Gateway to Success is a series focused on Gateway alumni and their journey from campus to career.
Rudy Smith was born in the broom closet of a whites-only hospital. He died in a city that he helped desegregate.
If one were to craft a Nativity story for pre-civil rights America, it might look strikingly similar to the circumstances of Smith’s birth. His mother had fled Jim Crow in Georgia for Philadelphia in the North, itself plagued with racism. The hospital she came to after going into labor, its own twisted Bethlehem, rejected her for the color of her skin. Unable to leave the building in time, let alone make it to a hospital that would treat her, she was forced to give birth to the celebrated photojournalist and civil rights activist in a closet — a birthplace as humble as Jesus’ manger.
Smith, a lifelong Baptist and eventual deacon at Salem Baptist Church, might have distanced himself from the messianic comparison, yet his life was one of wholehearted service and continual broken ground for Omaha’s Black community.
Smith experienced racial oppression from the literal moment he was born. Thirteen years later, after his family moved to Omaha, his desire to fight that oppression was ignited when he heard Martin Luther King Jr. speak in person. Smith’s activism blossomed from the seed that had been watered that day and planted at his birth. He joined Omaha’s NAACP Youth Council, and before long became the youth director of a seven-state area. Smith was also active in protests with the 4CL (Citizen’s Civic Committee for Civil Liberties). One such protest concerned the Omaha World Herald’s racist coverage and tokenistic hiring practices. In response, the paper’s production manager encouraged Smith to apply for a job, and the 18-year-old high school senior was soon hired.
He worked in various non-reporting roles at the World-Herald until a higher-up asked him if he knew anything about cameras. He responded in the affirmative, and was given a position as a photographer.
“He hardly knew what a camera looked like,” Smith’s wife Llana said in an interview with New Horizons. Regardless, he quickly taught himself the trade while working as a darkroom technician. This confident moment proved to be one of the best decisions of his life — he stayed at the World-Herald until his retirement. He was the paper’s first Black journalist.
Smith was also the first Black graduate of UNO’s School of Communication. He was incredibly active throughout his time at the university, continuing to work with the NAACP, writing for The Gateway, becoming a student senator, and co-founding SCOPE (Student Community Organization for Public Efforts).
SCOPE was originally aimed at supporting the merger of Omaha University into the University of Nebraska system, and was also the university’s only mixed-race organization at the time. In North Omaha, the group helped organize Robert Kennedy’s 1968 campaign for the Nebraska Democratic presidential primary, resulting in a 10-1 victory margin according to a 1969 Gateway article.
As a student senator, Smith aided in the creation of UNO’s Black Studies department — one of the first of its kind, despite the protests and arrests that preceded it — and fought against discriminatory housing practices used against Black students.
At The Gateway, Smith first wrote for the sports section, before becoming the section’s editor for the 1967-68 academic year. He didn’t shy away from expressing his political and social views on the page either, at one point writing a four-part series advocating for the legalization of marijuana, as ahead of his time as ever.
According to Llana, Rudy’s activism earned such frustration from the university administration that they mailed his diploma to him rather than allow him to attend his own graduation with the class of 1969. Their attitude toward him eventually gave way to appreciation, as he became the School of Communication’s first Black faculty member, and received both the UNO Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award and the College of Communication Lifetime Achievement Award.
Over his decades-long career at the World-Herald, Smith took all kinds of photographs. He photographed musicians like Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, and Miles Davis. He photographed Robert Kennedy campaigning in North Omaha weeks before his assassination.
Smith documented Omaha’s political and racial upheaval over the years. He photographed civil rights marches, demonstrations and protests; speeches, arrests and victories. In 1969, he covered the riots on North 24th street — no white photographers would approach the scene, but Smith accepted the assignment and covered the story alone. He took photos of burning buildings, firemen, and armed National Guard, until two of the latter intervened.
“They put a gun to my head,” Smith said in a 2013 interview. He was soon escorted away from the action, but a photo he took that night was featured in national newspapers.
Yet Smith also covered the smaller things. From children at a swimming pool to a game of dominoes, and so many portraits — to him, it was all historical. He took photos featured in Life, Time, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, and many more publications, but even the photos taken as a favor to a friend were composed with equal reverence. His style is subtle, not so concerned with making the humble mythic as it is bringing the larger-than-life down to our level. The photo of Robert Kennedy speaking with a crowd feels less like a scene to be awed by in a museum and more like a moment you remember living yourself, yet its significance is never lost.
Smith received more than 50 awards for his photography, and more besides. He was given the NAACP Freedom Fighter Service Award in 2013, and in 2022, a section of Lake Street was named in his honor.
Beyond photography and activism, Smith left a powerful mark. He served on Nebraska’s state affirmative action committee under multiple state governors, and as board chairman at the Great Plains Black History Museum. He and his wife Llana were married 52 years until his passing, and they raised three children together.
When Smith began his 45-year career as a journalist for the Omaha World Herald, Congress had not yet passed the Civil Rights Act. The year he retired, Barack Obama was elected President. Smith was as keenly aware of the progress that was made over those years, and his part in it, as he was that there was much still standing in the way of true equality. In an interview with Omaha Magazine, Smith compared the civil rights victory to the opening of a “door of change.”
“It’s up to us to step through that door still,” Smith said.
After his death, Smith’s book, “The Black Experience: Through the Lens of Rudy Smith” was published, showcasing over 45 years of his photography. Across hundreds of photos, spanning themes from civil rights to music to family, Smith paints a picture of love, pain, triumph, and struggle. Through his lens, it’s hard to imagine him spending his lifetime doing anything but advocating for his community — in a quote from the book’s opening pages, Smith seems to agree:
“Something had to be done. Someone had to do it. So why not me?”