It’s fitting a new book taking the measure of Nebraska politico legend Ernie Chambers is out just as this old social justice warhorse has proven he still owns the people’s will.
In the Nov. 6 general election the 75-year-old Chambers demonstrated the pull he still maintains by decisively beating incumbent Brenda Council to regain his old state legislative seat. Public disclosure of Council’s misuse of campaign funds to support a gambling addiction undoubtedly hurt her. But she would likely have found Chambers a formidable opponent anyway.
Amid the struggle for racial equality in the 1960s, Chambers emerged as a black activist straight out of central casting. The longtime state senator was everything the white establishment feared or loathed: a young, brash, angry black man with an imposing physique, a rare eloquence, a brilliant mind, a devoted following and a dogged commitment. His goatee and muscle shirt effectively said, F___-off.
When he saw a wrong he felt needed remedy he would not give in or remain silent, even in the face of surveillance, threat and arrest.
The Omaha native was forged from centuries of oppression and the black nationalist militancy of his times yet remained fiercely independent. He paid allegiance only to his grassroots, working poor base in northeast Omaha, whose District 11 residents elected him to nine terms in office. He stayed real cutting hair and holding court at Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barbershop for many years. He was forced out of office in 2009 only because of term limits, a petition effort widely seen as targeting him specifically.
At a Nov. 3 Community Day rally in North Omaha Chambers said:
“I don’t come to these kind of gatherings regularly. It’s not easy for me, even though I enjoy being around my brothers and sisters. But I’m a solitary person. Basically, I am a loner, and experience has created that persona for me because I’m in situations where bad things can happen and if I’m relying on somebody else and they don’t come through – I know what I would do but I don’t know what somebody else would do. I can’t depend on anybody else.
“So if I see an issue that needs to be addressed it’s for me to address it. I don’t go to committees, I don’t go to organizations, I don’t ask anybody for anything, and it’s not that I’m ungrateful or unappreciative. I just have to survive and my survival depends ultimately on me. So that’s why I do what I do.”
Author Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson captures well his enigmatic essence in the main title of her political biography, Free Radical, as he’s been a singularly reactive yet stable force these many decades. The subtitle, Ernest Chambers, Black Power and the Politics of Race, refers to the context of his public service role.
Chambers was not the first black leader in Nebraska. Nor was he the first to hold public office. But he was the first to command wide respect and wield real power. During a 38-year run in the legislature that made him the longest-serving state senator in Unicameral history, he mastered the art of statecraft. Trained as an attorney and possessing a facile mind even his critics admired, he adeptly manipulated legislative rules and procedures. Though he represented a small, poor constituency and uttered divisive rhetoric, fellow senators needed his support if they wanted their bills advanced. He couldn’t be ignored.
The arc of his political career is a major focus of Johnson, who at one point was in charge of his personal papers.
“She had access to information that other people didn’t have access to,” he says of his biographer.
Overall, he’s pleased with the final product and its depiction of his career.
“I don’t have any objection to what she did.”
In terms of fairly and accurately capturing his work as an elected official, he says it’s right on “as far as it went,” adding, “Many articles have been written that go into more depth on some things than Tekla wrote about in her book.” He says he understands “there are things someone will emphasize that I wouldn’t and there are things I would emphasize that they wouldn’t. But that’s the way it goes. No two people see a complex issue the same way. Even people called historians are really interpreters. They can’t write everything about everything, so they select what they think is important in order to convey the message they have in mind.”
He says he had little input into the manuscript.
“There may have been something when she got through that she sent and I dealt primarily with grammar and inconsequential things. I didn’t try to change the thrust of it or tell her what to write.”
Johnson confirms the same, saying she only sought his opinion on certain matters and even then they sometimes disagreed. In order to maintain her scholarly freedom she says she only began writing the book after she left his employ and then had little contact with him during the writing process.
In the end, he’s flattered his political life has been documented.
“I appreciate the fact that somebody thought enough of the work that I’ve done to compile material between two covers of a book and make that available to whomever may choose to read it.”
He says he’s doing interviews in support of the book “mainly because of Tekla, the amount of time and effort she put into the work, and I don’t want to say or do anything that would diminish in any respect what she has done or the value that I place on it.”
Perhaps the most telling vantage point of Chambers she gained came when she worked as his legislative aide.
“I actually got to see the day to day process,” she says of the experience.
The book began as Johnson’s history thesis at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She served as a consultant to the Great Plains Black History Museum in Omaha and helped catalog its collection. Today, she’s an assistant professor of history at Salem College (N.C.). Her Texas Tech University Press published book is available wherever books are sold.
Johnson says when she hit upon the idea of making Chambers her thesis study a professor told her, “That’d be great, except he won’t let you. He won’t let anybody that close to him.” She found a way in, however. “I decided to go to his office. I didn’t actually ask him. I talked to his legislative aide, Cynthia Grandberry, and said, ‘Look, I want to write my dissertation on Sen. Chambers,’ and she said, ‘Sure, if you help me clean up the office.’”
This was 2001.
“He produced such enormous volumes of materials that despite an excellent filing system he literally had overrun the file cabinets many years before. I actually spent the first two years of the project processing his papers,” says Johnson.
The project was a labor of love about a figure she idolized as a girl.
“I grew up knowing about Sen. Chambers. I’m from North Omaha and he was always sort of somewhere there in the background. As a young woman I would occasionally see him speaking at an event, especially if there was something dire that had happened in the community.”
Immersing herself in his vast collection she says she acquired a new appreciation for his advocacy and for how her own coming-of-age intersected with his work.
“One of the things I first noticed in working on the collection is that almost a third, but a full fourth for sure, of his papers are about police violence and killings, police harassment, complaints from citizens in North Omaha. It took up a large section of one of the four rooms his papers are housed in. It was enormous.
“I also found I traced back to myself. I came across police incidents that happened when I was young that I remembered Sen. Chambers speaking out against. One of those was when I was 10 years old and living in Lincoln (Neb.). On our corner Sherdell Lewis was shot (and killed). We knew him. My sister and I were his papergirls. He was shot on his doorway by Lincoln police. Shortly after the shooting the black community came to my mother’s house because they needed a place nearby (to mourn and vent).”
Johnson says many questioned whether the shooting was justified.
“I had totally forgotten about that. There’s a picture in the book of Sen. Chambers leading a protest march along with the victim’s mother.”
Similarly, she says Chambers was a vocal critic of the shooting of Vivian Strong that sparked urban unrest in Omaha in 1969 and of other cases where excessive force was used.
She says any understanding of him must start with “the deep dedication of North Omahans to Sen. Chambers because even at his own expense he would not back down when he felt like the community was endangered or when he felt there was no respect for the lives and the civil rights and human rights of people in the community.” She says coming from a bi-racial home (her father’s African American and her mother’s Caucasian) she “sort of got to peek” at how blacks and whites viewed Chambers from different lenses. She also got to know how he understood that his rails against police brutality played differently to different audiences.
“He knew it was hard to believe for whites who lived in west Omaha or small towns. because those things were so far out of their experiences.”
She admires how he never let go of what he deemed important. His response to allegations of extreme police misconduct is illustrative, she says.
“In most cases when there was a police killing in the community he would request an investigation by the city. If that wasn’t done, if it was deemed a no-fault killing, if nobody were to be held accountable, then he went to other authorities. There are several (incidents) documented in the book where he filed for federal investigations into killings with the Department of Justice.”
She says one of his lasting achievements was sponsoring and winning passage of legislation requiring a grand jury be convened and an investigation be done anytime someone dies in police custody or in jail.
“I remember him having said, “We’re tired of our people being killed.’ So this is definitely an important part of the book to me. What he says happened in North Omaha I know it happened. It was real.”
Bad things continue happening. He grieves for the gun violence plaguing his community today, much of it black on black. In too many cases innocent folks are caught in the crossfire.
“I can’t tell you all what it does to me when I see something horrible happen to a young person, to anybody, but the helpless ones, the trusting ones, the ones who are trying for something better from us…they need help and we’re not there to offer it,” he said at the Nov. 3 rally.
In a public setting like the Community Day rally, the preacher’s son comes out in Chambers. The presumed agnostic, whose elocution has the melodic flair of the late jazz musician-radio host-lecturer Preston Love Sr., he holds an audience through his impassioned delivery and sheer magnetic presence. He sprinkles in metaphors and allegories from the Bible. It’s in settings like these the affinity between Chambers and the people becomes clear.
“He’s really in step with them. While Sen. Chambers didn’t form a group or join a group, his ongoing dialogue with the community is the reason he maintained their trust and respect and why he actually was a liberating figure,” Johnson says. “To do that he insisted on passage of legislation that legislators could get collect calls, so he was able to get calls from all of his constituency. He also kept his job at the barbershop for years, in the summers and on the weekend, so people would have a place to come and talk with him personally.”
Chambers himself says that even when he lost his legislative seat he was still the person District 11 residents turned to for help, not black elected officials. That doesn’t surprise Johnson, who says he long ago earned people’s trust.
“He wasn’t the first person to take the role of leader in the community. Charlie Washington was a point person before him community members would go to.
But Sen. Chambers, because of his unusual ability intellectually, rhetorically, in terms of statecraft and the law and just his down to earth nature, earned an enormous following.”
Another of his greatest achievements, say Johnson and others, was getting district elections for the Omaha City Council, the Omaha School Board and the Douglas County Board of Commissioners. It’s resulted in many black elected officials for North Omaha. His open disdain for many of those representatives, whom he considers stooges for the white power structure, has distanced him from portions of North Omaha’s leadership. Chambers being Chambers, he doesn’t much care.
“I think what has happened is they have been absorbed by the Democratic party and he chose to remain independent and I think that is probably the biggest divide,” says Johnson. “He was and is utterly, completely free.”
Johnson believes he arrived at a point where he realized that as the lone black representative in the legislature representing a poor black constituency, the most he could do was to be their voice.
“All the legislators have to list their occupation and for a number of years he listed barber, but I think when he changed his written vocation to ‘Defender of the Downtrodden,’ it actually marked a change and a decision on his part that sort of is fatalistic. He decided that because of the politics and power lobbying that go on within the formal political parties and because of his own independence and insistence on speaking for the most disenfranchised, the poorest, and insisting government should have in place support for their needs, he got to the point when he thought he would not be able to change the way that government in Nebraska functions with respect to low income people.
“I think it was also the point when he was refused chairmanship again and again of the judiciary committee.”
In terms of legacy, she says, “he was at once respected but feared and unpopular among some of the senators. He would stop their bills if he didn’t get some of what he wanted and what he wanted was legislation or concessions that protected his people, that didn’t allow, for example, the Omaha Housing Authority to go into closed session and make decisions without public input. He did all kinds of things like that. He fought tooth and nail legislation to reduce allocations to people on aid to families with dependent children. He really fought those battles.”
“He’d get so frustrated, saying, ‘Y’all don’t know what it takes to make it on $320.’ Yes, it was rhetoric but it was heartfelt. He’s seen people struggling and he felt it was within the power of the state legislature to provide some relief. He felt at times they didn’t do it because of petty politics, because of western Nebraska versus eastern Nebraska, because of racism, because of just indifference, and that made him angry.”
She says even though he often stood alone, he knew how to play politics.
“He never compromised his principles but he is a politician. He would come in on the weekends during the summer when session was out – this is what I gained from being able to actually observe – because he wanted to read up on all the other bills. He read up on what the interests of the other senators were. He knew their backgrounds, he knew everything about them. It’s not just the rules he employed, he played politics in terms of, ‘Look, if you want something from me, if you don’t want me to stop your bill or to filibuster, then you’re going to have to provide some concessions to things my constituents need.’”
Johnson says, “I don’t think he could have been more effective by doing it any other way. They dubbed him Dean of the Legislature because he was maximum effective for that base. I think the only way he could have been more effective is if those other senators had read as much about him and learned as much about the community he served and actually taken an interest, and I’m not saying a few didn’t, in how do we raise the standard for everybody in the state. If they had taken that position and cooperated with him more then he could have been more effective.”
Chambers operated much like his black peers in other states.
“African-American legislators across the country tended to be fairly effective just like Sen. Chambers in stopping legislation and not as effective at passing legislation. The ones who tend to be the most effective in working for the community tended to be on the out with the majority because they were battling all the time and they were always having to stand firm.”
Johnson wishes Chambers prepared the way for a successor.
“I do have a critique of him and it’s something I’ve openly talked to him about. He didn’t groom anybody (to replace him). It’s something I wish would have happened.”
As far as legacy, she feels his efforts in making Nebraska the first state to pass any resolution for divestment of state funds from South Africa in protest of its apartheid practices “may be the thing he’s remembered for.”
Though serving 38 years in the legislature involved “self-sacrifice” on his part, she says it clearly hurt him when he could not run in 2008.
“I think he was not just disappointed because he had to leave for four years but the subtext for his career, besides trying to end police violence and confronting racism, was to gain political power for his constituency relative to other legislative districts in the state. His having to leave office made him feel that what he’d worked for had gone backwards because he felt the will of the people was being overridden by term limits. His constituency couldn’t elect him if they wanted to.”
She notes he ran unopposed several times and that he kept running because “I don’t think he saw anybody else as talented as he was who could really do the job as well as he did. That and the fact people let him know they wanted him to run again.” Now that he’s returning to the legislature she’s fascinated by how he and his new colleagues will work together.
“The body has changed because of term limits. The expertise that was there is no longer there. It hasn’t necessarily served Nebraska well to have a constantly revolving, often times very young body at the helm. Who knows, maybe they’ll be more open to working with him. Maybe they’ll be less entrenched.”
An obvious advantage he’ll have, she says, is his vast experience.
Remarking on what people can expect from him, Chambers says, “For better or worse people have to see what it is that I am. They have to know what they’re getting if they come this way, and if they don’t like what it is I’m not the least offended. I probably wouldn’t like somebody like me. I would respect somebody like me. But likability is not an anything I cultivate because it doesn’t mean anything, it doesn’t achieve anything.”
He simply promises to be the same person he’s always been, which is to say someone “who never yields, never wavers, never accepts handouts from anybody, and whose only loyalty to a group is to this community.”
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.