Between solos by Omaha saxophonist Norman Love and excerpts of civil rights era speeches, a baritone voice calls out inequality and demands racial justice.
They took their evil plan,
And stole me from my land.
But you helped me understand,
That I am God’s favorite man.
Behind the composition and impassioned lyrics is a public servant named Franklin Thompson. Thompson said his work inside the City of Omaha’s Human Rights and Relations Department falls right in line with his music—both are about making the world a better place to live.
“I was trained at Omaha Tech Highschool to do that,” Thompson said. “To not just do music for the club, or for pleasure, but to do music to encourage society to improve.”
Thompson serves as the director of the city’s Human Rights and Relations Department. Before being chosen to lead the department by Mayor Jean Stothert in 2017, Thompson represented District 6 on the Omaha City Council for 16 years.
At first, Thompson didn’t pursue a career in politics. He taught at the University of Nebraska at Omaha for 27 years, and taught high school social studies before that. Even though his teaching has always focused on political issues, especially race relations, Thompson said he didn’t want to be a politician.
“At that time I would say I’d rather be a snowball in the summertime,” Thompson said. “And then in 2000, somebody challenged me. ”
Thompson said one of his students dared him to run for City Council, and offered to be his campaign director for free. Nobody thought he’d have a chance, Thompson said, but then he won with 55% of the vote.
As a Black man, Thompson said he was elected in a 97% white district–today that same area is 95% white, according to data from Douglas County Democrats–by portraying himself as a “neighborhoods first” candidate.
“They didn’t see me as the corporate guy or the investment guy,” Thompson said. “They saw me as a commoner, everyday, down-to-Earth guy who cared about neighborhoods.”
Thompson said he proved himself when he voted in favor of a partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up lead in homes, despite criticism from fellow Republicans.
“I put kids first, education second, and politics third,” said Thompson, who still teaches at UNO part-time.
After retiring from the City Council, Thompson brought the same down-to-Earth philosophy to the Human Rights and Relations Department, which has seen changes under his tenure that he said he wants to make permanent.
The Human Rights and Relations Department traditionally investigates discrimination and other civil rights issues. Thompson said the department has branched out to become more diversified, taking on socioeconomic inequality and embracing the community.
The department’s community outreach efforts include its involvement in the Omaha Community Council for Racial Justice and Reconciliation (OCCRJR). Thompson said the OCCRJR provides monthly forums for the community to discuss equity issues. The OCCRJR also hosted the unveiling of the Will Brown Historical Marker for Juneteenth.
The Small and Emerging Small Business (SEB) Program helps small businesses get city contracts and build the city’s workforce, Thompson said. The department focuses on areas experiencing poverty that need development.
The Human Rights and Relations Department also oversees the new restorative justice diversion program. The pilot program, which was developed in the wake of last year’s protests, allows for individuals charged with low-level offenses to participate in classes and community service to avoid criminal conviction. Thompson said the program has seen initial success, and that he will recommend to the mayor that it become permanent.
Last year’s protests led to a demand for action on racial justice, and more involvement with the community from the government. Thompson said the Human Rights and Relations department has the responsibility to get involved.
“There’s more of a community desire for my department to be part of the conversation,” Thompson said. “Outreach has tripled because of a mandate from the community.
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