As a good Son of Nebraska, I was horrified to learn of the new law passed last Thursday by the Nebraska Unicameral to racially divide — or let’s call it “State Sponsored Vivisection by Race” — the Omaha Public Schools into three distinct Racial districts: White, Black and Hispanic. The 45,000 student Omaha school system is 46% White, 31% Black, 20% Hispanic and 3% Asian or American Indian.
Those numbers are hardly equal but now they are separate. Is the year 1896 or 2006? Is Plessy v. Ferguson law of the land or is Brown v. The Board of Education the law?
I was especially disappointed to learn radical Nebraska State Senator Ernest Chambers — the first and only Black man in the Unicameral and representing District 11 in Omaha for 35 years — was a major force behind the new “Omaha Public Schools Segregation Law” that recalls the dark days of our nation when some believed separate drinking fountains for “coloreds” and “whites” provided equal access to the same water supply.
We all know separate drinking fountains were not about the water just as we all know the Omaha Public Schools Redistricting is not about the best interests of the students. I grew up admiring Ernest Chambers and for a Pasty-White Boy in Lily-White Nebraska — that was a dangerous proposition because Senator Chambers was not well-liked by the majority of Nebraskans. Many said — never to his face or in public — Senator Chambers was “uppity” and he “didn’t know his place” and he “dressed ghetto.” He was usually called “Ernie” in a tone that was condescending and not friendly and rarely “Ernest” and almost never, “Senator Chambers.”
There were other daggers thrown at Senator Chambers’ back I will not repeat here because they were racial epithets intended to poke and pierce. Senator Chambers was a wild man with a higher spirit in the midst of a White and Republican and Conservative legislature. He was the thorn in the lion’s paw.
He was the last wild stallion gamboling along the Plains who refused to be lassoed or tamed by common men. He was a man on a higher mission with a better calling than most and he knew he was caught in a majority of ideas he did not share. Senator Chambers spoke the truth of who he was and what he knew. He was a Black Man in Nebraska. He was proud in a way that did not diminish others.
In 1983 Senator Chambers argued all the way to the United States Supreme Court that a chaplain should not be paid by the State of Nebraska to perform a daily prayer before the Unicameral started each session because it violated the separation between church and state. He lost the case in court but he won a greater spiritual victory for standing up for the right cause in the wrong condition.
Senator Chambers — born in 1937 and elected to the Unicameral in 1970 and re-elected in 1972, 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004
— was so effective and so dangerous to the White majority that in 2000 Nebraskans voted 56% in favor of a constitutional amendment to limit a senator to only two consecutive terms. The only way the Majority could diminish Senator Chambers’ voice and silence his vision was to amend the state constitution to throw him out of office:
Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha said Friday he has an attorney crafting a lawsuit designed to overturn the state’s term limit law in time to keep 20 of the 49 state senators from having to leave after next year. Chambers has served 35 years, more than any other senator, but is not among the first wave of senators scheduled to leave the Capitol in 2006.
Growing up in Lincoln I often visited the Unicameral just to watch Senator Chambers stand and speak and shake his fist at the unruly establishment. He was a muscled icon for human admiration and strong and deep-voiced advocate for the downtrodden.
He always dressed in a short-sleeved sweatshirt even when the legislature was in session. He stuck out and he knew it and he recognized the power in being different and antithetical.
Now, it seems the only thing Senator Chambers has been able to keep alive over the last 20 years is his short-sleeved sweatshirt.
The muscles have diminished into pockets of flab. His voice is withered. His steam of angry righteous fire has been extinguished. Those losses are the common hallmarks of aging and of ordinary men — but they are also the harbingers of something more evil and more potently ethereal because they point to a tiring of the good fight, acquiescence to bad ideals and a resignation to a perpetuation of the status quo.
Senator Chambers has become what those who knew him as a squeaky wheel could never imagine: A quiet cog in the machine. His support of the Omaha Public Schools Segregation Law suggests he is out to serve only his own and his own self-interests instead of the overall greater good that most men fall on their knees to avoid confronting. The argument for the re-districting of the Omaha Public Schools — as promoted by Senator Chambers — suggests the new districts reflect those who live there and each district will govern its own.
Blacks will make decisions for Blacks. Whites for Whites. Hispanics for Hispanics. Those who share Senator Chambers’ view also argue all districts will get equal funding and White administrators won’t be making decisions for Black students.
Senator Chambers also argues since Omaha doesn’t require busing to integrate the schools any longer, the new re-districting plan merely confirms current housing patterns and neighborhoods where children are already required to attend schools closest to their homes. Senator Chambers claims there “is no intent to create segregation” because the districts are already segregated. That single statement is a self-repudiation of a career, of a mission, and of a people who look to Senator Chambers for guidance and inspiration.
I am disappointed in Senator Chambers and his willingness to give in to the current status quo because the present racial divide in Omaha is wrong. Maybe he got tired of the good fight. Maybe the Term Limits amendment hurt him at the core of who he was more than we know. Good men can become weak and lose their way.
I am asking Senator Chambers to rise up and address the real issue at stake and that is the pro forma lack of racial integration in Omaha and the greater state of Nebraska and tell us what, after 35 years of service, he has done to heal that bleeding sore and how does his vivisection of the Omaha Public Schools remedy that racial divide? Senator Chambers must not lead us into the future by validating present wrongs. Senator Chambers must lead us into the future by setting right the errors of history that now form the current misfortune of the Omaha Public Schools re-districting scheme.
The Associated Press reports Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, Omaha Public Schools Superintendent John Mackiel and state Senators Gwen Howard and Pat Bourne — all White — are vehemently opposed to the new Omaha Public Schools Segregation Law and are fighting it with the spirit and vigor that used to be the hallmark of Senator Chambers’ Unicameral crusades. Bruning: “The law violates Nebraska’s equal-protection clauses and is unconstitutional.” Mackiel: “There simply has never been an anti-city school victory anywhere in this nation.
This law will be no exception.” Senator Howard: “History will now, and should not, judge us kindly.” Senator Bourne: “We will go down in history as one of the first states in 20 years to set race relations back.” Bruning, Mackiel, Howard and Bourne are right. Senator Chambers is wrong.
. . .The object of the [Fourteenth] amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political, equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either.
Laws permitting, and even requiring, their separation in places where they are liable to be brought into contact do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race to the other, and have been generally, if not universally, recognized as within the competency of the state legislatures in the exercise of their police power. . . .
You could cut that quote from 1896 and paste it into the Omaha Public Schools Segregation Law in 2006 because they are both strangely arguing the same incredible, awful, point: Separate but Equal.
That quote was from the majority decision in the United States Supreme Court case concerning Plessy v. Ferguson and those words served as the organizing legal justification for racial segregation for over 50 years. Perhaps Senator Chambers can find a quiet moment to reflect on the majority decision Brown v. Board of Education that in 1954 righted the wrongs of Plessy:
Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship.Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.
We come then to the question presented: Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other “tangible” factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does.
Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system.
We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.
This disposition makes unnecessary any discussion whether such segregation also violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
1896 — Plessy v. Ferguson 1954 — Brown v. Board of Education 2006 — Omaha Public Schools Re-Districting Are we forever doomed to a 50 year cycle of racially falling backward, socially progressing forward and then racially falling backward all over again? When will we begin to allow our wrongs to teach us?
The great state of Nebraska must do the right thing and overturn the Omaha Public Schools Segregation Law and work on re-integrating the city — and the entire state — into multi-cultural neighborhoods so no one can ever again draw lines around racial capsules and call them equal because those with the greatest resources and the largest opportunities and the biggest line-drawing-pencil, can enhance their racial divide faster and better than other competing racial clusters and that only leads to deeper dissatisfaction and harsher separation and it rips us away from each other with a cultural mandate ruled by Race instead of bringing us together as citizens under a common flag.
The Nebraska state motto is “Equality Before the Law” and it is time to once again give that motto meaning in the context of the Omaha Public Schools.