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A look back: The Omaha riots of the 1960s

The civil unrest of 2020 was an echo of the '60s
Posted at 7:19 PM, Jun 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-04 20:19:04-04

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — While Omaha saw protests and riots not experienced in more than a generation last year, the civil unrest was not without precedent.

North Omaha saw a series of protests and riots, with much more destruction in the mid to late 1960s.

The Safeway grocery store sat for a few years on 24th and Lake Streets in the mid-to-late 1960s. It's also the spot where the first Omaha riot of the 1960s began, which led to more protests and riots for several years after that.

"It wasn't planned, it was spontaneous," said David Bristow, Editor of History Nebraska.

It started with a few kids, out and about in North Omaha, on a hot Fourth of July weekend.

"And they're hanging out there because they have nowhere else to go, they have no recreational opportunities,” said Ashley Howard.

"One young person decides it'll be funny to throw a rock at the car," said Howard.

That rock was thrown at a cop car, pushing underlying racial tensions over the edge.

A full-on riot spread throughout North Omaha. After three days, the National Guard and Omaha Police halted it.

"It's just the kind of tipping point, but what's always in the background are those economic, racial and social inequalities," said Howard.

There were plenty of reasons for tensions. Racial redlining segregated Omaha, North Omaha schools were worse than the rest of the city and Black residents said they were over-policed.

Adam Fletcher Sasse is a north Omaha historian and wrote a book called "#OmahaBlackHistory."

"When young people have too much time, when they don't have enough guidance, when there aren't enough opportunities...they create activities to fill in the space," said Fletcher Sasse.

Omaha Mayor A.V. Sorenson, and Nebraska Governor Frank Morrison were initially sympathetic to the concerns of Black Omahans.

"At first there were statements from leaders about, 'We need to make some changes,'” said Bristow.

And things eventually were quelled until 1968, when segregationist Governor of Alabama George Wallace ran for president and spoke at the Civic Auditorium.

"Wallace was notoriously racist, he was very anti-Black," said Fletcher Sasse.

Omaha native Ashley Howard, who researches African-Americans in the Midwest at the University of Iowa, said civil rights protesters went to the event and were even put in the front row by Wallace's team.

Wallace displayed his explosive, race-baiting rhetoric.

"When he signaled, this is when the off-duty police officers, members of his own security squad and just spectators, people who had come to see George Wallace speak...began to beat the youth out of the auditorium."

David Bristow, Editor of History Nebraska, said Wallace cultivated the unrest that eventually spilled into the streets.

"The protesters were running a gauntlet, people in the audience were hitting them with folding chairs,” said Bristow.

"And this flamed into a gigantic riot," said Fletcher Sasse.

The next year, tensions in the community again got to a breaking point. This time, it involved a young, Black Omaha girl, 14-year-old Vivian Strong.

Strong was dancing in an abandoned building with friends. Cops showed up to break it up. One officer fired a shot behind Strong, killing the teen.

This spurred a series of unrest, vandalism and fires.

The officer involved, James Loder, eventually was acquitted by an all-white jury. He later rejoined the Omaha Police Department.

"At least one of the jurors was quoted afterwards as saying, 'Well, it was a tough decision, but I feel like we have to support the police, otherwise we are not going to have law and order,'" said Bristow.

As opposed to how the riots were handled in 1966 — which included city leaders meeting with civil rights leaders — in 1969, Omaha Mayor Gene Leahy took a law and order approach.

"The idea is just to clamp down, to throw police at the problem, to fund them deeply," said Leahy.

The riots destroyed many businesses, some Black-owned, some white. Many of the Black-owned businesses were defended by members of the Black Panther Party.

“Participants in the uprising were very strategic on the businesses that they hit, not just white-owned businesses, but if it was a white-owned business that also happened to disrespect Black customers,” said Howard.

All three historians say the protests and riots were a visible sign that Omaha had racial issues in some ways similar to the South.

Some metrics indicated that Omaha was as segregated as Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s.

"While they weren't putting up signs necessarily that said 'Whites only,' [they] were very determined to keep things the way that they were,” said Bristow.

Howard said lessons can be learned, as racial justice remains at the forefront of our national conversation.

"This thing, that here is this giant uprising, but if you had just listened to what Black people had been saying for years prior, it would not have had to happen,” said Howard.

It was difficult for Black business owners to reopen businesses after the riots.

Some banks refused to loan them money, insurance companies were reluctant to insure the buildings due to worries that more riots would occur.

This stifled the North Omaha economy for years to come.

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