Kelly: A call to action for north Omaha
Standing 6-foot-3 and carrying the distinctive name Othello H. Meadows III has long helped this Omahan stand out. So have his abilities.
Sports fans remember him leading Creighton Prep to a state championship in 1994 and being named the state’s “Mr. Basketball.” He then started for three years at East Carolina University, later earning a law degree and practicing in Atlanta.
He eventually grew dissatisfied — and in 2008 returned to his hometown.
“I love my city,” he told a Martin Luther King Jr. Day audience of 200 at the Nebraska Medical Center. “I love Omaha. I love the north side, and I love the neighborhood I grew up in.”
He now leads a north Omaha improvement effort backed by investor Warren Buffett and his philanthropist daughter, Susan Buffett. It aims at attracting commercial development as part of a broader attempt to break the area’s cycle of poverty, raise school achievement and provide more services and resources.
Dr. King would approve. Unfortunately, Meadows said, all these years after the civil rights leader’s 1968 death, 60 percent of black children in our area come from families that are poor.
“In 40 or 50-plus years, this is as far as we’ve gotten?” he lamented. “Six out of 10 African-American kids still living in poverty?”
Invited by the medical center to deliver a keynote speech over the noon hour on MLK Day, Meadows politely warned the audience that it wouldn’t be “a feel-good, warm-and-fuzzy type of speech.”
He said America has “sanitized” the annual holiday with “a Hallmark version of Dr. King” that people find more palatable.
“It’s easy to remember his eloquence, his soaring rhetoric,” Meadows said. “We choose to remember that rather than the portions of his life that called us to action.”
He drew laughter from the audience by saying that some Americans celebrate the holiday by telling their children that “Dr. King wanted us all to get along.” Said Meadows: “No, that was Rodney King!”
That Los Angeles man made the getting-along comment in the aftermath of his infamous beating by police.
More important than building monuments to Martin Luther King and naming streets after him, Meadows said, “we have to go about the business of doing the hard stuff, the stuff that doesn’t come easy.”
That, he said, includes providing first-rate public education, volunteering, mentoring, “getting your hands dirty” by helping people in need and not remaining silent in the face of injustice.
The new group that Meadows leads is called Seventy Five North Revitalization Inc., named for U.S. Highway 75 that traverses north Omaha.
The organization is modeled after an effort that transformed a troubled neighborhood in Atlanta. A byproduct was the area’s 96 percent drop in violent crime.
Meadows grew up near Miami Street and Fontenelle Boulevard with parents who stressed education. “I received books as gifts, and I read voraciously.”
When Othello III was 8 or 9, his father, a salesman and former athlete, lost his sight to growths on his retina. He couldn’t watch his son’s basketball exploits but attended games while Othello III’s mother described the action. Othello Jr. died in 2001.
“For me,” Othello III said, “education was obviously the thing that made the most impact on my life, other than my mother and father.”
He and wife Tulani didn’t add Roman numeral IV to baby Othello’s name — he received a middle name different from his father’s.
For Othello H. Meadows III, who feels a nominal connection to Shakespeare and a personal one to his hometown, tragedy wouldn’t mean merely a fatal end to a classic play.
More tragic, on Martin Luther King Days and other days in the years ahead, would be a failure to see north Omaha grow and improve.
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