The shadow of insidious racism sometimes appears in my home state of Nebraska. It’s not obvious like the kind found in states of the former Confederacy. Most of the time it lies beneath the surface and is not mentioned in “polite company”. These days, it is alluded to in anti-Obama rants by some people.
During the 1960s, the racism in Nebraska was more overt. The national news media even found it newsworthy. By the mid-1960s economic problems and racial segregation converged to create the ingredients of social unrest. Omaha, being the largest Nebraska city, became the focus of the state’s race problem. The northern part of Omaha was the most volatile area.
There were unofficial “Jim Crow” types of conditions in much of the state and most notably in Omaha. There were several businesses that refused, outright, to serve blacks. There were others that did but had doors in the back for non-white patrons. Many banks, insurance agencies, and realtors practiced discrimination regarding blacks. They often restricted limited services to North Omaha, effectively keeping the non-white population to that area. Noteworthy, was housing discrimination, so North Omaha became a ghetto and segregated schools were the rule.
By 1965, Omaha’s meat packing plants were closing or moving out of state. The packing plants were about the only businesses that paid a living wage to blacks. The stage was set in one of America’s most hyper-segregated cities for unrest that brought national attention.
Racial conflict was not new to Nebraska’s biggest city. Prior to the 1960s, the most shocking riot took place on September 29, 1919. Whites rampaged, burned black occupied housing, businesses, and the Douglas County Courthouse. The huge white mob looted businesses and assaulted police and civilians who tried to intervene. Before the 1919 riot ended, several people were killed and one black was lynched.
On June 25, 1966, a burglary suspect, Eugene Nesbitt was shot to death by an off-duty white policeman. On July 1st, the day after Nesbitt’s funeral, numerous firebombs were set off in buildings across North Omaha.
Late, on July 3rd, black college students were protesting the campaign of the segregationist Presidential hopeful Alabama Governor George Wallace. White counter-protestors taunted the students with violence. When Omaha police arrived, the violence increased. This resulted in students and counter-protestors being injured. One black teen, tossed a firecracker at a policeman. The boy was shot to death as he attempted to flee.
The death incited even more violence. The rioting spread to surrounding neighborhoods. Vehicles were vandalized, businesses were damaged and looted. The riot went on for three days. It took the efforts of the noteworthy, influential community leader and barber Ernie Chambers to calm the black students and quell the rioting. In addition, local civil rights groups negotiated funding for run-down areas of the city and youth programs from the mayor’s office.
The peace did not last long. Before the end of the month, the Nebraska National Guard was activated to halt more rioting in North Omaha. Then again, on August 3rd, police were used to subdue violence in that neighborhood. Again, the rioting was triggered by accusations of police brutality. A man had been shot and killed trying to flee from the police.
The riots were part of a series of events that continue to question the veracity of the State of Nebraska’s official motto, “Equality Under the Law”. History has shown that extraordinary events and means have often been needed to help fulfill the state’s promise for various minorities.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes Nebraska State Senator Ernie Chambers. “I have not accumulated houses or stocks or bonds or anything; this has not been a lucrative office for me. I entered the Unicameral a poor man and I will leave the Unicameral a poor man.”