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Free Radical

Ernest Chambers, Black Power, and the Politics of Race

Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson, with foreword by Quintard Taylor

Publication Year: 2012

Amid the deadly racial violence of the 1960s, an unassuming student from a fundamentalist Christian home in Omaha emerged as a leader and nationally recognized black activist. Ernest Chambers, elected to the Nebraska State Legislature in 1970, eventually became one of the most powerful legislators the state has ever known. As Chambers bids for reelection in 2012 to the office he held for thirty-eight years, Omaha native Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson illuminates his embattled career as a fiercely independent defender of the downtrodden.Tracing the growth of the Black Power Movement in Nebraska and throughout the U.S., Johnson discovers its unprecedented emphasis on electoral politics. For the first time since Reconstruction, voters catapulted hundreds of African American community leaders into state and national political arenas. Special-interest groups and political machines would curb the success of aspiring African American politicians, just as urban renewal would erode their geographical and political bases, compelling the majority to join the Democratic or Republican parties. Chambers was one of few not to capitulate.In her revealing study of one man and those he represented, Johnson portrays one intellectual’s struggle alongside other African Americans to actualize their latent political power.

Published by: Texas Tech University Press

Series: Plains Histories

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

Free radical: (noun)

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p. ix-ix


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p. xi-xi

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pp. xiii-xiv

Illustrations, following p.154

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PLAINSWORD: Ernie Chambers and the Struggle for Racial Justice in Nebraska

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pp. xv-xx

For thirty-eight years Senator Ernie Chambers represented the Eleventh Legislative District in Omaha in Nebraska’s unicameral legislature. This was the area where Malcolm X was born in 1925. The two men met briefly when Malcolm visited Omaha in 1964. That district in North Omaha was in many ways a classic ghetto before, during, and after Chambers’s many years in office. Chambers recognized and fought against its ghetto-like conditions that stemmed from unemployment, poverty, and ...

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pp. xxi-xxii

On April 15, 2006, the New York Times ran a story by Sam Dillon entitled “Law to Segregate Omaha Schools Divides Nebraska.” It was true, a school reorganization bill had polarized the city of Omaha and divided the African American community internally, as well as expanded fractures in the politics of the larger white population. The pandemonium began with a simple act: Senator Ernie Chambers attached an amendment to a school district reorganization bill (LB 1024), sponsored by his ...

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pp. 3-6

New scholars of the Civil Rights Era have critiqued the tendency of researchers to privilege the images of high-profile leaders while missing the larger picture of freedom work carried out by whole communities. In such cases, struggles are reduced to “personality.” Ernest Chambers’s Machiavellian mind, “melodious” voice, rhetorical style, wide-ranging interests, battles, defeats, and significant successes easily place him within the “great person” paradigm. On the other hand, the limitation of ...

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1—Education of a Radical

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pp. 7-39

A visitor named Theopholis X was standing on a street corner in downtown Omaha one March afternoon. He was wearing a business suit and tie and selling issues of the Nation of Islam’s newspaper, Muhammad Speaks. Mr. X was questioned about his work and ultimately beaten by two police officers and by white bystanders, and taken to jail. Before nightfall, “Ernie” Chambers, a young ...

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2—Man of the People

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pp. 41-63

The civil rights and black power struggles began unfolding in the United States contemporaneously with anticolonial organizing in Africa, and by the mid-1940s they had become chrysalises of the full-blown movements. By some accounts these eff orts reinforced each other, as news of valor and boldness in liberation work traveled from west to east and from east to west across the Atlantic, symbiotically infusing confidence into activists and warriors. Africanists, like Chambers, considered the various ...

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3—Grounded Politician

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pp. 65-95

Ernest Chambers’s father, Malcolm Chambers, had spent most of his life working as a laborer in the meatpacking industry. The elder Chambers belonged to a generation of men from North Omaha who relied heavily on negotiations with “the better class of whites” for the progress of black people. Improvements in race relations were considered as synonymous with increases in educational and employment opportunities, and progress and regression were calculated by the advancement and ...

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4—The Power of One

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pp. 97-125

When Secretary of State Allen Beermann published the results of the general elections in 1972, Richard Nixon was being returned to office for what turned out to be an abbreviated second term. Former Nebraska state senator Terry Carpenter had been defeated by Carl T. Curtis in his race for a seat in the U.S. Senate, and Charlie Thone was seated in the U.S. House of Representatives from the Omaha District. In the spring of 1972, Rowena Moore, president of the Nebraska Black Political Caucus, ...

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pp. 127-154

Chambers’s evolution as a lawmaker was nothing less than magnificent. He and Senator Steve Fowler’s divestment resolution literally started a domino effect, as one state after another followed Nebraska’s lead in ending economic support for apartheid. The Anti-Apartheid Movement swept though the nation and the world, drawing its strength from regular community folk, and enjoying widespread participation in North Omaha. It would leave behind changes in the political consciousness ...

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6—“Defender of the Downtrodden”

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pp. 155-183

Turbulent economic times in the 1980s and early 1990s were accompanied by a lessening of public trust in high-level officials. The Nebraska state legislature would accumulate its share of the fallout, and Chambers, along with his fellow senators, would stumble through the debris. The Commonwealth Savings and Loan of Lincoln had collapsed early in the decade, and Chambers fought to make the state cover depositors’ losses. When the Franklin Credit Union, located in the heart of Chambers’s ...

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pp. 185-220

Considered a pariah by many Nebraskans, Chambers’s importance in select international circles held little sway in his home state. It was undeniable, though, that his contributions to the Black Power and Anti-Apartheid Movements had created a place for him in history. Fittingly, Chambers’s name would appear with those of Julian Bond, Benjamin Chavis, Jr., David Dinkins, Carol Mosely Braun, Randall Robinson, and thirty-nine others in a “Statement on the Announcement of Elections and the Call ...

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pp. 243-254

Unnumbered pages

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pp. 221-222

His career in the Unicameral behind him, the former state senator would now turn his attention to the Douglas/Sarpy County learning community. The body, to which Chambers was duly elected, formed after passage of the controversial School District Reform Bill (LB 1046). Chambers was sworn in on January 9, 2009, and at seventy-one years of age, set his hands to improving Omaha’s public schools for all children.1 A day earlier, on January 8, the first day of the 2009 legislative ...

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pp. 223-225

The following individuals and agencies deserve recognition for their helpfulness in making this research possible. Thanks to the staff at the Charles B. Washington Branch Library in Omaha, Nebraska, for making sure that I had access to all of the available historical documents on North Omaha. Karen F. Koka, former curator of manuscripts, Library/Ar-chives Division of the Nebraska State Historical Society, trained me in the processing of manuscript collections. Diana Bridges, legislative records ...


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pp. 227-268


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pp. 269-283

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About the Author

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p. 285-285

Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson, born in North Omaha, Nebraska, is assistant professor of history at Salem College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780896727618
E-ISBN-10: 0896727610
Print-ISBN-13: 9780896727298
Print-ISBN-10: 0896727297

Page Count: 384
Illustrations: 22
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Plains Histories