March 7, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

One of Vicki Young’s happiest childhood memories is a day at Peony Park, the reward for a year of safety patrol service at Mount View Elementary. But if Young, now president of the NAACP’s Omaha branch, had been a child of the ’60s instead of just one decade later, the gates of the popular  amusement park would have been closed to her.

“If not for his work, we would not have been able to go to Peony Park,” says Young of the long-term effects of Rudy Smith’s civil rights activism of the 1960s and beyond.

Today “Whites Only” signs are found only in museums, and the notion of a seat on a bus being governed by convoluted, Plessy vs. Ferguson “separate but equal” thinking seems archaic, backward, unconscionable.

But just 40 years ago Omaha was a segregated city, and amenities like Peony Park were off-limits to African Americans. This didn’t sit well with Smith, who worked to desegregate the popular amusement park. For this and countless other civil rights accomplishments, Smith was awarded the NAACP’s Freedom Fighter Service Award this past December.

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Smith attributes his activism to a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speech. His Omaha church group attended a Baptist convention in Denver, and his pastor encouraged Smith, then 13, to hear King speak. “King was riveting, mesmerizing,” Smith recalls. “I had never heard anything like that before in my life.”

The experience was a seminal one for Smith. It forced him to look around at his environment and to first see things as they actually existed and then as they should be. “It changed my whole value system. I saw two worlds: one white and one black, one affluent and one oppressed.”

So he set to work. Smith joined the NAACP’s Youth Council, eventually becoming president of a seven-state region. He participated in sit-ins, protests, and marches. One of these protests resulted in life-long employment with the Omaha World-Herald. When Smith and his group gathered to protest the paper’s dearth of African American employees, the production manager invited Smith and his minister in to talk. He told them he couldn’t control union hiring practices, but he could offer non-union jobs. Did Smith know anyone looking for a job? Smith replied, yes, he was.

Smith’s first position with the paper was in the basement as a paper sorter. He continued his employment with the newspaper after graduating from Omaha Central High School in 1963 and during his UNO years, working 40 hours a week while attending classes. He was pivotal in introducing black studies to the university’s curriculum and initiated the hiring of more black professors.

When he completed college in 1969 as the first black graduate of the School of Communication, he continued on with the paper, this time as a photographer. In his youth Smith lent his voice to the civil rights cause.  Now he would turn his eye—and the lens of his camera—to chronicle the struggle. He was there when Robert Kennedy was campaigning in North Omaha two weeks before he was assassinated.  And he covered the riots that burned North 24th Street in the summer of ’69.

“I knew that the people were frustrated and tired of being boxed in with no opportunities. The ’60s were volatile. Civil rights opened the door of change in Omaha. It’s up to us to step through that door still,” says Smith, now 69 years old. “The struggle isn’t over.”

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