Remembering Omaha’s unresolved civil rights history

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COURTESY OF BIOGRAPHY.COM
COURTESY OF BIOGRAPHY.COM

Phil Brown
OPINION EDITOR

The concept of “political prisoners” isn’t something we like to associate with the United States.

Perhaps we think of Cuba, North Korea, Iran or China. It’s a horrible concept: the imprisonment of a person based not on crimes they have committed, but on their beliefs, their thoughts, and political advocacy.

It’s something that’s antithetical to the idea of America as the land of the free, and the home of the brave, and certainly not something we’d like to hear about in our own state and city.

But the reality is that America holds many political prisoners, including a few in the Cornhusker state. The most infamous operation leading to many of the political prisoners still languishing in prisons in America was FBI’s COINTELPRO, or Counter Intelligence Program. COINTELPRO, the brainchild of J. Edgar Hoover, was a response to the Civil Rights movement of the early 1950s, in which people like Martin Luther King Jr. began mobilizing masses of people to stand up for their rights. These movements perturbed Hoover and the FBI, who embarked on a widespread and strictly illegal surveillance program.

COINTELPRO specifically targeted movements, groups and individuals that they felt threatened by: Martin Luther King Jr., the Black Panthers, feminist groups and anti-war groups. Hoover was specifically concerned about King Jr., about whom he said “We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.”

The racial and political paranoia of the FBI drove them to illegally conduct surveillance on many figures in the black civil rights movement in addition to Martin Luther King Jr. Using a variety of methods, the FBI targeted groups and individuals with hate mail, break-ins, unauthorized raids, and illegal recording of all kinds. Hoover wrote in a memo that “purpose of counterintelligence action is to disrupt the BPP (Black Panther Party) and it is immaterial whether facts exist to substantiate the charge.”

Little wonder then, that COINTELPRO was revealed and publicly discredited in 1971. But the damage had already been done. Many civil rights activists had been killed in raids or jailed over trumped-up evidence for nothing more than associating with political causes they believed in.

As we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and the Civil Rights Movement, let’s not forget those that tried to discredit and undermine his movement by any means necessary, killing and imprisoning with abandon.

Two of COINTELPRO’s victims are still imprisoned in Nebraska: Mondo we Langa (formerly known as David Rice) and Edward Poindexter. The two were charged and convicted of the 1970 murder of an Omaha Police officer. However, the conviction was made based on extremely dubious and circumstantial evidence, the defendants were both victims of extensive, illegal COINTELPRO investigations, and the prosecution used the pair’s political ties and rhetoric to influence the jury. The main witness of the prosecution was subject to intimidation.

Detective Jack Swanson, who led the investigation, revealed the political motives of the duo’s imprisonment in a 1991 documentary made by the BBC about COINTELPRO. “We feel we got the two main players in Rice and Poindexter, and I think we did the right thing at the time, because the Black Panther Party … completely disappeared from the city of Omaha … and it’s … been the
end of that sort of thing in the city of Omaha.”

In 1993, the Nebraska Parole Board recognized the case of the two inmates and recommended them for immediate release, their sentences commuted to time served. But extraordinarily, the Pardons Board ignored the recommendation. There’s no further proof needed to show the political motive of the pair’s continued incarceration. The judicial authority recommended them to be released, and the political authority, the Pardons Board, refused to acknowledge the recommendation.

Now both elderly and suffering from medical conditions, it appears we Langa and Poindexter will die in Nebraska prisons, over 40 years after being incarcerated based on now-repudiated proceedings. And the only thing keeping them in jail is the political whims of Nebraska’s Pardons Board.

As Martin Luther King Jr. Day passes, and as we celebrate the work of one man who was able to avoid being destroyed by COINTELPRO and the FBI, we can’t forget those who weren’t so fortunate, who are dying in prisons in our own backyard.

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