Voices: Ernie Chambers

“I have an obligation. I have a charge to keep. I don’t get tired. I won’t sell out. I won’t be bought out.”

Ernie Chambers does not give up.

Nearly 45 years ago, right after he won a seat in the Nebraska State Senate, he first introduced a bill to repeal the death penalty. He didn’t hesitate to take on the formidable task of abolishing an almost 150-year-old law in a conservative state in the heart of the country.

“I have an obligation. I have a charge to keep. I don’t get tired. I won’t sell out. I won’t be bought out,” Chambers said during a recent phone interview.

For the next 40 years, Chambers introduced a similar bill to repeal Nebraska’s capital punishment law at the start of each legislative session, a total of 38 times. In 1979, the bill was passed by the Legislature but was vetoed by then-Governor Charles Thone. Undeterred, Chambers introduced it at the next session, and the next, and the next….

Ask Chambers what propelled him to try, again and again, to repeal the death penalty and he explains it was a determination forged by a lifelong belief that killing another human being, no matter what the circumstances, is just plain wrong.

“Since I was first conscious of the difference between right and wrong, I have been opposed to the death penalty. My argument is simple: Nobody should kill anybody. And killing someone as punishment is the most barbaric act of all,” he says.

Chambers, who was born in 1937, has been fighting injustice his entire life. An Omaha native, he was often the only black child in a white classroom. He tells of having to listen to his white teacher read Little Black Sambo,a children’s book with descriptions and illustrations of African-Americans so derogatory, it was banned from libraries and schools in the 1970s. He sat in silence while the white kids laughed. It was an experience, he says, that “bothers me to this day.”

Chambers earned his undergraduate degree at Creighton University in Omaha in 1959, and a law degree from Creighton University School of Law in 1979, but because he refuses to join the Nebraska State Bar Association, he has never practiced law.

“I refused to join the Bar because I paid my way through law school,” he says. “Why should I have to pay the Nebraska State Bar Association dues for the right to practice law when I already earned that right by graduating from law school?”

He was fired from the Omaha Post Office in the early 1960s for insubordination after complaining that managers referred to black employees as “boys.” When the Postmaster General gave a speech in Omaha, Chambers picketed it with a sign that read, “I spoke against discrimination in the Omaha Post Office and was fired.”

He became a public figure in 1966 after race riots broke out in Omaha. Acting as a spokesperson for the community, Chambers helped defuse the tension, and subsequently led a citizens’ group that worked to improve relations between residents of North Omaha and the police.

He was working as a barber in the 1960s when he first ran for public office, once for the Omaha School Board and once for the City Council. He lost both times.

In 1970, he was elected to represent North Omaha’s 11th District, and was reelected for the next 34 years, becoming in 2005, Nebraska’s longest-serving state senator. Term limits passed by Nebraska voters in 2000 meant he couldn’t run again for four years, which he did in 2012, winning by a landslide.

Chambers has also unsuccessfully run for the U.S. Senate and for governor of Nebraska.

Asked if he still has aspirations for higher office, Chambers is definite. “No, no, no. I’m where I belong.”

And where he belongs is in Nebraska, fighting for the causes he believes in.
“I’ve always felt an obligation to protect those on the outside, the ones who are weak or frightened,” he says. And it was that sense of obligation that fueled his successful drive to halt the execution of juveniles and the intellectually disabled in Nebraska in 1982, ahead of the U.S. Supreme Court’s nationwide ban.

“Every time I saw an opening, I took it,” he says.

In late May, Chambers finally prevailed. First, by a vote of 32 to 15, the unicameral Nebraska Legislature voted to repeal the death penalty, replacing it with the option of a life sentence without parole. Republican Governor Pete Ricketts vetoed the bill, and less than a week later, the legislature overrode his veto by a vote of 30 to 19, the minimum number needed. With that vote, Nebraska became the first conservative state in more than 40 years to abolish the death penalty. The 10 men on Nebraska’s Death Row were granted a reprieve, and will serve life sentences without parole.

But the battle may not be over. In the wake of the override, Republican Senator Beau McCoy of Omaha announced he would organize an effort to get an initiative on the state ballot next year giving Nebraska voters the option of reinstating the death penalty.

Ernie Chambers is ready.

“I don’t feel the battle is won,” he says. “None of that worries me. I’ve always had the expectation that the battle will go on.”

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