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The story of the Omaha Two

May 12, 2011

Part 1: Last COINTELPRO trial 40 years ago by the FBI against the Omaha Two examined

by Michael Richardson

Will Brown's body burns in downtown Omaha after being lynched in 1919
The Omaha Two are Edward Poindexter and Mondo we Langa (formerly David Rice). Both men are imprisoned at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln where they are serving life sentences for the Aug. 17, 1970, bombing murder of an Omaha police officer. 

Both Ed Poindexter and Mondo we Langa deny any involvement in the death of patrolman Larry Minard Sr. Minard, a 29-year-old father of five young children, was killed instantly when he handled a booby-trapped suitcase in a vacant house. 

Minard had been lured with seven other officers to the vacant house on Ohio Street in Omaha by a false 911 emergency call reporting a woman screaming at the residence. Police immediately suspected the local Black Panther chapter, called the National Committee to Combat Fascism, of the crime and focused their attention on the Panthers. 

Poindexter was chairman of the chapter and Mondo was the minister of information. Both men had been targets of COINTELPRO, an illegal counter-intelligence operation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation under J. Edgar Hoover. 

Hoover had been personally monitoring the COINTELPRO actions against Black Panther chapters across the United States. In December 1969 Hoover chastised the special agent-in-charge of the Omaha office, Paul Young, for not getting the Panther leadership off the streets. 

When the report of Minard’s death came in to the FBI office, Young sprang into action and proposed making a case against the Panther leaders offering to deal with the incriminating 911 tape. A recording of the killer’s voice was sent to the FBI crime laboratory for analysis with the instruction to make no report on the findings other than a phone call to the local FBI office. 

When Ivan Willard Conrad, the FBI lab director, got the COINTELRO memo, he called Hoover to verify he was to not issue a report on the identity of Minard’s killer. Hoover told Conrad to proceed as directed and the lab boss noted Hoover’s directive on the memo, initialing and dating the entry. 

The jury that convicted the Omaha Two in April 1971 never heard the 911 tape nor were told of COINTELPRO and Hoover’s role in the case. Despite the later revelation of the withheld report and subsequent police conflicting testimony, plus new scientific analysis of the 911 tape, the two men have been repeatedly denied new trials. 

We are going to go back in time and relive the turbulent era in Omaha four decades ago in a continuing series of reports culminating in a day-by-day recap of the trial. 

The series will begin in 1919 with a lynching in downtown Omaha to set the scene and then advance to March 1968, when George Wallace sparked a small riot in Omaha during a campaign appearance. From there the story will advance as events of the time occurred. 

Part 2: Omaha’s ugly racial history includes a 1919 downtown lynching and mob riot 

The Omaha Two, Ed Poindexter and Mondo we Langa (formerly David Rice), were both born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska. Both men had personal experience with Omaha’s racist climate and joined the Black Panthers to address problems they witnessed. 

Fifty years before the Black Panthers formed in Omaha, a race riot in downtown Omaha had to be put down by the United States Army. Before the Army was able to restore order, a white mob of thousands sacked and burned the Douglas County Courthouse to seize a prisoner, Will Brown, accused of sexual assault. 

Will Brown, 40, was accused of rape by a 19-year-old woman from South Omaha. The Omaha Bee newspaper published inflammatory articles about the case and three days after the alleged crime, a frenzied, alcohol-fueled mob from South Omaha descended on the downtown jail and demanded Brown be released from his cell for a street lynching. 

When officials refused to release Brown, the mob began attacking the courthouse to gain entry to the jail on the top floor. The mob broke into the courthouse and stormed a police line in the building. While the sheriff and his men were barricading the fourth floor of the courthouse the mob raided a gas station and doused the lower floors of the building with gasoline. 

After the fire started the mob armed itself with guns stolen from looted hardware stores and pawnshops. A thousand guns were reported stolen that terrible night in Omaha. 

Omaha Mayor Ed Smith tried to stop the mob, but he was hauled to a streetlight on Harney Street near the courthouse where a noose was placed around his neck and he was hoisted in the air. Swift intervention by a state policeman who cut down Smith saved the mayor’s life. 

Sheriff Michael Clark led the 121 prisoners to the roof of the building as the fire burned upward. Ladders where placed against the courthouse as the mob sought access to the roof. Within minutes shots rang out and the crowd seized Brown. The unfortunate mob victim was immediately beaten and his clothing ripped from his body. Brown may have already been dead by the time he was lynched at the corner of 18th and Harney. 

After the crowd used the corpse for target practice the bloody body was taken down and towed behind a car four blocks to 17th and Dodge Street where oil was poured on Brown’s body and it was set on fire. 

Rioting continued until 3 a.m., when federal troops from Fort Omaha arrived with machine guns. It took 1,600 soldiers to bring order to the city. 

Despite photographs that allowed authorities to identify several hundred of the lynch mob, including the chief agitators, no one was ever prosecuted for the crimes committed that fearful night. 

Actor Henry Fonda lived in Omaha at the time and his father ran a business across from the courthouse. Fonda would later describe the horror: 

“It was the most horrendous sight I’d ever seen … We locked the plant, went downstairs, and drove home in silence. My hands were wet and there were tears in my eyes. All I could think of was that young Black man dangling at the end of a rope.” 

Within years of the riot, Omaha would see the growth of the Ku Klux Klan in the city. Omaha was a segregated city with the Black population largely confined to the Near North Side. 

The Near North Side was the home of both Ed Poindexter and Mondo we Langa and also the neighborhood where patrolman Larry Minard Sr. would lose his life on Aug. 17, 1970, in an ambush bombing. 

Omaha never really recovered from the 1919 riot and its ugly legacy led to a community now divided over the conviction of the Omaha Two. 

Michael Richardson has written extensively about the FBI’s Operation COINTELPRO and is working on a book about the Omaha Two, imprisoned in the last COINTELPRO conviction in 1971. His entire series of stories on the Omaha Two is available in the Examiner, at http://www.examiner.com/omaha-two-story-in-national. Watch for more in the next Bay View.

 

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