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OLLAS, the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, A Melting Pot of Latino/Latin American Concerns

May 12, 2011 5 comments

As Nebraska‘s Hispanic population has grown significantly the past two decades there’s an academic-research-community based organization, OLLAS or Office of Latino and Latin American Studies, at the University of Nebraska at Omaha that’s taken a lead role in engaging policymakers and stakeholders in Latino issues and trends impacting the state. I’ve had a chance the past two years to get to know some of the people who make OLLAS tick and to sample some of their work, and the level of scholarship and dedication on display is quite impressive. The following story for El Perico gives a kind of primer on what OLLAS does.  Increasingly, my blog site will contain posts that repurpose articles I’ve written for El Perico, a dual English-Spanish language newspaper in Omaha and a sister publication of The Reader (www.thereader.com).  These pieces cover a wide range of subjects, issues, programs, organization, and individuals within the Latino community.  It has been my privilege to get to know better Omaha’s and greater Nebraska’s Latino population, though in truth I’ve only barely dipped my feet into those waters.  But it’s much the same enriching experience I’ve enjoyed covering Omaha’s African-American and Jewish communities.

 

 

 

 

OLLAS, the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, A Melting Pot of Latino/Latin American Concerns

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico

Despite an ivory tower setting, the Office of Latino/Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha is engaged in community from-the-grassroots-to-the-grasstops through teaching, research and service.

The far reach of OLLAS, established in 2003, is as multifaceted as Latino-Latin American cultures and the entities who traverse them.

“We work very hard to bring to the table the different voices and stakeholders that seldom come together but that must be part of the same conversations. We do that very well,” said director and UNO sociology professor Lourdes Gouveia.

“We’ve been able to construct a program around this very out-of-the-box idea” that academia doesn’t happen in isolation of community engagement and vice-versa. Instead, she said these currents occur together, feeding each other.

“The impetus for creating this center was driven by what informs everything in my life, which is intellectual interest right along with an interest in addressing issues of inequality and social justice and making a difference wherever I am. So, for me, OLLAS was a logical project we needed to undertake.”

 

 

Lourdes Gouveia

 

 

At the time of its formation Gouveia was researching immigration’s impact in Lexington, Neb. “It was clear to those of us witnessing all the changes going on we needed a space in the university that addressed those changes with kind of freshened perspectives very different from the old models of ethnic studies.”

Assistant director and UNO political science professor Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado said, “We very intentionally created something that would have a community base and not talk down to it, but try to make it a part of what we do. We wanted our work to be not only politically but socially relevant and that has been the basis for the outreach projects we’ve undertaken. OLLAS has been central to helping me live out what I do in my community.”

OLLAS produces reports on matters affecting Latino-Latin American segments in Nebraska, including the economic impact of immigrants, voter mobilization results and demographic trends. Gouevia said the office takes pains to distinguish the Guatamalan experience from the Mexican experience and so on. She said it can be daunting for Individuals and organizations to navigate the rapid social-political-cultural streams running through this diverse landscape of highly mobile populations and fluid issues. OLLAS serves as an island of calm in the storm.

“I think people take solace in the fact that when things get too muddled and when things are going too fast ,” she said, “they can turn to us, whether as an organization or as individuals, and say, What do you think of this?”

“We’re a resource for the community. When it needs perhaps more academic analysis of something, they look to OLLAS for that,” said Benjamin-Alvarado. “I think one of the other things people see us as is a real resolute voice — not that we’re going to go out and be the advocates — but when they’re involved and things get crazy, they’ll call us here and say, ‘Are we doing the right thing?’ People look to us for guidance and support as they’re trying to build a foundation.”

Helping build capacity within Latino-Latin American communities is a major thrust of OLLAS. No one at OLLAS pretends to have all the answers.

“We recognize that while we may be able to provide some reflection, we’re not the complete experts about what goes on in this community. We learn an enormous from our community work,” Gouveia said. “We engage on a very egalitarian basis with community organizations and treat them with the respect they deserve as the fonts of knowledge they bring to the realities.”

 

 

Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado

 

 

“We’re actually very intentional about not assuming we know everything and that we have to lead everything,” said Benjamin-Alvarado. “For example, we often don’t lead the community meetings, we sit in the back of the room and let others assume those roles of leadership because they have been leading. I think the fact we treat others as equal and we’re willing to listen to them has engendered genuine partnerships in the community.’

One of those strong partnerships is with the Heartland Workers Center, an Omaha nonprofit that helps immigrant laborers deal with the challenges they face. The center teaches workers their rights and responsibilities.

Benjamin-Alvarado said far from the patriarchal, missionary approach others have traditionally taken with minority communities, OLLAS looks to genuinely engage citizens and organizations in ongoing, reciprocal relationships.

“We don’t go in and bless the community and come back, Oh look how good we have done, because that would be the wrong message. That has been the model that’s been utilized in the past by a lot of academic institutions in response to these types of communities, and they resent it greatly. They’ve been burned so many times in the past. We make sure what we do is interactive and iterative, and so it’s not a one-off. It’s something we continue to go back to all the time. It’s this constant back and forth, give and take.”

 

 

 

 

He said he and Gouveia recognize “there are other people in the community with immense knowledge who can articulate the issues in a way that resonates with the community more than we as academics could ever do.”

OLLAS also reaches far beyond the local-regional sphere to broader audiences.

“Something I think people are surprised about is how globally connected we are,” said Benjamin-Alvarado. “We are one of the major nodes of a global network on migration development both as scholars and ambassadors of the university. We’re all over the planet. It’s a demonstration of just how deeply connected we are.”

Gouveia said the May 14-15 Cumbre Summit of the Great Plains, which OLLAS  organizes and hosts, “fits very well” the transnational focus of OLLAS. The event is expected to draw hundreds of participants to address, in both macro and micro terms, the theme of human mobility and the promise of development and political engagement. Presenters are slated to come from The Philipines, Ecuador, Mexico, Ireland, South Africa and India as well as from the University of Chicago and the Brookings Institution in the U.S.

A community organizations workshop will examine gender, migration and civic engagement. Representatives from social service agencies, the faith community, education, government and other sectors are expected to attend the summit, which is free and open to the public.

“We work with all these publics very carefully so that the community feels really invited as co-participants in these discussions, not simply as spectators or a passive public,” said Gouveia, who added the programs are interactive in nature.

“We put local people with the sacred cows, we mix and match, and the panels take on a life of their own,” said Benjamin-Alvarado. “An academic will be talking about something and a local will say, ‘Thats’ not the way it happens,’ and to me that’s music to my ears.”

Another example of the international scope of OLLAS is the summer service learning program that takes UNO students to Peru. Benjamin-Alvarado said the experience offers participants “an interesting perspective on urban Latin America. All of them come back completely motivated and transformed by what they learn and how they utilize their classroom lessons. These are not summer fun trips. the students work the whole time in a shantytown in Lima.”

This summer he’ll be a International Service Volunteers program faculty adviser/coordinator in either Ecuador or the Dominican Republic. He said the research and engagement he and Gouveia do abroad and at national conferences increases their knowledge and understanding, informing the analysis and teaching they do.

“Our college has said we’re a prime example of what’s now called the leadership of engagement,” said Gouveia. She added that the broad perspective they offer is why everyone from educators to elected officials to the Chamber of Commerce look to them for advice. “I’m very proud of how many people contact us. It’s a great feeling to know that we do fill a major void in this whole region to do this very unique combination of things,” she said.

Opening new spaces for learning is another mission objective of OLLAS. It has sponsored a cinemateca series at Film Streams featuring award-winning movies from Spanish-speaking countries. It’s involved in an outreach program at the Douglas Country Correctional Center, where UNO faculty provide continuing education to immigrant inmates. Gouveia and Benjamin-Alvarado said it’s about bringing compassion and humanity to powerless, voiceless people whose only crime may be being undocumented and using falsified records.

The scholars are satisfied that anyone who spends any time with OLLAS comes away with a deeper appreciation of Latino-Latin American cultures, history, issues. Benjamin-Alvarado said OLLAS grads are today teaching in classrooms, leading social service agencies, working in the public sector, attending law school. He fully expects some to hold key elected offices in the next 10 years. He and Gouevia feel that a more nuanced perspective of the Latino/Latin American experience can only benefit policymakers and citizens.

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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’

April 1, 2011 27 comments

Architectural detail on East Side of Central

Image via Wikipedia

It was two years ago when I first heard about Steve Marantz‘s then in-progress book about racial tensions in late 1960s Omaha – our shared hometown – through the prism of basketball. I knew then I would have to write about it.  Fast forward to my getting a copy of the book earlier this year and finding it a compelling read and then my filing the story below for a local publication that is still looking for an editorial hole to drop it in. Those editorial holes are getting harder to come by as papers literally shrink, but that’s another story. I highly recommend Marantz’s book for its glimpse at the convergence of racial, cultural, social, and political streams that came to a head in 1968 in Omaha and a lot of other places. He was there when it played out and now more than four decades later he revisits the story with the perspective of time.  The four battlegrounds where the events of his story blow up are stand-ins for larger forces: there’s the staid old school, Omaha Central High, with a diverse student body and out-of-touch administration in an era when interracial friendship, especially romance, could only happen on the down low and when expectations for black and white student achievement contrasted sharply; there’s the Omaha Civic Auditorium where George Wallace’s appearance set off violence; there’s North 24th Street, the black business hub with its mix of black and white owners, that became the target of outrage; and there’s the state basketball tournament in Lincoln, Neb., where black teams from Omaha historically got the shaft from all white officiating crews. But what elevates Marantz’s book is its occasional intimate glances at the personal costs exacted by the contradictions and the turmoil.

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’

©by Leo Adam Biga

(Awaiting print publication)

America’s social fabric came asunder in 1968. Vietnam. Civil rights. Rock ‘n’ roll. Free love. Illegal drugs. Black power. Campus protests. Urban riots.

Omaha was a pressure cooker of racial tension. African-Americans demanded redress from poverty, discrimination, segregation, police misconduct.

Then, like now, Central High School was a cultural bridge by virtue of its downtown location — within a couple miles radius of ethnic enclaves: the Near Northside (black), Bagel (Jewish), Little Italy, Little Bohemia. A diverse student population has enriched the school’s high academic offerings.

Steve Marantz was a 16-year-old Central sophomore that pivotal year when a confluence of social-cultural-racial-political streams converged and a flood of emotions spilled out, forever changing those involved.

Marantz became a reporter for Kansas City and Boston papers. Busy with life and career, the ’68 events receded into memory. Then on a golf outing with classmates the conversation turned to that watershed and he knew he had to write about it.

“It just became so obvious there’s a story there and it needs to be told,” he says.

The result is his new book The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central: High School Basketball and the ’68 Racial Divide (University of Nebraska Press).

 

 

 

 

Speaking by phone from his home near Boston, Marantz says, “It appealed to me because of the elements in it that I think make for a good story — it had a compact time frame, there was a climatic event, and it had strong characters.” Besides, he says sports is a prime “vehicle for examining social issues.”

Conflict, baby. Caught up in the maelstrom was the fabulous ’68 Central basketball team, whose all-black starting five earned the sobriquet, The Rhythm Boys. Their enigmatic star, Dwaine Dillard, was a 6-7 big-time college hoops recruit. As if the stress of such expectations wasn’t enough, he lived on the edge.

At a time when it was taboo, he and some fellow blacks dated white girls at the school. Vikki Dollis was involved with Dillard’s teammate, Willie Frazier. In his book Marantz includes excerpts from a diary she kept. Marantz says her “genuine,” “honest,” angst-filled entries “opened a very personal window” that “changed the whole perspective” of events for him. “I just knew the vague outlines of it. The details didn’t really begin to emerge until I did the reporting.”

Functionally illiterate, Dillard barely got by in class. A product of a broken home, he had little adult supervision. Running the streets. he was an enigma easily swayed.

Things came to a head when the polarizing Alabama segregationist George Wallace came to speak at Omaha’s Civic Auditorium. Disturbances broke out, with fires set and windows broken along the Deuce Four (North 24th Street.) A young man caught looting was shot and killed by police.

Dillard became a lightning rod symbol for discontent when he was among a group of young men arrested for possession of rocks and incendiary materials. This was only days before the state tournament. Though quickly released and the charges dropped, he was branded a malcontent and worse.

White-black relations at Central grew strained, erupting into fights. Black students staged protests. Marantz says then-emerging community leader Ernie Chambers made his “loud…powerful…influential” voice heard.

The school’s aristocratic principal, J. Arthur Nelson, was befuddled by the generation gap that rejected authority. “I think change overtook him,” says Marantz. “He was of an earlier era, his moment had come and gone.”

Dillard was among the troublemakers and his coach, Warren Marquiss, suspended him for the first round tourney game. Security was extra tight in Lincoln, where predominantly black Omaha teams often got the shaft from white officials. In Marantz’s view the basketball court became a microcosm of what went on outside athletics, where “negative stereotypes” prevailed.

Central advanced to the semis without Dillard. With him back in the lineup the Eagles made it to the finals but lost to Lincoln Northeast. Another bitter disappointment. There was no violence, however.

The star-crossed Dillard went to play ball at Eastern Michigan but dropped out. He later made the Harlem Globetrotters and, briefly, the ABA. Marantz interviewed Dillard three weeks before his death. “I didn’t know he was that sick,” he says.

Marantz says he’s satisfied the book’s “touched a chord” with classmates by examining “one of those coming of age moments” that mark, even scar, lives.

An independent consultant for ESPN’s E: 60, he’s rhe author of the 2008 book Sorcery at Caesars about Sugar Ray Leonard‘s upset win over Marvin Hagler and is working on new a book about Fenway High School.

Marantz was recently back in Omaha to catch up with old Central classmates and to sign copies of Rhythm Boys at the Bookworm.

UNO Wrestling Dynasty Built on a Tide of Social Change

March 17, 2011 9 comments

 

 

NEWEST DEVELOPMENT: Well, it’s official, the University of Nebraska at Omaha wrestling program has found a new home at Maryville University.

In what has to be one of the most unusual turn of events in collegiate athletic history, the recently homeless UNO wrestling program is going to be adopted essentially by Maryville University in St. Louis, Mo. Earlier speculative reports about the move have now been confirmed. Thus, the small Missouri school, as part of a move from Division III to Division II, has decided to take the orphaned program, which was recently eliminated by UNO officials, more or less intact, including up to 90 percent of its student-athletes and its core coaching staff.  There may be a precedent for this somewhere, but I have to think it’s extremely rare and perhaps nothing quite like this has happened before. I think what makes this particularly unusual is the fact that we’re dealing with an elite program here. Head Coach Mike Denney is famous for the deep family bonds of his program but this is taking things to a whole different level when he and his top assistants and the vast majority of his student-athletes are going to move en masse to a different school in a different state to launch a wrestling program from scratch.  Except, of course, it won’t be anything like the typical start-up program because Denney and his staff and team are the best at what they do in D-II. Their track record of multiple coach of the year awards, national championships, All-America performances, et cetera, is unmatched.  That doesn’t mean the gold mine of talent and experience Maryville is inheriting will simply dominate the way UNO did, because these will be different surroundings and circumstances to be sure.  But it’s the latest compelling turn in an already fascinating story that keeps taking on new dimensions.

THE LATEST: Requiem for a Dynasty will be the headline, if I get an assignment to write the story that is, for what transpired as expected with the UNO wrestling program.  As anticipated and despite the most heartfelt efforts of the program’s coaches, student-athletes, alums, and supporters the NU Board of Regents approved UNO’s proposed move to the Summit League and NCAA Division I competition and with it the elimination of the wrestling and football programs.  It’s a sad day for UNO when its administrators can discard history and tradition so easily for the sake of convenience. In this disposable culture two programs were thrown out as if they were useless refuse. Losing football hurts, but the rationale for excising it ultimately makes sense because it was never going to come close to making money. Dumping wrestling though to purportedly be in better alignment with the Summit League is pure hogwash. It’s really UNO and NU leaders saying that they don’t give a rat’s ass about wrestling, that they don’t really care about all the championships, the scores of All-Americans, the prestige, the community service, the lessons learned, the incredibly strong and tight family bond built up across generations. They don’t care that UNO hosted multiple national championships and the largest single day annual wrestling tournament in the country.  Why not give a damn about those things universities are there to provide its student-athletes and constituents?  My take is that no matter how much UNO wrestling achieved, and it achieved so very much, it was never accorded the respect or due it deserved.  Not by the regents, not by administrators, not by major university donors, not by the media, not by the general public. It was always considered marginal and therefore expendable. When things got tight, UNO wrestling was an easy target despite being a dynasty.  That sends a disturbing, dysfunctional message to anyone really paying attention.

Getting rid of wrestling was painless for the regents because it was done in the abstract.  By the time the UNO wrestling community appeared before them to plead their case that the program be retained, by the time all the appeals and messages had been made via email and phone, the regents had already made up their minds. The March 25 hearing was perfunctory.  It was a show to merely let wrestling vent and have its say in an open forum. If the regents had bothered to actually visit the UNO wrestling room and to see first-hand the sweat and blood and tears and love and joy that went into making the dynasty, then the program might have had a fair day in court, so to speak. If the regents had seen for themselves the championship banners and the roll calls of All-Americans and soaked up the atmosphere of excellence imbued in that room, it might have been a different story. Or not. This was a business decision made by UNO and given the thumbs up by the regents. Cold, calculated business. The administrators and the regents simply didn’t get it or didn’t want to get it. They would not be moved by emotion or history. To the end, the UNO wrestling family fought gallantly, never breaking ranks, always showing class, the bonds that hold them together more powerful than any bureaucratic decree, extending beyond the now ended program. UNO wrestling may be gone, but its spirit lives on. The relationships between the men forged in that room and in those duals and tournaments and in all the time spent on the road and cutting weight and hanging out will endure.

NEW UPDATE: With each passing day any window of opportunity for UNO wrestling to be saved grows smaller. Unless something dramatic should happen between now and March 25th, it appears likely then that the NU Board of Regents will approve the plan advanced by University of Nebraska at Omaha Chancellor John Christensen and Athletic Director Trev Alberts for UNO to move to Division I and to drop football and wrestling in the process.  As a graduate of UNO, as a former Athletic Department staffer, as a UNO sports fan, and as a writer I have a perspective to offer many don’t.  Football certainly has a longer tradition than wrestling at the school, but when it comes to sustained success there’s no comparison.  Don’t get me wrong, I will miss UNO football.  I variously kept stats at and cheered at probably a hundred home games over the years.  Caniglia Field is a great venue to watch a game at and UNO consistently plays at a high standard .  UNO football’s been one of the best entertainment bargains in the city.  But the sad truth is the program rarely drew well and even if IUNO football came along for the ride to D-I there’s little reason to expect it would draw any better at that level.  UNO football has had its share of winning but it’s never won a national title and generally failed in the post-season, on the biggest of stages.  UNO wrestling is a whole different story.  It has been an elite program for more than 40 years.  It’s won multiple national titles, produced scores of All-Americans, and basically been the best D-II program over the past 20 years.  No, it’snot  a big draw, although by wrestling standards it does quite well, but in terms of national prestige UNO is one of the best things the university has going for it, period.  The crazy thing is that the UNO administration makes clear it’s not finances driving the proposed elimination of wrestling and football, which gets at the heart of it:  UNO administrators don’t care about the excellence that UNO football and particularly UNO wrestling represents.  It’s inconceivable it is prepared to walk away from something so successful, but that is what is about to happen.

 

 

Former UNO wrestling coachMike Denney

 

 

Therefore, it seems like a good idea to look back at the wrestling program’s early years in order to gain an appreciation for where it came from and the significance it had at a tempestuous time in the university’s and  in the city’s and in the nation’s history.  The story of what Don Benning and his wrestlers did to put UNO on the map and to make UNO wrestling a champion is one of the great legacies of the university, and one it has never really embraced or celebrated to the extent it deserves.  Sadly, wrestling at the school has always been viewed as marginal and expendable, and the words and actions of the UNO administration today bear that out.  So check out the story below — it’s my take on the tide of social change that UNO’s glorious wrestling program is built on. I wrote it early last year for The Reader, as UNO prepared to defend its national title, which it did, and did again this year.   It’s sad to think the story may now be the Requiem for a Dynasty.

UPDATE:  Trev Alberts has been putting his stamp on the University of Nebraska at Omaha Athletic Department since his from left-field arrival in the job of athletic director two years ago. Chancellor John Christensen hand-picked Alberts to lead a revitalization of UNO athletics and Alberts has surprised many by just how bold his moves have been — from hiring Dean Blais as head hockey coach to getting major donors whose support had waned to ante up big again for capital improvements.  And now as the Omaha World-Herald is reporting Alberts and Christensen are about to shake the foundation of the school and the athletic department by moving UNO into Division I competition across the board — pending University of Nebraska Board of Regents approval — by joining the Summit League. The news of going D-I isn’t that big a surprise in and of itself, as UNO has made clear for more than a decade that is where it wanted to go, but what is is UNO doing it so soon and its decision that in order to make it work long-term it must sacrifice the school’s two winningest sports — football and wrestling.  Alberts and Christensen say they and others have worked the numbers and the only way UNO can justify the leap into the big-time is by dropping the heavy financial burden of football, whose weight would only increase with the increased scholarships and improved facilities D-I necessitates.  Besides, where football is a revenue generator at many schools it is not at UNO and even the prospect of D-I would likely do little for the program’s mass appeal given the shadow of Big Red.  But the real shocker is that UNO is prepared to jettison its shining star, wrestling, whose program just captured its eighth national title over the March 11-12 weekend. UNO could choose to go independent in wrestling but the school is opting not to do that, which is odd because it’s perhaps the least financially onerous men’s program in terms of scholarships, equipment, travel, facilities.  But more to the point — how do you just dismiss the incredible success that UNO wrestling has achieved?   I would hope that UNO finds a way to preserve the wrestling program.  For a look at some of its remarkable history, see my story below about how the UNO wrestling dynasty is built on a tide of social change. You can also find on this blog my stories about Don Benning, the coach who began UNO’s wrestling dynasty, and about Trev Alberts, who may go down as the man who took down that same dynasty.

It may be a moot point in the end, but the UNO wrestling program is not going down without a fight. Coaches, student athletes, alums, fans, and boosters gathered at UNO Sunday, March 13 in the wake of the startling announcement that the wrestling program will be disbanded.  Coach Mike Denney was seen calmly addressing the gathering and coalescing support. In an interview he gave a local TV sports reporter he pointed out that some schools in the Summit League that UNO has been invited to join do have wrestling programs.  Denney asked the question a lot of people are asking: If they can be in that league and keep wrestling, then why can’t we do it?  UNO Chancellor John Christensen and Athletic Director Trev Alberts apparently came to this decision without consulting Denney or the UNO wrestling community or UNO student leaders.  The two men are undoubtedly acting out of good intentions and in the long term interests of the school but to spring this decision without warning and without giving Denney and his assistant coaches and student-athletes the opportunity to weigh in and argue against it is cruel and ill-advised. I would not be surprised if Don Benning adds his voice to the chorus of disapproval over  Christensen’s and Albert’s decision to throw away the history and tradition that UNO wrestling represents.

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In my view, one of the most underreported stories coming out of Omaha the last 50 years was what Don Benning achieved as a young black man at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.  At a time and in a place when blacks were denied opportunity, he was given a chance as an educator and a coach and he made the most of the situation.  The following story, a version of which appeared in a March 2010 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com), charted his accomplishments on the 40th anniversary of making some history that has not gotten the attention it deserves.

One of the pleasures in doing this story was getting to know Don Benning, a man of high character who took me into his confidence.  I shall always be grateful.

 

Don Benning
UNO Wrestling Built on a Tide of Social Change
©by Leo Adam Biga

Version of story published in a March 2010 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

As the March 12-13 Division II national wrestling championships get underway at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, it’s good to remember wrestling, not hockey, is the school’s true marquee sport

Host UNO has been a dominant fixture on the D-II wrestling scene for decades. Its No. 1-ranked team is the defending national champs and is expected to finish on top again under Mike Denney, the coach for five of UNO’s six national wrestling titles. The first came 40 years ago amid currents of change.

Every dynasty has a beginning and a narrative. UNO’s is rooted in historic firsts that intersect racial-social-political happenings. The events helped give a school with little going for it much-needed cachet and established a tradition of excellence unbroken now since the mid-1960s.

It all began with then-Omaha University president Milo Bail hiring the school’s first African-American associate professor, Don Benning. The UNO grad had competed in football and wrestling for the OU Indians and was an assistant football coach there when Bail selected him to lead the fledgling wrestling program in 1963. The hire made Benning the first black head coach of a varsity sport (in the modern era) at a predominantly white college or university in America. It was a bold move for a nondescript, white-bread, then-municipal university in a racially divided city not known for progressive stances. It was especially audacious given that Benning was but 26 and had never held a head coaching position before.

Ebony Magazine celebrated the achievement in a March 1964 spread headlined, “Coach Cracks Color Barrier.” Benning had been on the job only a year. By 1970 he led UNO to its first wrestling national title. He developed a powerful program in part by recruiting top black wrestlers. None ever had a black coach before.

Omaha photographer Rudy Smith was a black activist at UNO then. He said what Benning and his wrestlers did “was an extension of the civil rights activity of the ’60s. Don’s team addressed inequality, racism, injustice on the college campus. He recruited people accustomed to challenges and obstacles. They were fearless. Their success was a source of pride because it proved blacks could achieve. It opened the door for other advancements at UNO by blacks. It was a monumental step and milestone in the history of UNO.”

Indeed, a few years after Benning’s arrival, UNO became the site of more black inroads. The first of these sawMarlin Briscoe star at quarterback there, which overturned the myth blacks could not master the cerebral position. Briscoe went on to be the first black starting QB in the NFL. Benning said he played a hand in persuading UNO football coach Al Caniglia to start Briscoe. Benning publicly supported efforts to create a black studies program at UNO at a time when black history and culture were marginalized. The campaign succeeded. UNO established one of the nation’s first departments of Black Studies. It continues today.

Once given his opportunity, Benning capitalized on it. From 1966 to 1971 his racially and ethnically diverse teams went 65-6-4 in duals, developing a reputation for taking on all comers and holding their own. Five of his wrestlers won a combined eight individual national championships. A dozen earned All-America status.

That championship season one of Benning’s two graduate assistant coaches was fellow African-American Curlee Alexander. The Omaha native was a four-time All-American and one-time national champ under Benning. He went on to be one of the winningest wrestling coaches in Nebraska prep history at Tech and North.

Benning’s best wrestlers were working-class kids like he and Alexander had been:

Wendell Hakanson, Omaha Home for Boys graduateRoy and

Mel Washington, black brothers from New York by way of cracker GeorgiaBruce “Mouse” Strauss, a “character” and mensch from back East

Paul and Tony Martinez, Latino south Omaha brothers who saw combat in Vietnam

Louie Rotella Jr., son of a prep wrestling legend and popular Italian bakery family

Gary Kipfmiller, a gentle giant who died young

Bernie Hospokda, Dennis Cozad, Rich Emsick, products of south Omaha’s Eastern European enclaves.

Jordan Smith and Landy Waller, prized black recruits from Iowa

 

 

1970 Wrestling National Champions
Half the starters were recent high school grads and half nontraditional students in their 20s; some, married with kids. Everyone worked a job.

 

 

The team’s multicultural makeup was “pretty unique” then, said Benning. In most cases he said his wrestlers had “never had any meaningful relationships” with people of other races before and yet “they bonded tight as family.” He feels the way his diverse team came together in a time of racial tension deserves analysis. “It’s tough enough to develop to such a high skill level that you win a national championship with no other factors in the equation. But if you have in the equation prejudice and discrimination that you and the team have to face then that makes it even more difficult. But those things turned into a rallying point for the team. The kids came to understand they had more commonalities than differences. It was a social laboratory for life.”

“We were a mixed bag, and from the outside you would think we would have a lot of issues because of cultural differences, but we really didn’t,” said Hospodka, a Czech- American who never knew a black until UNO.  “We were a real, real tight group. We had a lot of fun, we played hard, we teased each other. Probably some of it today would be considered inappropriate. But we were so close that we treated each other like brothers. We pushed buttons nobody else better push.”

“We didn’t have no problems. It was a big family,” said Mel Washington, who with his late brother Roy, a black Muslim who changed his name to Dhafir Muhammad, became the most decorated wrestlers in UNO history up to then. “You looked around the wrestling room and you had your Italian, your whites, your blacks, Chicanos, Jew, we all got together. If everybody would have looked at our wrestling team and seen this one big family the world would have been a better place.”

If there was one thing beyond wrestling they shared in common, said Hospodka, it was coming from hardscrabble backgrounds.

“Some of the kids came from situations where you had to be pretty tough to survive,” said Benning, who came up that way himself in a North O neighborhood where his was the only black family.

The Washington brothers were among 11 siblings in a sharecropping tribe that moved to Rochester, N.Y. The pair toughened themselves working the fields, doing odd-jobs and “street wrestling.”

Dhafir was the team’s acknowledged leader. Mel also a standout football lineman, wasn’t far behind. Benning said Dhafir’s teammates would “follow him to the end of the Earth.” “If he said we’re all running a mile, we all ran a mile,” said Hospodka.

Having a strong black man as coach meant the world to Mel and Dhafir. “Something I always wanted to do was wrestle for a black coach. It was about time for me to wrestle for my own race,” said Mel. The brothers had seen the Ebony profile on Benning, whom they regarded as “a living legend” before they ever got to UNO. Hospodka said Benning’s race was never an issue with him or other whites on the team.

 

 

Dhafir Muhammad Dhafir Muhammad (Roy Washington)

 

 

Mel and Dhafir set the unrelenting pace in the tiny, cramped wrestling room that Benning sealed to create sauna-like conditions. Practicing in rubber suits disallowed today Hospodka said a thermostat once recorded the temperature inside at 110 degrees and climbing. Guys struggled for air. The intense workouts tested physical and mental toughness. Endurance. Nobody gave an inch. Tempers flared.

Gary Kipfmiller staked out a corner no one dared invade. Except for Benning, then a rock solid 205 pounds, who made the passive Kipfmiller, tipping the scales at 350-plus, a special project.  “I rode him unmercifully,” said Benning. “He’d whine like a baby and I’d go, ‘Then do something about i!.” Benning said he sometimes feared that in a fit of anger Kipfmiller would drop all his weight on him and crush him.

Washington and Hospodka went at it with ferocity. Any bad blood was left in the room.

“As we were a team on the mat, off the mat we watched out for each other. Even though we were at each other’s throats on the wrestling mat, whatever happened on the outside, we were there. If somebody needed something, we were there,” said Paul Martinez, who grew up with his brother Tony, the team’s student trainer-manager, in the South O projects. The competition and camaraderie helped heal psychological wounds Paul carried from Vietnam, where he was an Army infantry platoon leader.

An emotional Martinez told Benning at a mini-reunion in January, “You were like a platoon leader for us — you guided us and protected us. Coming from a broken family, I not only looked at you as a coach but as a father.” Benning’s eyes moistened.

Joining them there were other integral members of UNO’s 1970 NAIA championship team, including Washington and Hospodka. The squad capped a perfect 14-0 dual season by winning the tough Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference tournament in Gunnison, Colo. and the nationals in Superior, Wis. It was the first national championship won by a scholarship team at the school and the first in any major sport by a Nebraska college or university.

Another milestone was that Benning became the first black coach to win an integrated national championship in wrestling and one of the first to do so in any sport at any level. He earned NAIA national coach of the year honors in 1969.

University of Washington scholar John C. Walter devotes a chapter to Benning’s historymaker legacy in a soon-to-be-published book, Better Than the Best. Walter said Benning’s “career and situation was a unique one” The mere fact Benning got the opportunity he did, said Walter, “was extraordinary,” not to mention that the mostly white student-athletes he taught and coached accepted him without incident. Somewhere else, he said, things might have been different.

“He was working in a state not known for civil rights, that’s for sure,” said Walter. “But Don was fortunate he was at a place that had a president who acted as a catalyst. It was a most unusual confluence. I think the reason why it happened is the president realized here’s a man with great abilities regardless of the color of his skin, and for me that is profound. UNO was willing to recognize and assist a young black man trying hard to distinguish himself and make a name for his university. That’s very important.”

Walter said it was the coach’s discipline and determination to achieve against all odds that prepared him to succeed.

Benning’s legacy can only be fully appreciated in the context of the time and place in which he and his student-athletes competed. For example, he was set to leave his hometown after being denied a teaching post with the Omaha Public Schools, part of endemic exclusionary practices here that restricted blacks from obtaining certain jobs and living in many neighborhoods. He only stayed when Bail chose him to break the color line, though they never talked about it in those terms.

“It always puzzled me why he did that knowing the climate at the university and in K-12 education and in the community pointed in a different direction. Segregation was a way of life here in Omaha. It took a tremendous amount of intestinal fortitude of doing what’s right, of being ready to step out on that limb when no other schools or institutions would touch African-Americans,” said Benning. He can only surmise Bail “thought that was the right thing to do and that I was the right person to do it.”

In assuming the burden of being the first, Benning took the flak that came with it.

“I flat out couldn’t fail because I would be failing my people. African-American history would show that had I failed it would have set things back. I was very aware of Jackie Robinson and what he endured. That was in my mind a lot. He had to take a lot and not say anything about it. It was no different for me.  I had tremendous pressure on me because of being African-American. A lot of things I held to myself.”

Washington said though Benning hid what he had to contend with, some of it was blatant, such as snubs or slights on and off the mat. His white wrestlers recall many instances on the road when they or the team’s white trainer or equipment manager would be addressed as “coach” or be given the bill at a restaurant when it should have been obvious the well-dressed, no-nonsense Benning was in charge.

Hospodka said at restaurants “they just assumed the black guy couldn’t pay. They hesitated to serve us or they ignored us or they hoped we would go away.”

 

 

Mel Washington Mel Washington

 

 

Washington could relate, saying, “I had a feeling what he was going through — the prejudice. They looked down on him. That’s why I put out even more for him because I wanted to see him on top. A lot of people would have said the heck with this, but he’s a man who stood there and took the heat and took it in stride.”

“He did it in a quiet way. He always thought his character and actions would speak for him. He went about his business in a dignified way,” said Hospodka.

UNO wrestlers didn’t escape ugliness. At the 1971 nationals in Boone, N.C., Washington was the object of a hate crime — an effigy hung in the stands. Its intended effect backfired. Said Washington, “That didn’t bother me. You know why? I was used to it. That just made me want to go out there more and really show ‘em up.” He did, too.

“We were booed a lot when we were on the road,” Hospodka said. “Don always said that was the highest form of flattery. We thrived on it, it didn’t bother us, we never took it personal, we just went out and did our thing. You might say it (the booing) was because we were beating the snot out of them. I couldn’t help think having a black coach and four or five black wrestlers had something to do with it.”

Hospodka said wherever UNO went the team was a walking social statement.  “When you went into a lot of small towns in the ’60s with four or five black wrestlers and a black coach you stuck out. It’s like, Why are these people together?” “There were some places that were awfully uncomfortable, like in the Carolinas,” said Benning. “You know there were places where they’d never seen an African-American.”

At least not a black authority figure with a group of white men answering to him.

The worst scene came at the Naval Academy, where the cold reception UNO got while holed up three days there was nothing compared to the boos, hisses, catcalls and pennies hurled at them during the dual. In a wild display of unsportsmanlike conduct Benning said thousands of Midshipmen left the stands to surround the mat for the crucial final match, which Kipfmiller won by decision to give UNO a tie.

The white wrestling infrastructure also went out of its way to make Benning and his team unwelcome.

“I think there were times when they seeded other wrestlers ahead of our wrestlers, one, because we were good and, two, because they didn’t look at it strictly from a wrestling standpoint, I think there was a little of the good old boy network there to try and make our road as tough as possible,” said Hospodka. “I think race played into that. It was a lot of subtle things. Maybe it wasn’t so subtle. Don probably saw it more because of the bureaucracy he had to deal with.”

“Some individuals weren’t too happy with me being an African-American,” said Benning. “I served on a selection committee that looked at different places to host the national tournament,. UNO hosted it in ’69, which was really very unusual, it broke a barrier, they’d never had a national championship where the host school had an African-American coach. That was pretty strange for them.”

He said the committee chairman exhibited outright disdain for him. Benning believes the ’71 championship site was awarded to Boone rather than Omaha, where the nationals were a big success, as a way to put him in his place. “The committee came up with Appalachian State, which just started wrestling. I swear to this day the only reason that happened was because of me and my team,” he said.

He and his wrestlers believe officials had it in for them. “There was one national tournament where there’s no question we just flat out got cheated,” said Benning. “It was criminal. I’m talking about the difference between winning the whole thing and second.” Refs’ judgements at the ’69 tourney in Omaha cost UNO vital points. “It was really hard to take,” said Benning. UNO had three individual champs to zero for Adams State, but came up short, 98-84. One or two disputed calls swung the balance.

 

 

 

 

Despite all the obstacles, Benning and his “kids” succeeded in putting UNO on the map. The small, white institution best known for its Bootstrapper program went from obscurity to prominence by making athletics the vehicle for social action. In a decade defined by what Benning termed “a social revolution,” the placid campus was the last place to expect a historic color line being broken.

The UNO program came of age with its dynamic black coach and mixed team when African-American unrest flared into riots across the country, including Omaha. A north side riot occurred that championship season. UNO’s black wrestlers, who could not find accommodations near the UNO campus, lived in the epicenter of the storm. Black Panthers were neighbors. Mel Washington, his brother Dhafir and other teammates watched North 24th St. burn. Though sympathetic to the outrage, they navigated a delicate line to steer clear of trouble but still prove their blackness.

A uniformed police cadet then, Washington said he was threatened once by the Panthers, who called him “a pig” and set off a cherry bomb outside the apartment he shared with his wife and daughter.

“I found those guys and said, ‘Anybody ever do that to my family again, and you or I won’t be living,’ and from then on I didn’t have no more problems. See, not only was I getting it from whites, but from blacks, too.”

Benning, too, found himself walking a tightrope of “too black or not black enough.”   After black U.S. Olympians raised gloved fists in protest of the national anthem, UNO’s black wrestlers wanted to follow suit. Benning considered it, but balked. In ’69 Roy Washington converted to Islam. He told Benning his allegiance to Black Muslim leader Honorable Elijah Muhammad superseded any team allegiance. Benning released him from the squad. Roy’s brother Mel earlier rejected the separatist dogma the Black Muslims preached. Their differences caused no riff.

Dhafir (Roy) rejoined the team in December after agreeing to abide by the rules. He won the 150-pound title en route to UNO capturing the team title over Adams, 86-58. Hospodka said Dharfir still expressed his beliefs, but with “no animosity, just pride that black-is-beautiful. Dharfir’s finals opponent, James Tannehill, was a black man married to a white woman. Hospodka said it was all the reason Dharfir needed to tell Tannehill, “God told me to punish you.” He delivered good on his vow.

It was also an era when UNO carried the “West Dodge High” label. Its academic and athletic facilities left much to be desired. “The university didn’t have that many things to feel proud of,” said Benning. Wrestling’s success lifted a campus suffering an inferiority complex to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Wrestling was one area where UNO could best NU, whose NCAA wrestling program paled by comparison.

“Coach Benning and his wrestling teams elevated UNO right to the top, shoulder-to-shoulder with its big brother’s football team down the road,” said UNO grad Mary Jochim, part of a wrestling spirit club in 69-’70. “They gave everyone at the school a big boost of pride. The rafters would shake at those matches.”

“You’d have to say it was the coming-together of several factors that brought about a genuine excitement about wrestling at UNO in the late 1960s,” said former UNO Sports Information Director Gary Anderson. He was sports editor of the school paper, The Gateway, that championship season. “There were some outstanding athletes who were enthusiastic and colorful to watch, a very good coach, and UNO won a lot of matches. UNO had the market cornered. Creighton had no team and Nebraska’s team wasn’t as dominant as UNO. It created a perfect storm.”

Benning said, “It was more important we had the best wrestling team in the state than winning the national championship. Everybody took pride in being No. 1.” Anderson said small schools like UNO “could compete more evenly” then with big schools in non-revenue producing sports like wrestling, which weren’t fully funded. He said as UNO “wrestled and defeated ‘name’ schools it added luster to the team’s mystique.

NU was among the NCAA schools UNO beat during Benning’s tenure, along with Wyoming, Arizona, Wisconsin, Kansas and Cornell. UNO tied a strong Navy team at the Naval Academy in what Hospodka called “the most hostile environment I ever wrestled in.” UNO crowned the most champions at the Iowa Invitational, where if team points had been kept UNO would have outdistanced the big school field.

 

 

Bernie Hospodka

 

 

“We didn’t care who you were — if you were Division I or NAIA or NCAA, it just didn’t matter to us,” said Hospodka, who pinned his way to the 190-pound title in 1970. The confidence to go head-to-head with anybody was something Benning looked for in his wrestlers and constantly reinforced.

Said Hospodka,”Don always felt like we could compete against anybody. He knew he had talent in the room. He didn’t think we had to take a back seat to anybody when it came to our abilities. He had a confidence about him that was contagious.”

The sport’s bible, Amateur Wrestling News, proclaimed UNO one of the best teams in the nation, regardless of division. UNO’s five-years of dominance, resulting in one national championship, two runner-up finishes, a third-place finish and an eighth place showing, regularly made the front page of the Omaha World-Herald sports section.

The grapplers also wrestled with an aggression and a flair that made for crowd-pleasing action. Benning said his guys were “exceptional on their feet and exceptional pinners.” It wasn’t unusual for UNO to record four or five falls per dual. Washington said it was UNO’s version of “showtime.” He and his teammates competed against each other for the most stylish or quickest pin.

Hospodka said “the bitter disappointment” of the team title being snatched away in ’69 fueled UNO’s championship run the next season, when UNO won its 14 duals by an average score of 32-6. It works out to taking 8 of every 10 matches. UNO posted three shut outs and allowed single digits in seven other duals. No one scored more than 14 points on them all year. The team won every tournament it competed in.

 

 

 

 

Everything fell into place. “Nobody at our level came even close to competing with us,” said Hospodka. “The only close match we had was Athletes in Action, and those were all ex-Big 8 wrestlers training for the World Games or the Olympics. They were loaded and we still managed to pull out a victory (19-14).” At nationals, he said, “we never had a doubt. We had a very solid lineup the whole way, everybody was at the top of their game. We wrapped up the title before the finals even started.” Afterwards, Benning told the Gateway, “It was the greatest team effort I have ever been acquainted with and certainly the greatest I’ve ever seen.”

Muhammad won his third individual national title and Hospodka his only one. Five Mavs earned All-America status.

The foundation for it all, Hospodka said, was laid in a wrestling room a fraction the size of today’s UNO practice facility. “I’ve been in bigger living rooms,” he said. But it was the work the team put in there that made the difference. “It was a tough room, and if you could handle the room then matches were a breeze. The easy part of your week was when you got to wrestle somebody else. There were very few people I wrestled that I felt would survive our wrestling room.”

“It was great competition,” said Jordan Smith. “One thing I learned after my first practice was that I was no longer the toughest guy in the room. There were some recruits who came into that room and practiced with us for a few days and we never saw them again. I was part of something that really was special. It was a phenomenal feeling.”

This band of brothers is well represented in the Maverick Wrestling and UNO Halls of Fame. The championship team was inducted by UNO and by the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. Benning, Mel Washington, Dhafir Muhammad and Curlee Alexander are in the Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame. But when UNO went from NAIA to NCAA Division II in ’73 it seemed the athletic department didn’t value the past. Tony Martinez said he rescued the team’s numerous plaques and trophies from a campus dumpster. Years later he reluctantly returned them to the school, where some can be viewed in the Sapp Fieldhouse lobby.

UNO’s current Hall of Fame coach, Mike Denney, knows the program owes much to what Benning and his wrestlers did. The two go way back.

Benning left coaching in ’71 for an educational administration career with OPS. Mike Palmisano inherited the program for eight years, but it regressed.

When Denney took over in ’79 he said “my thing was to try to find a way to get back to the level Don had them at and carry on the tradition he built.” Denney plans having Benning back as grand marshall for the March of All-Americans at this weekend’s finals. “I have great respect for him.” Benning admires what Denney’s done with the program, which has risen to even greater heights. “He’s done an outstanding job”

As for the old coach, he feels the real testament to what he achieved is how close his diverse team remains. They don’t get together like they once did. When they do, the bonds forged in sweat and blood reduce them to tears. Their ranks are thinned due to death and relocation. They’re fathers and grandfathers now, yet they still have each other’s backs. Benning’s boys still follow his lead. Hospokda said he often asks himself, “What would Don want me to do?”

At a recent reunion Washington told Benning, “I’m telling you now in front of everyone — thank you for bringing the family together.”

Letting 1,000 Flowers Bloom, The Black Scholar’s Robert Chrisman Looks Back at a Life in the Maelstrom

March 8, 2011 7 comments

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.

 

 

Robert Chrisman

 

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.”


Omaha Symphony Maestro Thomas Wilkins and His Ever-Seeking Musical Journey

January 12, 2011 3 comments

This is a cover-length story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) that profiles Omaha Symphony Orchestra music director Thomas Wilkins, who is also a conductor with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and recently ended a decade-long tenure with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.  Wilkins is a poised, still, yet passionate presence at the podium.  Away from the stage, he’s a gentle, sensitive soul with a ready smile and an authentic interest in communicating his love of music.  I very much enjoyed meeting him and consider it a privilege tell some of his journey through life and music.

 

 

 

 

Omaha Symphony Maestro Thomas Wilkins and His Ever-Seeking Musical Journey

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Omaha Symphony Orchestra music director Thomas Wilkins was first inspired to be a conductor at age 8 during a Virginia Symphony Orchestra pops performance in his hometown of Norfolk (Va.). Right from the opening rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” he was mesmerized by how the conductor shaped the music.

“I came home that day and I don’t know who I said it to, maybe to my mother, but certainly to myself, and certainly during the concert: ‘That’s what I want to do when I grow up.’ It’s interesting that that was before I had really started an instrument.”

Raised by a single mom on welfare in the projects of the Jim Crow South, the concert marked Wilkins’ introduction to something outside the gospel, blues and jazz he was steeped in. His mother played organ at storefront black churches. Black music filled the air where he lived. Even though classical music spoke to him at some inner core level, he remained immersed in his roots. He jammed with cats, black and white, from different musical strains. Some, like the Wooten brothers, went on to make their marks in the business just as he did.

“We all grew up together and hung out together. Many of my friends were not involved in classical music but they were still serious musicians. I was blessed with a little bit of talent as a young kid and so those players tend to gravitate towards each other,” he says. “We would share music on the weekends with each other. I would play for them Tchaikovsky and they would play for me Miles Davis, so all of our worlds were being expanded together.”

For Wilkins, classical music became a gateway to a new life, opening unimagined vistas, such as completing graduate studies at the prestigious New England Conservatory (NEC) in Boston, Mass.

Today, he’s one of perhaps 10 African-American conductors of major orchestras in the country. In addition to his Omaha post, he’s principal guest conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. High in demand as a guest conductor, he’s led the Dallas Symphony, the Houston Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Boston Symphony, the National Symphony (D.C.) and the Atlanta Symphony.

He was the Detroit Symphony’s resident conductor for a decade.

Among the mentors in his life is the renowned James DePreist, director of conducting and orchestral studies at the Juilliard School and laureate music director of the Oregon Symphony. Wilkins attended a conducting seminar that DePriest, the preeminent African-American conductor, taught in Oregon.

“It was great to be able to see him because he looked like me,” says Wilkins, “but then when I got to meet him and I really got the chance to see him and his life with the orchestra, his relationship with the orchestra, it really sort of informed a lot of my own music directorship — how to treat musicians, how to be involved in the community. I mean, we walked into a restaurant one day and the patrons applauded him. Here was a guy totally involved in the life of his community, and I thought, Man, that’s a big thing.”

Richard Pittman is another influential figure. Then teacher of orchestra conducting at NEC, Pittman challenged the budding maestro to get by on more than a winning personality and conducting flair, qualities the artist has always possessed. A crossroads for Wilkins occurred when he auditioned for graduate school.

“I came to my graduate school audition with a lot of arm waving experience and being a leader of people. I had the great fortune of being a student conductor of every ensemble I was in since junior high school. What I hadn’t worked on were really important ear training skills. When I went to take my conducting portion of the audition the orchestra applauded. I was pleasant, I could wave my arms, I was very coordinated, very clear. But when it came to the musical skills test on piano, et cetera — my mother couldn’t afford piano lessons — all of that stuff was just horrible.”

Wilkins found his chance at earning a coveted appointment in jeopardy.

In the interview portion with Pittman, Wilkins says, “He told me, ‘You’re very charming. I believe you could get any orchestra to do anything you wanted them to do.’ But then he held up my skills test and just shook his head and said, ‘I don’t know if I’m going to take you or not. If I were to judge you based on your conducting alone I know I would save one of these three spots for you without even seeing the others. But I’m going to have to think about it.’”

Wilkins then recalls hearing “the words that changed my life” when told: “‘If I do take you you’re going to have work your butt off because if you don’t I will not hesitate to kick you out. I don’t want you to be a charlatan, I want you to be a person of musical and intellectual integrity.’” In short, Wilkins says, Pittman “demanded I be more than charming.”

It was a rude awakening for a charismatic young man who wanted nothing else but to conduct since childhood. Here he was, he says, “standing on the doorstep of one of the world’s great music conservatories only to be told, “You have not worked hard enough.” Pittman did accept Wilkins into the program and by his second year the protege was Pittman’s graduate assistant. He worked hard.

“Every morning I was at the front door of New England Conservatory at 7 o’clock, two hours of piano, ear training, solfege.”

He credits Pittman with pushing him at that crucial time in his life.

“He basically shaped my musical integrity, my hunger to learn, really in a sense my moral integrity, how I treat human beings, how I treat orchestra players. So much of that was crafted by him.”

The experience confirmed for Wilkins that he would not be deterred or discouraged. He would not give into what colleague Wynton Marsalis calls the “inner competitor” — that doubting voice within. Wilkins made a conscious decision to quell it.

“And you know what, you have to make that decision every day,” he says.

The poised, restrained presence Wilkins strikes at the podium today is one he’s arrived at after years deconstructing his conducting  technique. Less is more. After stints with the Richmond (Va.) Symphony and Florida (Tampa Bay) Orchestra, he joined the Detroit Symphony in 2000 and the Omaha Symphony in 2005.

 

 

 

 

The fact he’s come so far in a realm so far removed from the cultural norm of a poor Southern black is never lost on him. It’s why he states unequivocally, “Music saved my life as a young boy.” He says part of the blessed mystery of music is that it’s “both life changing and life affirming.” He offers himself as exhibit A: “It’s that mystery of why it can affect a young boy born to a single mother on welfare in a housing project in Norfolk Va. It’s the mystery of why that could completely alter the course of my life.”

Too often, he feels, categories segment people along racial-cultural lines, thereby making some music unavailable to certain populations. It’s why he’s taken an active role as a music mentor and educator. Whether advising young black conductors and composers seeking his counsel or leading concerts for minority children or seniors, he enjoys expanding the classical stream.

“Fortunately I had the power of music as a driving force in my life,” he says, “but it’s still important I think to see people who look like you. And it doesn’t mean we have to create any sort of artificial vehicle or route to get there, it just means there has to be access.”

Before new audiences are invested in the music, they must be invited to participate.

“They have to know this is our music, too,” he says, “because it’s everybody’s music. Black people have always been involved in classical music. There were a few blacks from Europe during slavery times who were free and wealthy, they traveled the world, they were huge opera buffs, and in some cases they owned slaves. It was not unusual to see slaves at opera performances or to hear them walk into a booth singing arias.

“It’s just silly to believe we only live in the jazz world or in the rap world.”

Wilkins, who taught music at North Park University in Chicago, where he met his wife, Sheri-Lee, says it’s important students learn the classical canon extends beyond Western Europe.

“One of the great things about music education is that it really gives kids of all races a broader perspective of what the world looks like because the music that we’re involved with comes from so many different places and so many different cultures,” he says.

Wilkins adores American music. He champions the work of, among others, William Grant Still, a pioneering African-American composer and conductor. Pieces by Still and fellow American composers Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein and Andre Previn will be featured in Omaha Symphony masterworks concerts, American Beauty, Wilkins conducts Jan. 21-22 at the Holland Performing Arts Center.

“I have long held the belief in this country that in classical music we (America) operate sort of with some weird unfounded second-class citizenship. So the minute we start to bring Americanism into the classical scene we get all weird about it, like it’s cute or it’s catchy or it’s just something for now, when in reality Western European composers always brought their culture into their classical music because they wanted their music to have mass appeal.

“There’s a whole school of nationalism in classical music, with composers writing music of their soil and their people, so they brought folk music and folk dances into their classical music. Yet in this country we considered that high art and people like Bernstein and Gershwin and Copland as not.”

He’s unapologetic about embracing American classical works.

“You know if jazz or rock ‘n’ roll find its way into classical compositions we have to come up with some fancy word to say, ‘Oh, its just a synthesis of American jazz.’ Well, OK, fine. It’s still great music. I am as excited about the classical music of Duke Ellington as I am about the classical music of Beethoven.”

Wilkins notes that Still, whose Symphony No. 1 (Afro-American) will be performed in American Beauty, is an “easy go-to” for conductors looking to feature black composers since the number of black classical composers is comparatively small. He says Still deserves more than obligatory emblem status.

“The more I got to know about William Grant Still the more he became an inspiration. He had a very distinguished career when you factor in the time period in which he operated and being the first black composer to have a symphony both commissioned and performed by a major orchestra and the first black music director to conduct a major orchestra. He also worked in Hollywood. He always found a way of making a living in this business, to have some sort of artistic output and creative outlet.”

What Wilkins most admires about Still is that he wrote about the American experience.

“He’s writing music about his culture, both black culture and American culture, and doing it early. At a time when others were writing essentially European music, Still’s writing contemporary American music, and so I come to Still with great respect because I am a huge proponent of American orchestras being American orchestras. Certainly we have this great Western European tradition we want to uphold and keep, but there’s also this very American music by American composers.”

Wilkins designed the American Beauty program to reflect this rich indigenous stew, ranging from Still’s symphony with its homage to blues, spirituals and gospel to Bernstein’s gritty On the Waterfront Symphonic Suite.

“That’s one of my favorite programs of the season,” Wilkins says, “because of its Americanism and because it covers the gamut of both the European tradition and the American tradition.”

He calls Previn’s Honey and Rue “stunning.” He’s particularly struck by a gospel-like a cappella movement with text by Toni Morrison.

Barber’s Knoxville, Summer 1915 is evocative of Americana. The soaring music accompanies prose by James Agee that has a woman recounting a summer idyll. The great soprano Leontyne Price once said about the piece: “As a Southerner it expresses everything I know about my roots and about my mama and father and my hometown. You can smell the South.” As a native Southerner himself, Wilkins concurs, yet he sees more universal truths in it as well, saying the pictures the music and words paint run through “the text of experiences we all have.” He says the setting doesn’t have to be the South, but that the work does take him back to lazy summer nights laying on a blanket in the backyard, wondering about the grown up word just beyond his reach.

Guest soprano Kisma Jordan will interpret this sweet remembrance of things past.

Wilkins says, “There’s this one line at the end about all these grownups who’ve been in her life nurturing her, but she says they did not nor will not ever tell me who I am.” Wilkins says the work took on new meaning for him after he became a father. He and Sheri-Lee are parents of twin, musically-gifted daughters, Nicole and Erica.

“I thought about the significance and the poignancy of us growing our children up so we can launch them,” says Wilkins, “but allowing them to be both an extension of us and who they discover they are. But they have to discover who they are themselves, themselves. One of our rites of passage in life is getting to a stage of finally figuring out who we are.

“I think about myself growing up a BOW (born-out-of-wedlock) kid and not knowing the whole family,” he says, “and how even to this day I’m envious of sons who’ve had great relationships with their fathers because I never really had that. I don’t even know who taught me how to tie a tie, and that saddens me, and yet in my life I want to give my children all the things I didn’t have. Every parent says that, but the thing I want to give them foremost is a father who loves their mother. That sort of explains why that text in the Barber for me personally is so poignant.”

 

 

 

 

Wilkins insists that despite always being an oddity as a black classical conductor “it’s never ever disheartening.” He adds, “Someone asked me once about obstacles and I said, ‘You know when you join the army the first thing you do is go through the obstacle course. The purpose of the obstacle course is not to make you weaker, it’s to make you stronger, so I think I never really considered obstacles to be obstacles to success, only opportunities for me to grow more.”

A key to his makeup, he says, is that “I have always been interested in what I don’t know. I am a natural born learner. My wife makes fun of my because I am probably the only person in the world who keeps a highlighter in the bathroom. I just love learning — that’s kind of been my thing the whole time.”

All of which leads back to music’s enigmatic nature.

“I think part of my journey is, I get the how about music and it’s impact, but I don’t understand the why, and I think I am constantly trying to figure out the why. I understand the whole notion of the Harmony of the Spheres. The soothing tones or various harmonies we learn in our culture mean a certain thing. A major harmony as opposed to a minor harmony evokes a certain emotion in us. I get all of that, but I don’t know why. I mean, other than the fact I think it’s a gift from God.

“Someone asked James Taylor where his inspiration comes from and he said, ‘I don’t think I ever make up songs, I think I’m just the first guy that gets to hear them.’ So I think all of it is a gift.”

Wilkins is reminded of a quote attributed to Beethoven whose meaning roughly translates to: “Music knows us, though we know it not.”

 

 

 

 

Success has not made Wilkins any less eager to learn or any less appreciative of his privileged gift. He’s wise enough now to realize what he doesn’t know. Staying humble and vulnerable helps keep him grounded.

“About once every six weeks I still feel like I’m a failure and I’m confronted with the amount of stuff I don’t know. The response can be, OK, I am 54, I’ll just coast for another 15 years. Or the response can be, This is a golden opportunity to get stronger in an area where you’re possibly weak.”

His yearning and hunger continue driving him.

“Thankfully it doesn’t go away,” he says, “and I think that’s called the essence of life — always doing battle with your inner competitor.”

He says his role as music director is “first and foremost about the music,” adding, “But I also want to walk away having left the orchestra and audience as better human beings.” Yes, he wants his orchestra to reach greater musical heights, but he also wants his players to conduct themselves as “artists and servants to the music” and to “appreciate the greatness of this music and how fortunate we are to be a part of this music.”

Part of the process is connecting with the community.

“I also want us to never lose contact with the lives of every day people. I want us to come alongside that single mother raising a kid and grab the kid by the other hand and say, ‘We’re going to help you walk through this.’ All we’ve got is music but it’s music that inspires. That’ll end up translating into many other things.

“When I do a children’s concert I’m not trying to grow future musicians, I’m trying to grow people that want to change the world, so my education concerts are less about music and more about life.”

His next family concert is Wild About Nature at 2 p.m. on Jan. 16 at the Holland. Wilkins will lead the symphony in “kid-friendly classics” as images by nature photographer Thomas Mangelsen are projected on a big screen.

Pre-concert lobby activities include an instrument petting zoo and a homemade instrument workshop. Children can also create instruments at a Jan. 15 Omaha Children’s Museum event. At the conclusion of Sunday’s concert, Wilkins will invite children to bring their creations on stage and he will then conduct this homemade instrument band.

For tickets to this program and to American Beauty, call 342-3560 or visit http://www.omahasymphony.org.

The Two Wars of Ben Kuroki, New Book Out About Nebraskan Who Defied Prejudice to Become a War Hero

December 30, 2010 1 comment

Ben Kuroki

Image via Wikipedia

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.

*Black Tie State Dinner at the White House with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in 2006

*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?”

‘A Time for Burning,’ Academy Award-Nominated Documentary Made in Omaha Captured a Church and Community’s Struggle with Racism

December 15, 2010 1 comment

Cover of

Cover of A Time for Burning

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

‘A Time for Burning’

Part I

Academy Award-Nominated Documentary Made in Omaha Captured a Church and Community’s Struggle with Racism

What Would Jesus Do Today?

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ernie Chambers and Rev. Bill Youngdahl

 

 

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

Cinema Verite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Would Jesus Do Today?

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘A Time for Burning ‘

Part II

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Omaha and New York City

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

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

‘Stirred people to their bones’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Butler said reviewing church history can only be healthy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Augustana Lutheran Church

 

 

‘A social tide’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He said the film resonated with audiences everywhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Vic Schoonover today

 

 

‘Hit square in the jaw’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

‘You’re already dead’

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

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

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

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

Janice Stiles said his preaching exerted much influence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Finding Forefathers: Lincoln Motion Picture Company Film Festival Gives Nod to Past and Offers Glimpse of Future

November 20, 2010 1 comment

Poster: The Realization of a Negro's Ambition ...

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I am always on the lookout for a good film story.  This one came to me out of left field, and I am grateful did.  My hometown of Omaha, Neb. is slow to pick up trends, which makes sense since it sits smack dab in the middle of the country.  While indigenous indie filmmaking caught on just about everywhere else 15 or 20 years ago, it’s only in the last decade really that the city has had anything like a filmmaking scene, and it’s still a small, sporadic community of filmmakers compared with, say, Austin, Texas.  What’s lagged even more behind is the development of an African-American film community here, although events in the last three years indicate that might finally be changing.  For Love of Amy and Wigger are two features shot here in 2008 and 2010, respectively. John Beasley is planning a film on the life of Marlin Briscoe.  Robert Franklin is a documentary filmmaker with a new project near completion about the 1919  lynching of Will Brown.  Vikki White is a promising new filmmaker.  And then the story that came my way recently announced a new film festival whose title is drawn from the nation’s first black filmmaking enterprise, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, which got its start in Omaha, of all places, in the silent era. Brothers Noble and George Johnson were the founders and operators behind Lincoln, whose run was short but historic.  Videographer Jim Nelson of Omaha was inspired by the example of the Johnsons and has launched a film festival showing the wares of aspiring filmmakers he mentors.  My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) previewed the fest ,which unreeled Nov. 19.  He and I and the filmmakers showing their work hope it’s the start of something big.

Finding Forefathers: Lincoln Motion Picture Company Film Festival Gives Nod to Past and Offers Glimpse of Future

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

The first annual Lincoln Motion Picture Company Film Festival, Nov. 19, is inspired by a historic Nebraska-based business that scholars call the nation’s first African-American film production company.

Brothers Noble and George Johnson founded the company in 1916 in Omaha and later opened a Los Angeles office. They produced five pictures. Their work actually predated that of the great black film pioneer Oscar Micheaux, who had contact with the Johnsons before launching his own film endeavors.

When Omaha television and video production veteran Jim Nelson learned of the Johnsons’ legacy, it hit him like a revelation. As an African-American videographer, he’s a rarity in the local industry. From the time the Lincoln company folded in 1921 until recently, black filmmaking largely lay dormant here. Discovering that black Omaha filmmakers made and owned their own images nearly a century ago moved Nelson.

“I thought, damn, I do come from someplace. It gives me a connection. You always hear about standing on the shoulders of giants, well, now I know whose they are,” says Nelson, who began his career at now defunct Omaha black owned and operated radio station KOWH.

 

Jim Nelson

 

The Texas native came to Omaha in the 1960s when his Air Force father transferred to Offutt Air Force Base. Except for leaving Nebraska a few times to try his fortunes elsewhere, the University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate has been based here, yet he somehow never heard about the Johnsons and their Lincoln efforts until a few years ago. He feels the story is not as widely celebrated in these parts as it should be.

“I say to people,’ Do you know the significance of this?’”

He says he’s sure many in Omaha’s African-American community don’t know this history, which he sees as part of a larger problem of not enough being done to promote achievements by black Nebraskans.

“The idea is there are people who grew up here who made contributions,” he says. “It’s about valuing not only what you have or had but using that value to help you grow,” he says. “People need to feel they are worth something.”

Nelson’s nonprofit Video Kool Skool and Sable Accent Media Experience are training grounds for minority youths and adults to learn the necessary skills to tell their stories in images. The programs, along with his for-profit Jim Nelson Media Services, are based at the Omaha Business & Technology Center, 2505 North 24th Street., where he has ample studio and production space.

With a bow to the Lincoln Company’s heritage, Nelson hit upon the idea of a showcase for aspiring black filmmakers. Making himself and his facilities available, he worked with newbies on five short films, all featuring aspects of the black experience. The collaborative projects include one Nelson directed, Rockin’ the Deuce Four, an appreciation of the jazz scene that once flourished in and around North 24th Street.

“This is about a community that has not had its story told on any regular basis,” he says. “Now there’s a platform (the festival). I want to catch these new voices when they’re small. They have to be encouraged, they have to be nurtured, they have to know there’s a place where, even on a part time basis, they can pursue it.

“What’s my role? Well this has always been a dream of mine because I never had a mentor. I didn’t get it, I wasn’t supposed to get it, I was supposed to help others get it. I find myself being more a catalyst I guess for those who really want to do it.”

In this “each one, teach one” capacity he worked with three adults — all students of his at Metro Community College, where he’s an adjunct broadcast media instructor. Their work comprises the festival.

Danye Echtinaw, an Army reservist who served a tour in Iraq, says her film If the Hair Ain’t Tight, Ain’t Nothin’ Right expresses “a very adamant attitude of reaffirmation” about black women” and their “crown of glory.” Eris Lamont Mackey, who made an anti-gang film that placed at the NAACP’s national ACT-SO competition, reflects on the importance of families sharing meals and conversations together in Left at the Table. Lisa Washington, who attended Grambling State University, examines African-American icons in The Beginning of a Positive Image.

Nelson doesn’t pretend there’s a budding Spike Lee or Kasi Lemmons in the queue…yet. He views the event and his mentoring as “a spark to ignite others.” He feels as more participate, it’s only a matter of time before a significant filmmaker emerges.

“The participation of minorities in the industry has always been a struggle. With today’s technology, the opportunity to make films is there,” he says. “There’s a wealth of stories, but we need storytellers. Just seeing yourself in that position is empowering. Once you learn to do it, it can’t be taken away. It’s just a matter of getting the tools to do it.”

The fest unreels from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at the Omaha Public Schools‘ TAC Building auditorium, 3015 Cuming Street. Admission is $10. Call 614-8202 for ticket locations.

Freedom Riders: A Get On the Bus Inauguration Diary

October 21, 2010 2 comments

President Barack Obama gives his inaugural add...

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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.

 

go to the show
That’s me on the left, with Sharif Liwaru, his father-in-law Andrew Gaines, sister-in-law Frelima Gaines and wife Gabriel Gaines Liwaru, ©photo by Katrina Adams.

 

 

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.

 

 

go to the show

©photo by Katrina Adams

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Jan. 21-22

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.

Postscript

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!

Man on Fire: Activist Ben Gray’s Flame Burns Bright

September 2, 2010 2 comments

A flame from a burning candle

Image via Wikipedia

Much has changed and not changed since I did this story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) profiling Ben Gray, who at the time was a television journalist in his adopted hometown of Omaha, Neb. Gray was an unabashed advocacy journalist who used the forum of a public affairs program he produced and hosted to confront social-political issues on him mind.  He’s always been an advocate and activist in the local African-American community, and since my story’s publication he’s immersed himself in those roles even more deeply, having left his career in TV to get himself elected an Omaha City Council member representing largely African-American District 2 and becoming a key player in the African-American Empowerment Network (see my stories about the Network on this blog site).  This article alludes to the growing tension between Gray and one of his heroes and mentors, former Nebraska State Sen. Ernie Chambers, a relationship that’s become more strained over time. Gray was not born in Omaha, and he didn’t grow up here.  The U.S. Air Force brought him here and he has devoted most of his adult life to serving the community and to improving conditions here for its most vulnerable residents.

 

 

 

 

Man on Fire: Activist Ben Gray’s Flame Burns Bright

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

 

Ben Gray finds himself in “an uncomfortable position” these days for his vehement opposition to the Nebraska Legislature’s recently enacted schools reorganization plan. The law mandates a new learning community and the severing of the Omaha Public Schools into three racially identifiable districts. As co-chair of the community-based African American Achievement Council, Gray is a plaintiff in an NAACP-led civil rights lawsuit that challenges the action.

He’s secure with his denouncement of the school makeover plan as bad policy and, as the lawsuit contends, unconstitutional legislation that sanctions segregation. However, he’s uneasy his stance casts him as an adversary to a man he admires above all others — State Sen. Ernie Chambers — who crafted the key amendment to restructure OPS, a district Gray is adamant about preserving.

The venerable senator is regarded as “a great man” by Gray, veteran KETV Channel 7 photojournalist and host/producer of Kaleidoscope, the longest continuously aired public affairs program in Omaha television history.

It may surprise people to learn Gray, who’s fronted the show since 1979, didn’t originate it. He traces its start to 1969 or 1970 as a response to the riots in north Omaha and to general black discontent in the wake of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassinations and the slow progress of the War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Movement. Kaleidoscope featured rotating hosts until Gray found his niche.

He said public affairs programs like it emerged from the tumult of “constructive dialogue and confrontation from folks like Charlie Washington, Ernie Chambers, Welcome Bryant, Bertha Calloway, Dorothy Eure. They deserve the credit.” Once the show was his, he decided troublemakers like these “needed a forum so their ideas could be presented in their entirety rather than in sound bites. A lot of people were very angry at me because I gave Sen. Chambers that forum.”

More than once, he said management’s alleged he or Chambers handled subjects unfairly, but never proved their claims. For 27 years Gray’s dealt straight-up, in his direct, eloquent, informed approach, based on his vast reading of American and African-American history, with tough stories. From police shootings to racial profiling cases, he’s called it like it is and he asserts, “Not a single person, not any of the police chiefs I’ve had on, can ever tell you they were treated unfairly on my show. Now, they were asked hard questions…but when you come to my television show it’s like coming to my living room and in my living room you are my guest and my guests don’t get treated disrespectfully. Now, they may get asked hard questions…” The show goes beyond local matters to discuss national-world affairs.

He’s patterned his on-air demeanor after three men: Charlie Washington, the late Omaha journalist-activist and host of Omaha Can We Do and To Be Equal; Gil Noble, host of New York’s Like It Is; and Tony Brown, of the syndicated Tony Brown’s Journal. “Charlie didn’t let you off the hook for anything. Charlie argued and debated with you. Charlie adopted that style and never deviated from it. Gil Noble never deviated. Tony Brown never deviated. Those are the guys I admire and respect. I modeled my confrontational style after theirs. Charlie and Tony were great friends I got to know very well. Gil was intimately involved with Malcolm X and he’s shared some of his Malcolm materials with me,” Gray said.

Unlike most of his colleagues Gray’s unapologetic to be both news reporter and news maker. He often takes public stands on the very issues he covers. He wishes more black journalists followed suit. But no issue’s drawn him so far out into the line of fire over such an extended time as the schools debate. The national media’s focus on the controversy as the poster case for the larger resegregation underway in American public schools, has made him a much sought-after quote. His characterization in the New York Times of LB 1024 and the amendment to break up the Omaha Public Schools as “a disaster” has been oft-repeated.

He’s sure with his choice to be an advocacy journalist.

“You have a choice of one of two things when you’re a professional journalist. That you’re going to satisfy yourself personally, i.e. move up the ladder and try and make network and make the big bucks, or to make a difference,” he said. “So, the question becomes, do I satisfy personal goals or do what others before me have done — and that is sacrifice for the greater good, for the greatest number? And that’s what’s driven my decisions.”

He invites trouble by bucking the-powers-that-be in pursuit of doing what he thinks right. His relationship with general managers at KETV, where he’s worked since 1973 after an Air Force stint brought him to Offutt, has often been strained; never more than in 1976 when he and others filed a complaint against Ch. 7 with the Federal Communications Commission. Dubbed by media as “the black coalition,” Gray said the group’s fight went beyond color to gender and equity issues.

“What we were complaining about,” he said, “was that at the time Kaleidoscope and some other public affairs shows on Ch. 7 were only on very early in the morning or very late at night and there were no African-Americans on the air in prime time and had not been for a considerable period of time and there had never been a woman main anchor in Omaha.

“We filed against the station’s license, which employees very seldom do. It was the only avenue we saw because we had a news director at that time who felt like he was going to put an end to what he thought were affirmative action hires. In other words, he didn’t care much for black folks or women” in television.

“Now, you want to talk about tense when we filed that complaint. All sorts of wild rumors went through the station — that black people were trying to take over Ch. 7, that black people were trying to get rid of white people there. I look back and I laugh now, but, man, those were some pretty contentious times. I mean, people were really pissed at us for doing that. Although it was highly unlikely, the possibility the station wouldn’t get its license (renewed) was there. Ch. 7 operated with a temporary license for almost two years as a result of our action.”

Gray and his fellow complainants lost the battle but won the war.

“The FCC finally dismissed our complaint (in 1977) but with this caveat: They said they found merit in our argument about public affairs programming and so they issued a ruling, that comes from us, that no public affairs programming can only be contiguous with early morning or late night hours. Ch. 7 changed the times of several of the programs” to reflect the ruling’s spirit.

Dissatisfied with what they saw as a window dressing remedy, the group contemplated a federal lawsuit when, Gray said, “I got a call from a very high-up person in Pulitzer Broadcasting who said, ‘Before you do anything like file a legal action, give us a month, and if you don’t like what you see…go ahead and file your suit.’ Well, Ch. 7 soon hired the first female anchor in prime time in Omaha with Marsha Ladendorf and then a whole slew of minorities followed after that. Carol Schrader and Michael Scott were two of the beneficiaries. The fact of the matter is we kicked in the door and it happened, and we’re proud of that.”

Along with a more diverse staff on and off camera, programs like Kaleidoscope were accorded more respect. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t had to fight to keep the show relevant, much less alive. “I’ve had so many battles,” he said. Current GM Joel Vilmenay has been “by far the biggest supporter because everybody else was trying to get it off the air or were indifferent about it,” he said. Having someone from management in his corner is such a new experience to Gray it took him aback.

“For awhile I didn’t know how to take somebody giving me advice and challenging me and chastising me all at the same time. What I like about Joel is he’s a tough taskmaster. Joel knows what he wants and his standards are high and that’s who you want to work for. When you’re challenged you either fall apart or rise to the occasion. Well, Kaleidoscope has been my baby for far too long for me not to rise to the occasion.”

Vilmenay encouraged his switch a few years ago from a Tony Brown-type discourse to the present This Week-panel format. Each week Gray “facilitates” a panel of talking heads — Brenda Council, Lee Terry Sr. and Jim Fogarty — offering liberal, conservative and moderate perspectives, respectively, on topical issues. Gray only occasionally weighs in with his left of center views, though not nearly as often as “some people want me to.” The show’s tackled the schools divide and what some see as Chambers’ betrayal of his ideals.

By opting to defy his longtime hero, Gray’s put himself on the hot seat. “I’ve chosen a course that’s not necessarily comfortable in opposing Sen. Chambers, but it’s right,” he said. “Again, when you have the kind of respect I have for him, it’s difficult to do, but at the same time when I think you’re wrong I have to call you on it. That’s just the way it is. I don’t think anybody should be above being questioned. And if that puts me on the opposite side of people who are friends or great associates or whatever the case may be, then that’s what it will have to be.”

Ironically, Gray’s doing what he admires in Chambers — raising a dissident voice for the marginalized. It’s not hard to imagine why Gray looks to him, the lone wolf black legislator who champions the underdog, as someone to emulate. Gray measures himself as a strong, outspoken, incisive African-American community activist in the context of the firebrand figure his mentor cuts.

“We don’t have enough men in our community who are willing to stand up and be men and take on issues in spite of the obstacles, in spite of the odds, in spite of who’s for you and who’s against you,” Gray said. “We don’t have enough men who say what really this is and lay everything on the table and keep their ethics and their integrity and their honesty intact. When you see that kind of nobleness in an individual you want to gravitate to that.

“Sen. Chambers does that and I’ve done everything I could to try and come close, because nobody can be Ernie, but at least come close to exemplify his willingness to put it all on the line…to be honest…to stand up against oppression and racism.”

When revealed last week that several Omaha North High School teachers staged racially offensive parodies, with some remarks targeting not only Chambers but students of color, the senator condemned their actions and asked that they be removed from their duties. Gray showed his solidarity by sending a highly critical letter to OPS and the media.

Gray considers Chambers the second most influential person in his life behind his older sister Mary Thompson, who raised Ben and his younger brother Doug in their hometown of Cleveland, Ohio after both parents died of cancer in the same year.

“I was 13-years-old and we were very poor. When your parents die and you’re a young person, grief comes later. What happens first is fear. Because you don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know if some other relative is going to take you in. You don’t know if you’re going to go to a foster home. You don’t know what tomorrow is going to be like,” he said.

“I had an older sister who took us in and she took us when she already had five other children. She raised me and I was not the best of children — by a long shot. But she hung in there. She stuck with me. She’s the person I consider to be my greatest role model. I consider her my guardian angel. To say I love her wouldn’t do her service because she’s been everything to me and continues to be.

“And the other significant influence has been Sen. Chambers.”

 

 

Ernie Chambers
Despite that, Gray said, “People aren’t right all the time. Nobody is. And in this particular instance, knowing what I know about the school system — about the children and families in this district, I think he’s wrong on this, and I would be less than a man if I didn’t express my feelings and act on my feelings. No matter who it is. If it was my sister, it would be the same thing. Because I think it’s wrong.”
As outraged as he is by the damage he fears LB 1024’s learning community plan and OPS split will do, he’s upset by how these measures came to be fashioned in the first place. He believes lawmakers acted rashly, without proper deliberation and community input from those most invested in the issue and in the process.

“I think when you’re going to do something as delicate as this, when you’re talking about our children, you go slowly, you don’t go real fast. I think that’s where the mistakes were made.

“What really galls me more than anything is that the African American Achievement Council, the Latino Achievement Council, the Native American Achievement Council, the Ministerial Alliance and various groups that participated in the political process were not consulted. We did what legislators, the governor and other elected officials hoped we’d do. We engaged in the process. We went to Lincoln. We lobbied. We fought. We cajoled. We testified. We did all this.”

Yet, he said, “nobody came to us to find out what we do or what changes we have made in the district, which are numerous and ongoing and many of which are starting to bear serious fruit. To negate or dismiss all of the work done by plain citizens who just want to help is a travesty and a crime quite frankly. And then you do this (pass the new law) and you lock us out? You didn’t even ask us what we thought — those of us who are engaged?

“And all these folks now running around saying, ‘Yeah, this is a good idea and Ernie’s right,’ and so forth and so on, none of ‘em are engaged. None. Zero.”

Gray, who said he’s carefully read the new law, cites many things not accounted for in the bill’s language, including such basics as funding and hiring mechanisms, classroom assignments, grant stipulations, program operations and oversight responsibilities. He fears too many details have been ignored, too many consequences unaddressed, leaving in limbo and perhaps in jeopardy educators’ jobs and district programs hinging on grants or contracts.

“I don’t know if people realize, for example, the Omaha Public School District has about $30 million in grant programs that somehow have to get reapportioned or reapplied for. What’s going to happen to these programs? Who writes the grants? Who gets the grants now? There’s a teachers union contract that runs over into 2008 — what happens to it? Who’s going to negotiate a new contract? What happens to those teachers? How do we pick and choose which teachers and principals we keep and don’t keep? Who decides?

“What’s going to happen to the district’s Triple A bond rating? What about levee limits and bond rates? With our low property tax base, what kind of bonds can black and Latino districts float? What about insurance — with each new district being much smaller than OPS what kind of group rates will they qualify for? There’s a myriad of things I don’t think anybody thought about.”

He’s not so pessimistic he discounts a framework can be found that answers such questions. “Oh, there’s always a possibility,” he said. His point is that a huge education ball was put in motion without due diligence or foresight. “It should have been worked out before and not after the bill. Normally, when there’s a merger or an acquisition or a break up, the answers have all been worked out and in this instance nothing has been worked out. There’s just too many things we don’t know.” In the interim, some things, like a planned South Omaha Educare center, are on hold until there’s more clarity.

He distrusts and derides the hallmark of Chambers’ provision — local control. He sees little assurance of it when the board overseeing the new learning community will be appointees, not elected officials, installed by other appointees. He points out the suburban districts will have a majority on the board and thus a voting bloc over inner city districts. He contends creating black-Latino districts will isolate them and make them easy targets for unequal shares of the revenue pie.

He also cautions that local control failed the local Head Start program.

“We’ve lost parts of enough generations to not run the risk of doing something as foolish as this and risk damaging a school district or harming children for the sake of this fanciful notion of local control. I call it foolish because we haven’t thought about it, we haven’t talked about it,” he said.

 

 

 

 

Gray devotes much of his public-private life to education reform. He reveres educators and hopes his work, which sounds more like lecture than rant, rises to that higher calling. The African American Achievement Council he co-chairs with his wife Freddie J. Gray works in concert with OPS on initiatives to bring the performance of minority children in line with that of whites. Under his aegis the Council’s made textbook-curriculum changes infused with black history. He helped launch the Greeter program that brings black men into schools as role models. He gives frequent talks to students of color, mentors individuals, assists black scholarship programs, etc.

He helped frame the OPS argument for its One City – One School District school boundaries effort aimed at swallowing up suburban districts. Along with superintendent John Mackiel, Gray’s made himself a visible, audible point person in support of One City, One School at public forums. One reason Gray’s left caution behind is to defend Mackiel, whom he feels is falsely maligned by critics.

“I didn’t want to be involved in the One City, One School District fight, but I just could not see a white man the caliber of John Mackiel, with the dignity I think he has, fighting for all children out there on the stump by himself. It’s about fairness and doing the right thing with me and what was happening to him was unfair when I know what he was doing was the right thing.”

Gray’s position in forums is that black-Latino inner city schools suffer in comparison to white suburban schools due to an inequitable distribution of resources. He says race, class and white privilege enable the segregated housing and unequal employment patterns that breed segregation.

“We have to address the bedrock that is white privilege. First of all we have to name it. Whites are not going to accept it from me. They’re going to accept it from somebody who lives in their neighborhood and who looks like they do, That’s who’s going to drive this discussion — the Jonathan Kozols and other white authors who call the educational system in this country apartheid.

“And that discussion has to occur because if it doesn’t this country is not going to be long for existence. Joseph Lowry, the former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference said it best, ‘We may have come over here on different ships — we are on the same boat now. We better figure out how to fix this boat.’ I have to be optimistic.”

If nothing else, he said, the discord shows what happens in the absence of dialogue about the underlying issues. He sees people “slowly venturing into this uncharted territory,” adding his message is welcome in some parts of town and not others.

While he has “great faith the lawsuit is going to be successful,” he added, “I don’t put all my eggs in one basket. You just don’t sit back and wait. You do other things on the legislative and social justice end. There are already rumblings the legislature next year is going to do some fine tuning. I’m looking for legislative solutions. I hope we find dialogue somewhere, so that we don’t have to go to court.” He’s wary what decision a court might render. “You know, courts can do anything — from rule against us to rule for us. They have wide latitude. I think we all need to be concerned about what a judge will do.”

Students, parents and taxpayers face the surreal reality that once the new schools plan is implemented in 2008, every legislator that shaped or passed it will be out of office due to term limits. In this void, Gray said, “I don’t know who to talk to. I don’t know who’s going to be elected.” Chambers is among those whose term will expire. Before then, Gray hopes to get him to look deeper at the questions the plan poses. “I have to do a better job convincing him because Ernie has very strong convictions, very strong beliefs and you have to prove yourself to Ernie over and over again, and that’s not bad. It keeps you focused and it keeps you strong.”

No sweat for Gray, who shares with Ernie a passion for pumping iron, and carries with him two values from his military days, “discipline and completing the mission,” that ensure the schools plan “will not go unchallenged” by him. He vows it.

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