A Time for Justice: Omaha's Struggle for Civil Rights
What were some of the goals of civil rights organizers in North Omaha?
Civil Rights in Omaha
North Omaha has a long, complex history of Civil Rights that remains largely unnoticed. Not only is it the birthplace of an important political and cultural leader, Malcolm Little, but also home of one of the longest running Black newspapers, the Omaha Star. From a small town barbershop on 24th & Spencer to marches and demonstrations that changed people’s lives—Omaha has captured people’s attention from Presidential candidates to the common folk. However, much of this history remains largely invisible…until now.
Civil Rights in North Omaha
It took the entire community to fight for Civil Rights and they are still fighting today. In this mural, Blacks celebrate stopping segregation and redlining, as well as gaining the right to vote while they continue to march along the path toward equality.
The Omaha Urban League
The Urban League was founded in 1910 to help Blacks from the South work and live in urban areas. The Omaha chapter was founded in 1927. Since that year, the Omaha Urban League has been influencing an entire city. Examples of its outstanding work includes marching against segregation, redlining, and police brutality, as well as meeting to help find African Americans well paying jobs. At its height, chapter president Whitney Young was able to triple its membership. Its goal today is to help African Americans and people of all races become economically independent. (Photo courtesy of the Douglas County Historical Society)
At first glance Spencer’s Barbershop may seem like an average building in an average town, however this place has lived through and created much of Omaha’s history. The Barbershop is the location where a 29-year old barber named Ernie Chambers first gained national attention. The shop was the site of an Academy-Award nominated documentary “A Time For Burning,” featuring the future state senator. Spencer’s Barbershop still remains a place where people gather to discuss culture, family and society.
The struggle for racial justice was not unique to North Omaha. Throughout the nation, Blacks were fighting for equal rights. As part of this broader movement, civil rights organizations like the National Association for the Advancement for Colored People (NAACP), Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), Urban League, and Black Panthers all founded chapters in North Omaha. While they had many goals, some of their most important were increasing Black political representation, demanding fair and open housing, pushing for more jobs with equal pay, fighting police brutality, pressing for integrated and more historically accurate education, rallying support for the wrongly accused, and putting an end to the city’s practice of de facto segregation.
Nevertheless, the many ways Blacks went about securing their equal rights makes North Omaha’s story special. Groups like The DePorres Club, the Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties (4CL), and Black Association for Nationalism Through Unity (BANTU)—that were founded by North Omahans specifically to meet the needs of its population—have left a permanent mark on the city. Out of this turbulent time, leaders and landmarks were made out of average, everyday people and hangouts, such as Ernie Chambers, Denny Holland, Father Markoe, Spencer’s Barbershop, and the Omaha Star.
When we look up and down 24th Street and much of modern-day North Omaha, many see empty lots, abandoned buildings, and overgrown weeds. But in reality, these are the scars of an intense struggle for equal justice that is still going on today. Only in recognizing this history, by examining its leaders and pulling out its many lessons, are we able to progress in our pursuit of a beloved community.
"Omaha seemed like a normal city to me. When I came to this camp it changed my mind, such as the barbershop on 24th street. I never knew a documentary was shot there. I also thought The Omaha Star was nothing to me but now that I learned a lot about it, such as it is one of the longest-running Black newspapers...Now it is a different story!"
— Justin H.
"The fact that Omaha has a lot of history that many people don't know of suprises me. I liked visiting North 24th Street and its buildings. I'm hopeful that the work we've done will change Omaha!"
— Amilkar R.
"I was surprised to learn about Omaha's rich history. This really is a historic city. I've learned that Omaha has had a lot of ups and downs throughout the decades. I now believe that I can change this city for the better!"
— Ronnie T.
Douglas County Historical Society.
A Street of Dreams. Nebraska ETV Network, 1992. Videocassette.
A Time for Burning. Bill Jersey & Barbara Connell (Dir.) 1967. DVD.
Federal Writers Project. (1939) Nebraska: A guide to the Cornhusker state. Nebraska State Historical Society.
Research compiled by: Justin H, Amilkar R, & Ronnie T.