The Long Shadow of Racism—and Protest—in the Midwest | Sojourners

The Long Shadow of Racism—and Protest—in the Midwest

Protesters in Omaha, Nebraska demand justice for George Floyd.

“We studied your history,” a Black barber says to a white minister, “and you did not take over this country by singing, ‘We Shall Overcome.’” The camera zooms out and, in the background, newspaper clippings line the walls of the Omaha, Neb., barbershop — “A Trail of Blood — a Negro Dies,” “Day of Accusation in Mississippi,” — alongside images of Black boxers, President John F. Kennedy, and a white motorcycle cop with the caption, “Symbol of our oppression.”

This scene is from A Time for Burning, an award-winning documentary shot in 1966 amid racial uprisings in Omaha and widespread civil unrest as civil rights leaders agitated for equal rights. The Black barber on camera is a young Ernie Chambers who, today, serves as a Nebraska state senator representing North Omaha. Chambers first emerged as a community leader during these uprisings when he negotiated a peace deal between Black youth, police, and the Omaha City Council. Barb-tongued and bullish for justice, Chambers went on to become Nebraska’s longest-serving state senator and is currently serving his final term in office.

A clip featuring Chambers went viral at the end of May amid national protests against police brutality. And in Lincoln, Neb., a drive-in screening of A Time for Burning drew a group of around 20 people, mostly white. The civil-rights era documentary tracks one Lutheran minister’s efforts to persuade his all-white congregation to reach out to their Black counterparts on the north side. The white minister insists dialogue is the “tamest” way to improve race relations, but the congregation nevertheless views it as a “forced integration” and, shortly after, the minister resigns. The documentary ends abruptly with no feeling of resolution.

Two weeks prior to the screening, Lincoln matched the fury of the 1966 uprisings in Omaha when hundreds of protesters gathered at the steps of the Lancaster County Courthouse to demand justice. Kieran Wilson, 24, was kneeling on the front lines, hands raised, before a line of police officers outfitted head to toe in riot gear. Wilson expected a peaceful demonstration and felt as if he was “protesting against something that isn’t happening in our city.” But, after repeated volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets from police and select protesters damaging glass office buildings, Wilson realized, “this is happening here. We haven’t faced it yet, but it’s waiting to rear its head.”

A History of Racism, Activism in the Midwest

Ostensibly, the outrage exhibited at the Lancaster County Courthouse the night of May 31 was caused by a white police officer killing George Floyd in Minneapolis, but for Ashley Howard, a professor of history at the University of Iowa who specializes in civil unrest in the Midwest, the root cause runs much deeper. The ongoing protests, which have occurred in over 2,000 cities nationwide and 60 countries globally, were “very much a response to a specific incident, but are tied to longstanding grievances against police brutality, economic and political disparity, educational and recreational opportunities.”

“People want to start this narrative when the first building burns,” Howard told me in a phone conversation, “[but] I think it’s more useful to begin it years before. In the case of Omaha, people had been agitating to end racial discrimination as early as the 1940s.”

In 2012, Gallup-Healthways Well-Being index ranked Lincoln as the “happiest place to live” in terms of overall well-being, citing low cost of living, low unemployment, and feeling safe walking home at night. This may be true for white people, who, according to the census, make up 85.2 percent of Lincoln’s population, but this does not necessarily represent the experience of Black people living in Lincoln who make up 4.4 percent of the population.

Numerous studies have shown that the Midwest has some of the most egregious disparities between Black and white people. A 2019 report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) noted that “racial disparities in economic opportunity and economic outcomes are wider [in the Midwest] than they are in other regions, and policy interventions designed to close those gaps are meager.” Indeed, when 24/7 Wall St. identified the ten worst cities for Black Americans, all ten were in the Midwest.

The EPI report cites segregation and economic opportunity as the greatest contributing factors to these severe racial disparities. During the Great Migration, when millions of Black Americans left the South between 1916-1970, the Black population in the Midwest swelled. Though Black Americans fled Jim Crow rule of the South, its legacy lived on in the customs of Midwestern municipalities, which established mechanisms such as exclusive zoning and race-restrictive deed covenants to ensure residential segregation.

These policies were enforced by violence. In 1919 in downtown Omaha, as many as 15,000 people gathered outside the courthouse where Will Brown, a Black packinghouse worker accused of molesting a white women, was being held without due process. The white mob, incensed by the influx of Black Southerners, fired on the courthouse with guns they had looted earlier that day and, when the sheriff still wouldn’t hand over Brown, set the building on fire. They stripped Brown, beat him half-conscious, hoisted him over a lamppost, unloaded more gunshots, burned his body in a bonfire, and then a police car dragged the mutilated corpse through the streets. People sent photographs of the scene as postcards.

Extra-judicial violence by white people continues today. In 2020, Jake Gardner, a white business owner, shot and killed James “Juju” Scurlock, a 22-year-old Black protester, in a physical altercation outside the bar owned by Gardner. As reported by The Guardian, Gardner lifted his shirt to reveal a gun tucked in his waistband, escalating the situation. In the physical skirmish that followed, Gardner fired off two shots and when Scurlock jumped on Gardner’s back and put him in a headlock, he fired a third fatal shot. Earlier that day, Gardner wrote on Facebook, “Just when you think, ‘what else could 2020 throw at me?’ Then you have to pull 48 hours of military style watch.” A local judge swiftly ruled Gardner’s shooting of Scurlock was in self-defense, though that decision is now under review.

Three of the most inciting incidents for the Black Lives Matter movement happened in Midwest cities: white police officers killing Mike Brown in Ferguson in 2014, George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020, and shooting Jacob Blake in Kenosha last month. Howard doesn't see this as a coincidence. “Every time there’s a presidential election,” Howard told me, “the Midwest becomes proxy for the nation as a whole.”

In 1968, George Wallace, infamous for his “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” speech, stopped in Omaha to speak on his presidential campaign. A group of Creighton University students and faith leaders, including Father Jack McCaslin, organized a protest at the Civic Auditorium, packing 5,400 people into the 1,400-seat auditorium. In an interview with Howard, McCaslin described what followed as “police-induced riot.” Omaha police and Wallace’s personal security “basically made student protesters run the gauntlet,” said Howard, when they beat protesters using steel folding chairs and mace.

The violence spilled out into the streets and moved toward North 24th Street. There, an off-duty police officer, outfitted in riot gear taken from the police station, sat inside a friend’s pawn shop he had agreed to protect from potential looters. Howard Stevenson, a young Black man, broke in and the officer shouted, “Stop!” Before Stevenson could respond, the officer shot him with his riot gun.

For Howard, this story is especially instructive because, in 1966, just two years earlier, there was a big push to better police-community relations by having Black youth and police officers camp together in Columbus, Neb. Both the officer that shot Stevenson and Stevenson himself attended the camp, a program which the police chief was not fond of and lasted only a handful of summers. There, campers fished, rode horses, and watched movies, but, upon returning from the outdoor excursion, many officers discovered their beats had been reassigned.

This camp program was but one of many liberal reforms that protesters agitated for in the 1960s. Others included police community review boards, more Black teachers in schools, and building parks in Black neighborhoods. In general, these reforms focused on “better access” and “more representation,” according to Howard.

The action plans put forward by protesters in 2020, like the abolitionist idea of defunding the police, are much more radical in nature. This shift in protester demands, alongside the scope, multiracial participation, and the location of protests (from predominantly Black neighborhoods to downtowns and commercial centers) are some of the crucial differences Howard sees between the civil unrest of today and that of the 1960s.

Inside the Halls of Justice

By mid-summer, Lincoln protesters had moved from the streets outside the courthouse to inside the halls of justice where City Council was holding hearings for the 2021 city budget. During a public comment session, scores of protesters called on the mayor and city council to defund the police, echoing a demand that has now entered the mainstream discourse around police violence. The session, which lasted nearly six hours, stretched past midnight as protesters made their case both in-person from behind a barrier and remotely via Zoom.

KaDeja Sangoyele, policy director for the Black Leaders Movement, a local grassroots organization, called on Mayor Leirion Baird to reallocate $800,000 earmarked for the police budget toward “an entity for social workers to respond to mental health, sexual abuse, and domestic violence calls.”

Wilson helped spearhead efforts to pressure local representatives, but remains doubtful of Baird, who campaigned on a promise to hire six new police officers and was endorsed by the local police union. “I think the mayor is done listening to us,” Wilson said. “Actually,” he laughed, “I don’t think she ever started.”

Still, the organizers I spoke with, all of them in their early 20s, understand this is a long game and remain undeterred as they find their footing. Wilson, who presently works for a startup, hopes to make activism his full-time job, and is encouraged by the fact that “we’re making plans a year ahead.” “The social stigmata around not participating right now is so strong,” said Wilson. “That’s how it should always be.”

The Black Leaders Movement, which emerged directly from a group of peers repeatedly showing up to protest, is now an incorporated nonprofit. “We went from being just a group of people trying to facilitate some sort of protest to an actual, sustainable organization for young Black leaders,” Sangoyele told me.

The long view, for Sangoyele, is steeped in her family’s history. Her great-grandmother marched with Martin Luther King Jr. Her grandfather grew up in Mississippi with Fannie Lou Hamer, her favorite civil rights activist. Even today, her grandmother is attuned to the ongoing protests. “She’s not physically able to march with us,” said Sangoyele, “but she’ll watch livestreams, from start to finish, to make sure we’re home.”

“When you’re fighting such a systemic thing that’s ingrained into our country and what it’s built on, it feels like there’s no end in sight,” said Sangoyele, “but to have that support from someone who’s been through it — it’s amazing.”

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