Though term limits have exiled Ernie Chambers from the Nebraska Legislature a second time, he has not stopped playing the prickly social justice conscience for this conservative white state. There’s interest in what the 83-year-old is up to without the bully pulpit he held a record 46 years, mostly as that body’s lone Black state senator. He’s not saying much about his plans, but he’s full of things to say about systemic racism.
Minus the platforms of the legislature and public access television, Chambers said in an interview with The Reader, “I will do what is available for me to do and what I think I ought to do.” He recently showed up for new Omaha City Council member Juanita Johnson and the man who won his Unicameral seat, Terrell McKinney.
Chambers knows his legacy is tied to his champion-of-the-underdog work in the legislature.
“Every day I knew when I went there it was going to be a battle,” he said. “Being on the floor of the legislature is something like being a gladiator thrown in the arena surrounded by beasts. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my. You’ve got to do what is necessary to defend yourself.
“I didn’t feel all things are fair in love and war. When it came to the application of the rules and debate, there were no holds barred. I didn’t ask for a quarter. No quarter was given. I was outnumbered more than 40 to 1. The main thing was to try to get them [elected colleagues] to just do what they swore an oath to do in the first place. To the extent I could, I was going to cajole, embarrass, antagonize, taunt, ridicule and, naturally, condemn their failure to do those things they have the power to do.”
Chambers said if lawmakers did their jobs, “nobody would have to go to bed hungry; nobody ill would be unable to attain medical treatment; no child would be treated unfairly in school or deprived of a meaningful education. But they’re not going to do it. Their religion doesn’t lead them to do it. Their political party makes them think in narrow terms. It’s us against them. And the ordinary people fall by the wayside. I had to work extra hard to try to the extent one man could to get laws passed that would help these people, to stop bad laws from passing that would hurt them.”
In assessing the ledger of his legislative tenure, Chambers can point to bills he authored that “may have done some good.”
“A much longer list and one I maybe take greater satisfaction in,” he said, “is the bad bills I stopped or by way of amendment I made not so onerous, unjust or unfair. Through all of that, win, lose or draw, if I stayed true to what I believe, then there was inner peace.”
Unassailable integrity made him impossible to buy.
“Nobody had anything I wanted, and they couldn’t give me anything. I don’t care what it was, to get me to do something other than what I thought I should do.”
Long before Critical Race Theory came along, Chambers kept things real. He still does when it comes to white supremacy.
“I’m always aware of the fact I’m a Black man in America,” he said. “No matter what I do, no matter what I achieve, white people are not going to accord me full humanity. I don’t need that from them to have respect for myself, but because they have that attitude toward me and all Black people, they create situations where I have to respond and react in a way I’d rather not.
“The things I do are not what I am, they are manifestations of what I believe. Just as I was in but not of the legislature, I’m in but not of America.”
Being an outlier makes Chambers an island unto himself.
“With all the things I’ve said, I understand why I’m often alone … If you put your trust in people, you’re bound to be disappointed, and maybe most of the time, So I don’t rely on other people.”
As for the success of last summer’s protests, Chambers cautioned not to assume “better days are here.” If history is any lesson, he said, “pretty soon not as many show up for rallies, then there are no rallies at all.”
Chambers said he likes what he sees of today’s activists.
“I am very pleased with what these young people are doing,” he said. “They’re doing it in their own way – and you have to do that.”
His advice is “don’t quit, don’t give up, don’t let the negatives dishearten you.”
Chambers is also aware that if not for the wrongful death of George Floyd and other victims being captured on video “it wouldn’t be this way.” He fears “the demonstrations won’t make much difference to bring about action.”
While he hasn’t participated in group actions, Chambers has conducted one-man vigils in front of the Capitol and city hall.
His hope is that activists “will get a clearer picture of what really works in this society and brings about change – politics.” Wielding the vote matters, he insists. “What really terrorizes old white racists is if young people, both Black and white, would register and vote.”
Chambers hasn’t seen anything in five decades of public life to shake his fundamental views.
“I don’t expect there to ever be full freedom, justice and equality for Black people in this country as long as white people are in charge – ever. I’m not discouraged, defeated or deflated. When you have expectations and they are frustrated, that’s when you become frustrated. I don’t expect anything from white people but conflict and attempts to get the best of me in any way that they can. I will not let things white people do get inside of me.”
Yet, Chambers reveals racism from some white teachers in school exacted “a traumatizing impact on me,” adding, “That took a lot from me. If that child that I was had not been mistreated the way I was in the school system maybe they wouldn’t have the Black man I am now to deal with.”
Chambers’ experience was hardly isolated.
“Not everybody survived it in the way I did,” he said. “Either you’re going to sink or swim, survive or die – psychologically speaking. For some reason I thrashed around and learned how to swim and survive. A lot of the people I grew up with are no longer here. Some became drunks, a lot used drugs, many wound up in prison. It’s the way white people treat us, even as children, that elicits the kind of behavior elicited. It’s a survival instinct. It’s not something taught. It’s something you do.”
Chambers has remained in Nebraska fighting the good fight rather than go elsewhere, as he’s been courted to do.
“Maybe I’m the only voice, that lone voice in the wilderness, but somebody has to be that voice, and in a lot of instances it’s me. If I was looking for things for myself I would have been out of here … but the things of this world I wear loosely. They don’t mean anything to me.”
In public office or out, he remains Ernie.
“You can set me down anywhere, and I’ll be me,” he said. “I may not achieve anything externally that I set my hand to, but I won’t lose any of myself internally.
“My philosophy as a Black man is to develop the tranquil acceptance of the inevitable, and the inevitable for a Black man in this society is that racism is here and it’s going to always be here.”
Just don’t expect him to be silent about it.