A Lifetime of Service: Celebrating Ernie Chambers

Chambers accepts the Lifetime Achievement Award at the AHA's 75th Anniversary Conference in Chicago on May 28, 2016.

Today is Nebraska State Senator Ernie Chambers 80th birthday! To honor this amazing human being and AHA Lifetime Achievement Award recipient, we bring you a slightly updated version of a profile that appeared in the print-only Humanist (November/December 2016).

Ernest “Ernie” William Chambers was born on July 10, 1937, in Omaha, Nebraska, one of seven children born to Lillian and Malcolm Chambers. He graduated from Omaha Tech High School in 1955 and obtained a BA in history, with minors in philosophy and Spanish, from Creighton University in 1959. Twenty years later he completed a law degree at Creighton University School of Law.

After finishing his undergraduate degree, Chambers worked at the Omaha Post Office, where he became frustrated by managers who referred to the African-American staff as “boys.” He complained and later said he was fired for it. Soon after, he landed a job at Goodwin’s Spencer Street Barber Shop. There, Chambers and the owner, Dan Goodwin, held court, dealing with heated issues that affected the black community and created a vital space for activists to learn, vent, and organize. The two appeared in the Oscar-nominated 1966 documentary, A Time for Burning, in which they discussed race relations in Omaha. Tensions arose in the summer of 1966 when black teenagers clashed with police. Chambers emerged as a leader for the community, meeting with the mayor and helping to end the subsequent rioting.

In 1970 Chambers was elected as an independent to represent North Omaha’s 11th District in the Nebraska State Legislature. He was reelected each term for the next thirty-four years, becoming the longest serving state senator in Nebraska’s history and its first African-American senator. During his decades in office, Chambers (always dressed in jeans and a T-shirt) has spearheaded the move to abolish corporal punishment in schools, to afford equal state pensions to women, and to switch to district-based voting to give nonwhite citizens a fair shot at election to public office.

Chambers, who identifies as an atheist, initiated a lawsuit in 1980 that challenged the practice of opening legislative sessions with a prayer led by a state-sponsored chaplain. In 1983 the case went to the US Supreme Court, which ruled the practice constitutional. In 2007, in a stunt to bring attention to frivolous lawsuits, Chambers sought a permanent injunction against none other than God for “certain harmful activities and the making of terroristic threats… of grave harm to innumerable persons.”

A term-limit amendment passed in 2000 forced Chambers out of office for four years starting in 2008. He ran again in 2012 and won handily. This gave him the opportunity to reintroduce legislation to abolish the death penalty in Nebraska, which he’d done every year he was in office starting in1976 when the Supreme Court ended a moratorium on the practice. On May 27, 2015, the Nebraska legislature voted 30-19 to override Governor Pete Ricketts’ veto, thereby making Nebraska the first traditionally conservative state to eliminate the death penalty since North Dakota in 1973.

“Whenever anything historic occurs, it’s never the doing of one person,” a victorious Chambers noted. “I’ve been pushing for this for forty years…. If it could be done by one man, it would have been done a long time ago.” Sadly, in the 2016 general election 60 percent of Nebraska voters rejected the repeal.

In 2005, accepting the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s Hero of the First Amendment Award, Chambers remarked: “As an elected official, I know the difference between theology and politics. My interest is in legislation, not salvation.”

On May 28, 2016, Chambers was honored with the American Humanist Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award at the AHA’s 75th Annual Conference in Chicago. An adaptation of his speech was published in the November/December issue of the Humanist.