stakes, assume vested interests and make commitments, African-Americans gain leverage in the marketplace.
The economic initiatives add up to a new construct for building financial capacity in north Omaha. The empowerment aspect posits blacks having primary input in economic decision-making. Owing to exclusionary practices, Davis said, blacks “have always had more of a secondary input, meaning we could be part of the decision but the authority and the money were outside our input. What we’re saying is, let’s figure out what we can do within our resources. We have less than a handful of folks that are significant business people with a million dollars or more that could be invested. That’s horrible. The good news is we have at least 24 African-Americans that hold 28 positions of authority either as a public appointed or elected official or senior executive…There’s enough (critical) mass there…related to time, influence, authority and money.”
Urban League of Nebraska president and Network education-youth development co-chair Thomas Warren said a primary reason “why this initiative is different than past efforts” is the number of “individuals involved who are in decision-making roles within their respective organizations, agencies and institutions. They have influence over viable programs and ideas generated through the network and our discussions in getting these initiatives implemented.”
For Davis, the promise of the Network is its transformational potential. “If I’m going to dedicate the rest of my life to see if we can develop benefits for African-Americans in Omaha what I want to see is not another project, not another job, not another business. But what I want to see is a cultural change, a value change, a behavioral change of African-Americans’ psyche toward economics.”
He said a Network-sponsored 2009 economic summit brought segments together who normally do not cross paths, much less collaborate: “…at the last summit we did something that never happened in terms of black folks interacting with white folks. We have black leaders heading black banks and we have white leaders heading white banks. When will be able to have a black leader heading that one thing, whatever that thing is, for all the people? What I would like to see for keeping me motivated and inspired is an African-American heading the corporate community just because he’s the most qualified, capable, competent person.”
He will at least keep people talking. “One of my gifts is I can bring a group of people together that in most cases don’t talk to each other. The social justice advocates don’t talk to the pro business advocates, Republicans don’t talk to Democrats, white folks don’t talk to black folks, and we don’t get anything done.” If the Network’s done nothing else, he said, it’s brought diverse people together. “It’s called shared responsibility, shared accountability — that’s what makes it feel different.”
Warren said, “Everyone realizes that in order to build capacity with limited resources you have to collaborate. There are very strong-willed individuals who speak candidly with one another.” Despite disagreements, in the end I believe there’s true consensus in terms of the strategy and the approach we take. This is not an ivory tower operation, this is a front line grassroots mobilization. The individuals involved are reputable, they’re credible, they have the highest level of integrity and they recognize the need for things to change. It’s a mindset more-so than anything else that in my opinion has led to this initiative being so far successful.”
Apostle Vanessa Ward, whose gang intervention, community gardening and block party activities through her Afresh Anointing Church mesh with the Network, said, “This is the first time I’ve seen Omaha reach a place with this kind of solidarity.”
It may also be the most cohesive united front Black Omaha’s presented in a long time.
“A strength of the Network is that disagreements unfold in private, behind closed doors, not for public display,” said Rev. Jeremiah McGhee, co-chair of the faith covenant. “We’re only human, we’re going to disagree but we work hard at not airing our differences in public. If it happens it’s a fluke. The Network only speaks after a consensus is reached, so that it’s message is delivered with one voice.”
He said where past coalitions have been reactive to violent crime or allegations of police brutality, the Network takes a more considered, strategic approach to a multitude of persistent issues. Where the confrontational outcry of passionate citizens tends to “fizzle out,” he said the Network’s moderate, conciliatory approach is built for “the long haul. We’re not just a flash in the pan. We’re being very deliberate about this.”
That echoes the observations of Warren, who said, “We’ve been very methodical and incremental in terms of how these issues are identified and how strategies are developed to address these issues. It’s a very comprehensive strategy. I think we have a level of commitment from individuals who will stay the course.”
McGhee noted that past overarching responses like the Network’s have tended to be church-led and therefore limited by the skill sets of its pastors. “The difference is we’ve got our best and brightest, the experts, the professionals,” leading the Network, he said.
Salem Baptist Church Pastor Selwyn Bachus, the faith covenant co-chair, said, “I would say one of the identifiable, unique elements of the Empowerment Network is it brings to the forefront leaders who have expertise, exposure and experience in our covenants…and those leaders are willing to work together. It’s unique. I’ve lived in four different cities for fairly significant periods of time and have never seen the community unified in such a way. It’s a collaborative effort that allows us to do what we do even more effectively.”
As McGhee said, “We’ve got a lot of people who’ve come together. It’s a large group that’s pretty deep in its reach.”
Innovations By Design president and chief consultant Tawanna Black, the advocacy-social justice co-chair, said the organization’s careful to be inclusive, That includes collaborating with agencies who’ve been there doing the work. The overriding message, she said, “Is that we’re not here to replace you, we’re here to help you, we’re here to build your capacity, we’re here to inform the community about what you do so that you’re able to truly serve those you exist to serve. When you do that then there’s no need to have a tug of war.”
Warren said “the key is to connect services to clients” and a big part of what the Network does is communicating what services are available and linking people to them.
Then there’s what Warren and others describe as a new African-American leadership class that’s emerged on the political, financial, community, corporate scene who either lead the Network directly or are positioned to indirectly further its aims. Warren, Black, Davis and Gray are among this influential cadre. Network members say this confluence of new leadership seemed to make the time right for a concerted effort to improve the state of African-American Omaha.
“It was a formation, kind of a like a call to the troops to come together,” said Empowerment operations director Vicki Quaites-Ferris, who came from the Mayor’s Office. “Kind of an uprising of new leadership and new voices and younger voices, and that really was something that was near and dear to my heart.”
Adding a certain momentum and basis was a 2007 Omaha World-Herald series that delineated the stark realities for thousands of African-American residents whose impoverished living conditions rank among the most severe in America. Black Omaha has an almost nonexistent entrepreneurial base. With historically little visible or string-pulling presence in political and corporate circles, the community’s languished in a malaise that began more then four decades ago and has only become more engrained.
In 2009 a Pew Partnership for Civic Change assessment both confirmed the morass and recommended remedies that coalesced with Network strategic plans. Taken together, it was an indictment of a shameful status quo and a call to action.
“We don’t want to be known for having one of the highest rates of black poverty, we don’t want to have one of the highest gaps between black poverty and white affluence, we don’t want to be known as the worst place for STDs, we don’t want to have those things at the same time we’re in the Wall St. journal for having one of the best economic trends in the country,” said Black. “I think all those things put together make it a prime time for this to work and maybe the only time for it to work.”
Pastor Bachus believes “the dose of reality” these failings represent “awakened something in us.” With the context of this new sense of urgency, he said, “many of us have realized we’re at a crisis point, we’re at a crossroads, and if not now, never. There’s extreme possibilities for greatness in our community, but we have to do it now.”
McGhee said there’s a symbiosis between what the Network does and the work black churches do. After all, many church ministries and programs address the same issues as the Network, making churches natural partners for implementing strategies and engaging the community in shared covenant goals. He said the Network’s broad focus and many collaborations can help church projects build capacity but also relieve some of the burden. “We don’t have to be everything to everybody anymore,” he said. At the same time, he said the Network’s a unifying and stimulating force for getting churches to work together on things like safe night outs for youths.
McGhee said it helps that Network leaders Willie Barney and John Ewing are “people of faith” who set their egos aside. “Personality has a a lot to do with building coalitions and acceptance in the community and they’ve got a good reputation, they don’t offend people, they know how to facilitate.”
The Network’s been cautious to put itself in the media spotlight because it prefers a behind-the-scenes role and because it’s sensitive to past disappointments.
“There’s always been a hesitation,” said Willie Barney. “We see so many groups come before the camera and make grand announcements about what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it and for whatever reason we don’t see them again, and the community gets really tired of that.”
A skeptical public must be convinced this time is different. “They’ve heard the great ideas before, they’ve heard the talk before, and they see things in the community as a whole remain the same if not worse than what they were before,” said Highlander Neighborhood Association president Kristina Carter. “I’ve talked to neighbors trying to get them involved and I’ve been told to my face, ‘It’s not going to do any good.’ Everybody thinks it’s a great thing but we’ve had great things before and people are waiting to see if this is not just more of the same.”
Getting neighborhoods and residents on board has taken time. At the start, Barney said, “We didn’t do as good of a job as reaching out as we could have.”
Quaites-Ferris said it’s been a challenge getting past the point of people asking, “Are you really here to stay?” Her answer: “We’ve been around three years and we’re just beginning, so we are around and we’re going to stay around.”
Barney said, “They’re seeing there’s consistency to it, that we’re not going away.” He also senses people are impatient to see visible progress.
Carter speaks for many when she says, “As a resident I should be able to see with my eyes physical change taking place. That’s what people I’ve spoken to are waiting to see.”
Preston Love Jr. said any commercial development that occurs should “involve north Omaha in the process from top to bottom or we’re missing the point of what development really is.” He wants African-Americans involved from planning to financing, bonding and insurance on through construction, ownership, management and staffing.
Community activist Leo Louis takes issue with something else. “If the idea is to empower the community then the community should be growing,” he said, “not the Network. What I’m seeing happening is the Network growing and the community falling further and further down with rising drop out, STD, homicide rates. Yes, there’s more people getting involved, more marketing, more funds going towards the Network and organizations affiliated with the Network, but the community’s not getting any better.”
Tangible change is envisioned in Network designated neighborhood-village strategy areas. The plan is to apply the strategic covenants within defined boundaries and chart the results for potential replication elsewhere. One strategic target area includes Carter’s Highlander Association, the Urban League, Salem Baptist Church and the Charles Drew Health Center. The strategy there started small, with prayer walks, block parties, neighborhood cleanups. It’s continued through discussions with neighborhood associations. Brick-and-mortar projects are on tap.
“We’ve received some financial support to take the strategy to the next level,” said Barney. “We’re really focused on housing development, working with residents to look at housing needs. We’re partnering with Habitat for Humanity, NCDC, OEDC, Holy Name, Family Housing Advisory Services. Our goal is that you’ll be able to drive through this 15-block area and begin to see physical transformation. That’s where we’re headed.”
The Network also works with Alliance Building Communities and the Nebraska Investment Finance Authority. Some major housing developments are ready to launch.
Teresa Hunter said enabling a new wave of homeowners is about creating “a community that people are moving to instead of away from.”
The goal, Barney said, is to “remove obstacles and create more pathways” for African-Americans to not only achieve home ownership but to start and grow businesses, become employable, continue in school. It’s about people reaching their potential. Some key stakeholders, such as Salem, have big projects in the works.
Another target area includes 24th and Lake. The Network’s plans for redevelopment there jive closely with those of a key partner, the North Omaha Development Project.
As the Network matures, its profile increases. Barney doesn’t care if people recognize the Network as a change agent so long as they participate. “They may not know what to call it but they know there’s something positive going on,” he said. “They know we get things done. The message is spreading. We’ve had a lot of opportunities to go and present. There’s definitely more interest. We can tell by the volume of calls we get and the number of visitors to our web site (www.empoweromaha.com).”
Quaites-Ferris said public feedback suggests the Network is winning hearts and minds by doing more “than just talking and strategizing, but by putting plans together and implementing those plans.”
In terms of accountability, Barney said, “the leaders hold the leaders accountable and we invite the community in every second Saturday to an open meeting. They can come in, look at what’s going on. There’s nothing hidden, it’s up on the (video) screen. They have the chance to redirect, ask questions. It’s an open environment.” McGhee said the leadership “is really holding our feet to the fire” for transparency and responsibility.
Where could it go wrong?
Preston Love cautions if the Network becomes “the gatekeeper” for major funds “that gives them power that, if wrongly used,” he said, “could work against the community.”
Carter said letting politics get in the way could sabotage efforts. McGhee said public “bickering” could turn people off. He said the leadership has talked about what-if scenarios, such as a scandal, and he said “there’s no question” anyone embroiled in “something counter-productive like that would need to step down.”
Former Omaha minister Rev. Larry Menyweather-Woods worries about history repeating itself and a community’s hopes being dashed should the effort fade away. “You’d go back to square one,” he said. He wonders what might happen if things go off course and the majority power base “turns against you.” “When all hell breaks loose,” he said, “who from the Network will go to the very powers they’ve made relationships with and say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, this isn’t right?’” He suggests only a pastor has “nerve enough to do that.”
And that may be the Network’s saving grace — that pastors and churches and congregations are part of this communal mission.
“The history of African-Americans has been founded on faith and the church, so it’s the primary thing and everything else kind of grows out of that,” said Pastor Bachus. “Faith is that hub and the covenants and the efforts really are spokes out of that hub, and that’s the thing that holds it together.”
- Economic Setbacks, Empowerment Challenges, and a Still-Evolving Multicultural Nation Result in Deferred Dreams Among African-American and Hispanic Consumers, New Yankelovich Multicultural Study Finds (prnewswire.com)
- From Motown to Growtown: The greening of Detroit (grist.org)
- New Orleans: The Real City That Never Sleeps (theroot.com)
- Today’s Exploration: Omaha’s History of Racial Tension (theprideofnebraska.blogspot.com)
- Omaha Native Steve Marantz Looks Back at the City’s ’68 Racial Divide Through the Prism of Hoops in His New Book, ‘The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Part I: After Decades of Walking Behind to Freedom, Omaha’s African-American Community Tries Picking Up the Pace Through Self-Empowered Networking
Recently, two related cover stories of mine were published in The Reader (www.thereader.com) under the main headline, “Power Players.” The subject is the African-American Empowerment Network in Omaha. I submitted the stories at a combined 9,250 words, and they ended up in print at about 4,400 words. To put it mildly, that’s an unusually large amount of material to be excised. I was given no opportunity to participate in the editing process. Because I don’t read my published work, I can’t offer an opinion on the stories as they appeared in print, I can only surmise that much depth and context and detail that went into the stories as I wrote them got lost in translation after such massive cuts. As promised, I am now posting on this blog the articles as I prepared them. Part I follows immediately below. Part II will be on the site as well. I am making the Empowerment Network leadership and others in the community aware of what happened, as I spent a lot of time developing these stories, and I want the satisfaction of knowing that these pieces will at least now have a chance of being seen in the form in which they should have been published originally. I may also contact the local African-American newspaper, the Omaha Star, about printing my versions.
If you care to share any comments about the different versions, I would be interested in any such feedback. In the past, when something egregious like this happened with my work, I had little recourse. The online world offers me a way to get my work out there the way it was meant to be seen.
Part I: After Decades of Walking Behind to Freedom, Omaha’s African-American Community Tries Picking Up the Pace Through Self-Empowered Networking
©by Leo Adam Biga
Mark it down. 2007 may be when northeast Omaha’s depressed African-American community reached its limit. A demographic bound by race, history, circumstance and geography seemingly exhaled a collective sigh of exasperation to exclaim, Enough already. Longstanding discontent over inequities in income, housing, education, economic development and opportunity solidified into resolve by a people to take matters into their own hands.
Going on four years ago, a coalition of local blacks reached consensus to intentionally rebuild the community from within. As catalyst for this call to action, they formed the African-American Empowerment Network. The nonprofit community leadership organization uses advocacy, mobilization, engagement, collaboration and coordination as tools for enacting change.
The effort is inspired by a national movement of black empowerment laid-out by author and television/radio talk show host Tavis Smiley in his best selling 2006 book, The Covenant with Black America,. Borrowing from Smiley and other sources, Omaha’s Empowerment Network targeted 13 strategic covenant areas for improvement.
The disparities dogging segments of Omaha’s black community are long in the making. Efforts by the Network and partners to address these woes are the latest attempted remedies. In the 1940s and ‘50‘s the De Porres Club pressed the cause for civil rights. In the ‘60s the Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties or 4CL, took up the banner. Well into the ‘70s federally funded programs and agencies spurred by the Great Society and its War on Poverty operated here. At various times the Urban League of Nebraska and the Omaha Chapter of the NAACP have led on social justice and community betterment issues. Other well-meaning efforts and groups have sprung up.
When the last in a series of major civil disturbances in the late ‘60s badly damaged the old North 24th St. business-entertainment hub, many business owners abandoned the area for good. Relatively few new businesses have opened since.
Northeast Omaha’s chronic gun violence has contributed to the perception of an unsafe environment in which to do business or raise families, exacerbating deeply entrenched negative attitudes about the area. While the rest of the city has thrived, North O has lagged behind. Stagnation has further isolated it and inhibited new development there.
This once self-sufficient area is regarded as a mission district dependent on government assistance, social services and philanthropy. Even as African-Americans try empowering themselves, limited capital, combined with enormous needs gone unmet or underserved, makes outside investment necessary. The difference this time is that the black community is taking the lead, in collaboration with the larger community, to transform northeast Omaha. Blacks are doing much of the visioning, crafting and implementing of plans. Rather than change imposed from without, it’s organically generated from within, a model not seen before here.
Innovations By Design president and chief consultant Tawanna Black, co-chair of the Network’s advocacy and justice strategy, said where some cities improved conditions for African-Americans via a black political or corporate base, Omaha did not. “In the absence of African-Americans in powerful political or economic positions to drive this,’ she said, “small changes have occurred but nothing major. The network really flips that theory on its head and says, Why are we waiting for the power to be given, let’s own the power that’s within. It’s an empowerment thing. It means more than just a name on a piece of paper. It’s really what it’s all about — empowering people to take control of themselves. A process committed to that is completely new in this community.”
For some, it’s a manifesto for long overdue self-determination.
“There’s been a lot of psychological damage done to us as a people. Historically we just allow things to happen to us and what we have to do is starting taking control of our own destiny and that means also having skin in the game,” said Omaha City Councilman and Network violence intervention-prevention chair Ben Gray.
Empower Omaha drafted a rising-tide-lifts-all-ships community covenant identifying quality of life indicators needing attention. Copies of the covenant went to north side businesses and churches. It can be glimpsed inside beauty and barber shops, stores, offices. Pastors distribute it to congregations, sometimes preaching on it.
Through monthly community meetings, periodic summits and activities like prayer walks, neighborhood cleanups, block parties and surveys the Network interfaces with residents, inviting them to share concerns and ideas. The organization works closely with neighborhood associations in forming a North Omaha Neighborhood Alliance.
“We keep the community engaged, we listen to the community, we write down what they say. I think that’s how we get the buy-in from the community,” said director of operations Vicki Quaites-Ferris. “Most things implemented actually come as a result of listening to the community. That’s why it’s so important to keep the community engaged because at some point the community may say, We’ve got to turn it around and now focus on this.”
Highlander Neighborhood Association president Kristina Carter said the Network’s “an integral part” of neighborhood cleanups. “There are a lot of (neighborhood) associations but alone they don’t have the capacity to have an impact and I think that’s what this Alliance is poised to do. It gives the area a single voice, it puts some teeth to it.”
Network strategies encompass neighborhoods, housing, employment, education, family, faith, crime, et cetera. The strategies come from community leaders, residents and best practices in other cities. Not a direct service provider, the Network partners with others to support or facilitate programs and to link efforts in order to build synergy and capacity.
The backdrop for all this empowerment is profound want. The Network was already in place before a 2007 Omaha World-Herald series revealed black Omaha poverty rates as among the nation’s worst. What was already known is that many youths underachieve in school. Only half graduate. On top of that is an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, a preponderance of single parent homes and little economic development or opportunity.
Newly detailed were the area’s high joblessness rates and low household income levels. Northeast Omaha also suffers from a distressed infrastructure, Vacant lots, condemned structures and unkempt rental properties abound. There’s a paucity of black-owned businesses. The area’s endured a net population loss. Freeway construction disrupted, some say severed, a tight community. As restrictive housing practices waned, upwardly mobile blacks moved west. Others left the state for better prospects and larger, more progressive African-American communities elsewhere.
Network leaders say the series shone a light on conditions heretofore ignored. The result? Broad-based engagement from initiatives like the Chamber’s North Omaha Development Project and the privately funded Building Bright Futures. Many feel the city needs to make an It-stops-here pledge. “Omaha has yet to really stand up the way we do to other things and say we will not accept having the highest black poverty again,” said Black. “We haven’t done that. We’ve done some projects, we’ve announced some nice things, but we have not said we will not be here again.” Rev. Jeremiah McGhee doubts the larger community yet appreciates a revitalized north Omaha is good for all of Omaha, saying, “I don’t think they’re quite getting it.”
Combatting gun violence is one issue Omaha’s managed a united front on. The Network has endorsements from Mayor Jim Suttle, Omaha Police Chief Alex Hayes and some 100 public-private partners for the Omaha 360 anti-violence coalition. Asking hard questions about the violence problem spurred the development of the Empowerment Network in the first place. Why is this happening when Omaha as a whole prospers and some black communities thrive by comparison? Connecting the dots, it became clear the despair is rooted in certain realities: an entrenched gang and drug culture; fractured family units; a lack of positive role models for young people; barriers to educational, job, home ownership and business opportunities; a sense that nobody cares.
Douglas County Treasurer and Network chair John Ewing knows it from his former career as an Omaha cop and the Empowerment prayer walks and community meetings he joins. He said residents openly “complain about the violence, the lack of economic opportunities, the fact they feel abandoned, neglected, overlooked, forgotten. All this leads to a sense of hopelessness. That’s when people become demoralized, when they feel like they don’t matter to anybody else, when they see all the nice things Omaha’s doing but don’t feel they can participate in those things.”
Illegal gun and drug activity, violence, high drop-out and jobless rates, unskilled workers making minimum wages with no real future are all symptomatic of systemic, cyclical problems having gone unchecked or received piecemeal attention.
Making matters worse, northeast Omaha’s lost some 11,000 households over time. A diminished tax, voter, consumer base has deluded what little clout it had to hold the public and private sectors accountable for the economic and social ills.
“There’s been a lot of benign neglect thats gone on in north Omaha by the majority community and I don’t hesitate in saying that because it’s a fact,” said Gray. “But what we’ve got to do now is rather than point fingers and place blame put together the necessary mechanism to fix it. We’ve got so much work to do and we’ve got so many areas that we’re operating in.”
“Oh, mercy,” Black said in response to the task. One way or another, she said, “economics feed into all this. If you have money you have health insurance and you get screened, if you have money you can afford education to get a better job. It all ties back to that, and so we’re aiming to see measurable changes. Getting unemployment rates down and household income up to what it is in the rest of the city. Moving more folks off public assistance and public housing into being able to sustain their own families and afford market rate housing. Getting more people out of GED classrooms into college classrooms. Getting people into workforce development programs.”
She acknowledges the goals describe “a long-term process.”
Davis Companies CEO Dick Davis spearheads the economic covenant and the recently formed Economic Strategy Taskforce, an offshoot whose targeted outcomes speak to economic viability. He said the taskforce’s and covenant’s ambitious goals include preparing every African-American for a sustainable living wage job; moving persons from unemployment or underemployment to full employment and from jobs to careers; encouraging entrepreneurship by increasing access to credit and capital.
The Network endorses a from-birth-to-career strategy similar to Bright Futures.
Davis has been doing his part for years, from starting-up black businesses to providing college scholarships to black students. Entities like the African-American Academic Achievement Council, 100 Black Men, 100 Black Women, the Omaha Economic Development Corporation, the Urban League of Nebraska, along with black churches, have done their part, too. Pockets of progress have appeared in some new home construction, a few business parks, a refurbished section of North 24th St. and new quarters for anchors Salem Baptist Church, the Urban League and Charles Drew Health Center. But nothing of real scale has been attempted.
Overall, northeast Omaha appears stuck in the same quagmire of decline and disenfranchisement that befell it in the late 1960s, A recent Pew Partnership for Civic Change report found that of 33,000 metro businesses, only 200 are black-owned — most single owner-operator endeavors.
It was in this bleak context the Network formed. Family Housing Advisory Services director Teresa Hunter, co-chair of the Network’s housing development covenant, said underpinning the effort was the shared “thought that we need to make a change, we need to do something.” From the start, she said, it’s been about avoiding duplication and instead building capacity for existing programs and services and filling gaps.
“We work within the framework of what’s already going on, trying to make it cooperative. We identify issues and who’s already addressing them and what’s missing. Why are people still falling through the cracks — what else do we need to do?” No one entity, she said, holds the whole answer. “We take who does this well and who does that well and we put them all together.”
Where most Network players are native Omahans like Hunter, the driving force is a transplant, Willie Barney, who until recently made his living as a strategic consultant. The Iowa native worked in media marketing for Lee Enterprises and moved here for an Omaha World-Herald post. He worked on Salem Baptist Church’s administrative team when he galvanized efforts to create the Network. He served as the Network’s unpaid president and facilitator, then as a consultant, and is now its second paid staff member.
What began as a loose association testing the waters is now an established, structured player in broad, multi-faceted initiatives that have gotten buy-ins from public and private stakeholders both within and outside the African-American community.
“In evolving over time we’ve stayed true to our mission,” said Barney. “We said we want to be positive and pro-active and to build partnerships…with the entire city. Those are some core values we have. Our goal is to bring individuals and organizations together to help facilitate positive, measurable change…It has to be bottom-up and top-down for it to be anywhere close to being successful – individuals, families, leaders at all levels working together collaboratively.
“We were asked early on, How are you going to look at jobs, violence, housing, education all at the same time? And our answer is, How can we not when only 50 percent of our kids graduate high school, certain census tracts have 30 to 50 percent unemployment and 38 percent home ownership and a majority of homicides occur in the same concentrated area. If anybody thinks you can only focus on one of those areas and get anything done…” he said incredulously. “It has to be comprehensive. There’s not one organization or segment that’s going to solve what we’re in right now.”
Recently, however, the Network’s consolidated things. Barney said, “The more we went forward we realized we would spread ourselves too thin trying to have initiatives and groups in every one of the 13 covenant areas, so we really started focusing on seven core areas: faith and community engagement; education and youth development; violence intervention and prevention; housing and neighborhood development; jobs, jobs training and business development; health and healthy families; arts, culture and media.”
Evidence of the Network’s wide reach was seen during its annual Harmony Week (May 21-29), when dozens of organizations and thousands of people across the Metro participated in expressions of unity and community engagement.
Black said turf wars “have been removed by a higher agenda. Everyone at the table realizes this agenda can’t happen through just one of the organizations or churches, it can’t happen with folks who want just one neighborhood or one part of the community or one business discipline. And yet everyone realizes there are opportunities for each of our organizations to play a significant role in this. It really takes all of us being at the table, title-less, organization-less, to make this happen. That’s huge.”
Barney officed the first two-plus years wherever he and his laptop were, although the Network’s regularly convened at three main sites: the Family Housing Advisory Services building.; North High School; and the former In Play, now Tip Top Ballroom. In 2009 the organization opened an office in the historic Jewell Building, right in the heart of North O, across from the Omaha Star.
After a low key start that shunned media attention the Network’s boosted its presence via an expanded web site, a Facebook page and Revive! Omaha Magazine, which Barney’s SMB Enterprises LLC publishes. A TV spot features Network leaders reciting, like a creed, the Empowerment credo:
“We can change Omaha. It’s time to rebuild the village. Family by family, block by block, school by school, church by church, business by business. Each person doing their part. Working together, let’s transform Omaha. Do your part. Live the covenant…”
After a slow start, an Adopt-a-Block initiative for pastors to lead their houses of worship in nurturing neighborhoods has taken off, with some 70-plus pastors attending training compared to 15 last year.
Barney said in line with moving from “a grassroots movement into a formal organization,” the Network hired its first full-time staffer in Quaites-Ferris. The former deputy assistant under former Mayor Mike Fahey said, “My role is to make sure all operations and covenants are remaining as active as can be.” She said some covenants are more active and self-sufficient then others.” In terms of collaboration, she said, “it’s not always about partners coming to us but sometimes it’s about us going to them and seeing how can we partner together.”
Three-and-a-half years in now, the Network has a track record.
Said Barney, “There’s a lot of powerful signals. I think people are beginning to see there’s more strength and we can get more done if we just simply sit down and talk. We may not agree on everything but we can talk through those differences and keep a common goal in mind of trying to help our kids and employ parents in sustainable jobs. That’s really what we’re all trying to do. We may have different ways of getting there but if we can sit down and talk we’ll have a better chance.”
He said whatever course the Network adopts, it relies on others to carry it out.
“At the end of the day it’s ENCAP, the Urban League, Omaha Economic Development Corporation that are doing the work. But I think because we’re here we’ve helped facilitate potentially more partnerships than would have happened before.”
Malcolm X Memorial Foundation president Sharif Liwaru said he feels the Network’s facilitator rather than direct service provider role “is still hard for people to grasp.” Barney acknowledges as much. While Liwaru and community activist Leo Louis feel the Network effectively engages established organizations and leaders, they advocate more outreach be done to new, more loosely organized groups as well as to youths.
“We’re doing more to really make sure it is an inclusive process,” said Barney. “If they don’t come, we’ll go to them, and we’re not perfect, we make mistakes, but we keep pushing forward.”
The Network doesn’t pretend to work with every organization. It puts time and money where it can make the most difference. Barney said many early initiatives were pilots that explored what works and what doesn’t. “Now,” he said, “we have a better feel for what truly makes a difference and for what organizations are committed and actually have the resources and infrastructure to implement programs.”
He can list many Network accomplishments, but the work being done with young people is closest to his heart.
Mid-2008 the Network noted workforce development gaps for at-risk young persons and launched a life skills and jobs program. No one wanted a summer like 2007, when there were 31 reported shootings in 31 days during one stretch. Program participants included kids failing in school and drop outs , ex and active gang members among their ranks. Barney and Ben Gray contacted employers to secure 150 paid internships. The program was repeated last summer, with enrollees split between returning and new participants. Barney said many “transitioned back into school, some went on to get GEDs and others got offers for full time work.” 2009 saw hundreds more jobs created by federal stimulus funds and private donors. The Urban League facilitated.
Minus any federal funds in 2010, the number of summer jobs provided at-risk youth this year will be closer to 500, rather than the 800 created last year.
“In a lot of instances we basically have to start from scratch — we have to teach people how to fill out an application, how to successfully interview, how to do some things we take for granted,” said Gray. “This is a big job because you’ve got to change attitudes as well as change behavior. Neither is easy, but you’ve got to get it done because the only other choice is to build more jails and at the end of the day that’s costing us three to four times as much money as to provide jobs and job training and proper schooling.”
Barney said feedback from community forums identified unemployment as an underlining cause of violence. The program’s one of several Network initiatives aimed at curbing violence, with Omaha 360 and Enough is Enough being the latest and largest.
“We launched a formal violence prevention collaboration where we have community groups, faith groups, law enforcement, the Urban League, employment agencies, health organizations, housing organizations meeting every week to focus on youth violence and how we can reduce it,” said Barney. “It’s not just telling folks, Don’t do this, now we’re providing options.”
Impact One Community Connection, formerly New World Youth Development, was formed to do gang intervention-prevention. The Network also collaborates with ENCAP, the Eastern Nebraska Community Action Partnership (formerly GOACA).
Barney said a Stop the Violence summit that tapped young people’s input included former and current gang members. Those sessions morphed into regular youth forums. “People have been sitting down with gang members and not just telling them stuff but listening to what’s on their mind. Why didn’t you stay in school? What are the supports you need? What do you think of attempts to rebuild the community and what issues do you see going on from your perspective?”
Teresa Hunter said she, Barney and others were impressed “a group of youths wanted to continue meeting and talking about the issues and the remedies. They wanted to keep coming back and to make a change.”
In turn, said Barney, participants “were amazed somebody cared enough to spend all that time one-on-one with them and to help them get a job. They will flat out tell you no one has ever given them these opportunities before. Even some of the kids on the street that everybody totally discounts and that people said there’s no way you’re going to reach, well, we reached them.”
Building trust with this population, said Barney, is key. “They’ve been hurt so many times, people have given up on them, people have ruined their trust.” Recruiting them, he said, was largely the work of the late Roy Davenport and of Gray. Both brought long gang intervention experience. “That’s kind of the bridge that was built,” said Barney. “The Network has been able to tap into those who’ve been doing the work of trying to get people to leave gangs, giving us a link to that segment, and giving the intervention workers the support, resources and organization they lacked before.”
The Network’s aligned itself with the Omaha Police Department, particularly the Northeast Precinct, and North Omaha Weed & Seed to do Safe Night Outs and other efforts for improving police-community relations. Ben Gray and the police report progress in residents providing information and tips that lead to arrests.
Gray, who leads an emergency response team, said street work is where it’s at in reaching past or present gangbangers.
“You got to meet them where they are. If you are not willing to get out in those blocks, in those neighborhoods, in those houses where they live, you are not going to reach those young people. You gotta be at the hospitals, you gotta be at the funerals, you gotta be constantly talking about not retaliating…about going in a different direction. That’s very time consuming, painstaking, difficult work and there are no set hours. We have ex-gang members employed through Impact One. They monitor the streets on a regular basis.”
Gray lauds the Network for “putting it’s neck on the line” to even do this outreach, saying it’s a microcosm for how a wounded community can heal. “We have people that have been disappointed so much they’re not willing to necessarily buy-in until they have seen some stability in you going down the road getting a few things accomplished, and then you’ll hopefully get that groundswell of people that will come on board with you.”
“That’s how it clicks there, it’s grassroots, it’s organization, it’s strategic planning, it’s building relationships,” said Barney. “The summer program crystalized for many of us what’s possible.”
Barney said the Network “has the opportunity to really make a tremendous difference. Some of it will be over time, some of it will be dramatic,” such as the 36 percent reduction in gun violence in July-August 2008. “Now we can’t take direct credit for that but police will tell you that has never happened before at that level. Some folks went from being on the street to being in the life skills program to having a stipend to do voter registration work to being fully employed. So the possibilities are there for reaching the kids. Now it’s having all the support services lined up so we can link them together.”
For Kristina Carter, the Network is a vehicle for change and a conduit for action.
“I love what they’re doing with getting the-powers-that-be to listen to the community and for voices to be heard and not just patronized. The Empowerment Network can be that central point, strategic center of command where you can branch out to all the different organizations that service this community. That’s what it represents to me.”
Leo Louis and Sharif Liwaru say there are grassroots segments of the community that fall outside the Network’s structure that need to be engaged more.
“We’re doing as much as we can pushing it in that direction,” said Barney. “But I’m sure there are people in the community who still feel it’s not open enough or they feel they don’t have a voice. I would ask anyone who feels that way to contact me directly. We’ll sit down and we’ll meet and we’ll listen and try the best we can to make adjustments.”
Barney said it’s important to remember rebuilding north Omaha will be a process. Embedded problems will not suddenly vanish.
“We are building a long-term foundation. We’re getting more and more people engaged, more people are stepping forward. That doesn’t meant the violence is going to stop today or next week. I keep saying to folks, ‘It did not happen overnight and it will not be solved overnight’. That message rarely gets printed or becomes a sound bite. We’re not getting our minds around how big this is — the depth of this, and how long it’s been going. It’s painful just to say this is going to be a long term situation. To be successful this has to be a citywide effort.
“At the end of the day what’s kept everybody together is that it’s bigger than us individually and bigger than us as an organization or a church or a business. It’s about young people that need to graduate, it’s about mothers and fathers taking care of their kids, it’s about people being able to start a business, it’s about economic redevelopment. And it’s not about waiting on someone else to do it for us…”
Guardedly optimistic, he said, “We’ve seen some things slowly move in the right direction.” He’s encouraged by the positive alliances and community spirit built but he knows residents are eager to touch brick-and-mortar change.
Geraldine Wesley with Long School Neighborhood Association embraces the Network “getting people’s hopes up to empower” North O, adding, “If they carry out all the things they intend to do, it would be good.” She’s cautiously expectant. “Well, right now it’s just ideas, there’s nothing concrete as far as I know. I am waiting for the results. It’s going to be a long process, I know that. I hope I’ll live to see it.”
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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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