In 1970 Ernie Chambers was elected to represent North Omaha’s 11th District in the Nebraska State Legislature as an independent, and 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. In his decades in office, Chambers (dressed in jeans and a short-sleeved sweat-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.
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 in 1976, when the Supreme Court ended a moratorium on the practice. On May 27, 2015, the Nebraska legislature voted 30-19 to override the veto of Gov. Pete Ricketts, thereby making Nebraska the first traditionally conservative state to eliminate the death penalty since North Dakota in 1973.
On May 28, 2016, Chambers was honored with the American Humanist Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual conference in Chicago. The following is adapted from his acceptance speech.
I HAVE ALWAYS always been only what I am. I’ve never tried to pretend to be anything that I’m not. I don’t cheese up to people. I don’t accept things from people. When I run for office, I refuse all donations. I will not campaign. Some people want me to campaign, and when they point out that there is opposition, I say there has always been opposition. But what’s more important to me than anything else is my self-respect. If I’m not elected, it doesn’t diminish me. What I believe campaigning should consist of is how I behave when I’m in the middle of the battle. What do I say? What do I do? If what I say and do aren’t satisfactory, don’t vote for me. I don’t have any proprietary ownership of that office.
So people have come to realize that their opinion, good or bad, means nothing to me. I’m not disrespectful toward anybody. I am the most polite person you will ever meet in your life. I know the meaning of courtesy, not only from the dictionary definition, but from practicing it always. But there is another principle: nobody can treat me better than I will treat them. Nobody.
If somebody wants to test me, then it becomes a different matter. I let people know—and this is the second principle—that if I’m going to have dealings with you, you have the opportunity to determine on what basis that relationship will be grounded. If you mistake my being courteous for being a coward, then you make a mistake. If you mistake my politeness, which sometimes reaches a point of courtliness, for being weak and you’re going to treat me in that fashion, you make a mistake.
The most advantageous position to be in, whether or not you’re in politics, is to be underestimated. White people see the way I look and don’t like it because I look like this in settings where nobody dresses like this. So I tell them: your God put eyelids over your eyeballs, so if you don’t like what you see, just close your eyes. And you also were given the ability to swivel your head and turn it in a different direction. If you can’t do that, you can move your whole body. The louder and more vociferously the vipers hiss, the more effectively I know how close I am to striking their nest. So hiss on, I will not stop doing what I’m doing.
I don’t seek awards. Awards have been offered to me and I reject them. Why did I accept this one? Because this is a group, based on what I’ve read and in looking at some of the people who’ve been associated with it, that does some of the things that I believe in. By accepting this, it doesn’t mean I agree with everything you all say. And I know good and well you don’t believe and agree with everything I say.
Now, I don’t deliberately try to put people down, but I don’t want them to get lost in the cult of the personality. Had I not gotten the death penalty abolished in a state like Nebraska, people wouldn’t care two cents for me. I’ve been fighting to get that done for forty years. Nobody offered me any awards for the fight. But everybody likes a winner, so the media came to me right after we overruled the governor’s veto. And they said, “How do you feel, Senator?” I said, “Let me tell you one thing, everybody knows that what happened today was historic. It’s of historic proportions. But I want to tell you this, nothing of historic proportion is ever done by one person.” Never. And when you look at that vote, it took thirty to override the governor’s veto. How many votes did we get? Exactly thirty. If any one of those people had been not voting or anyone had voted no, there would have been no override of the governor’s veto and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
It did not take courage for me to do what I did because I have no fear of anybody or anything. Somebody without fear may be bold, brave, daring, or even dashing, but they’re not courageous. The person who is courageous, in my opinion, is the one who is fearful, shaking in his or her boots but who knows what’s right and will do it anyway. Before you try to give me credit for what happened here today, I told the media, if I could have done it by myself, do you think I would have taken forty years to do it? This isn’t one person’s doing. I don’t need that. I’m results-oriented. They could give the devil credit if the result is what I think it should be. They could give a god credit. What difference does it make to me what anybody believes, what anybody disbelieves?
And because people are so shallow, I don’t accept labels. I’ve been called an atheist. I’ve never called myself that. Children try to believe what those they respect say they believe. So, when I was thinking and behaving as a child, I tried to be a Christian, but it was so preposterous to me that I never could be one. But I don’t need religion. I don’t need a heaven to be promised to go to and I don’t need hell to be afraid of to do what I think is right. I do what I believe is right and I don’t care what anybody else says. Do you know how much impact what other people say and think will have on me? It will have less impact on me than the perspiration of a gnat would have on the Rock of Gibraltar.
By the way, I do have a sense of humor. Some people think I have no sense at all. But get this, brothers and sisters, friends, enemies, and neutrals, there are five senses recognized and they’re all located in your head—sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Some who are thoughtful and somewhat superstitious say there is a sixth sense—extrasensory perception, or ESP. If there are six senses, I would advocate for a seventh—and that’s the sense of humor.
In my opinion, one of the most melancholy, thoughtful, analytical, and intellectual people in American public life was Abraham Lincoln. He would have lost his mind based on the kind of people he had to deal with, but he could always come up with something that people called a joke. Once, Lincoln was sitting with four or five people at a table. He drank from his cup and then set it down. The waitperson came around and said, “Is everything all right, Mr. Lincoln?” Lincoln said, in his gracious way, “If this is coffee, bring me some tea. If this is tea, bring me some coffee.”
Another time Lincoln was at a big reception and there was also a fundamentalist preacher there who had written a book with all these exclamation points and incorrect grammar. Two men, who knew Abe’s reputation for being gracious, said to this preacher: “Go show Mr. Lincoln your book and have him write something in it.” This guy, not sensible enough to recognize that he was being made the butt of a joke, went over and showed Lincoln the book. And they had a conversation. Lincoln towered over the fellow. Then he got that quizzical look that he was known for and he took out a pen and wrote something in the book. The men were astonished because they knew Lincoln wasn’t going to lie, and so what could he have written in that book? When the little fellow came back to them, he was beaming. “We saw the president write something in your book, may we read what he wrote?” they asked. He was so proud he showed it to them. Abraham Lincoln didn’t want to lie, and he didn’t want to be insulting. He wrote: “For those who like this kind of book, this is certainly the kind of book they will like.”
Now, one of the cliché pieces of advice when you’re addressing a crowd is never speak more than thirty minutes unless you’re an angel or your audience comprises angels. I know I’m not an angel and I think I could say the same for you all, so I’m through. Thank you.
Excerpts from the Q&A
Q: You mentioned that you are a person of your own will and you always do what you think is right. But you’ve held public office for a long time and you’re supposed to answer to your constituency. So how do these two work together?
A: I told people when I ran, what you see is what you’ll get. I told them I’m not going to the State Capitol to reflect ignorance. I will be able to get information that you don’t have access to. I am going to do what my mind and my judgment tells me is best. I’m not going to be frightened into saying what I don’t believe. I’m not going to be frightened out of saying what I do believe. I’m going to always walk my path. If you don’t like it, don’t vote for me. That’s what I have said all the time.
You know what else I told people? I said, you may think I should wear a suit, but I was a barber. When I had my law degree, I was barbering. I didn’t need a badge or a title. I said, when people who give me my living see me dressed like this, it’s good enough for anybody. Know what else I did? I bought a little child’s shirt, and it had a little bowtie on it and was folded and wrapped in plastic. I set it on my desk in the legislative chamber with a note that said: “This is Mr. Shirt. When what a man wears means more to you than what he is, you talk to Mr. Shirt. When you want to talk to the man, you talk to me.” That’s what I am and I will always be that way.
I tell them on that floor: you all are racists. Some of you may not practice it like the others, but every white person has racism in him or her. It’s in your churches. It’s in your politics. It’s everywhere. You don’t know enough to argue with me about things pertaining to race and how they impact black people. You may have studied us, but I’ve been black all of my life.
For me to argue with people who are ignorant would be like me walking down the street and seeing some drunks arguing with each other. And I’m going to stop and argue with these drunks? What would you think of Einstein arguing differential equations with somebody who doesn’t understand how to do short division? I don’t owe it to you to discuss the silliness, the foolishness that you want to talk about. I’m not one who will give equivalency to the irrational and the rational.
In this world that is America where they talk about being balanced, they want to give the impression that every issue has two sides of equal merit. That’s not true. So let’s take global warming or climate change. Those who articulate the interest of the ones who are befouling the climate and the earth have their nonscientific statements, and the media will act as though both sides have equal weight. But there’s a reality that is not going to be changed by people denying it. When you can see that the melting of the ice has altered the wobble of the planet itself, if you say it doesn’t make any difference, fine. It doesn’t make any difference to you, but that doesn’t stop it from being so. The melting of the ice where the polar bears live is diminishing their habitat. They may not want to call an icy area a habitat. Where you live is your habitat. There’s a lot of inbreeding now by various polar bears and other bears that’s going to be devastating to those species. The food that they need, they have to go greater distances to find it. They swim greater distances and sometimes they cannot get back.
But if people deny these things, let them. You’re not going to change their opinion. Don’t lose sleep. Don’t be subject to indigestion because you cannot change a fool’s mind.