One of the places that sparks my imagination greatly is when my varying interests overlap, and that’s why today’s post on BANTU particularly excites me. From the pioneering Civil Rights efforts of Dr. Matthew Ricketts
In the 1910s and 1920s, Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) was active in Omaha, led by young Malcolm Little’s father. They advocated a strong black nationalism. During that same era, Cyril Briggs was the editor of the African Blood Brotherhood journal, The Crusader, printing and distributing it nationwide from Omaha. George Wells Parker founded the Hamitic League of the World in Omaha, advocating for radical communist beliefs throughout the community and across the country. Harry Haywood was radicalized in Omaha during these decades, eventually gaining international recognition as a leading African American communist.
These efforts gave way to the formation of Omaha’s NAACP and Urban League chapters through to the times of the DePorres Club and 4CL, the city’s African American community had been banding together to challenge racism, segregation and discrimination throughout Omaha. Business-specific picketing, boycotts and large protests were happening across North Omaha and downtown from the 1940s through the 1960s.
However, in the 1960s the racial dynamics in Omaha shifted. As the city’s white power elite became more entrenched against civil rights and intransigent to demands, African Americans began rallying together for black power. Radical theories that scared the white power structure emanated from the city’s newly formed Black Panthers unit in the 1960s, and late in that decade, youth organizing took shape through BANTU.
|In 1966, Nebraska National Guardsmen were called to North Omaha after three nights of rioting by some in the African American community, including young people.|
The Black Association for Nationalism Through Unity was founded in the 1960s in North Omaha. The biggest youth-led activism to ever impact the city, BANTU was responsible for organizing youth across North Omaha. Not surprisingly, it also attracted interest from the FBI.
In addition to organizing chapters at local high schools including Central and Tech, BANTU also led several rallies and protests. In 1966, leaders of the group were instrumental in negotiating peace after a particularly violent rally thrashed North Omaha. In May, 1969, BANTU sent a letter of demands to the Omaha Public School Superintendent. They said the Omaha Public School System was “racist and non-humane,” and called for a meeting. The superintendent rejected the meeting.
The demands of the group included:
- Recognizing Malcolm X’s birthday as a “Black holiday” by dismissing all classes;
- Making ROTC a selective, non-credit course;
- Eliminating hall passes in high schools;
- Ending tracking which led students to being assigned to general, commercial or academic classes;
- Removing security guards from schools;
- Reinstating all Black students who were expelled by the school system, and;
- Requiring Black history courses taught by Black teachers for all students.
Another instrumental moment for the organization happened in June 1969, when Vivian Strong, a teenager from the Logan Fontenelle Projects on the Near North Side, was shot and killed by an Omaha Police Officer. Strong, who was reportedly walking away from a violent crowd, was apparently not affiliated with BANTU, nor was she causing any disturbance. The crowd’s reaction went from anger to hatred: Three days of looting and rioting followed. The historical heart of the city’s African American community, North 24th Street, was pillaged with the gutting of storefronts and the firebombs that followed.
Their activism grew from that space, too. Nebraska State Senator Edward R. Danners thought the efforts of the youth in the group were so important that he personally lobbied on their behalf.
Apparently there were a number of authorities that threatened them with Nebraska’s 1949 state law prohibiting secret organizations, which affected the group because they limited their membership to Black youth only. These steps were just a precursor to the larger attempt to bring the group down.
During 1970 hearings on the Black Panther Party held in the US Congress identified BANTU as a sub-group of the BPP. At some point after that they disbanded, and have faded from the city’s memory.
A report from the CIA and COINTELPRO identified BANTU in the same league as groups including Afro-Set and New Libya in Cleveland, Ohio; Black Organizing Project and the Invaders in Memphis,Tenn.; Zulu 1200 and the Black Liberators in St. Louis, Mo.; and the United Black Brothers of Syracuse, N.Y.
Youth Activism in North Omaha Today
Today, North 24th Street is still silenced by the brutal riots of the 60s, the sullenness of the 70s, the indifference of the 80s and the false optimism of the 90s. Recently the Omaha Chamber of Commerce launched a plan to revitalize the area, drawing little commentary from the community at large.
I have not found any information about youth activism in North Omaha online, and little about community organizing in the area in general. Sharif Liwaru’s work with the Malcolm X Foundation is at the forefront.
A product of its time, BANTU was a rallying point for youth in the area to unite through activism focused on social change. That’s where the overlap comes: my professional work revolves around community youth engagement and the natural tendency young people have towards changing the world.
I know that somewhere in the community there is a powerful spirit of change among young people; hopefully the city’s leadership knows enough to grasp it for positive change, rather than repeating the mistakes of the past. BANTU shows one way they just didn’t do it right.