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Omaha suffers another violent protest in 1968

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For aging Baby Boomers, 1967 is often remembered as “The Summer of Love.” That was the year that the hippie movement went mainstream and San Francisco was the place to be. But for residents of other U.S. cities, 1967 was a summer of violence. Beginning in June, more than 150 riots erupted across the United States. The worst of these occurred in Detroit, Michigan.

The Detroit riot was triggered by a police raid on an unlicensed after-hours bar known locally as a “blind pig.” These illegal bars catered primarily to black customers. Upon entering one of these places in the early morning hours of July 23, the cops found 82 people inside celebrating the return of two black servicemen from Vietnam.

They decided to arrest the entire crowd. While waiting for the paddy wagons to haul the arrestees to jail, a hostile crowd gathered on the street in front of the bar. Bottles started flying and the cops retreated. Then the rioting began.

Over the next five days, 43 people were killed and hundreds were injured. More than 2500 businesses were looted and 1400 buildings burned. Most were never rebuilt. In the years following the riots, there was a mass exodus of whites to the suburbs. Detroit lost an estimated 200,000 people and became the poster child for urban decay.

Omaha escaped the civil disturbances of 1967. It was another story in 1968, though.

On Thursday, April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Although the name of his killer (James Earl Raywas not yet known, the assailant was believed to be a white man and that was sufficient to trigger rioting all over the country. Civil disturbances occurred in 110 cities. The worst of these occurred in Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.

In 1968 two thirds of the population of Washington D.C. was black. The demonstrations which began a few hours after King’s murder soon degenerated into rioting, looting and arson. Over the next four days some 1200 buildings were burned. In some parts of the city, rubble remained for decades.

Rioting in Baltimore began on April 6. Local police were overwhelmed and Mayor Thomas D’Allesandro III asked Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew to call out the National Guard. When the Guard could not handle the situation, Agnew sent in Federal troops. His handling of the riot caught the attention of presidential candidate Richard Nixon who was looking for a vice-president.

(A digression: The mayor of Baltimore, Thomas D’Allesandro III, was a brother of current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. While serving as Baltimore’s mayor in 1948, Pelosi’s father Thomas D’Allesandro II spoke at the dedication of a monument to Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. This was the first double equestrian monument in the U.S. The monument was removed in 2017. Nancy Pelosi favors the removal of all Confederate monuments.)

In Chicago rioting began in black neighborhoods on the west side on April 5. More than 10,000 police, 6700 national guardsmen and 5000 federal troops were sent in to quell the riots. Mayor Richard J. Daley gave his infamous order to shoot to kill arsonists and shoot to maim looters. Compared to Washington and Baltimore, the damage in Chicago was not as extensive. Still many businesses were destroyed and 5,000 were left homeless. Because so many grocery stores were burned, the people who lived in the black community suffered food shortages for some time.

There was no Omaha rioting after the King assassination. That may have been because the city experienced a major disturbance a month earlier. This one was precipitated by the visit of former Alabama Gov. George Wallace on March 3, 1968.

White support for the civil rights movement diminished when the peaceful demonstrations began turning violent. Sensing a shift in public opinion, Wallace decided to run for President in 1968. Wallace was a Democrat but Vice President Hubert Humphrey was that party’s presumed nominee. Wallace decided to run on a third party ticket. In order to do that, however, he had to circulate petitions to get his name on the ballot as the candidate of the American Independent Party.

That was what brought George Wallace to Omaha.

Wallace was scheduled to speak at the Omaha Civic Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. on the evening of March 4, 1968. The auditorium could seat 3400 people but more than 5,000 were admitted. Most of the crowd supported Wallace but there were a number of black student protesters who had been seated in the front at the foot of the stage. The students disrupted Wal

The students disrupted Wallace’s speech. Some of them tore up signs they had been waving and threw them to the stage. Others released stink bombs, filling the auditorium with a foul odor.

A police captain tried to evict one of the demonstrators. An argument ensued and the teen took a swing at the officer. The other officers waded into the crowd and pushed them out of the auditorium -- and they were none too gentle about it. Wallace continued speaking. He needed 750 signatures to get on the Nebraska ballot. He received more than 2,000 that evening.

Word reached North Omaha that the protesters had been roughed up by police and Wallace supporters. By 10 p.m. young black men began congregating in a parking lot at 24th and Lake.

By 10:30 the crowd was hurling rocks and bottles through windows of white-owned businesses and at passing white motorists.

When a white teen motorist stopped for a red light at 24th and Lake, someone heaved a brick, striking the driver in the head and causing severe injuries. Another man was dragged from his pickup truck and badly beaten.

The owners of a pawn shop on 24th Street called the police and reported a group of teens had broken the front windows and were attempting to tear off the security bars. An off-duty officer responded to a radio call and agreed to watch the shop. While he was standing guard in the darkened building, one of the teen protesters crawled through a broken window and tried to open the door to looters waiting outside. When the youth failed to obey an order to stop, the officer fired a blast from his 12-gauge shotgun. The teen was killed.