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The Maverick of Omaha

Sen. Ernie Chambers talks race and politics.

| Thu Jan. 5, 2006 4:00 AM EST

In the official Nebraska Blue Book, which details the resumes of the state’s 49 senators, the biography of the state’s longest serving member reads simply: “Born July 10, 1937. Independent.” Senator Ernie Chambers is rarely described with such brevity: Elsewhere, he’s been named the “angriest black man in Nebraska,” the “defender of the downtrodden,” and the “maverick of Omaha.” And it's hard to deny that Chambers lives up to such colorful titles.

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After 35 years representing the predominately black north side of Omaha in the Nebraska Unicameral, Chambers has become renowned for his fierce independence and passionate rhetoric on an array of issues, from the legality of state-paid chaplains to the hero-status of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His extended debates (a.k.a. filibusters) have become a staple of legislative life, and his politics have often led him into strange alliances. For instance, during his freshman term in 1970, Chambers clashed with his hawkish colleague Terry Carpenter over the Vietnam War and an upcoming visit by President Nixon. In time the two developed a collegial friendship and worked together to pass district-based voting legislation, and when Carpenter died, in 1978, Chambers served as one of the pallbearers.

Critics of the lone African American in Nebraska’s legislature say he sees the world strictly in terms of black and white—and indeed Chambers is unapologetic about the centrality of race to his politics. “Because I’m black in a white, racist society,” he says, “I was often excoriated by the white media and by white people because the steps I took were contrary to what white people deemed their interests to be.”

Mother Jones recently talked with Chambers about his political career, race, and his plans beyond 2008, when Nebraska's new term limits law will likely force him out of office.

Mother Jones: I’ve read that you refer to the parties of your colleagues as Repelicans and Demagogues. What’s the story behind that?

Ernie Chambers: They’re words that the very sound of them conveys that both of them are not worth very much. They’re flying false flags. During campaign season, they always make the same promises that they’re not going to keep. As a black person, I tell other black people, “Listen to these white people. You’re going to hear them tell the truth about each other: They’re going tell how rotten, lowdown, dishonest, incompetent, cheating, and unreliable they are.” When I say half as much as that, they call me a racist in reverse.

MJ: What’s your take on American political life today?

EC: America is basically a hypocritical society and recognizes that hypocrisy is found throughout. The public doesn’t look for politicians to tell the truth or to deliver on their promises. This country could become America the beautiful, but it never will. It’s in the hands of the wrong people. And the public is so apathetic. Those who are not apathetic are dispirited, discouraged, and disheartened. Those who will sometimes feel a twitch of inspiration that would lead them to do something, they, based on their conditioning, will start to total up all the reasons why they can’t succeed. They’re whipped before they start, so they don’t even start. And the politicians know it. I often quote Hitler, who said words to the effect of, “Rulers are fortunate that the people do not think.” Politicians know this. Even when the public seems to be upset, the politicians know if they can put on a brave face and ride it out, they generally will.

MJ: During the Civil Rights movement, in the 60s and 70s, was there a glimmer of things going another way?

EC: Oh yeah. Everybody had high hopes, had brimming optimism, and thought that a change indeed was coming. Some changes were wrought, but it did not go as far as it could have or should have. The white politicians and law enforcement knew better than we did that our numbers were sufficient to be the balance of power when it came to these close elections between white people, that if we would wake up and realize the political power that we could have, they would be in trouble. So both parties started attacking us and tried to sow divisions.

MJ: How did you get involved with the community and social activism?

EC: I was always aware that black children were not treated the same as white children. I went to what would be called a white school, and if a black child did something, that child would be punished severely. In those days, they used corporal punishment, even in the classroom in front of the other kids. A white kid would have nothing happen. I was in a class where I was the only black child, and they sang “Old Black Joe” during the music portion and read The Story of Little Black Sambo and let those little white kids laugh, which children will do because the story is supposed to be funny—it wasn’t funny to me at all. In my child’s mind, I decided if there was some way I could stop that from ever happening again, I would do it. And in later years, I did manage to get that book out of the public schools.

I fell into politics by accident. It was not something I planned. It just happened because I’d done so much reading and work in the community, I was prepared to do the job when the opportunity came along.

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