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Ernie Chambers


Academy resurrects '66 documentary featuring Chambers

The letter came from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and its New York program director Patrick Harrison.

Forty years had passed since the documentary, “A Time for Burning,” had been nominated for an Academy Award. Now the academy wanted to introduce the film, rejected in 1967 by all three major networks for being too controversial, to a new audience in a historic election year.


Ernie Chambers (left) is interviewed in his Omaha barbershop in 1966 by the Rev. William Youngdahl, the pastor of Augustana Lutheran Church in Omaha.

And so the invitation was proffered to Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha:

Would he travel to the Academy Theater in midtown Manhattan for an Oct. 20 presentation of “A Time for Burning?”

Would he then join the film’s director Bill Jersey for a post-screening conversation?

Reviewers called the documentary the most honest, accurate and effective expose of the civil rights impasse ever filmed.

It showed real people in crisis.

No script. Black and white.

Cinéma vérité — cinema of truth.

Directors Bill Jersey and Barbara Connell traveled to Omaha in 1965 to film the real life drama of segregation of the church in America.

The film crew followed a Lutheran minister, William Youngdahl, as he tried to inspire his congregation to confront racism.

As Youngdahl pursued his idea to have members from his white church meet with members from black churches in each other’s homes, he ran into a brutally honest young barber, Ernie Chambers. So, too, did one of the church leaders, Ray Christensen, who was forced to confront his own passive prejudice.

Youngdahl’s quest to bring the races together on this small scale was the mildest project that he could envision.

When he came to north Omaha’s Spencer Street Barber Shop in the first scene, Chambers said Youngdahl thought his idea could succeed.

“I said, ‘Not in Omaha.’ As mild as it is, you try to do this and they’ll kick you out of your church,” Chambers said. 

Chambers drew national attention even before he took up residence on the statewide stage of the Nebraska Legislature, where he eventually would make history as the most outspoken and longest-serving senator.

The 58-minute documentary, which cost $80,000 to make, premiered nationwide on public television in September 1966. The response was said to be extraordinary. Former CBS News president Fred Friendly said it was one of the best documentaries he had ever seen.

Director Jersey wrote to Chambers in June 1966, after filming was complete, telling him his contribution to the film could not be overestimated.

“In a world of evasions and half-truths, your voice has conviction and clarity. ... They may hate you and what you represent, but they cannot ignore you.”

Four decades later, not much has changed.

“Just got older and grayer and I hope wiser … and I’m meaner,” Chambers said last week.

Only the context of racism has changed, he said.

Maybe today, blacks and whites could visit in each other’s homes or churches, and it wouldn’t be cataclysmic.

“But when it comes to other issues of substance, the attitude underlying what happened at that time is still here today,” he said.

With a need for affirmative action programs for black people, women, older people and others, “that hard-hearted, discriminatory attitude is there,” he said.

In the film, Chambers told the Lutheran minister that white people, including those in churches, pulled the strings that closed schools, drew the boundaries that kept black people restricted in ghettos and wrote the covenants that kept them out of houses.

Today, across the country, he said, black children are two or more grades behind their white peers in public schools. Many of their schools are ramshackle and inferior. Their teachers are frequently the least qualified. The neighborhoods they live in are redlined by real estate agencies and insurance companies.

Nobody can convince him, he said, that racism is any less virulent now than it was in 1966.

In fact, he said, it’s worse, “because there has been a thin veneer of sophistication over it so that instead of the lawbooks carrying Jim Crow laws, they now have James Crow Esq. practices and traditions that achieve an even more devastating result.”

Wherever white people and black people come into contact, he said, there is going to be friction and discrimination.

“I have no illusions or delusions about my status in this society as a black man.” 

Ed Carter, documentary curator for the academy, had the job of rehabilitating the 41-year-old film, making the picture pristine and the sound crystal clear.

Then he called Harrison, the New York program director.

It would be great, he said, if Harrison could give this film that deals with the timely topic of race and religion an audience.

“I thought it was fantastic,” Harrison said.

Especially exciting was that the Lutheran Church held back nothing in giving the cinematographer unprecedented access to the church’s struggle.

“All that made for a really important film to be preserved,” he said.

It has presented itself as an interesting parallel in 2008, Harrison said, with Barack Obama the first black nominee for president by a major party, and the questions of race and religion. 

The documentary will be presented as part of the “Monday Nights with Oscar” series, that follows the academy’s mission to educate the public on its motion picture heritage.

“A Time for Burning” fits well into the series, Harrison said. And it is important to have Chambers in New York for the screening.

“I saw the documentary and I said, ‘Oh this man is amazing,’” he said. “I think this will be one of those really special academy nights.”

Besides the screening and discussion at the 230-seat Academy Theater, the documentary will be broadcast simultaneously on the cable Documentary Channel, and then repeated immediately following.

Time Warner Cable in Lincoln does not carry the Documentary Channel.

On the panel with Chambers and Jersey will be Elvis Mitchell, former New York Times movie critic who has also worked for National Public Radio and the Turner Classic Movies channel. 

In 1967, Chambers was invited to speak in Minneapolis to a group of suburban ministers.

His words shocked them.

“What makes you think you can sit around, pontificate and feel holier than thou,” he asked them, according to a Minneapolis Tribune report.

Ministers talk of brotherly love, but they don’t practice what they preach, he said.

Four decades later, he says, his detractors — who he believes are plentiful in Lincoln — will see that his work does not easily die.

“Ah me, life is hard and so unfair to those who find me to be unbearably distasteful,” he said in a letter to the Journal Star. “I simply refuse to ‘shut up’ and ‘go away.’”

Reach JoAnne Young at 473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com.

'A Time for Burning'

The documentary is available on DVD at these libraries: Lincoln, Doane, Nebraska Wesleyan.