1895: “They Had Earned Equality Before The Law”

In 1895, Dr. Matthew Ricketts, a Republican and the first black member of Nebraska’s Legislature, sponsored a bill in the House of Representatives to repeal the prohibition on interracial marriage, which had been law since the first days of the Nebraska Territory. It passed by a vote of 54-15.1Omaha World-Herald, Mar. 31, 1895. From there it passed the Senate and reached the Governor, Silas A. Holcomb, who had been elected as a Populist with the support of William Jennings Bryan. On April 11, 1895, Gov. Holcomb vetoed the bill, reasoning that such a bill without due consideration could not possibly reflect the will of the people.2Omaha World-Herald, April 12, 1895. The Legislature, having adjourned sine die, had no opportunity to override Holcomb’s veto. Though there was some doubt as to whether Holcomb had vetoed the bill within the five days required by the Nebraska Constitution, ultimately the veto stood.3“Lincoln All Agog Over the Validity of the Veto of Three Bills,” Omaha World-Herald, April 17, 1895.

Reaction to the veto was predictably tinged with racist, inflammatory rhetoric. The Crete Democrat said the bill “opened the gates that lead to racial destruction,” that it would “mongrelize the white race” and “destroy civilization.” “Just why men of ordinary intelligence would vote for such a measure is beyond the comprehension of the average citizen.”4Omaha World-Herald, April 23, 1895. Over a century later, we are left to wonder the opposite.

Our collective historical memory is short. We overlook or ignore the messy parts in favor of a cleaner narrative. Sometimes the figures in opposition, while in the present moment creating insurmountable obstacles, are deemed mostly insignificant in the grand scheme of history. Such is Silas Holcomb, a mostly forgettable Governor of Nebraska who was elected in 1894 on a fusion ticket between the Democratic Party and the People’s Party, commonly known as the Populists.

Silas Alexander Holcomb was born August 25, 1858 in Gibson County, Indiana to John C. and Lucinda R. Holcomb (née Skelton). His grandmother on his father’s side was reportedly related to Robert E. Lee. After his father’s death in 1878, he moved to Nebraska with his family and took up the practice of law. By 1883, he had moved to Broken Bow, where he became involved in local politics. In 1891, he was elected as a district judge as the nominee of the People’s Independent Party. The party nominated him for Governor in 1894.5E.R. Purcell, “Governor-Elect Holcomb: A Sketch of the Life of Nebraska’s Next Executive,” Nebraska State Journal, Dec. 3, 1894. Holcomb was only thirty-six years old when he became Governor of Nebraska.

The Populist Party’s history is intrinsically linked with Nebraska. In 1892, the People’s Party held a national convention on July 4 in Omaha, Nebraska, nominating James Weaver as its candidate for President.6Omaha Daily Bee, July 5, 1892. The platform adopted at that convention, known as the Omaha Platform, called for the free coinage of silver, a major issue in national politics at the time and an issue which Nebraska’s favorite son, Democrat William Jennings Bryan, would later use to rise to national prominence and the nomination of his party for President of the United States (and, ultimately, the demise of the Populists as an independent party).

For now, though, Bryan was a Congressman, editor-in-chief of the Omaha World-Herald,7A note on the political slants of the World-Herald, the Journal, and the Bee, which given their prominence in my research, will be a topic worth revisiting. The World-Herald was a Democratic paper and publisher Gilbert Hitchcock would later serve as a Democratic U.S. Senator. The Journal was a Republican paper but frequently clashed with the Bee‘s publisher Edward Rosewater, also a Republican. The Bee‘s sensationalist journalism would become infamous given its role in the Omaha Race Riot of 1919, which resulted in the lynching of Will Brown and the attempted hanging of Omaha Mayor Edward Parsons Smith. and a candidate for United State Senate in 1894. Prior to the adoption of the 17th Amendment, Senators were elected by state legislatures. Bryan saw an opportunity to partner with Populist candidates to elect a friendly Governor and improve his chances of being elected to the Senate. The Democratic convention nominated Holcomb for Governor and boosted Bryan as their preferred candidate for U.S. Senate. “It was Bryan’s convention from first to last,” the Nebraska State Journal wrote, “and his followers rode rough-shod over all opposition.”8“Fusion Is A Fact,” Nebraska State Journal, Sep. 27, 1894.

So Holcomb had the support of Democrats and Populists, as well as at least one prominent Republican. The Omaha Daily Bee was an important Republican paper at the time and its publisher Edward Rosewater notably broke with the party to support Holcomb over the Republican nominee, Lt. Governor Thomas Majors. This made Rosewater a frequent target of the Journal, which called him “the assistant populist.”9Id.

The elections of 1894 were by and large a disaster for Democrats. Republicans won a large majority in the State Legislature and with it removed any chance that Bryan would be elected as Senator. Holcomb’s election was in doubt as well. The Lincoln Evening News10The Journal‘s Lincoln daily and predecessor to the Lincoln Journal declared “Majors The Man” the day after the election,11Lincoln Evening News, Nov. 7, 1894. while the Bee declared just as confidently “Holcomb The Winner.”12Omaha Daily Bee, Nov. 7, 1894. The World-Herald, despondent over Democratic losses across the country, could only ask “Is It Tom Majors?”13Omaha World-Herald, Nov. 7, 1894. The Bee had it correct, and went about alleging potential fraud by Republicans intent on electing Majors.14Omaha Daily Bee, Nov. 8, 1894. As it turned out, Holcomb was the only bright spot for Democrats and Populists. Republicans had swept nearly every other race, owing to the national mood against President Grover Cleveland and the Panic of 1893, as well as the deep divisions within the Democratic Party.

It was in this environment, with a Republican majority against him and an uneasy alliance of Populists and Silver Democrats on his side, that Silas Holcomb became Governor of Nebraska.

Matthew Ricketts was born on April 3, 1858 in Henry County, Kentucky, to enslaved parents. After the Civil War, they moved to Booneville, Missouri.15W.A. Howard (1895), “Matthew O. Ricketts,” Biographical Sketches of the Nebraska Legislature, p.177 Upon moving to Omaha in 1880, Ricketts became a trailblazer in more ways than one. Working as a janitor at the Omaha Medical College (now the University of Nebraska Medical Center), he enrolled and graduated with high honors in 1884, becoming the first African-American to graduate medical school in Nebraska.16J.M. Wolfe (1895), “M.O. Ricketts,” Portrait Engravings of All the Members and Officers of the State Legislature, p.148 In 1892, he was elected to the Nebraska State House of Representatives as a Republican representing Douglas County,17Nebraska did not have single-member districts until after a Constitutional amendment in 1920. becoming the first black state legislator in Nebraska history. Dr. Ricketts was successful in his first term, securing passage of a landmark civil rights law which prohibited discrimination in public accommodations.18Editorial, “No better time to remember Nebraska’s civil rights pioneer,” Omaha World-Herald, Aug. 26, 2017. Sen. Robert Moore, who carried the bill in the State Senate, was elected Lt. Governor in 1894. Ricketts earned high praise from his colleagues and observers of the Legislature. “Dr. Ricketts is one of the best speakers in the house as well as a ready debater,” one biographical guide wrote.19Howard (1895), Biographical Sketches. He was reelected in 1894.

Ricketts’ bill passed the House at the end of March, a few days before the Legislature was scheduled to adjourn. Ricketts called the law “a stigma upon his race,” according to the Journal. “They had earned equality before the law.”20“Caucasians and Negros May Marry,” Nebraska State Journal, Mar. 31, 1895. Ultimately, the bill was the victim of a (perhaps convenient) process argument. There does not seem to have been any debate on the measure in the Senate, and the news accounts of the day did not find the passage of the bill, or even its veto, all that remarkable or controversial. But the circumstances of the final day of the Twenty-Fourth Nebraska Legislature were enough to provide Holcomb with an excuse to veto the bill.

The last day of the 1895 session of the Nebraska Legislature was chaotic and seemingly endless. A number of bills were left until the final hours, including an age of consent bill which Ricketts also supported, and the marriage bill. The World-Herald matter-of-factly reported on the Legislature’s work, still ongoing at a late hour on the morning of April 6, 1895. The passage of the marriage bill merited but a single sentence in its report.21“Gives Up The Ghost,” Omaha World-Herald, April 6, 1895. The bill passed the Senate without debate in the evening hours of April 5. The sensational details of the rest of the day’s business were left to the other papers to fill in, fixated on the fact that the Legislature was scheduled to adjourn at noon on April 5. “At 11:30 in the house and at an earlier hour in the senate the great clocks over the chairs of the presiding officials stopped through aid extended by the sergeant-at-arms with a step ladder,” the Nebraska State Journal wrote. “All through the day and the hours of the night the hands of the official time pieces declared the hour for adjournment had not yet arrived.”22“With Silent Clocks,” Nebraska State Journal, April 6, 1895. The Bee suggested something altogether more lurid. “Drunken orgie in cellar,” one heading announced.23“Its Tale Is Told,” Omaha Daily Bee, April 6, 1895. In the early morning hours of April 6, as the Bee tells it, “drunken men reeled about the hallway and danced on the lunch tables. Beer was free as water. Clerks, janitors, house and senate members were mixed up in one grand carnival of bacchanalian revelry.”24Id.

The Legislature finally adjourned sine die at 12:35 p.m. on April 6, 1895, over twenty-four hours after the scheduled time for adjournment. Ricketts struck a collegial tone, “urging the members to forget all partisan feeling upon returning to their homes and to part with assurances of good will.”25“End of Turmoil,” Lincoln Evening News, April 6, 1895. On April 11, Gov. Holcomb issued his veto message. The headline-grabbing veto was on a bill for a new Omaha City Charter, but Holcomb laid out his reasons for vetoing the marriage bill as well.

“[T]his measure was hurriedly passed during the closing hours of the legislative session, without consideration, many members afterward openly declaring that they did not know they had voted for the bill on its final passage,” Holcomb wrote.26“Vetoed The Omaha Charter,” Omaha Daily Bee, April 12, 1895. He argued that the bill could not possibly reflect the will of the people until it was given a full debate, and thus he was obligated to veto it.

Holcomb would be re-elected to another two-year term in 1896, while William Jennings Bryan would be the Democratic nominee for President. Ricketts would not run for re-election. Holcomb would later be elected to the Nebraska Supreme Court and serve as Chief Justice. But Nebraska’s law banning interracial marriage would survive another 68 years.

1970: “They’re In For A Surprise”

Described as “militant” in the press, a 33 year-old barber challenged the incumbent state senator for North Omaha’s 11th legislative district. Decades later, he is one of the most important figures in the history of Nebraska’s legislature, still serving at the age of 81.

Ernie Chambers was already a prominent civil rights activist by the time he ran for Legislature in 1970. In 1964, he petitioned for the removal of the racist story “Little Black Sambo” from Omaha Public Schools.27“‘Sambo’ Book Under Fire Again,” Associated Press, Dec. 12, 1964. In 1966, he appeared in the Oscar-nominated documentary “A Time For Burning.”28“A Time For Burning” | Library of Congress Then-mayor A.V. Sorensen said he would always meet with Chambers, “although he has heaped a lots of abuse on me.”29“Negro Community Has Leadership, But No Consensus,” Omaha Star, Mar. 11, 1966. In 1969, Chambers campaigned for Omaha City Council.30“Chambers To File For City Council,” Omaha Star, Jan. 23, 1969.

George Althouse, a Republican appointed by Governor Norbert Tiemann that year to fill the vacancy created by Sen. Edward Danner’s death, was the incumbent.31“Althouse, Troudt Appointed,” Lincoln Journal, Feb. 20, 1970. Danner, a Democrat,32“State Senator, 2 Other Demos File As Delegates,” Lincoln Star, Feb. 9, 1968. had sponsored several civil rights bills during his time in the Legislature,33“Sen. Danner, 69, Succumbs,” Associated Press, Jan. 27, 1970. including a successful repeal of Nebraska’s interracial marriage ban four years before Loving v. Virginia.34“Interracial Marriage Ban Repeal Bill OKd,” Lincoln Journal, Mar. 27, 1963; “Marriage Bill Hearing Monday,” Lincoln Star, Feb. 24, 1963. Initially, Althouse was not expected to run,35Don Walton, “20 Incumbent Senators Seek Re-Election,” Lincoln Star, Mar. 4, 1970. but ultimately filed for reelection. Chambers filed at the deadline to join Althouse and Michael Adams, grandson of former State Senator John Adams Sr., in the race.36Dick Herman, “Candidates Rush To Beat Deadline,” Lincoln Journal, Mar. 13, 1970. Chambers led the pack in the primary election, with Althouse finishing second and Adams in third. Althouse accused Adams and Chambers’ campaigns of “intimidating” his campaign workers.37“Althouse: ‘Workers Intimidated,'” Lincoln Star, Jun. 16, 1970.

Althouse did not get to officially serve or cast a vote in the Legislature until the special session in June 1970. But with his first floor speech, Althouse had already created controversy. “If it is [God’s] plan that the white man be in command,” Althouse told the Legislature, “there is nothing we can do about it, so let’s all join up and work together.”38“Althouse: Let’s Join And Work Together,” Lincoln Star, Jun. 17, 1970. Marian Danner Williams, the daughter of the late Sen. Edward Danner and a supporter of Chambers, criticized the remarks, saying they depicted God as a racist. Michael Adams accused Althouse of “plantation antics” and said that if he really felt that way, he should resign and hand his seat to “the first white man he can find.”39“Charges Fly In Race For Unicameral Seat,” Associated Press, Jun. 24, 1970. In the narrative of Ernie Chambers’ career this speech is often cited by media as the motivating factor in his run for Legislature.40Nicholas Riccardi, “Term limits will silence speaker of the Senate,” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 24, 2007. But Chambers had been a candidate and already won a primary election before Althouse made the speech. So while it couldn’t have been the reason he decided to run, it may have at least added fuel to the fire.

Chambers himself, of course, was and is no stranger to controversial statements. Arguably, his no-holds-barred rhetoric contributed to his popularity. And he didn’t really care if it jeopardized his political standing. In the case of the death of Omaha Police Officer Larry Minard, Chambers said “he had no tears for the death of his ‘enemy.'”41“Chambers: Won’t Hide For Vote,” Lincoln Journal, Oct. 15, 1970. David Rice and Edward Poindexter, members of the Black Panther Party, were later tried and convicted for Minard’s murder, and became a cause celebre among those who believed that they were framed.42Lori Pilger, “After 45 years in prison, question remains: cop killer or political prisoner?,” Lincoln Journal Star, Dec. 11, 2016.

Chambers was unapologetic about his opinions. “If I am elected to the Unicameral, I don’t want it to be because I disguised what I think.”43“Police Catch Most Of Chambers’ Wrath,” Lincoln Journal, Sep. 22, 1970. He listed some signature issues, including prison reform, that would continue to dominate his legislative career over the decades. Chambers won the election in November, defeating Althouse by a 58-42 margin.44“Election At A Glance,” Lincoln Journal, Nov. 4, 1970. But some observers wondered whether Chambers would be able to work with the predominantly white Nebraska Legislature. He had an answer for them too.

“When I’m dealing with rational-reasonable men, I can be rational and reasonable,” Chambers told the Lincoln Journal. “They’re in for a surprise. Everyone is.”45Dick Mezzy, “Chambers and Althouse Campaign In Controversial Legislative Race,” Lincoln Journal, Oct. 22, 1970.

1982: “A Nice Christian City”

Days before Lincoln was to vote on a City Charter amendment that would add sexual orientation to the list of protected classes under the Lincoln Human Rights Ordinance, the leading opponent of the proposal made an explosive charge.

“Right now, here in Lincoln, there is a 4-year-old boy who has had his genitals almost severed from his body at Gateway [Shopping Center] in the rest room with a homosexual act,” Paul Cameron, chairman of the Committee to Oppose Special Rights for Homosexuals, told a church audience in Lincoln just over a week before the May 1982 primary election.46Kathryn Haugstatter, “Cameron Used False Report,” Lincoln Star, May 8, 1982. It wasn’t true. Cameron, who would later go on to found the Family Research Institute,47Paul Cameron | Southern Poverty Law Center admitted that it was a rumor. Lincoln Police said no such incident had occurred. But the outrageous rhetoric had its intended effect: the charter amendment failed by a nearly 4-to-1 margin.48Steven Stingley, “Gay Rights Advocates Say Issue Not Dead in Lincoln,” Omaha World-Herald, May 12, 1982.

The push to amend Lincoln’s anti-discrimination laws to include sexual orientation reached Lincoln’s government in 1981. Proponents organized a campus event at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to help garner support for the measure, which first had to be approved by the Lincoln Human Rights Commission.49Kent Warneke, “Panelists Support Gays’ Civil Rights,” Lincoln Journal, Oct. 9, 1981. Immediately, there were problems. The Lincoln City Attorney’s office took the position that any such change would require either a change to statute at the statewide level, or a change to the City Charter, which would require a vote of the people.50Haugstatter, “Panel debates gay ordinance,” Lincoln Star, Oct. 9, 1981. Three decades later, Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, then himself a candidate for U.S. Senate in the Republican primary, would rely on that opinion to argue that Lincoln must submit a similar proposal to the voters as a charter amendment.51Nancy Hicks, “Undeterred by AG’s opinion, City Council will consider anti-discrimination ordinance,” Lincoln Journal Star, May 4, 2012.

Proponents pressed on, and the Lincoln Human Rights Commission held a public hearing on the proposed changes. In addition to the standard inflammatory moral rhetoric, opponents argued that the changes would protect people who engage in illegal activity, as sodomy was a crime in Nebraska.52George Hendrix, “Gay rights law debated,” Lincoln Star, Nov. 18, 1981. Lincoln Mayor Helen Boosalis said she would sign the measure if the City Council passed it.53“Boosalis has ‘no qualms’ about ratifying gay rights,” Lincoln Star, Nov. 19, 1981. The Commission made a unanimous recommendation to the City Council in favor of the amendment.54Hendrix, “Gay rights get panel support,” Lincoln Star, Dec. 2, 1981. Commission member Bob Kerrey, who would be a candidate for Governor in the upcoming election, would face criticism even from members of his own party for his vote.55“Gay Issue Stand Under Attack,” Omaha World-Herald, May 7, 1982.

But despite the support of the Human Rights Commission and Mayor Boosalis, the City Council delayed.56Hendrix, “Council delays voting on gay rights proposal,” Lincoln Star, Jan. 5, 1982. The City Attorney’s opinion provided the Council with the only excuse some members would need to avoid taking a controversial stand. They could punt the question to the voters, if they decided to take action at all. The Human Rights Commission again urged the Council to act, voting to request the Council to conduct a public hearing on the ordinance.”57L. Kent Wolgamott, “Rights Commission renews pressure for gay rights law,” Lincoln Journal, Jan. 6, 1982. The Nebraska Attorney General issued an opinion supporting Lincoln’s legal authority to pass an ordinance.58“Gays Applaud Legal Opinion,” Associated Press, Jan. 8, 1982. But the City Attorney’s office stood by its opinion, and the City Council decided to hold a hearing to place the measure on the ballot.59“Council to discuss scheduling gay rights vote,” Lincoln Journal, Feb. 2, 1982.

The public hearing on the proposal took place on March 1 and lasted for six hours. Roughly an hour before the meeting was scheduled to begin, the city received a threat stating that a bomb would go off during the meeting at 8 p.m.60David Swartzlander, “Sexual orientation amendment on May ballot,” Lincoln Journal, Mar. 2, 1982. Law enforcement cleared the building to search for an explosive device, but found nothing. Many people who showed up for the hearing did not remain after the search, and fewer still remained for the entire six-hour meeting. The final vote came after midnight.

With only two months to organize, proponents of the measure faced a steep uphill battle. Cameron organized a letter-writing campaign to create the appearance of opposition in the local newspapers.61“Group to campaign against gay rights,” Lincoln Star, Mar. 9, 1982. The letters were full of vile bigotry and homophobia with the veneer of religiosity. “Bias must exist in law in order that a society can preserve itself, and protect its citizens against harm,” one letter argued.62Douglas W. Mueller, “Bias must exist,” Lincoln Star, Mar. 17, 1982. “God declared the same penalty for homosexuality as for murder – death,” another wrote.63J. Wendel Howsden, “No approval,” Lincoln Star, Mar. 17, 1982. “Citizens for human rights should be dealing with people who are human,” one Omaha letter said, “not homosexuals.”64Thomas Anthony Fleming, “Lincoln, the Gay Capital?,” Omaha World-Herald, Apr. 16, 1982. The campaign itself took to making false and outrageous claims, like the mutilated child. They claimed the amendment would force businesses to hire homosexuals through affirmative action programs, and would provide protection against prosecution for rape, sodomy, and incest.65“Gay rights opponents’ ‘facts’ said wrong,” Lincoln Star, Mar. 18, 1982.

Proponents, meanwhile, failed to gain mainstream support. The Democratic Party was far from decided on the issue. Kerrey’s opponent in the primary election criticized him for supporting the proposal. DiAnna Schimek, then the leader of the Democratic Party, answered Republican criticism of the proposal by calling the matter “a local concern.”66“Republican Official Asks for Stand on Gays,” Associated Press, May 6, 1982. The Lincoln Chamber of Commerce opposed the amendment, citing the increased burdens they claimed it would place on businesses.67“Chamber supports jail bond issue,” Lincoln Star, Apr. 16, 1982. A poll conducted the week before the election showed the measure trailing 53-34.68Swartzlander, “Pollster: Gay rights measure won’t pass,” Lincoln Star, May 9, 1982. Ultimately, the proposal lost 78-22.

Opponents were jubilant at such a resounding victory. Some sought to press the advantage. “If Lincoln is to remain a nice Christian city… the Christians of this city must become more involved in politics other than on election day,” one op-ed in the Lincoln Journal said.69Doug Wehrli, “Must keep Lincoln a nice Christian city,” Lincoln Journal, May 19, 1982. But if there were any electoral ramifications for those who supported the proposal, they weren’t readily apparent. Bob Kerrey would go on to win the election for Governor in 1982, and later would go on to serve two terms as a U.S. Senator. Helen Boosalis was the Democratic nominee for Governor four years later when Kerrey declined to run for reelection. Proponents of the measure put on a brave face, calling the vote a “first step.”70Stingley, “Gay Rights Advocates Say Issue Not Dead in Lincoln,” Omaha World-Herald, May 12, 1982. But it would be a decade before a serious anti-discrimination proposal next arrived.

Hello Again!

I decided to restart this blog as a place to put some longform thoughts, and really start writing again. I’m going to try something a little bit different with this iteration: for a number of reasons I don’t want to spill a bunch of virtual ink over the political controversies of the moment. I do enough of that on Twitter. Instead, I’m looking to dive into some historical research, particularly as it relates to the Nebraska Legislature. With the possible exception of Ernie Chambers, most of the political figures I will discuss here are no longer in public office. But their stories are relevant and many of the issues discussed are still with us today.

For those of you who don’t know me, I am a Democratic political consultant in Omaha, Nebraska. I have worked for various campaigns including Heath Mello, Bob Krist, Jim Suttle, and Jim Esch, and consulted on a few others. From 2009-2013 I worked for Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle, who survived a tea party-backed recall effort but ultimately lost reelection. In 2016, I graduated from Creighton University School of Law and was admitted to the Nebraska state bar.

As I said, there’s going to be a heavy focus on historical topics here, but that doesn’t mean they won’t have contemporary relevance. Some things to look out for in the future: The history of efforts to ban anti-LGBT discrimination in Nebraska; Civil rights-era legislation; The first unicameral session; The last bicameral session; Key figures in the history of Nebraska politics; and historical elections.