History Highlights: Civil Rights

The Urban League of Nebraska has been a stalwart social justice champion since 1927, advocating for economic selfreliance, parity, power, civil rights and equal opportunity.

A little known chapter in the history of Omaha is the civil rights activism that took place from the late 1940s through the mid-1970s. During World War II, Rowena Moore agitated for local packinghouses to stop discriminating against black women they denied employment. She took her fight to Washington D.C. and her efforts led to federal mandates that the plants cease their discriminatory practices, resulting in hundreds of black women being hired. She served as a labor leader for many years and later founded the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation.

In 1947, Jesuit priest John Markoe founded the social action group the DePorres Club. It enlisted a racially mixed membership of Creighton University students and community members in waging nonviolent protests, demonstrations and boycotts of businesses and institutions engaging in racial prejudice. The Club brought enough pressure to bear that some doors once closed to blacks were opened. The group’s members included future Omaha leaders Bertha Calloway, Wilda Stephenson, Claude Organ and Denny Holland.

In 1958, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in Omaha at Salem Baptist church and stayed at the home of Pat Brown.

In 1963, local NAACP Youth Council members led by the late Archie Godfrey openly challenged the policy of a local amusement complex, Peony Park, that denied blacks access to its outdoor pool. Protests at the park received much attention and soon forced the owners to change their racist policy. Future entrepreneurs, Herb Rhodes and Cathy Hughes, were among the protestors.

Around that same time, a black church-led activist group, the 4CL or Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties, staged demonstrations against restrictive housing and hiring practices. The 4CL held it’s meetings at Zion Baptist church and at Clair Memorial church. In 1964, Omaha native Malcolm X returned to his hometown to speak.

Starting in the early 1960s, some white Omaha neighborhoods were integrated by enterprising, aspiring blacks. In the mid-1960s, local black veterinarian James Pittman and two partners developed the metro’s first intentionally mixed race neighborhood by building the New Horizons subdivision just southeast of 108th and Blondo Streets. The neighborhood thrived and continues to be blended today.

In 1966, the Oscar-nominated documentary A Time for Burning, which depicts the rift a white Omaha congregation suffers when their pastor tries doing fellowship with neighboring black congregations, received nationwide screenings and prompted countless discussions.

Fifty-four University of Nebraska at Omaha students staged a 1969 sit-in at the president’s office to demand black studies courses be added and black voices be heard. The arrested protestors came to be known as the Omaha 54. In 971, UNO formed the Department of Black Studies.

Activist Ernie Chambers was elected to the Nebraska Legislature in 1970. It marked the start of a record 38-year tenure in that office, most of that time as the only black legislator in the state Unicameral.

In the early 1970s, activists Lerlean Johnson and Dorothy Eure were among a group of black Omaha parents who brought suit against the Omaha Public Schools and its segregationist policies. The case resulted in a 1976 court-ordered school desegregation plan that was implemented without the violence that occurred in many communities.

Dr. Martin Luther King famously stated 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America, but some North Omaha churches have intentionally and successfully become blended houses of worship, including New Life Presbyterian and Church of the Resurrection.

The Omaha NAACP has continued to play a key role in pushing for civil and human rights, supporting efforts to build stronger police community relations, addressing discrimination complaints and speaking out on voting rights, ban the box and justice reform. Leaders have included the late Rev. Everett Reynolds, Tommie Wilson, Stephen Jackson and current president, Vickie Young.