The Maverick of Omaha

Sen. Ernie Chambers talks race and politics.

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In the official Nebraska Blue Book, which details the resumes of the state’s 49 senators, the biography of the state’s longest serving member reads simply: “Born July 10, 1937. Independent.” Senator Ernie Chambers is rarely described with such brevity: Elsewhere, he’s been named the “angriest black man in Nebraska,” the “defender of the downtrodden,” and the “maverick of Omaha.” And it’s hard to deny that Chambers lives up to such colorful titles.

After 35 years representing the predominately black north side of Omaha in the Nebraska Unicameral, Chambers has become renowned for his fierce independence and passionate rhetoric on an array of issues, from the legality of state-paid chaplains to the hero-status of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His extended debates (a.k.a. filibusters) have become a staple of legislative life, and his politics have often led him into strange alliances. For instance, during his freshman term in 1970, Chambers clashed with his hawkish colleague Terry Carpenter over the Vietnam War and an upcoming visit by President Nixon. In time the two developed a collegial friendship and worked together to pass district-based voting legislation, and when Carpenter died, in 1978, Chambers served as one of the pallbearers.

Critics of the lone African American in Nebraska’s legislature say he sees the world strictly in terms of black and white—and indeed Chambers is unapologetic about the centrality of race to his politics. “Because I’m black in a white, racist society,” he says, “I was often excoriated by the white media and by white people because the steps I took were contrary to what white people deemed their interests to be.”

Mother Jones recently talked with Chambers about his political career, race, and his plans beyond 2008, when Nebraska’s new term limits law will likely force him out of office.

Mother Jones: I’ve read that you refer to the parties of your colleagues as Repelicans and Demagogues. What’s the story behind that?

Ernie Chambers: They’re words that the very sound of them conveys that both of them are not worth very much. They’re flying false flags. During campaign season, they always make the same promises that they’re not going to keep. As a black person, I tell other black people, “Listen to these white people. You’re going to hear them tell the truth about each other: They’re going tell how rotten, lowdown, dishonest, incompetent, cheating, and unreliable they are.” When I say half as much as that, they call me a racist in reverse.

MJ: What’s your take on American political life today?

EC: America is basically a hypocritical society and recognizes that hypocrisy is found throughout. The public doesn’t look for politicians to tell the truth or to deliver on their promises. This country could become America the beautiful, but it never will. It’s in the hands of the wrong people. And the public is so apathetic. Those who are not apathetic are dispirited, discouraged, and disheartened. Those who will sometimes feel a twitch of inspiration that would lead them to do something, they, based on their conditioning, will start to total up all the reasons why they can’t succeed. They’re whipped before they start, so they don’t even start. And the politicians know it. I often quote Hitler, who said words to the effect of, “Rulers are fortunate that the people do not think.” Politicians know this. Even when the public seems to be upset, the politicians know if they can put on a brave face and ride it out, they generally will.

MJ: During the Civil Rights movement, in the 60s and 70s, was there a glimmer of things going another way?

EC: Oh yeah. Everybody had high hopes, had brimming optimism, and thought that a change indeed was coming. Some changes were wrought, but it did not go as far as it could have or should have. The white politicians and law enforcement knew better than we did that our numbers were sufficient to be the balance of power when it came to these close elections between white people, that if we would wake up and realize the political power that we could have, they would be in trouble. So both parties started attacking us and tried to sow divisions.

MJ: How did you get involved with the community and social activism?

EC: I was always aware that black children were not treated the same as white children. I went to what would be called a white school, and if a black child did something, that child would be punished severely. In those days, they used corporal punishment, even in the classroom in front of the other kids. A white kid would have nothing happen. I was in a class where I was the only black child, and they sang “Old Black Joe” during the music portion and read The Story of Little Black Sambo and let those little white kids laugh, which children will do because the story is supposed to be funny—it wasn’t funny to me at all. In my child’s mind, I decided if there was some way I could stop that from ever happening again, I would do it. And in later years, I did manage to get that book out of the public schools.

I fell into politics by accident. It was not something I planned. It just happened because I’d done so much reading and work in the community, I was prepared to do the job when the opportunity came along.

MJ: What advice do you have for white America?

EC: Pretty soon there will be a numerical majority of nonwhite people. That will convert into political activism, which means that these nonwhite people will have decision-making authority. They are not going to forget how their parents, their relatives, they themselves, were insulted by white people—demeaned, degraded, abased, debased. Now all these old white people are relying on Social Security and these other governmental programs. They are not going to have people in power that will feel kindly toward them. At that time they will understand what is meant by the expression, “You sowed the wind and you will reap the whirlwind.” When the whirlwind comes, there will be no place from them to run and hide.

MJ: What do you mean by that?

EC: Some of these people will say, “It’s payback time. We’re going to treat them exactly the way they treated us. We’re going to put their children in circumstances they put our children in, with out-dated textbooks and poorly qualified teachers. Then we’re going to say, your children are not learning because they have something genetically defective in them.” And when you talk to white people like that, you know what they say? “That shouldn’t be your attitude.” I say, “Now you see how wrong what you’re doing to us really is.” White people need to hope that my assessment is wrong, but all they ought to do is ask themselves what their reaction would be: They know that they would rise up and take revenge.

MJ: To escape that scenario, can we turn to the example of someone like Martin Luther King, Jr.?

EC: Martin Luther King really was a safety valve for white people. Any time it appeared that the black community was on the verge of really doing what we ought to do based on having been attacked, they put Martin Luther King on television. He was always saying, “We must use nonviolence. We must overcome hate with love.” White people loved that. That’s why they gave him a Nobel Prize. But then he started waking up. When Martin Luther King had a meeting with Malcolm X, white people became alarmed. When Martin Luther King started condemning the Vietnam War, that’s when white people turned against him. The puppet started moving on his own, the ventriloquist dummy started speaking his own words, so they chopped his head off.

If you are fearful, you hide behind the notion of nonviolence, so that you can run and hide and say that you are being noble. If you are being a man who has self-respect and knows that he has the right to live without being molested by anybody, then you’re not going to practice what Martin Luther King practiced. No, the lesson white people need to learn is that Martin Luther King was of their creation. If he’d had stayed out of white folks business, as they call it, he’d be alive now.

MJ: Since being in the Unicameral, have white legislators been able to work with you? Is there a level of cooperation?

EC: I’m often at odds with my colleagues, but I’ve managed to get legislation passed which will not even be attempted in other states. Rather than use the word “cooperate,” I’ll say there’s kind of a peaceful coexistence, a wary watching of each other. I’m very courteous and polite, and people allow me to be. Some people have applied the term charming to me. I don’t use that term unless I’m the snake charmer and they’re the snake.

I do know how to treat people and that is treat them the way I want to be treated. So when I extend that respect and that consideration that I would like to have, there is a certain amount of reciprocating. Some of the senators have even said words to the effect to me of “I can’t dislike you as much as I wish that I did.”

MJ: Do you think the impassioned speechmaking and rabble-rousing that you’re known for have rubbed off on other senators?

EC: Yeah, there are some who are bolder now in the remarks that they make. And what they will do sometimes is preface their presentation when they’re going to say something that they think might be a little controversial, “Ah, you’re going to think I’m Senator Ernie Chambers when I say this.” And sometimes I might say, “Don’t fool yourself” or “Don’t flatter yourself” or something like that. But some of them are now more willing to state what they genuinely feel without quite as much fear. Sometimes they scare themselves with their own boldness because they’re not accustomed to it.

MJ: Have other people in your district followed in your political footsteps?

EC: The only three political subdivisions where we can elect somebody are the school board, the city council, and the county board. Each of those has one person there, except for the school board which has two. There are not a lot of political offices that people can win, but there are people who now run more for these offices, even though they don’t have much of a chance to win. I tell them that’s good because it shows a political awareness and a political awakening. I tell them the way for us to get this white man’s attention is to register in significant numbers over what we’ve been doing and then vote as a bloc, then they will start seeking us out.

MJ: What are your goals in what is potentially your final term in office?

EC: Just to do everything I can that might be of significance. I will work hard to try to get rid of the death penalty. If I could do that, with all the other things I have not succeeded in doing, I would consider my political career to have been a resounding success.

MJ: What tricks do you have up your sleeve to achieve that during this session?

EC: Since I always wear short sleeve shirts, I don’t have sleeves to hide anything in. Being quite honest with you, before a session starts, I never can tell how things are going to turn out. All I know is what I will do if certain things arise.

MJ: And after this term?

EC: Whether I’m out of this office by term limits or retirement, I may do some political organizing. But that’s the only contact I think I would have in politics. I would not be a candidate for any other office.


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