Photo Showcase: A look back at Rudy Smith's career
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The freedom fighter carried no gun. He had no bullets.
The 18-year-old was armed with something more powerful.
Rudy Smith had voices. Loud ones. They belonged to at least 60 passionate young people he helped lead some 50 years ago in Omaha.
“We capitalized on that,” he said. “And we marched.”
Smith led civil rights demonstrations in downtown Omaha, fought for equal student housing at Omaha University, now the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and pressed for civil rights throughout his career.
On Sunday, the Omaha branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People will acknowledge that service, presenting awards to Smith and three others. Smith is being given the NAACP's Freedom Fighter Service Award.
It is an award Smith started earning long ago.
He was 5 when his family moved to Omaha. His mother worked as a domestic, and Smith tagged along, learning about vacuuming and the differences between two worlds — the white world that hired domestics and the black world that filled those jobs.
He was 13 when he went to Denver to see a magnetic young preacher from Georgia with a booming voice and a prescient message. That voice belonged to Martin Luther King Jr., and Smith listened as King said to be ready. Change was coming. It was building like a tidal wave and would soon hit the Midwest.
Smith was 18 when he rode that wave. He had graduated from Omaha Central. It was 1963, when being black in Omaha — as in the rest of the country — meant a separation so explicit it was written on signs and carved into your consciousness.
There were segregated lunch counters and schools and neighborhoods. Redlining — the practice of denying mortgages to blacks — limited where people could move, so most blacks lived north of Dodge and south of Ames. There was only one public pool in Omaha where blacks could swim. Peony Park was out of the question. Opportunities for advancement were few.
“I started looking around, looking at things, comparing the situation,” Smith said. “The future looked bleak.”
By then he was president of the Omaha NAACP Youth Council, which was taking its fight to the streets. The group held sit-ins, walked into Peony Park and protested outside the old State Theater on 15th and Douglas Streets, where blacks could sit only in the balcony.
The national NAACP would issue marching orders, and Smith and the others marched. He also marched in other cities, including Des Moines, Minneapolis, the Kansas City area and Oklahoma City. At one point, he was youth director for a seven-state NAACP region.
In Omaha, when the group marched outside downtown businesses with white-only labor unions, one company opened its doors and invited Smith in.
That was The World-Herald. And Smith, at 18, was given a job, launching a 45-year newspaper career. Much of it was spent as a photographer. He was the first black employee in the newsroom.
This job meant a different kind of separation. Now that Smith was shooting the news, he couldn't also become it.
“I was very distraught, but I couldn't riot,” he said.
But the job still placed him in the action, like when the night editor sent Smith to cover the 1969 race riots on North 24th Street.
“They gave me a hard hat,” Smith said. “I didn't want to wear a yellow hard hat.”
So he didn't. He parked the newspaper car at 20th and Clark Streets, walked three blocks and began taking pictures of a burning building. Two National Guardsmen approached him, guns drawn. Smith identified himself as a photographer.
“They didn't care,” he said. “They put a gun to my head.”
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
Smith thought they would shoot him. He saw Mayor Gene Leahy standing a half-block away and called to him. Leahy called everyone over. The mayor happened to be with the Nebraska National Guard adjutant general, who told Smith that he was trespassing and that his guardsmen would have a right to shoot him. The guardsmen escorted him out of the area, and he returned to his office.
The next day his photo ran in the newspaper, showing firefighters and rifle-toting guardsmen silhouetted against the flames.
Over the years, Smith photographed many different assignments, big and small. He sought out moments when he could present blacks living normal, everyday lives. Smith thought he could show, by his example as an employee and by his pictures, that blacks were just as qualified, just as good, just as Omahan as anyone else.
When he wasn't behind the camera, Smith was volunteering with organizations and agencies that promoted civil rights.
While a student at UNO, Smith was elected student senator and lobbied to get the university to pressure nearby landlords into allowing black students to rent apartments. He also asked for the university to start teaching black history and to hire more black professors. UNO eventually started a black studies department.
When he graduated in 1969, he was the first black graduate of UNO's communications school. Later, he became the first black faculty member in the communications school.
Smith served on a state affirmative action advisory committee, pressing for minority employment, training and retention in state jobs. He served under three governors: Bob Kerrey, Ben Nelson and Mike Johanns.
A longtime member of Salem Baptist Church, he helped launch a retirement home and the Salem Food Pantry. He now serves on the board of directors for the currently closed Great Plains Black History Museum.
Smith retired from The World-Herald in 2008.
This freedom fighter is now 68. He has been married to his wife, Llana, for 46 years. They have three children, including a son who died several years ago. They have 12 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
Looking back, Smith sees improvement from 50 years ago. Public places and neighborhoods are, officially at least, desegregated. What troubles Smith is the lack of progress in reducing poverty and in the violence that claims too many young black lives. He said now, more than ever, it's important for people to know their history.
“You can't forget the lunch counters,” he said. “If we're going to get to where we're going to go, we have to remember our past.”