A History of the Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties, or 4CL, in Omaha

June 1963 4CL civil rights protest Omaha Nebraska

“This town is sick… I’m not speaking of open sores, either — nothing as simple as the ghetto on the ‘Near North Side,’ where all but a handful of 30,000 Omaha Negroes live. No, our sickness is in the bloodstream — in our inner posture. We are an undemocratic city.”

—Rev. James T. Stewart, director of Social Action for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Omaha in 1963.
Protesters with 4CL protesting in Omaha in the 1960s.

Across the United States today, there is a re-emerging awareness among white people that white privilege, structural racism, segregation, and systemic discrimination are all still hard at work in the U.S. However, people of color have never known anything but those realities. More than a 50 years ago, a group of African American activists banded together to form a group that would challenge those structures in Omaha.

The Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties, called 4CL, was focused the future of the Black community in Omaha, and for the future of democracy in the United States. In 1947, a group of students gathered to form the DePorres Club with a Catholic priest, Father John DeMarkoe. Practicing nonviolent protest before Dr. King and the Birmingham campaign, the De Porres Club slowly folded after 4CL launched and their once-young members joined the new group. Omaha’s civil rights movement was coordinated by 4CL, and they set the agenda for action throughout the city. They had three main goals to be achieved through the Nebraska Legislature:

  • To ensure equal housing opportunities
  • To create equal job opportunities for African Americans
  • To secure integrated schools through busing for all African American students.
This 1964 Omaha Star headline reads, "4CL Vows to Continue Drive 'Until Hell Freezes Over.'" They were boycotting Omaha's S. S. Kresge Co. store in downtown Omaha.
This 1964 Omaha Star headline reads, “4CL Vows to Continue Drive ‘Until Hell Freezes Over.'” They were boycotting Omaha’s S. S. Kresge Co. store in downtown Omaha.

Proclaiming “Omaha is the Mississippi of the North,” the organization diagnosed the city saying it “perpetuated… the familiar pattern of economic and social discrimination, segregation and calculated degradation.”

An Omaha Star article about 4CL, “As for what we want—First, we do not want any measure of compromise. We do not want any revenge. We want justice. We want full citizenship and we want it now!”

A period magazine article reported that “according to Elizabeth Davis Pittman, an attractive Negro attorney,

‘The powers in this city are not so much angry as they are resentful because it is their consciences that are being picketed.'”

—Elizabeth Davis Pittman as quoted by by Sam Castan in “The Negro Faces North. Omaha, Nebraska: The New Mood Shocks the City” for LOOK magazine, December 17, 1963.

Continuing throughout the 1960s, the organization faced continuous controversy as the City of Omaha insulted their efforts and denied their authority, and the mayor of Omaha at the time, James Dworak, referred to 4CL leaders Rev. Jones and Rev. McNair as “yahoos” in the media. The 4CL’s sponsoring organization, the Ministerial Alliance, publicly lambasted their activism and they broke off just six weeks after they started.

Civil Rights Campaigns

Focused on direct action and nonviolent civil disobedience, 4CL held protests around Omaha to end Jim Crow segregation using picketing, stand-ins during city council meetings, teach-ins, and other efforts to foster positive structural changes throughout the city.

4CL campaigns focused on housing, jobs and education, and targeted a variety of organizations and businesses. One former member described the group’s work saying, “We integrated different places and we petitioned for jobs and open housing. We marched on city hall. We did things like this that brought about some changes. We were considered troublemakers and that’s what it takes to get the changes.”

Starting in 1963, 4CL held rallies around Omaha to end segregation. Some of their campaigns included:

  • July 1963 – Protesting the Omaha City Council – A pray-in is held at Omaha City Hall to promote the establishment of a local equal opportunity employment ordinance.
  • 1963 – Protesting the Omaha Human Rights Commission – Rev. Rudolph McNair leads a 4CL march of 150 people against the creation of the Omaha Human Rights Commission (HRC), which was intended to placate Civil Rights activists. It didn’t work.
  • 1963 – Desegregating Peony Park to allow African Americans to swim in the pool. It worked.
  • 1963 – Desegregating Reed’s Ice Cream – Accepting African Americans’ money, Reed’s refused to hire African American workers. When they hired one Black person, the campaign ended.
  • 1963 – Protesting the Omaha World-Herald for its racist coverage against African Americans and for not hiring African Americans to work for the newspaper.
  • Desegregating the local Coca Cola Bottling Company – Accepting African Americans’ money, Reed’s refused to hire African American workers.
  • Desegregating Fair Housing through sing-ins
  • Desegregating Harkert Café
  • Desegregating Edholm-Sherman Laundry
  • Desegregating the Omaha and Council Bluffs Streetcar Company
  • Desegregating the S.S. Kresge Co. store
Omaha 4CL Civil Rights group in 1963
This is a group of civil rights leaders gathered in Omaha circa 1963. This group formed the core of the 4CL.

The 4CL met regularly at Zion Baptist Church, gathering African Americans and unifying the Near North Side community. There were four pastors that led 4CL, including Rev. Dr. Kelsey Jones, Rev. Rudolph McNair (1922-1977) and Rev. R.F. Jenkins. Omaha Civil Rights leaders Dorothy Eure (1927-1993), Raymond Metoyer, Sr. (1928-1978) and Omaha Star editor Mildred Brown were also active leaders.

The City of Omaha created a “Bi-racial Committee” in 1963 in response to the 4CL being formed. The mayor appointed everyone on the committee, mostly very influential white people. They held a rally of more than 10,000 people later that year. However, the 4CL and other groups were suspicious of what became known as the Human Rights Commission, largely because they saw it as a stalling tactic.

According to a recent interview one former member said,

“We integrated different places and we petitioned for jobs and open housing. We marched on city hall. We did things like this that brought about some changes. We were considered troublemakers and that’s what it takes to get the changes.”

In 1970, the congregation at Zion Baptist Church succeeded in having Rev. McNair removed from the pulpit. He left Omaha and died in 1977. Rev. Dr. Jones left Omaha in 1971 for Washington, DC where he led the Israel Metropolitan CME Church for a few years. He died in 2011. After the two leaders left, the organization ceased to exist.

The REST of Omaha’s Civil Rights Movement

4CL did not exist in a vacuum. Instead, it was part of a movement across the nation and throughout Omaha. Before 4CL, the DePorres Club had affected the city in many ways. At the same time 4CL was so active, the Black Panthers were organizing across the city with food outreach and summer education programs, including Omaha’s Freedom School. BANTU, or Black African Nationalism through Unity, was a youth-led anti-racism campaign active in several high schools. A LOT was happening.

On the other side, segregation continued too. According to research by David Bristow, Mister C’s was a target for the Omaha NAACP Youth Council activism, and they demonstrated until he changed the practice of discriminating against African Americans. Mister C’s refused to serve African Americans in the dining area, instead insisting they take their food at the back door and leave the facility. Other places targeted during this era included Linoma beach and Merritt beach.

The movement continues today. Leadership from historical organizations like the NAACP and Urban League stays strong, while more recent groups like the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation are stepping up.

The future is still ahead, and 4CL helped pave the way.

Adam’s Note: If you know any other details about the Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties, please share in the comments below! Thank you!

MY ARTICLES ABOUT CIVIL RIGHTS IN OMAHA
General: History of Racism | Timeline of Racism
Events: Juneteenth | Malcolm X Day | George Smith Lynching | Will Brown Lynching | North Omaha Riots | Vivian Strong Murder | Jack Johnson Riot
Issues: African American Firsts in Omaha | Police Brutality | North Omaha African American Legislators | North Omaha Community Leaders | Segregated Schools | Segregated Hospitals | Segregated Hotels | Segregated Sports | Segregated Businesses | Segregated Churches | Redlining | African American Police | African American Firefighters
People: Rev. Dr. John Albert Williams | Edwin Overall | Harrison J. Pinkett | Vic Walker | Joseph Carr | Rev. Russel Taylor | Dr. Craig Morris | Mildred Brown | Dr. John Singleton | Ernie Chambers | Malcolm X
Organizations: Omaha Colored Commercial Club | Omaha NAACP | Omaha Urban League | 4CL (Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Rights) | DePorres Club | Omaha Black Panthers | City Interracial Committee | Providence Hospital | American Legion | Elks Club | Prince Hall Masons | BANTU
Related: Black History | African American Firsts | A Time for Burning

You Might Like…

Elsewhere Online

This video is a history of Peony Park, including its segregation practices:

BONUS

"Negro rights group pickets Omaha paper," from the UPI in 1963.
In 1963, the Omaha civil rights group called 4CL protested the Omaha World-Herald for racist news coverage and tokenistic hiring practices.

2 Comments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s