the Nebraska Legislature — Danner didn't seem equipped to represent the civil rights movement anymore.
He wasn't educated or brash like Ernie Chambers. He wasn't eloquent or radical like Black Panther Stokely Carmichael. He was an old man in a young man's game.
Born in 1900 in Guthrie, Oklahoma — the same county Marlin Briscoe's ancestors came from — Danner was 10 when his father died. He didn't graduate from high school.
Danner migrated to Omaha and butchered cattle at Swift before rising to vice president of the local packinghouse union. He raised nine kids on Pinkney Street and didn't miss Sundays at Zion Baptist, where he was a deacon.
In 1963, Danner entered the Legislature and made headlines when a Lincoln cafe refused to serve him. He sponsored his first open housing bill, gutting his own proposal when amendments rendered it worthless. In 1965, he tried open housing again, but it failed in committee.
Danner's activist constituents thought he was out of touch — they hated when he labeled them "Negro" instead of "black." They thought he yielded too much to the white establishment. They called him a "Tom."
But in 1967, the old butcher itched for a fight. He proposed open housing one more time. The governor supported Legislative Bill 358. So did business leaders and newspaper editorial boards.
A full-page ad on page 9 of The World-Herald featured the names and addresses of 1,865 Omahans.
The motto of the great State of Nebraska proclaims as a goal of our state "Equality before the law." Unfortunately, for many Nebraskans, equality is severely restricted — particularly when they look for a place to live.
Racial discrimination in housing has ... been well documented as a major underlying cause of many social ills. It creates ghettos, which typically receive inferior education, health care, street improvements, law enforcement, and other public services. Discrimination divides the community, and destroys many of the individuals affected. ...
In this Centennial Year of the State of Nebraska, we hereby declare as our goal that these injustices, which have made a mockery of our state motto, shall be relegated to Nebraska's first century — that Nebraska celebrate its Centennial by enacting fair housing legislation with enforcement procedures to proclaim and assure "Equality before the law" to be a reality for all citizens.
The barrier still loomed large. Riots and demonstrations had increased white opposition to open housing across America. A year earlier, 51 percent of Americans opposed open housing. In 1967, it rose to 63 percent.
Moreover, Danner's rivals in the Legislature came primarily from rural Nebraska. Their only images of North Omaha were stereotypes.
In May 1967, Danner had lunch with Scottsbluff maverick Terry Carpenter, a state senator also born in 1900. "Terrible Terry," as his constituents called him, earned a congressional seat during the Depression before failing nine times in bids for governor and the U.S. Senate. He started Nebraska's only gasoline refinery, became a millionaire and founded the village of Terrytown. He followed nobody.
If you can show me this ghetto exists, Carpenter told Danner, I might vote for open housing.
On May 23, the same day Bob Boozer's mother died, Danner stood before his legislative colleagues and wept, pleading with senators to delay judgment on his bill and join him on a tour of North Omaha.
Let me show you. One week later, 40 senators took a timeout from lawmaking, boarded an air-conditioned bus and embarked on a field trip. Imagine rolling up North 24th Street for the first time — like the Negro League buses in the 1940s — and seeing the best of North Omaha: Skeet's BBQ and Bryant Center, Goodwin's Barbershop and Kountze Park.
They saw the worst, too. Peeling paint and sagging roofs, junkedout cars in open lots and houses marked with yellow signs — "Condemned." Black faces stared at them curiously from front yards. For 90 minutes, senators looked out their bus windows but never stopped and got out.
Danner hoped the tour "opened some eyes." But his opponents left with a different observation.
"I saw a lot of very poor housing," said Sen. Lester Harsh of Bartley. "But I can take you to any small town and some farms and show you housing just as poor."
Carpenter's assessment was more damning: "The area wasn't as dilapidated as I was led to believe it is."
Danner felt a pang of regret: Maybe he was better off leaving North Omaha to their imaginations.
* * *
"R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Find out what it means to me ..."
On the morning of June 5, 1967, America's No. 1 song pumped through cars and cafes on 24th Street. At the FairDeal, aka "Black City Hall," community leaders talked politics over eggs, grits and (if the conversation was good) a slice of sweet potato pie.
"R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Take care, TCB ..."
Halfway around the world, the Middle East erupted in a six-day war, a conflict that doubled Israel's territory and drew the battle lines for the next half-century. Overnight torrential rain left eastern Nebraska under water. But Aretha Franklin kept singing.
"Sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me ..."
Down in Lincoln, North Omaha's elected voice walked into the Capitol for the defining debate of his career. And when Sen. Carpenter motioned to dismiss LB 358, Ed Danner spoke up.
He cited support from Nelson Rockefeller and Robert McNamara. He pointed to open housing laws in 23 states, including Colorado, where real estate agents fought legislation until realizing it actually benefited their business.
Danner referenced studies showing that desegregated housing lessened prejudice because it improved black/white communication. He picked apart the notion that government can't regulate private property. What about eminent domain, zoning and construction codes?
Without an open housing law, Danner said, "those advocating Black Power retain one of their most powerful weapons."
Then Danner ceded the floor to Sen. William Swanson, a Lincoln real estate agent.
"I'm certain that no thinking member of this Legislature can deny that a problem exists. Most of us last week saw it firsthand — living conditions in parts of Omaha which are deplorable. ... Discrimination and inequality are and must be a burden on our social conscience. ...
"But let's reduce LB 358 to a matter of economics for a moment. Let's suppose that a retired couple invested their life savings in a 10 or 12-unit apartment house. ... If this couple advertises an apartment for rent, they cannot refuse to rent to anyone on certain designated grounds. Suppose for a moment that these owners do rent to a member of a minority group. What happens? Too often the other tenants move out and vacancies are almost impossible to fill. In the rent business, vacancies kill you off and the apartment house becomes a white elephant. ...
"Now what's wrong with this situation? I'll tell you what's wrong.
This bill says it's unlawful for the owner to discriminate even though it may lead to his financial ruin. The real culprits are the other tenants who move out."
Danner had tried to persuade through empirical evidence. Now the old butcher, frequently mocked by black youths because he wasn't articulate or educated, delivered an argument that Ernie Chambers would have endorsed.
"I'd like to remind you again that the bullets on the battlefield do not discriminate. ... The burden that the soldier on the battlefield bears — the Negro soldier bears — is just as heavy as the pack that the white soldier bears, but the Negro soldier at home bears a far heavier burden because he is denied the right of rental of property. He's all right to give his life, fight for the government, defend the nation, but you can't live in certain places. ...
"I have a son that spent 15 years of his life in the Air Force. ... His mother received a call the other day that he is going to have to go to Vietnam. ... You're saying because of the pigment of his skin being dark, he doesn't have a right to live in rental property?"
There must have been part of Danner that believed he'd won right there. That undecided senators would rally behind him like in a Hollywood movie. Instead, Sen. Herbert Nore of Genoa took the floor and began reading a letter he'd received.
"The people who live in these slum areas have no one to blame but themselves. If they would get off the corner bar stool and use the money that they spend on drinks for some paint and paper and such, their homes would be livable. Instead of driving big expensive automobiles they would get a cheaper one and put food on the table and clothing on their backs. ... They have made their own ghettos and are now wanting for the government to furnish them with new homes, food, and clothing so they can have more money for luxuries."
Sen. Clifton Batchelder threw the next verbal punch. An Omaha resident, Batchelder once sat on the Near North YMCA board. Now he led the charge against open housing, citing British statesman William Pitt's 18th century speech before the House of Lords:
"Although the peasant's house is made of thatch and the wind and the snow may enter, the king and all his legions may not."
The "repulsive" open housing proposal, Batchelder said, weakened "the most greatly cherished right that Americans have."
"I would think that the members of the minority groups would real-
LIKE THE SERIES? GET THE BOOK
"24th & Glory:The Intersection of Civil Rights and Omaha's Greatest Generation of Athletes" arrives Aug. 1.
FeaturingThe World-Herald series, plus even more stories and photographs. Softbound, 184 pages. $19.95.
Pre-orderthe "24th & Glory" book by calling 402-444-1014 or go to owhstore.com. For each book you pre-order, you will receive "The Nebraska 100" book for free.
Book made possible thanks to support from History Nebraska