This month, DPIC celebrates Black History Month with weekly profiles of notable Black Americans whose work affected the modern death penalty era. The first in the series is retired Nebraska state senator Ernie Chambers. 

As a trailblazing figure in Nebraska politics, Ernest “Ernie” Chambers is best known for his unwavering commitment to justice and equality. Elected in 1970, Chambers served in the Nebraska state legislature for 46 years. Throughout his career, Chambers championed a variety of causes, including equal pensions for women, the cessation of corporal punishment in schools, and the elimination of sales tax on groceries. Across 36 legislative sessions, he sponsored bills to abolish the death penalty, including the 2015 bill that temporarily repealed capital punishment in Nebraska. Sen. Chambers said his mission was to serve “the least, the last, and the lost,” a testament to his dedication to the marginalized and underserved. 

When the legislature debated whether to override Governor Pete Ricketts’ veto of the 2015 death penalty abolition bill, Sen. Chambers said, “This will be the shining moment of the Nebraska Legislature. The world, by anybody’s reckoning, is a place filled with darkness, contention, violence. We today can move to lift part of that cloud of darkness that has been hovering over this state for all these years.” The bipartisan 30-19 vote made Nebraska the 19th state to abolish the death penalty. Gov. Ricketts later personally funded and led an effort to reinstate the death penalty via voter referendum, and in 2016, Nebraska voters overturned the state legislature’s decision.

Sen. Chamber’s effort to end the death penalty began in 1971 when he visited a penitentiary: “I don’t see how anybody comes out of prison without being filled with an unreasoning, bitter hatred.” In his own words, “Since I was first conscious of the difference between right and wrong, I have been opposed to the death penalty. My argument is simple: Nobody should kill anybody. And killing someone as punishment is the most barbaric act of all.” 

Sen. Chambers’ journey into the world of activism and politics began with a moment that shaped his understanding of the power of words. As a young Black man working in a local post office, he spoke out against workplace discrimination, only to be fired in retaliation.  

Sen. Chambers retired from the legislature in 2021 when he reached the state’s term limit. His goddaughter and fellow legislator, Senator Patty Pansing Brooks, gave a speech honoring him at his retirement. She described Sen. Chambers as a man who stands as a beacon of resilience: “Senator Chambers is also a Nebraska legend, whose voice rose and pierced our hearts at times when we failed to live up to our best ideals.” Brooks emphasized that to honor Sen. Chamber’s legacy, “[we must] do everything we can to change things so that they do not remain the same…We must vote and believe we can help to change the world for good.” 


Ernie Chambers, Freedom From Religion Foundation, 2015; Julie Bosman, Nebraska Bans Death Penalty, Defying a Veto, The New York Times, May 27, 2015; Ted Genoways, Inside the Unlikely Coalition That Just Got the Death Penalty Banned in Nebraska, Mother Jones, May 28, 2015; Voices: Ernie Chambers — Death Penalty Focus, Death Penalty Focus, July 10, 2015; Melody Vaccaro, Ernie Chambers – Black, Seeing Red, August 14, 2020; Ernie Chambers Sr., Great Plains Black History Museum; Photo by Nebraska Unicameral Information Office