Omahan publishes book on Ernie Chambers' career

The 320-page text written by an Omaha native looks at Ernie Chambers' tenure through a civil rights lens. It chronicles key laws of his career, such as a ban on corporal punishment in public schools.


LINCOLN — Although a history professor just wrote the book on Ernie Chambers' 38-year career as a Nebraska state senator, the longtime lawmaker is about to add a new chapter.

As Chambers returns to the Capitol this week after a four-year hiatus forced by term limits, he hints at a more triumphant ending to his political biography.

“Only death would put a period at the end of my life sentence,” he told The World-Herald last week. “There still is a good bit of activity I intend to engage in. The perception of me eight years from now — if I decide to run again — may appear differently with additional context.”

Chambers didn't tip his hand on what he hopes to achieve. During his campaign, he promised to be a “strong, uncompromising and trustworthy voice” and to stand up to the governor and others.

Published late last year by the Texas Tech University Press, “Free Radical — Ernest Chambers, Black Power and the Politics of Race” was written by Omaha native Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson, now an assistant professor of history at Salem College in North Carolina. She studied Chambers' early career for her dissertation when she earned a doctorate in history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2005.

She later expanded her work into a 320-page book. She was motivated, she said, by the criticism of Chambers' controversial 2006 proposal to break up the Omaha Public Schools. Although Chambers' supporters described it as a way to give neighborhoods more control over their schools, the proposal caused a split between Chambers and some of his longtime allies, who said it would result in the resegregation of Omaha schools.

The book concludes with a melancholy passage describing Chambers and his longtime aide, Cynthia Grandberry, as they drive away from the Capitol in early 2009, after term limits halted his long run in the Legislature.

“He had won a good share of his battles, yet he had the feeling that fate had played a trick on him: What started as a mere temporary expedient in the overall struggle had appropriated much of his life.”

It's not as if Chambers went away. He spent four years on the Learning Community Council that aids the efforts of Douglas and Sarpy County school districts. He described the experience as frustrating because many fellow board members lacked political expertise and did not respect his skills.

“I told them, 'You know about education, but I know about politics — and you should respect what you hear from a master politician,'” he recalled.

In her book, Johnson wrote that Chambers never expected to serve more than one term in the Legislature when he was elected in 1970 to complete the unexpired term of State Sen. Edward Danner, who had died.

A parent who agitated for better treatment of his children and others attending north Omaha schools, Chambers ran for the Omaha school board in 1968 but was easily defeated in an at-large election where white voters outnumbered blacks 10 to 1.

He tried for the Omaha City Council in 1969 but was similarly defeated. His successful bid for the Legislature came in a district that had long included Omaha's predominantly black north side.

In the 1970s, the Legislature enacted his bills that required district elections for the school board and the City Council, enabling black Omahans for the first time to be elected to those governing bodies. In 1980, under Chambers' leadership, Nebraska became the first state to enact a resolution calling for divestment in South Africa to bring an end to apartheid there.

Other Chambers laws banned corporal punishment in the public schools, eliminated the sales tax on groceries, required grand jury investigations of the deaths of people while in police custody and established government liability for bystanders injured in police chases.

Although he did not succeed in repealing the death penalty, he narrowed its application with successful legislation barring the execution of juveniles and those with mental retardation.

Johnson's analysis, though it reveals no great surprises, puts Chambers' career into context with those of other significant civil rights leaders on the state and national scenes. It also draws parallels between Chambers' beliefs and those of international philosophers who studied colonialism and oppression.

During his only meeting with Malcolm X, in 1964 in Omaha, Chambers describes himself as so attuned to civil rights activist that the two men practically finished each other's sentences. The Omaha-born Malcolm Little was assassinated in 1965.

“I would be speaking and he would pick it up, like a relay, like we had known each other forever,” Chambers said last week. “He was impressed with me, and I was impressed with him.”

Still, Chambers says he's never been part of any specific movement.

“I'm going to hold to my own path, and I'm going to do it my way,” he said.

Johnson spent two years, from 2001 to 2003, helping Chambers and Grandberry organize and archive his voluminous documentation of his activities as part of her research.

“Sen. Chambers had five rooms of material, and his filing system had been a bit overwhelmed,” she said. “Cynthia Grandberry said I could do it if I helped clean up the office.”

Johnson doesn't expect her biography to be the final word on Chambers. Her major contribution, she said, was compiling his papers.

Chambers said he played no role in writing the book and read it only when it neared publication. He called it a “creditable piece of work.”

“If I wanted my story told in the manner it should be, I'm the only one who can do it. I'm the only one who could do it.”

Contact the writer: 402-473-9581, leslie.reed@owh.com

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