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The Maverick of Omaha

Sen. Ernie Chambers talks race and politics.

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

MJ: What advice do you have for white America?

EC: Pretty soon there will be a numerical majority of nonwhite people. That will convert into political activism, which means that these nonwhite people will have decision-making authority. They are not going to forget how their parents, their relatives, they themselves, were insulted by white people—demeaned, degraded, abased, debased. Now all these old white people are relying on Social Security and these other governmental programs. They are not going to have people in power that will feel kindly toward them. At that time they will understand what is meant by the expression, “You sowed the wind and you will reap the whirlwind.” When the whirlwind comes, there will be no place from them to run and hide.

MJ: What do you mean by that?

EC: Some of these people will say, “It’s payback time. We’re going to treat them exactly the way they treated us. We’re going to put their children in circumstances they put our children in, with out-dated textbooks and poorly qualified teachers. Then we’re going to say, your children are not learning because they have something genetically defective in them.” And when you talk to white people like that, you know what they say? “That shouldn’t be your attitude.” I say, “Now you see how wrong what you’re doing to us really is.” White people need to hope that my assessment is wrong, but all they ought to do is ask themselves what their reaction would be: They know that they would rise up and take revenge.

MJ: To escape that scenario, can we turn to the example of someone like Martin Luther King, Jr.?

EC: Martin Luther King really was a safety valve for white people. Any time it appeared that the black community was on the verge of really doing what we ought to do based on having been attacked, they put Martin Luther King on television. He was always saying, “We must use nonviolence. We must overcome hate with love.” White people loved that. That’s why they gave him a Nobel Prize. But then he started waking up. When Martin Luther King had a meeting with Malcolm X, white people became alarmed. When Martin Luther King started condemning the Vietnam War, that’s when white people turned against him. The puppet started moving on his own, the ventriloquist dummy started speaking his own words, so they chopped his head off.

If you are fearful, you hide behind the notion of nonviolence, so that you can run and hide and say that you are being noble. If you are being a man who has self-respect and knows that he has the right to live without being molested by anybody, then you’re not going to practice what Martin Luther King practiced. No, the lesson white people need to learn is that Martin Luther King was of their creation. If he’d had stayed out of white folks business, as they call it, he’d be alive now.

MJ: Since being in the Unicameral, have white legislators been able to work with you? Is there a level of cooperation?

EC: I’m often at odds with my colleagues, but I’ve managed to get legislation passed which will not even be attempted in other states. Rather than use the word “cooperate,” I’ll say there’s kind of a peaceful coexistence, a wary watching of each other. I’m very courteous and polite, and people allow me to be. Some people have applied the term charming to me. I don’t use that term unless I’m the snake charmer and they’re the snake.

I do know how to treat people and that is treat them the way I want to be treated. So when I extend that respect and that consideration that I would like to have, there is a certain amount of reciprocating. Some of the senators have even said words to the effect to me of “I can’t dislike you as much as I wish that I did.”

MJ: Do you think the impassioned speechmaking and rabble-rousing that you’re known for have rubbed off on other senators?

EC: Yeah, there are some who are bolder now in the remarks that they make. And what they will do sometimes is preface their presentation when they’re going to say something that they think might be a little controversial, “Ah, you’re going to think I’m Senator Ernie Chambers when I say this.” And sometimes I might say, “Don’t fool yourself” or “Don’t flatter yourself” or something like that. But some of them are now more willing to state what they genuinely feel without quite as much fear. Sometimes they scare themselves with their own boldness because they’re not accustomed to it.

MJ: Have other people in your district followed in your political footsteps?

EC: The only three political subdivisions where we can elect somebody are the school board, the city council, and the county board. Each of those has one person there, except for the school board which has two. There are not a lot of political offices that people can win, but there are people who now run more for these offices, even though they don’t have much of a chance to win. I tell them that’s good because it shows a political awareness and a political awakening. I tell them the way for us to get this white man’s attention is to register in significant numbers over what we’ve been doing and then vote as a bloc, then they will start seeking us out.

MJ: What are your goals in what is potentially your final term in office?

EC: Just to do everything I can that might be of significance. I will work hard to try to get rid of the death penalty. If I could do that, with all the other things I have not succeeded in doing, I would consider my political career to have been a resounding success.

MJ: What tricks do you have up your sleeve to achieve that during this session?

EC: Since I always wear short sleeve shirts, I don’t have sleeves to hide anything in. Being quite honest with you, before a session starts, I never can tell how things are going to turn out. All I know is what I will do if certain things arise.

MJ: And after this term?

EC: Whether I’m out of this office by term limits or retirement, I may do some political organizing. But that’s the only contact I think I would have in politics. I would not be a candidate for any other office.

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