“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.
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 Civic Committee for Civil Liberties, called 4CL, they were 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 De Porres 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.
Civil Rights Campaigns
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.
Starting in 1963, 4CL held rallies around Omaha to end segregation. Picketing, stand-ins during city council meetings and other efforts were among their methods. 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
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. Rudolph McNair of Zion and Rev. R.F. Jenkins. Omaha Civil Rights leader Dorothy Eure was also active in
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.”
I can’t figure out what happened to 4CL. Rev. Jenkins died in 1980. Apparently, 4CL stopped making news after 1982, when the Omaha World-Herald stopped reporting on them. The Omaha Star reported on them just a few years ago, but I can’t afford the subscription cost for their archives.
If you know any other details about the Citizens Civic Committee for Civil Liberties, please share in the comments below! Thank you!
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 future is still ahead, and 4CL helped pave the way.
You Might Like…
- A Tour of the Omaha Civil Rights Movement
- A History of Racism in Omaha
- A History of Redlining in Omaha
This video is a history of Peony Park, including its segregation practices: