OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) – Images captured by an Omaha man more than 40 years ago closely resemble news of the day.
Rudy Smith worked as an Omaha World Herald photographer when north Omaha residents took to the streets in the 1960s. One of his assignments covering a burning church nearly cost him his life, as National Guard soldiers ganged up on him after he took photos of the blaze.
“One of them looked at me and said, ‘There's one of them right there. We'll walk him around the side of the building and let's shoot him,’” Smith said.
He captured the chaos, while silently working on the movement behind it too. Smith said people at the time were looking for hope in a largely segregated city even after national civil rights laws.
“They were just waiting for something or someone to step in and change the climate. And it just so happens it wasn’t a black person that changed it. It was a white policeman,” he said.
In 1969 a white police officer shot and killed a 14 year-old black girl, Vivian Strong. People rioted. They burned a two-block radius of 24th street. The timeline of events then is similar to modern-day news in Ferguson, Missouri.
“We’ve grown and matured,” Smith said. “We know how to handle it. Omaha is prepared to handle a situation like Fergus much better than Ferguson can handle that situation.”
This week Omaha Police chief Todd Schmaderer addressed Ferguson events in front of a packed Omaha 360 group. Members there had questions about race relations in the Omaha Police Department and voiced concerns, even citing Omaha’s 1960s riots.
“I wanted to make a point of coming here and thanking everyone in this room. And thanking our partners who are not in this room,” said Chief Schmaderer. “It probably boiled to that point [in Ferguson], and what took place all those years and the lack of relationship-building is mainly what we want to deal with here.”
Chief Schmaderer cited increased community policing effort and peace-keeping work by groups like Omaha 360.
“It’s progress. Meaningful progress,” said Smith. “And positive steps have come out of what happened in Omaha 40 years ago. If not, I still wouldn’t be living in Omaha if we hadn’t had positive steps.”
Historic news clippings courtesy of Douglas County Historical Society