Local civil rights activist Butler, 82, hungry for justice - Omaha.com
Published Thursday, February 28, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 4:45 pm
Local civil rights activist Butler, 82, hungry for justice

He remembers the ushers at Omaha movie theaters escorting him to the balcony with other black people in the 1930s. He remembers restaurants turning him away in the 1940s, and downtown hotels refusing to let him pick up their guests as a cab driver in the 1950s. John A. Butler felt the sting of discrimination, the pain of inequality. He knew it was wrong, knew it must change and knew there was only one path. “You had to do it in a civil way,'' he says.

Butler, 82, worked for change through organizations such as the NAACP. He was a local chapter president in the 1960s and early 1970s, a turbulent era of civil rights marches, demonstrations and riots that hammered north Omaha. He proved that a person can push for equality in quieter ways, as he did through his jobs, church and family.

Butler knows the power of telling others about the struggles of the past and the strides that those who fight for civil rights have made. So he has shared his experiences, including a recent talk to an Omaha youth group for February's Black History Month.

He told them how he became the first black to work for one of the city's large insurance companies in the late 1960s.

He told them how he worked with other civil rights leaders to calm racial violence, and how he helped black people find jobs.

He's known as an easy-going, personable man, someone who will stop by your table at a restaurant, shake your hand and ask about your family.

Friends say as NAACP president he wasn't a fist-pounder or shouter. When delivering a speech, he spoke clearly and firmly, his voice rising to make a point.

He was born and raised in north Omaha, the youngest of six children. He learned salesmanship and hard work from his father. Those qualities would serve the future civil rights worker well.


His dad worked at a meatpacking plant during the day and at night sold women's hosiery and men's suits door-to-door in north Omaha. Butler would sometimes join his dad on sales calls and watch him connect with customers, complimenting them on a pretty picture in their home or how clean their living room was.

“That would break the ice,'' he said.

He graduated from Omaha Tech High in 1949 and married his wife, Juanita. The couple had six children and now have 23 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren.

He trained as an electrician in high school, but he wasn't allowed into the local union because he was black.

So he studied business for two years at Omaha University, and in about 1952 joined his father-in-law's business, Ritz Cab Co. While driving a cab, he met hundreds of people and learned how to chat with just about anyone, whether it was a pastor, a businessman or a young mother with kids.

Downtown hotels didn't want black cab drivers picking up their guests, Butler said. He and other black drivers knew that was unfair, so they'd still pull up in front of the hotels and scout for customers.

After 15 years with the cab company, Butler began selling insurance after his agent recruited him.

The agent had gotten to know Butler over the years and liked his outgoing personality and his experience working with the public. The insurance company also realized that Butler knew a lot of people in north Omaha and could attract black customers.

Some white agents told Butler he wasn't ready to sell insurance and predicted he'd fail. Butler ignored their insults and proved them wrong, racking up strong sales. He was promoted to staff manager and helped recruit blacks to the company.

Among those was LV Williams, who has been Butler's friend for more than five decades. Williams, now 87, said that as a manager Butler respected all the agents, even the white ones who had insulted him.

“He knew how to treat people,'' Williams said.

Racial tension was rising in Omaha in the mid-'60s, and civil rights marches, like this one in March 1965, were taking place across the country

Butler eventually launched his own insurance business in the 1970s.

The injustices he saw in jobs, housing and other areas convinced him to join the NAACP. He knew that through the organization he could work for change in peaceful ways.

Founded in 1909, the national NAACP is a grass-roots civil rights organization that says it has more than a half-million members and supporters. The group was formed partly in response to the practice of lynching.

The organization, through such steps as demonstrations and legal action, has played key roles in major civil rights issue of the last century, such as the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case.

Butler joined the group in 1952 and became a local president in the mid-1960s.

He took over the local chapter at a time when racial tension was rising in Omaha and across the country.

Riots in Harlem in 1964 and Los Angeles in 1965 put cities on edge.

It began here on a hot, humid Saturday night, July 2, 1966, when someone threw a pop bottle at a passing motorcycle policeman. The incident touched off three nights of looting, and the city brought in 44 National Guardsmen to clear North 24th Street.

Omaha's worst rioting occurred in summer 1969, when a white policeman answered a prowling call. As several people ran, he fired a shot that killed a 14-year-old black girl, Vivian Strong.

Much of North 24th Street was torched. Five nights of rioting produced one death, 21 injuries, $750,000 in damage and 88 arrests.

Pat Brown, who was the local NAACP president in the 1980s, said Butler would go to the streets and talk with rioters, trying to calm them. He also took broader steps, such as calling for changes in regulations governing police use of firearms, according a World-Herald story from June 1969.

In the story, Butler said: “People are hungry for justice. If they can see some justice, maybe they'll calm down.”

Butler said that during his time as chapter president, the group also called for an end to segregation in the Omaha Public Schools, taking such steps as bringing in an official from the national organization to meet with district administrators.

Racial tension was rising in Omaha in the mid-'60s, and civil rights marches, like this one in March 1965, were taking place across the country

Though he ended his tenure as NAACP president in the early 1970s, he said he remained active, continuing to recruit new members.

And now, in his 80s, he's still busy, though he has shifted his focus to retirement activities and continued involvement in his church.

He still drives and loves meeting friends for lunch and cards or dominos every weekday. He plays a mean game of cards, but he's even better at checkers, becoming city champion in 2008.

He stays fit by walking a half-hour a day, and roots for Husker football and Creighton University basketball.

He's a lifelong member of Pilgrim Baptist Church. He understands the role the church plays as an anchor in north Omaha.

Sammie Smith, a church deacon who has known Butler since the 1960s, said his friend was always good at recruiting new members to help keep the church strong. If Butler saw someone he knew at a restaurant or shop, he'd ask if they belonged to a church and invite them to Pilgrim Baptist. He'd drive them to church if they didn't have a car.

That leadership and perseverance set an example for his children, said Juanita Wilson, Butler's daughter, who was a teenager during the violence of the 1960s.

She remembers hearing sirens and watching her father walk out the door toward the riots.

Wilson, 59, said she and her siblings try to carry on in his tradition.

When she started her freshman year at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, for example, there were just a few other black women in her dorm and not many on campus. She helped organize a social group for black female students.

Wilson, who has training as a tax preparer, had used her skills working for other companies. Ten years ago she launched her own bookkeeping and tax preparation business in north Omaha.

By watching her father's life, Wilson said, she learned an important lesson.

“Take some risks and persevere,'' she said. “Don't let things around you stop you, (and) stand for what you believe in.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1122, michael.oconnor@owh.com

Contact the writer: Michael O'Connor

michael.oconnor@owh.com    |   402-444-1122    |  

Michael is a general assignment reporter for the Living section, covering a mix of topics including human interest stories.

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