The Omaha riots in the 1960s


OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) – While Omaha has seen protests and riots for more than a generation last year, the civil unrest was not without precedent.

Northern Omaha has seen a series of protests and riots, with much more destruction in the mid to late 1960s.

The Safeway grocery store sat for a few years on 24 and Lake Streets from the mid to late 1960s. It was also where the first Omaha riot of the 1960s began, which led to over protests and riots for several years after that.

“It wasn’t planned, it was spontaneous,” said David Bristow, editor of History Nebraska.

It all started with a few children in northern Omaha on a hot July 4th weekend.

“And they hang out there because they have nowhere to go, they have no opportunity for recreation,” Ashley Howard said.

“A kid decides it’ll be funny to throw a rock at the car,” Howard said.

This stone was thrown at a police car, pushing the underlying racial tensions to the extreme.

A real riot spread throughout northern Omaha. After three days, the National Guard and the Omaha police arrested him.

“It’s just kind of a tipping point, but what’s always looming in the background are these economic, racial and social inequalities,” Howard said.

There were many tensions. The racial red line separated Omaha, the schools in northern Omaha were worse than the rest of the city, and black residents said they were over-policed.

Adam Fletcher Sasse is a northern Omaha historian and has written a book called “#OmahaBlackHistory”.

“When young people have too much time, they don’t have enough advice, there aren’t enough opportunities … they create activities to fill the space,” said Fletcher Sasse .

Omaha Mayor AV Sorenson and Nebraska Governor Frank Morrison were initially sympathetic to Black Omahan concerns.

“At first there were statements from leaders on, ‘We have to make changes,’” said Bristow.

And things were finally suppressed until 1968, when the segregationist Governor of Alabama, George Wallace, ran for president and spoke at the Civic Auditorium.

“Wallace was notoriously racist, he was very anti-black,” said Fletcher Sasse.

Originally from Omaha, Ashley Howard, who studies African Americans in the Midwest at the University of Iowa, said civil rights protesters came to the event and were even placed in the front row by Wallace’s team.

Wallace displayed his explosive and racist rhetoric.

“When he reported, that’s when the police officers on leave, members of his own security team and just bystanders, the people who had come to see George Wallace speak… started beating the kids out. from the auditorium. “

David Bristow, editor of History Nebraska, said Wallace had cultivated the unrest that eventually spilled into the streets.

“Protesters were running a glove, people in the audience were hitting them with folding chairs,” Bristow said.

“And it escalated into a gigantic riot,” said Fletcher Sasse.

The following year, tensions in the community again reached a breaking point. This time it was a 14-year-old Black Omaha girl Vivian Strong.

Strong was dancing in an abandoned building with friends. The cops came to smash everything. An officer fired a shot behind Strong, killing the teenager.

This caused a series of unrest, vandalism and fires.

The officer involved, James Loder, was ultimately acquitted by an all-white jury. He then joined the Omaha Police Department.

“At least one of the jurors was subsequently quoted as saying, ‘Well that was a tough decision, but I feel like we have to support the police or we won’t have the law and order, ”said Bristow.

Unlike the way the riots were handled in 1966 – which included city leaders meeting with civil rights leaders – in 1969 Omaha Mayor Gene Leahy took a law and order approach. order.

“The idea is just to crack down, to throw the police on the problem, to fund them deeply,” Leahy said.

The riots destroyed many businesses, some owned by blacks, others by whites. Many black-owned businesses were championed by members of the Black Panther Party.

“The participants in the uprising were very strategic about the businesses they reached, not just the white-owned businesses, but whether it was a white-owned business that also disrespected black customers,” Howard said.

All three historians say the protests and riots were a visible sign that Omaha had racial issues in some ways similar to those in the South.

Some measurements indicated that Omaha was as segregated as Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1960s.

“While they did not necessarily display signs saying ‘Whites only’, [they] were very determined to keep it as it was, ”said Bristow.

Howard said lessons can be learned as racial justice remains at the forefront of our national conversation.

“This thing is this giant uprising, but if you had just listened to what black people were saying for years, it shouldn’t have happened,” Howard said.

It was difficult for black business owners to reopen businesses after the riots.

Some banks refused to lend them money, insurance companies were reluctant to insure buildings amid fears that more riots could occur.

This stifled the economy of northern Omaha for years to come.

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