Based on events of the past two weeks, today’s installment of Still Spinnin’ is an excerpt of The World-Herald’s 2019 project, “24th & Glory.”
Omaha’s history of racial tension and civil unrest has many episodes, but only once did basketball play a major role. This is the story of Omaha Central standout Dwaine Dillard and the 1968 boys state high school basketball tournament.
* * *
George Wallace stepped off his private plane to the soothing notes of “Dixie.” If the band had been all he heard that Sunday afternoon, March 3, 1968, the former Alabama governor might have felt welcome. He wasn’t.
“Wallace, Go Home!”
“Sock it to me, Black Power!”
Few men inspired such love and loathing as America’s chief spokesman for segregation.
As Wallace shook hands with his fans, protesters chanted, “We shall overcome.” A foe heaved at him a partly burned Confederate flag — it missed. Inside the terminal, Wallace, a mere 5-foot-7, addressed the media, denying that he was racist.
“You have had more lack of tranquility in your own state than we have had in our state,” Wallace said.
Wallace was in town to boost his presidential campaign. In mid-February, his Nebraska supporters launched a third political party so they could vote for him in the May 14 primary. To get the required 750 signatures, Wallace scheduled a March 4 speech at the Civic Auditorium, less than a mile from North Omaha’s front door.
“Can you imagine how we felt as black folks?” activist Rodney Wead said.
A showdown loomed. But first Wallace paid a visit to Omaha University, where a few hundred students (mostly opponents) met him in the parking lot with signs: “Burn Bigot Burn,” “Let me go to jail and Wallace go to hell,” “When will the Civil War end?”
Wallace spoke to a political science class for 30 minutes as police officers kept protesters at bay.
“The average man is sick and tired of people who talk about free speech but don’t want you to speak,” he said. “If I were president … and some anarchist lies down in front of my automobile, it will be the last automobile he ever lies down in front of.”
Professor Richard Marvel’s students shared Wallace’s version of the truth: That America had lost its way not because it was changing too slowly, but too fast. They responded with a sound you don’t often hear in a college classroom.
* * *
Four miles east on the hill overlooking downtown, Nebraska’s best high school basketball team prepared for a state championship run. Omaha Central rolled through winter with just one loss, captivating crowds and inspiring a nickname from The World-Herald’s Don Lee.
“The Rhythm Boys.”
“We were the talk of the town,” Willie Frazier said.
Central’s first all-black starting lineup honed its game at Bryant Center, the Boys Club and Kountze Park. The Eagles could dribble, pass and shoot, but what made them special was their anchor, a 6-foot-7 free spirit.
On Feb. 16, 1968, No. 1 Central hosted No. 2 Creighton Prep at Norris Junior High. The gym reached 3,200 capacity almost two hours before the 8 p.m. tip. Central “bombed Creighton Prep out of sight,” The World-Herald’s Paul LeBar wrote, thanks mainly to Dillard’s dominance.
The big guy averaged 23 points and 21 boards, his numbers frequently leaping off the sports page:
» 34 points, 30 rebounds, 10 blocks and four steals against Council Bluffs Abraham Lincoln.
» 32 points and 25 rebounds against Bryan.
Dillard blocked shots, LeBar wrote, “as if he were swatting flies.”
“No one could stop him,” former Central teammate Alvin Mitchell said.
Dillard was born to a 16-year-old student at South High. His father went off to the Army and eventually left the picture.
Dillard bounced from city to city, including a short stint as a foster child, before spending most of grade school next to Marlin Briscoe in the South Omaha projects. In high school, his grandma — a Swift packinghouse worker — moved him to North Omaha, 24th and Sprague.
Dillard, often the class clown, made fast friends (and girlfriends) with a magnetic personality. He could spring into a handstand and walk around the gym upside down.
“You don’t see many 6-7 guys doing that,” Central assistant Jim Martin said.
Dillard found mischief everywhere. At his most innocent, he piggybacked on a 5-7 teammate, ripped his hand open dunking in pre-game warmups, sneaked out of a bowling alley without paying for his food — sticking his buddies with the bill — and drowned his stomach with sugar.
One day before practice, Dillard came walking down the hallway drinking from a paper cup.
Free Pepsi, he said.
Dillard and his teammates emptied the fountain pop machine, only to find out it was intended for a parents event.
“You guys have really done it,” his coach said.
Dillard’s antics weren’t always harmless. By star athlete standards, he spent too much time smoking, drinking and gambling in South Omaha pool halls. During the 1966 unrest, police arrested him for breaking into a TV repair shop and department store — charges were dropped.
“Dwaine was always doing something,” Mitchell said.
* * *
The Eagles finished Monday afternoon basketball practice as the sun set over their century-old high school. A beautiful 65-degree night.
One block down the hill, protesters arrived in front of the Civic Auditorium for the Wallace speech, carrying signs like “White Fascism” and “Wallaceness is Lawlessness.” They ranged from black teens to white priests and nuns.
Organizers ushered most of the 500 protesters to the balcony. But police officers led a group of about 20 — mostly young and black — to the best seats in the house, the arena floor right in front of the podium. A strategic move by Wallace, Nebraska Gov. Norbert Tiemann later said.
The Civic Auditorium’s northern half was closed off by curtains, leaving 5,400 people for 3,400 seats — 2,400 in the balcony and 1,000 on the floor. The atmosphere felt like a prize fight — cramped, hot and hostile. Protesters punctuated the Pledge of Allegiance with shouts — “With liberty and justice for all!” During the national anthem, stink bombs filled the auditorium.
Wallace backers, many of whom wore straw hats, passed plastic buckets like church offering plates, collecting cash for the campaign. Wallace protesters cut the cables from the platform to TV cameras. They heckled speakers.
“Every catcall,” said the Rev. Henry Bucklew, a Wallace ally from Mississippi, “is worth 10 signatures for Governor Wallace.”
When the candidate finally came to the microphone after 9 p.m., protesters in front of the podium — now 40 to 50 — shouted over him, throwing signs and sticks.
“These are the kind of folks the people in this country are sick and tired of,” Wallace shouted. He spoke for about 10 minutes before police closed in on the protesters. That’s when tensions exploded.
According to multiple accounts, a white officer and a black protester exchanged words. The cop knocked him down and when the teenager attempted to retaliate, police swarmed the demonstrators with billy clubs and mace.
“They kicked my butt,” said Wead, who wears a scar near his eye 50 years later.
Some fought back, others turned and tried to escape down a long center aisle — a gantlet in enemy territory. Wallace supporters swung folding chairs. One officer hit a young black man as a Wallace supporter held him. Two white men kicked a black girl. Violence spilled into the street, where protesters busted car windshields.
Within five minutes, the arena calmed and Wallace continued his 45-minute speech.
“My prayer tonight is that God bless all people — black and white — and that our system, under attack by those with not many votes but an abundance of influence, be saved.”
When he finished, Wallace got a standing ovation and more than 2,000 signatures — his third party was official.
The Rev. Bucklew: “Nebraska places the name of George C. Wallace on the ballot. … Never before in any state or city has success come any quicker. No longer can Alabama claim George Wallace. He belongs to America.”
Wallace hurried out to a waiting car, leaving behind a night of mayhem.
“Why?” a black teenager said in the auditorium lobby, sobbing. “Why?!” she screamed at a policeman. “Why?” she said to a black man holding a handkerchief to a gash on his head.
Then the girl saw a group of white people passing by and spat at their feet.
* * *
Protesters retreated up North 24th Street, and by 10:30 p.m., about 200 people had gathered at 24th and Lake. They threw rocks and bottles at cars and storefront windows, targeting white-owned businesses.
When an 18-year-old white man stopped at the traffic light, a rioter heaved a brick at his head, putting the stranger in the hospital. A group of young blacks pulled a 52-year-old white man from his pickup truck and beat him into critical condition.
Police reinforced their ranks. At 12:15 a.m., a 23-year-old off-duty officer, who worked the Wallace convention downtown, responded to a radio call at Crosstown Loan and Pawn, where rioters had broken the front window and torn apart the security bars.
James Abbott entered the pawn shop with his 12-gauge riot gun — prohibited for an off-duty officer — and waited in the dark. Just before 3 a.m., 16-year-old Howard Stevenson crawled through a broken window and, according to the officer, began opening a sliding-glass door for other intruders.
From 33 feet, Abbott pulled the trigger. The blast nearly ripped Stevenson’s body in half.
Anger didn’t end at sunrise. Thousands of OPS students skipped Tuesday classes after erroneous reports that schools were closed. Those who did attend didn’t stay long.
At Horace Mann Junior High — 97% black — students staged a walkout at 10:04 a.m, many gathering on the Kountze Park basketball courts, where their heroes played pickup games. A few middle schoolers broke more than 50 windows and set ablaze two bushes.
Who showed up to keep the peace? The most militant black man of all, Ernie Chambers.
“How in the world are people like me going to help you if you do something like this?” he told the crowd as windows shattered behind him.
Chambers pointed to TV cameras recording the scene.
“You are putting on a show for the crackers. They are going to make it look like you are a bunch of thugs. Don’t let them make a show out of you.”
In the 72 hours after George Wallace, North Omaha didn’t burn like it did in July 1966. The National Guard didn’t march down 24th Street at 1 a.m. So why did the 1968 disturbances set off such a panic? Because of what happened in broad daylight, specifically in schools.
A Molotov cocktail exploded in a North High hallway. Tech students threw rocks at Cuming Street traffic. Central students engaged in fights and walkouts. Horace Mann students tried to break into Lothrop and Saratoga Schools during classes.
Absentees exceeded 60% at Tech, Central and North the rest of the week. Panic gripped white suburban students who worried that blacks might attack — many families left the city until tensions cooled. Ten white mothers visited the Mayor’s Office demanding more security at North High. “We want protection and until we get it our children aren’t going back to school.”
On streets, blacks attacked whites with pop bottles, tire irons and razors. Two blocks east of North High — at 2:30 p.m. — a 15-year-old white girl brandished a shotgun and charged at 30 blacks. Her sister stepped in and stopped a potential massacre.
Gun sales in early March tripled from the year before. J.C. Penney alone sold 255 more rifles and shotguns that week. Pistol registrations quadrupled. When a new Kmart store opened at 71st and Ames, 10 handguns sold in the first few hours. “Customers weren’t buying them for target practice,” a spokesman said.
Mayor Sorensen, the man who defended blacks during the 1966 riot, even lecturing U.S. senators in Washington about conditions in the ghetto, switched sides.
He blistered protesters for harassing “Mr. Wallace.” He defended officers’ “superb” response at the Civic. He criticized the Kerner Commission, blaming “a very small group of minority citizens who apparently feel that progress will come through the type of antagonism reflected at the Auditorium.”
The protests angered Omahans. “Many people are truly disturbed and I confess I am one of them,” Sorensen said.
Gov. Tiemann had a different take on Wallace, saying his visit was “like throwing gasoline on a fire.” Wallace set the stage for a confrontation. Police should’ve put all demonstrators in the balcony or escorted them out before Wallace took the mic, he said.
Tiemann prompted swift backlash from constituents when he called Wallace “that nut from Alabama.”
By week’s end, the damage included 44 cars, 32 buildings, 17 injuries and 55 arrests, including the Rev. John McCaslin of Holy Family Church, a white priest who advocated Black Power.
“There was a real thin line between right and wrong,” Alvin Mitchell said.
But one teenager became the face of the 1968 disturbances — forever synonymous with George Wallace.
Late Tuesday night, 26 hours after Wallace fled Omaha, three white police officers stopped a car at 19th and Sprague and arrested six black males — ages 16-26 — for possession of flammable liquid-filled bottles. Molotov cocktails.
Dwaine Dillard was in the front seat.
* * *
The flame flickered inside for a long time before that night.
High school standouts Johnny Rodgers and Ernie Britt had little interest in politics or protests. But Dillard was more socially conscious. Certainly more rebellious. Like Bill Russell and Muhammad Ali, he seemed to believe that black athletes could (and should) champion the cause of black freedom.
“We were chasing girls,” Rodgers said. “He was chasing civil rights. And girls.”
When Dillard listened to Ernie Chambers’ speeches, he felt inspiration and anger. Maybe he felt invincible, too.
The night of Wallace’s speech, Dillard occupied the street outside the Civic Auditorium. The next day, standing in a Central High stairwell landing, he lighted a match and dropped it in a trash can. He threw a hamburger bun at a music instructor before walking out of class. He joined an after-school fistfight when he should’ve been lacing up for practice.
Tuesday night, March 5, Dillard played basketball at Bryant Center until 11 p.m., as he often did. His buddies, including Rodgers and Britt, headed home — the state tournament was 48 hours away.
But Dillard got in Nathaniel Goodwin’s blue ’66 Rambler. An hour later, he saw the flashing lights. His mom and minister picked him up Wednesday morning from police headquarters. Chambers was there, too, vowing to keep Dillard in line.
His face appeared on the front page of the Wednesday afternoon World-Herald. Local newscasts featured his arrest. Even Cronkite covered the unrest.
Dillard said he was just getting a ride home. His friends said the police lied about the explosives and roughed them up. But he’d lost control of his reputation — and his version of the truth. As World-Herald sports columnist Wally Provost wrote:
“Dillard was not just another boy in trouble. He was a Symbol. To some people he was an accused criminal who should be dealt with firmly and promptly. He symbolized all that they feared from lawlessness. To another faction he was a school athletic hero, perhaps even an idolized rebel. Considering the extreme emotions of the city, this was a hot one; anybody who touched it could expect to get burned.”
As Dillard stirred public debate, Mayor Sorensen stewed over the next big event at the Civic Auditorium: the state Class A boys basketball state tournament. It had moved from Lincoln to Omaha in 1965. But Sorensen feared that returning to the source of unrest would invite more protests and more violence.
The Nebraska School Activities Association agreed and moved Class A to Lincoln. Central would play Thursday at 9:30 a.m. to minimize chances of violence.
Would the state’s best player be in uniform? Coach Warren Marquiss, in his last season before retirement and his last chance to win Central’s first state championship since 1912, argued Dillard should be eligible — you can’t punish a student before a fair trial. The superintendent and principal deferred to his judgment.
The decision didn’t satisfy angry strangers who called Marquiss’ home so often that the coach disconnected his phone.
Wednesday night, as he should’ve been completing his game plan, Marquiss looked out his window at 2802 N. 69th St. and saw an image straight out of Alabama: two homemade crosses burning in the front yard.
Water extinguished the flames. The grass wore the scars.
* * *
Central was in good spirits when it reached Pershing Auditorium, despite a defection.
One of Dillard’s teammates quit the team that morning, refusing to travel to Lincoln. His own personal protest against Wallace and the tournament move.
Then Marquiss announced that Dillard would miss the opener too. He’d violated a team rule, the coach said.
The Eagles strongly considered a boycott. In the locker room, they actually voted not to play before Marquiss called their bluff. “Get out there!”
The State Patrol and Lincoln police were on riot alert. More than a dozen helmeted policemen, including a dog, ringed the courts at Pershing Auditorium and the NU Coliseum, where Tech was playing at the same time. More officers stood high in the bleachers.
They had a quiet morning. Only 1,000 fans showed up, few of them black. Central rolled North Platte, 70-51.
Dillard returned for the Friday morning semifinal against Boys Town, recording 23 points, 21 rebounds and four blocks in an overtime win. At the NU Coliseum, Tech lost to Lincoln Northeast and Ernie Britt lost his cool, shoving an official after his fifth foul. Bob Devaney came out of the stands to calm him down.
Saturday morning presented a state championship rematch — Northeast beat Central in 1967. About 7,000 fans squeezed into the Coliseum, crowding the floor so tightly that officials allowed players to straddle the boundaries when inbounding the ball.
Pressure squeezed shooters, too. Central scored just 19 first-half points, but held a one-point lead. Then Northeast got hot. Dillard’s 22 points and 17 rebounds couldn’t overcome Central’s 10-for-20 at the foul line. The Rhythm Boys never found their rhythm.
Lincoln Northeast 54, Omaha Central 50.
Marquiss blamed five days of chaos. “We were emotionally drained.” Dillard, on his 19th birthday, handled defeat with class. But neither Central nor North Omaha inspired sympathy.
In Sunday’s Journal and Star, Lincoln columnist Hal Brown wrote this: “If the Omaha Negroes responsible for the Monday night troubles in their city had been able to show the restraint under stress that was shown by the Central Negro cagers, the Class A competition would have been played in Omaha Saturday night instead of in Lincoln Saturday morning.”
Here’s the other way to look at it: What if Wallace hadn’t come at all?
He never returned to Nebraska and received only 1% of votes in the May primary.
Police exonerated James Abbott, the cop who killed Howard Stevenson inside Crosstown Loan. Coincidentally, the two had attended the mayor’s 1966 youth camp, designed to improve relationships between police and black youth.
Nathaniel Goodwin, the driver of the ’66 Rambler, was convicted of possession of an explosive and sentenced to 1-3 years in jail. McCaslin left his position as director of the Catholic Social Action Office, but continued preaching.
And Dillard? Just like 1966, his charge was dropped. But he wore the scars. College scholarship opportunities dwindled. He landed at Eastern Michigan for one year, then returned to Omaha and never played college basketball again.
The Baltimore Bullets saw his potential and drafted him in the fifth round in 1972. It didn’t work out. He joined the Washington Generals before earning a one-year promotion to the Harlem Globetrotters. He played three ABA games with the Utah Stars. But he never found a home in basketball.
Dillard carried the burden of “what if” the rest of his life. “He was so bitter about basketball,” his wife, Carolee, told author Steve Marantz in his book about the ’68 Eagles, “The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central.”
“He didn’t want to talk much about it. He thought he should have gone further.”
In 2008, Dillard died of pancreatic cancer. He was 59. His name still carries weight in the North Omaha barbershops and cafes. But the lessons are still fuzzy.
Alvin Mitchell, Dillard’s old teammate and a North Omaha pastor, reflects on a moment when moral compasses spun so fast you couldn’t see straight, when the pressure to stand and shout felt overwhelming, when kids didn’t see a future past the present. In the midst of chaos, Mitchell said, you have to stop and ask yourself, “Who will lead me?”
In March 1968, that question strained even the strongest coaches, politicians, ministers, cops and civil rights leaders.
For an 18-year-old basketball star, the line between right and wrong all but disappeared.