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Ernie Chambers – Black

I tell them there are only two labels I accept: my name, which my mother gave me, and black. Black is a term that carries with it connotations: the lynchings, the bombings, the burnings, the castrations, the raping of our women and our children.

-Ernest William Chambers

There’s a tradition in the Nebraska legislature for senators who are planning not to return to the body to have a tribute spoken in their honor. Here’s what was said about Senator Ernest “Ernie” Willam Chambers. Thank you Senator Patty Pansing Brooks, for your research and remarks on a man that spend his entire life fighting for the least, the last, and the lost and thank you to the legislative transcription office for providing the remarks quickly.

Thank you, Mr. President. So after I said I would do the tribute to Senator Chambers, I then thought, what in the world was I thinking? How to adequately describe, exult, rejoice, show gratitude for this giant among us. He’s not here. Hopefully he’s listening somewhere in his office. But what could I say that could possibly mean anything to anyone and especially to Senator Chambers? His own words, I finally realized, tell his own tale. So I want to give some thanks to the Lincoln Journal star, the Omaha World-Herald, the Ernie-grams, and my own notes for six years. And also to the fabulous Cynthia Grandberry, who has been beside him as beautiful, wise and strong right hand and walk– who’s walked beside him all these years. Thank you, Cynthia. Senator Chambers has been a teacher, a mentor to the young, a philosopher, a poet, a theologian, a biblical scholar of the “Bibble,” an advocate, a fighter, a protector of children, an agitator, a wordsmith, a force, an indomitable force. He’s the mountain lion of the Midlands, the master of the uncomfortable, the critical. He’s a master of four-decade sacred effort to mold and purify all of us through a fire of pointed and heartrending ferocity. When we take offense, it usually means the shoe fits and we wear it well. What an honor to give the farewell remarks for Senator Chambers, Nebraska’s ultimate defender of the downtrodden. Like other Nebraskans, I have followed Senator Chambers’ career through many decades, law school, long before I came to the Legislature. I never dreamed that one day I would have the honor to serve alongside him as a colleague and the blessing to be named his goddaughter.

A quick history of key points in his life. In the ’60s, Senator– Ernie was discriminated against at the Post Office. He was fired for speaking out. Senator Chambers became the first in the country to stand against apartheid in South Africa. That was 1980. He became the first to envision paying student athletes, 1985. He was the first to stand for LGBTQ and took an AIDS test in 2006 to help people not fear that test or fear what would become of them or the trauma or stigma. He has been an example. Oh, yes, he has been an example, except when he wasn’t. Catherine Aird said: If you can’t be a good example, you’ll just have to be a horrible warning. Well, Senator Chambers was both and often at the same time. He was the first to stand for black lives in the Legislature. He fought in 2000 to close the liquor stores, suggesting the revocation of liquor licenses in Whiteclay, which is ultimately what did happen.

His entire 46-year mission has been for the least, the last, and the lost. Amazingly, he was described by some I spoke to as a child as very quiet. He never spoke. He was initially going to be a doctor, which some of you, I presume, wish he had. He found his voice in the military when he saw injustices. He decided on law to help a community of people overcome injustices, both against people of color and people in poverty. He was always concerned about and is always concerned about those who cannot speak for themselves. Thus, the T-shirt and jeans, the consummate common man, even when he was meeting with President Carter. Senator Chambers has a connection to humility, humanity, and the common soul of man.

He always said he didn’t have a heart. And that, my friends, is his greatest fabrication.

I will miss Senator Chambers, the wordsmith, the poet, and his advanced– his advanced ability at the art of alliteration. He met– he’s mentioned that someone was not a feckless fellow or a mean man. He criticized someone for being a gutless gutbucket guttersnipe. He pointed out that there are many of– many among us who cry like rats eating onions. And this year he noted Cyrus the Virus, if he is desirous, will take the lives of all of us.

Senator Chambers has been a teacher, a mentor, a role he embraced and valued. He said this year there is much to this world, much to be learned, much to be taught. And teach us he did, from the rules to justice, prison reform to every subject under the sun. Senator Chambers could outthink, outmaneuver, and outlast each of us. When he first joined the legislature in 1973, imagine ’73, he illustrated I as a barber, I’m often called upon by individuals who come into the barbershop to improve what nature has done to the top of their head. Well, I am now down here in the Legislature and I am trying to make an improvement on what nature put inside of the head of some people.

He– he pronounced, if I want to bring this Legislature to a halt, I will do it. And you know how I do it? Not with a gun, not by choking people. A loaded brain is more powerful than a loaded gun. I master the rules. And he said that multiple times. Master them he did. He commented that the only thing that might give significance to his being here as long as he– as he has is the fact that he has not sat here on a quote unquote– like a quote unquote, not on a log. Quote, I’ve been active, forceful, and effective for all of these years. So anybody who has a kind thought toward me because of that, I thank you. That was when he was term limited the first time. He has cajoled us. He said, I speak panther. You all speak mouse. I speak the language of the solitary dweller, like the mountain lion. You all speak the language of lemming. Sadly, too often we do speak the language of lemming.

He also said– he went on to say that the status quo in Nebraska is backwardness. It requires a tremendous amount of sustained effort to produce even the tiniest amount of forward movement. He said that in 1980.

Then his crowning work for so many years was on the death penalty. He foretold in 1976, as long as I am in the Legislature, I’m going to work for the abolition of the death penalty in Nebraska. He reflected after the vote in 2015, when we voted to abolish the Nebraska death penalty, he reflected and said, my mountain lions heaved a collective sigh of relief now that I can focus on them. He explained, the United States is the only western country, the only democracy which retains the death penalty. This tragedy is accentuated by the fact that 150 people in the last few years have been taken off death row because they were innocent. I know there are people who want to believe that no innocent person has ever been executed in the– in this country, he said. But when you have this many people conclusively proven by DNA evidence to be actually innocent, there is no escaping the conclusion that innocent people have indeed been executed. That was 2015. And he brought the legislation, the DNA legislation that freed the Beatrice Six and showed them to be innocent.

On black justice, he said in 1967, 1967, listen to his words. You can understand why Jews who were burned by the Nazis hate Germans, but you can’t understand why black people who have been systematically murdered by the government and its agents, by private citizens, by police departments, you can’t understand why they hate white people? Black people doing ordinary, reasonable, peaceful things in this country are attacked by the police and the police are praised for it. And you talk about giving the police more money and more power, 1967. Describing another this year, he said, quote, His comments are the warp and woof of racism. I just love his words. He continuously affirmed those who are in the minority or alone have to fight and they have to vote. And he– he went on to say, we have been put in a position to care for others. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.

He, of course, had compassion for those in prison. He observed in 1971 after visiting the penitentiary: I don’t see how anybody comes out of prison without being filled with an unreasoning, bitter hatred, which would lead him to lash out destructively against the society which degraded him to the level of a subhuman being, 1971.

And we all know he adored children. In 1988, he said to some chil– some elementary children, we have messed up your world pretty good. You have an obligation to do better. You ought to be the most important thing in the world to us. I agree. Our children should be the most important thing in the world to us. And thanks to Senator Chambers, we are the only state to have never adopted a religious exemption for, wait for it, child neglect, the only state not to have created a religious exemption for child neglect.

He went on to affirm in 2007, all that I need to have made clear to me is that we’re dealing with human beings. This is on LGBTQ. Once that is established, every right, privilege, protection of a person should be extended and nobody should be discriminated against, especially in the area of employment because of sexual orientation, 2007, my friends.

He was an agitator and a humorist. He– he had a lawsuit against God. In that lawsuit he said, quote, plaintiff, despite reasonable efforts to effectuate service upon the defendant, i.e., God quote, come out, come out wherever you are. But he has been unable to so serve God. That was in 2007. He always had humor. He said in 1994, I snack on razor blades washed down by hydrochloric acid. That sweetens my disposition. And he said the king cobra doesn’t waste its veneman– venom on things that are dead. So why am I here now? Sometimes I will attend a funeral. So then there’s the religion– religious part of Senator Chambers. That is integral to who he is and what he has done, whatever you may think. Senator Chambers calls himself and called himself this year God’s ambassador without portfolio.

He went on at various points to say, [SINGING] you say tomato, I say tomahto; you say potato, I say potahto/ tomato, tomahto, potato, potahto! Let’s call the whole thing off. And then he said, You say Bible and I say “Bibble” and mine is as correct as yours. For how do you pronounce the word b-i-b-l-i-c-a-l?

We are left with the invitation to stand up. Senator Chambers invites us to be strong, to access the sacred and holy within. There– he said this year, there are some things in me, something in me that dictates what I am to do, and it isn’t any ghost or spirit. He disclosed at one point in 2016 when people were calling him an atheist. You know why I will not accept the term atheist? I’ve never referred to myself as an atheist. And when other people hang that label on me,

I tell them there are only two labels I accept: my name, which my mother gave me, and black. Black is a term that carries with it connotations: the lynchings, the bombings, the burnings, the castrations, the raping of our women and our children.

And then Ernie on Ernie. He described himself as William Ernest Henley said in Invictus, quote, I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul. He explained that, quote, I hate for people to ask what drives me. I’m not a car. Nothing drives me. I think it through, then my intellect guides me, leads me, goads me and bleeds me. He went on to say, I stayed by choice and I lifted my voice to help others. I stayed by choice and I lifted my voice to help others. He expanded, we ought to do what we think ought to be done. We have to say what we think ought to be said, because we don’t know whether or not something we do or say will inspire somebody who can take it and do more with it than we could do with it. And then he summarized his philosophy with truth in humor. So my conclusion, he said, is based on the words of the greatest philosopher America ever produced, the greatest thinker ever produced by America, the most rational of rationalists ever produced by America, Popeye the Sailor Man. And here’s what Popeye gave to me: I am what I am and that’s all that I am. So call me an atheist. Call me agnostic. Call me a nonbeliever. Describe and try to define me in terms of what I am not. But I define myself in terms of what I am. In one of his Ernie-grams in 2019 he wrote: I yam what I yam and that’s all that I yam, said Popeye. Here is the key. Because I cannot be all too all, I shall be me to me. Regardless what others say or do, to myself I shall always be true.

So thank you, Senator Chambers, for being true to you. You have been irascible, aggravating, impossible, and mind-boggling. You have followed the mission of Finley Peter Dunne, a 9– an 1898 writer who suggested the need for all of us to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. You have been powerful, gentle, inspiring, wise, compassionate, kind and, yes, loving. In short, you have been exactly what Nebraska has needed for 46 years. Thank you.

And I want to go on and I do think we should clap for him in a second. But just if he is indeed watching, at the back of the Chamber you will see that there is the statue of Chief Standing Bear that the– the senators in here gave money to purchase and the extra money, the Ponca Tribe and the current senators have pulled out some money out of their pockets for this major donation to ReConnect, a Nebraska nonprofit run by one of Senator Chambers’ best friends, LaVon Stennis-Williams, as well as a farewell tribute, this statue for him to take with him. We hope our longest-serving senator will understand this Standing Bear statue to be a fitting symbol of gratitude for you as you leave the Chamber, Senator– Legislature, Senator Chambers.

Like Standing Bear, Senator Chambers is also a Nebraska legend, whose voice rose and pierced our hearts at times when we failed to live up to our best ideals. I will miss your determination, Senator Chambers, your encouragement, your lessons, your intellectual prowess, and, yes, your limitless ability to make us uncomfortable in our own skin. And for those listening today, I would just say, the very greatest tribute that anyone can do for him and in Senator Chambers’ name would be to do everything we can to change things so that they do not remain the same. We must work to protect the least, the last, and the lost. We must vote and believe we can help to change the world for good. Thank you, Senator Chambers, and thank you to all of you.