Where a racist white mob of thousands once reveled in lynching a black man, a diverse crowd of hundreds listened reverently Saturday as a black woman’s voice soared across the Douglas County Courthouse lawn.
And in that same place, the modern throng erupted into cheers as a black Omaha City Council member exhorted them to not only rue the racism of the past, but to also confront the racism of today.
The occasion was the official observance of the 100th anniversary of the Sept. 28, 1919, race riots and lynching of Will Brown outside the courthouse in downtown Omaha. The song was “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often called the black national anthem.
Though written in the 19th century, the lyrics seemed like they could have been penned for this occasion as noted Omaha performer Kathy Tyree gave them wings in the morning light.
“Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us. Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us. ... We have come over a way that with tears has been watered. We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.”
The council member was Ben Gray. He noted Will Brown’s three-word graveyard epitaph, then suggested a two-word exclamation in light of a recent rise in white supremacist activity in the U.S.
“We should say, ‘Lest We Forget,’ for sure,” Gray said. “But we should also say, ‘Never Again!’ ”
The crowd of more than 400 people responded with enthusiastic applause. The soaring song and the impassioned speech hit the main notes that organizers of the event aimed to reach: remembrance, reflection, reconciliation, atonement and renewed resolve.
The Omaha Community Council for Racial Justice and Reconciliation, led by Omaha NAACP President Vickie Young, organized the ceremony. It was one of numerous events that the council is helping to coordinate in connection with the 100th anniversary of Omaha’s darkest hour.
Saturday’s event culminated in the collection of jars full of soil from the courthouse lawn, some of which will be placed in an exhibit at the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama.
The wide-ranging group of speakers Saturday included Young; Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert; Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb.; former State Sen. Brenda Council; Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer; UNO professor Cynthia Robinson; Black Votes Matter President Preston Love; and teenager Keyaira McKell.
The Rev. Daniel Hendrickson, president of Creighton University, which has been instrumental in the community council’s work, gave an invocation. Franklin Thompson, director of the Omaha Human Rights and Relations Department, read a proclamation by Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts.
Robinson, chair of UNO’s black studies department, told the story of the Omaha rioters’ murder of Brown in graphic detail, and put it in the context of the brutality of racist violence that swept across the nation in the Red Summer of 1919.
Brown was the second black man to be taken from the Douglas County Courthouse by a white mob and lynched. The first was George Smith in 1891.
The violence had its roots in the ideology of white supremacy that enabled slavery, and continues today with the mass incarceration and wrongful killings of black men by police that go unpunished, Robinson said.
“It is the ideology of white supremacy which has allowed centuries of brutal and bloody brutality against thousands of black men, women and children,” she said.
Stothert also noted the national context.
“During the middle months of 1919, dozens of race riots shocked the United States,” she said. “And much to our shame, one of the worst was right here in Omaha. The riot and murder of Will Brown was the terrible end result of a collision of humanity’s failures.”
Those failures were, Stothert said, “racial hatred, crime, corruption, labor unrest, ethnic hatred and mistrust directed toward certain neighborhoods, government ineptness and reckless journalism that incited fear and hate.”
She said it’s important to reflect on one of the darkest days in our history in order “to learn, and to be shaped by that history, to recognize that enormous racial tension and suffering were part of our past, and that affects our feelings and our beliefs to this day.”
Bacon called the lynchings of Brown and Smith “barbaric and evil” murders.
“I want to thank the mayor and Dr. Robinson for speaking the truth about what happened 100 years ago,” he said.
He touted the Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2019 that he is co-sponsoring in the House of Representatives. It would recognize lynching as a tool used to intimidate and deny civil rights based on personal prejudices.
“The greatness of our country is that we acknowledge what went wrong in our history, that we can acknowledge the worst chapters that we have,” Bacon said. “Because that makes us better. And today is part of that process. ... This allows us to reflect and become a better society. Today, let’s make clear that any form of prejudice, any form of racism, is repugnant and rejected.”
While Saturday may have been a time for reflection, Gray made clear that it was not a time for kumbayas.
“It is necessary and it is prudent for us to reflect on what happened, but it is also prudent for us to recognize ... that Satan is still at the gate,” he said. “Satan is still doing his work.”
He referred to the violent white nationalist demonstration in Virginia in 2017 and other recent white supremacist marches.
“When we have mobs of individuals with tiki torches and sounds of ‘white power’ in 2019, a hundred years later, we have to do something about that,” Gray said as the crowd cheered and applauded.
“When we have black and brown men and women, especially women, who in the Congress want to make change because they know change is necessary for all of us to receive all the rights of Americans, and they’re told to go back where they came from, we still have work to do,” Gray said.
He made a similar point about legislative proposals that he said would “turn back the clock on voting rights for people of color,” and the crowd responded with similar enthusiasm.
Schmaderer said “law enforcement is often the barometer of how far society has progressed,” so it’s important to recognize the history and the progress of law enforcement.
“Unfortunately, that forces us to look at the atrocious law enforcement in Omaha in 1919,” Schmaderer said.
Omaha police “erroneously arrested Will Brown, and I will say this allowed the mob to hang him,” he said. “Law enforcement and the KKK were oftentimes intermingled, and policing reflected that.”
Schmaderer said society has progressed, and law enforcement has, too.
“In 2019, Omaha police base our whole policing model on police-community relations and community policing,” he said. “If there’s a hint of racial bias, we don’t want you anywhere near this police force.”
He said law enforcement has not progressed enough, citing the underrepresentation of minorities on police forces, the overrepresentation of minorities in the criminal justice system, and the fact that officers sometimes aren’t held accountable for wrongful actions.
“Our goal at the Omaha Police Department is to extend the progression,” Schmaderer said. “Today’s event, in my opinion, is a phenomenal event because it forces us to revisit a horrible past, look at some of the progression we’ve had, establish a plateau and move forward from there, progress even farther.”
Keyaira McKell, who went on the latest of the annual civil rights educational trips to the South that Preston Love organizes for Omaha students, read her essay. She described the lynching of Will Brown as “an act of terrorism.”
“Though the city has not dwelled over this tragedy,” McKell read, “the city has not forgotten its history.”
Though the notes had faded into the cool morning breeze, the lyrics Tyree had sung appeared to resonate as people mingled and talked later.
“Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,” she had sung. “Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.”
Divine Shelton, who grew up in north Omaha and now works as a public health project coordinator at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, sounded hopeful.
“We have the opportunity to be a really great and progressive place that respects all people,” he said. “This event today, this conversation, is a part of that.”