On August 17, 1970, an Omaha policeman, Larry Minard, was killed by a bomb in a vacant house while responding to a call about a woman screaming. The ambush attack on police was blamed on the local Black Panthers and two leaders, Edward Poindexter and Wopashitwe Mondo Eyen we Langa (then David Rice) were convicted and sentenced to life in prison. I lived in Omaha and attended the 1971 trial. All my adult life I wondered if the two men were really guilty. Ten years ago I decided to find out and began research that consumed my life for the next decade.
The first thing I learned was the ugly history of racism in Omaha. The largely all-white prairie city was populated by an influx of black residents from southern states recruited by the Union Pacific railroad and Omaha’s large slaughterhouse industry as strikebreakers. Living in segregated neighborhoods, the new arrivals were despised and discriminated against at every opportunity.
In 1891, a frenzied lynch mob of thousands stormed the downtown jail and beat George Smith to death before hanging his battered bloody body from a lamp post. Smith had been accused of assaulting a white girl. The awful scene was repeated in 1919 when an even larger crowd burned the Douglas County Courthouse and lynched Will Brown, accused of assaulting a white woman. A local newspaper called the riot an orgy of blood and fire. The Army had to be called out to quiet the crazed city.
Little changed in Omaha in the half-century between the Courthouse lynching and Minard murder trial. Omaha remained a much segregated city with “terrible prejudice” as Governor Frank Morrison described the racial climate.
The second thing I learned was that J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, believed Marcus Garvey of back-to-Africa fame was guilty of ordering the murder of a rival, the Rev. J. W. H. Eason. Hoover had hired four black agents to penetrate Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. The UNIA suffered a rift when Eason parted ways with Garvey and went about establishing his own organization. Information obtained by Hoover’s agents strongly suggested that Garvey ordered the assassination of Eason in 1923 after a church service in New Orleans. Hoover was unable to persuade Louisiana authorities to prosecute Garvey and had to content himself with convicting Garvey of federal mail fraud charges.
Hoover’s inability to see Garvey prosecuted for murder led to a lifelong animus against black activists and a determination to not play by the rules, setting the stage for decades of dirty tricks culminating in the clandestine COINTELPRO operation. A burglary at the Media, Pennsylvania FBI office in 1971 led to the formal termination of COINTELPRO but not before thousands of American citizens had been targeted for counterintelligence measures.
The third thing I learned was how Hoover was able to corrupt nearly all of the FBI agents into cooperating in the illegal and clandestine COINTELPRO misdeeds. This question troubled me quite a while and it wasn’t until I read the personnel records of the top FBI officials under the Freedom of Information Act that I learned the answer. When the top FBI brass was hired they call came with glowing recommendations from employers, teachers, neighbors and others, yet Hoover was somehow able to corrupt them to commit crimes.
Hoover led the FBI for forty-eight years with dictatorial control. Hoover demanded personal loyalty to himself over duty to country. That was half of the formula. The other half was unfair discipline. Hoover was always punishing someone, often over minor infractions or even nothing at all. The unfair discipline turned the agents into liars to avoid unwarranted punishment. Once they became liars the slippery slope to corruption of duty became a drop-off as agents and supervisors rushed to please the boss not matter what the cost.
The fourth thing I learned was that Poindexter and Mondo, now known as the Omaha Two, were innocent. The controversial trial I attended as a young man was tainted from the beginning with perjured testimony, planted evidence, and withheld evidence. Over the years some of the dirty secrets of the flawed prosecution have emerged, piece by piece. However, no amount of effort or appeals was able to gain the two men a new trial. Four federal judges ordered a new trial for Mondo but it never happened. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case on its merits and said Mondo had to deal with the Nebraska state courts. Justice William Brennan called the ruling “profoundly disturbing.”
The fifth thing I learned was that the general public does not care what happened to the Black Panthers. Whenever I tried to tell the story in conversation, eyes would glaze over and yawning would begin. Guilt was assumed without any regard to the actual evidence. A news whiteout covered the case to the point almost nobody today knows about the matter. COINTELPRO was terminated ten days after the Omaha Two trial ended.
The search for a publisher, willing to tell the story, was also informative to me. Each rejection came with its own excuse, however the bottom line was the book-sellers knew it was a story that would not bring a tidy profit because few people cared what happened to the Black Panthers. Wopashitwe Mondo Eyen we Langa died in March 2016 serving his life sentence, paying on a debt he did not owe. Edward Poindexter is still held in a tiny cell at the maximum security Nebraska State Penitentiary in his forty-seventh year of imprisonment for a crime he did not commit.
The sixth lesson was more personal. I learned that Ed and Mondo were remarkable people. The long years of undeserved punishment did not poison them with bitterness or render them insensitive to the suffering of others. Brain numbing and boring confinement did not curb their interest in learning and personal growth. Both men served as mentors to younger prisoners, encouraging them to avoid lifestyles that would lead to crime. The many hours alone with their thoughts gave them wisdom beyond words. Poindexter developed self-esteem classes for prisoners and Mondo remained engaged in life writing poetry, plays, and essays.
Ed and Mondo kept their humanity under inhumane conditions and they kept their integrity. Suggestions of parole if they would admit guilt did not turn them from standing by their declarations of innocence. I am grateful they have been a part of my life.