Civil Rights in Omaha, NE
The City of Omaha has an unfortunately active legacy of racism. Whether structural or otherwise, white citizens of Omaha resisted the integration of their city every step of the way, from Omaha's inception to more recent a time than is comfortable to admit. In the aftermath of things like the race riot of 1919 and the advent of redlining with the introduction of the HOLC's system, Omaha remained deeply segregated, though not officially. While Omaha never had formal means of segregation, racial injustices took subtler forms. The photo above is from the History of North Omaha's "Tour of the Civil Rights Movement". In the photo, black citizens marched through the business district of North Omaha in memory of slain Civil Rights activists across the country; the men on motorcycles followed them and heckled them.
The 1960s in the US were turbulent times for many cities across the country, and Omaha was no exception. According to the 1960 census, the black population in Omaha, Nebraska was 25,212. By 1970, the population would increase to 34,431, with the tail-end of migration from the South into northern cities. Despite having a smaller black population than many other cities, issues remained the same. Subpar housing, a lack of upward mobility, poor education, and job opportunities had not changed greatly since the Great Depression. The black community in Omaha responded with organization, spearheaded by a young Ernest Chambers, a Creighton graduate and current longest-serving state senator in the history of the state of Nebraska. Chambers was the head of the Near North Side Police-Community Relations Council, which went on to present the city with a list of complaints about Omaha Police’s practices. Mayor A.V. Sorenson told the committee that “he felt that blacks would make more rapid progress if they got together and agreed upon what they wanted” (Larsen, 353). Many of the racial tensions at the time were focused on the black community’s relations with Omaha Police. In response, Sorenson established the office of the coordinator of police-community relations in early 1966.
Two separate instances of violence occurred in the summer of 1966. In both instances, the violence was a result of a clash between black teenagers, one of whom stated that they gathered in parking lots because they had nowhere else to gather, and Omaha Police, who sought to disperse the crowd. Both instances lasted for three nights; the first time, a small contingent of the National Guard was called in to help disperse the crowd. The violence and calls from young people to do more for the youth in the Near North Side spurred the Nebraska Department of Labor to assist young people from the area in finding jobs, and the city, along with other community organizations, helped fund activities and gathering spaces for young people to congregate.
Larsen, Lawrence H, Barbara J Cottrell, Harl A Dalstrom, and Kay C Dalstrom. Upstream Metropolis: An Urban Biography of Omaha and Council Bluffs. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Pr., 2007.