A day to celebrate one of the few international icons from Omaha? It seems obvious that a leader of the African American Civil Rights movement and an iconic figure for all oppressed people seeking empowerment be honored by his birth city. Unfortunately, Omaha has struggled with acknowledging Malcolm X (1925–1965) and his heritage, much the same as white people struggle to acknowledge our racism and challenge white supremacy.
Luckily, African Americans don’t need or wait for white people to acknowledge them. Starting in 1969, there were celebrations of Malcolm X Day in Omaha for more than two decades. This is a too-simple history of those celebrations.
“They set one day aside to say they honor this man (Malcolm X) and the other 364 days kick black people around.”– Nebraska State Senator Ernie Chambers to the Omaha Star (May 14, 1970)
According to Wikipedia, “Malcolm X Day is an American holiday in honor of the civil rights leader Malcolm X which is celebrated either on May 19 (Malcolm’s birthday), or the third Sunday of May.”
Starting in 1968, there was an annual Malcolm X Day celebration in Omaha for more than 15 years. First requested in 1968 as a national holiday by the Congress for Racial Equity, or CORE, in 1969 the Omaha Black Panthers and BANTU called on students to skip school on his birthday to mark Malcolm X Day. Hundreds of students didn’t go to school that day, and the Black Panthers collected money from North Omaha businesses to host a “People’s Picnic” at the renamed Malcolm X Park. David Rice, reporting for the Omaha Star, wrote “It can be imagined that the misinformed citizens of Omaha were extremely disappointed that no trouble broke out on the nation’s first Black Holiday [Malcolm X Day].”
In 1970, the celebration happened at Malcolm X Park and at the Wesley House. The Okumbie Dancers of Minneapolis and Omaha’s Afro-American theatre group performed. For several years starting that year, staff at the Wesley House organized annual celebrations for Malcolm X Day.
In 1971, Omaha Mayor Gene Leahy signed a proclamation for the city to celebrate “Malcolm X Week” from May 16 to 22. Among other things it stated Malcolm X was, “a man who dedicated his brief life to teaching men to strive for self-dignity and to mold their own destinies. No American more exemplifies this essential link to our national creed than the late Malcolm X.”
The 1974 celebrations of Malcolm X Week included dozens of events with support from many organizations. A massive parade with more than 40 units, a play and other special events happened throughout North Omaha. The Wesley House, Dominican High School, the North Branch YMCA and many other organizations participated. 10,000 people attended the two-hour long parade, which went from the Logan Fontenelle Projects to Malcolm X Park.
More than 5,000 people attended three hours of celebrations in 1975. The next year in 1976, the Wesley House hosted Ernie Chambers at a formal dinner, where he spoke about the life of Malcolm X. By the next year, local media mentions of Malcolm X Day were gone. In 1979, there was discussion about establishing the Malcolm X Shrine, but nothing further.
In 1981, there was a parade on Malcolm X Day along with an open house at the Great Plains Black History Museum. The Charles Drew Health Center hosted a Malcolm X Day Run for a few years, including 1983 to 1986, and in 1989 there was a call in the Omaha Star for the City of Omaha to declare Malcolm X Day a city holiday.
Resurgence in Interest
Malcolm’s wife, Dr. Betty Shabazz, spoke in Omaha as part of celebrations in 1990. At that point she held four degrees and was the director of communications and university relations at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York.
That year, there was a nationwide movement to declare May 20, 1990 as a National Malcolm X Day. While it wasn’t declared by the federal government, a national organizing committee based in Omaha said 23 other cities expressed interest. A corporate challenge to encourage nationwide pilgrimages to Omaha to celebrate Malcolm’s birthday happened, too, with the City of Omaha, ConAgra, Lozier Corp, Mutual of Omaha, and several other companies participating. National figures such as comedian Dick Gregory, former Gary, Indiana Mayor Richard Hatcher, actor Avery Brooks, and Kwanza founder Maulana Karenga participated in celebrations in Omaha, as well as local leaders, including George Garrison and Wali Gill from the University of Nebraska at Omaha; State Sen. Ernie Chambers; Rowena Moore; Fred Conley from the Omaha City Council; Darryl and Harry Eure; Rodney Wead of the Wesley House; Brenda Council of the Omaha Board of Education; and more from the Black Guardians and Mad Dads, among other organizations.
Activities that year included a cleanup of the birth site, panels and forums held at the OPS district offices, and a play, a parade, music, an official City of Omaha proclamation.
Other observations of Omaha’s Malcolm X Day happened in 1992, 1994 and 1997.
In 1997, a defunct organization called Oran’s Black Americana Historical Museum on South 13th Street hosted a wax sculpture of Malcolm X, and expected 50 elementary students to attend. According to the Omaha Star, Oran Z also gave lectures around the city on African Americans in the railroad industry as part of Malcolm X Day celebrations.
Honoring the Leader Today
Today, there is no evidence of a Malcolm X Day celebration in Omaha. The last commemorative events I have found happened in 1997. However, there are reports that something has happened every since then! If you know of when they happened and where they happened or who sponsored them, please share in the comments section.
There have been various efforts to honor Malcolm X in his birth city though. Mrs. Moore founded the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation, and in the past 25 years it has acquired 15 acres surrounding the birth site, created a plaza, built an interpretive center and educational memorial, and started a community garden. The State of Nebraska erected an official marker there in 1987, and the foundation continues educating and advocating today.
Malcolm X Day was proposed as an official state holiday in Illinois in 2015. As of 2018, only the city of Berkeley, California observes the holiday with city offices and schools closed, while Washington, D.C. has hosted annual events since 1971.
You May Like…
- Malcolm X Memorial Foundation official website. A non-profit that maintains the historic grounds of 15 acres surrounding the birthsite of Malcolm X, including an interpretive center and historic marker.
- Malcolm X House Site Omaha. Listing on the National Register of Historic Places for the National Park Service.
- “Ku Klux Klan’s 1925 attack on Malcolm X’s family home in Omaha heralded the fight to come” by Erin Grace for the Omaha World-Herald on February 21, 2015.
- “Malcolm X” article on Wikipedia.