As a young man, civil rights leader Whitney Young led the Urban League of Nebraska. During his Omaha tenure, the Kentucky native was instrumental in opening new hiring opportunities and growing the chapter’s membership. A trained educator and social worker, he went on to serve as dean of the School of Social Work at Clark College in Atlanta and as president of Georgia’s NAACP chapter. His work down south resulted in him being named National Urban League executive director in 1961. In that role, he promoted economic self-sufficiency and helped craft historic legislation that gave blacks equal rights under the law. This trusted adviser to black and white leaders, who was a part of the Big 6, died at age 49.
Born in Omaha in 1925, Malcolm Little was a child when his family moved to Michigan to escape harassment directed at his outspoken preacher father by white supremacists. His father died under mysterious circumstances. A bright student, Malcolm quit school when a teacher slighted his potential. He moved to Boston and got caught up in street life. After his arrest and conviction he used his time in prison to educate himself, setting his mind free. He became a Muslim, changing his name to Malcolm X. He emerged a dynamic Nation of Islam recruiter-organizer. After breaking with founder Elijah Muhammad, he gained a following as a writer and orator calling for black self-determination by any means necessary. He was assassinated in 1965 at age 39.
Omaha native Ernie Chambers was another son of a preacher. The Technical High School and Creighton University graduate became a grassroots community leader in the 1960s. Though he didn’t yet hold public office, he bridged divisions between the black community and the local white power structure. He calmed tensions during civil unrest while agitating for needed change. His original bully pulpit was the North Omaha barber chair he manned. From 1970 through now, his stage has been the Nebraska Legislature, except for a hiatus forced by term limits. Chambers has never wavered from his fiercely independent stances and role as underdog champion. He emerged a national public figure via the 1966 race documentary A Time for Burning, which led to national speaking appearances. He later gained attention calling for the U.S. to disinvest itself from South Africa, for his opposition to the death penalty and for his proposal to divide Omaha’s public school district.
Rev. James Commodore Wade
Pastors have long been highly influential in North Omaha. James Commodore Wade, better known as Rev. J.C. Wade, was a noted pastor and civic leader. The Oklahoma native came to Omaha in 1944, and for the next four decades pastored at Salem Baptist Church where he built a small, fledgling membership into a huge, thriving congregation. He served on the Omaha Mayor’s Advisory Committee and organized one of the area’s first Head Start programs. He was active in the Baptist Pastors Conference and the Interdenominational Alliance, and was a leader in the New Era Baptist State Convention and National Baptist Convention. He was a mainstay in the Gospel Music Workshop of America and the national NAACP.
Claude Organ, Jr.
Marshall, Texas native Claude Organ, Jr. earned his M.D. and master’s degree in surgery from Creighton Medical School. He joined Creighton’s medical faculty in 1963 as an assistant professor. When he became chair of surgery there in 1971, he made history as the first African American to chair a surgery department at a predominantly white U.S. medical school. Organ helped found the Society of Black Academic Surgeons. He became the second African-American president of the American College of Surgeons. He edited the prestigious Journal of American Medical Association publication Archives of Surgery. His education career continued on the west coast. Under his tutelage, the ranks of African-American surgeons, particularly women, increased.
A Tuskegee Airman during World War II, Charles Lane made a career of the U.S. Air Force and his last assignment brought him to Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, Nebraska. When he retired, he became the director of the anti-poverty program Greater Omaha Community Action (GOCA) and later founded the 99th Pursuit Cadet Squadron of the Nebraska Wing of the Civil Air Patrol to mentor youth through aviation.
Omaha native Rodney Wead headed the Wesley House, a tradition-rich United Methodist Community Center in North Omaha. Under his leadership, a radio station, credit union and an economic catalyst organization emerged. The Omaha Economic Development Corporation that sprung from the center has spurred revitalization throughout North Omaha via newly built and renovated residential and commercial properties, first under the direction of Alvin Goodwin, and more recently under the guidance of Michael Maroney.
Rowena Moore was the founder of the Malcolm X Foundation and led efforts to recognize the international leader in Omaha. Her work resulted in the purchasing of significant pieces of land which will be used by the Foundation to continue efforts of self-empowerment and an ambitious campus plan. Board President, Sharif Liwaru, is partnering with the Board and community to move the plan forward.