by Linda Kennedy
One more political prisoner has died in custody. Wopashitwe Mondo Eyen we Langa passed away from complications of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) Friday, March 11, 2016, at 11:55 p.m. He was not alone and was loved until the very end. With the exception of two visits to an outside hospital in Lincoln, Mondo spent the last six months of his life in the Nebraska State Penitentiary infirmary.
When doctors gave Mondo only a few weeks to live, supporters redoubled our efforts to get him released from prison. We pleaded with him to allow his attorney to seek medical release due to the gravity of the situation. He refused, insisting that he was innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. He did not want to be released if it meant anything less than an exoneration by the state of Nebraska. Mondo was in control of all efforts for his release.
In the cage, Mondo had little external control. Even the simplest of decisions was already made. When COPD took over, the very rhythm of his life’s breath depended on beeping and whirring machines. So Mondo’s control was internal, as it had been since the time of his incarceration. There, “in the fell clutch of circumstance,” he was a force, an “unconquerable soul.”
David Lewis Rice was Lewie to his playmates from St. Benedict Catholic School in North Omaha. David L. Rice was locked up at age 23.
He became Wopashitwe Mondo Eyen we Langa in the early ‘80s. The name is a combination of five African languages and means “wild man-child of the sun.” In one of the last letters he wrote, Mondo told me his name “is made up of distinct components and that it makes a difference that they are in a certain order.”
He wrote of himself, “He prefers that when, for convenience sake, people want to shorten his name, they use, ‘W.M. E. we Langa’ or ‘we Langa’ (as kind of a last name) or ‘Mondo.’ ‘Mondo we Langa’ alters and distorts the meaning of his African name.” I had referred to him as Mondo we Langa for years, as had others, and he never once corrected us.
Mondo referred to the prison cafeteria as the “grand emporium of culinary abomination.” If he did not like the food, and that was often, he would not eat. If the weather was cold or cloudy or windy, he did not bother to make the walk to the cafeteria. COPD made the trip difficult.
Even in the infirmary, he sometimes refused to eat the doctor-recommended frequent small meals. As a result, a few weeks ago, his weight hovered around 110 pounds.
This need for control was not arbitrary or spiteful. It was certainly not a death wish. It was a caged bird beating its wings against the bars. It was a caged bird singing.
Mondo sang for us all.
In the early ‘60s at Creighton Prep High School, Mondo became interested in social and political issues. He joined off-campus groups working for desegregation. He played the guitar and sang at Holy Family Catholic Church.
At Creighton University, he become more politically aware and turned his focus to issues affecting Omaha’s Black community. He began writing articles and columns for underground and community newspapers. Those include: “Buffalo Chip,” “Down Here on the Ground,” “Black Realities,” “Asterisk” and “Everybody Magazine.”
During this period, Mondo began expressing his ideas through poetry. At the same time, he promoted political education. He was deeply involved in community empowerment organizations such as Mothers for Adequate Welfare and Lake-Charles Community Action. He spoke out against discrimination in the Omaha public schools and he wanted an end to the U.S. government’s war in Vietnam.
Mondo worked in a feeding program for children with members of the Omaha chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP) before joining the Party in 1969. In 1970, Mondo became the deputy minister of information for the Omaha BPP successor organization, The National Committee to Combat Fascism (NCCF). He edited the NCCF newsletter, “Freedom by Any Means Necessary.”
In August 1970, Mondo and Edward Poindexter, deputy chairman of the NCCF, were caught in the web of the FBI’s domestic spy program, COINTELPRO, and framed for the murder of Omaha police officer Larry Minard.
Mondo wrote a poem titled “The White Sea” in 1969 or 1970 and it became a harbinger of his future: “(A) jury outside deciding a verdict / to bring us all to guilt / and send us out in a boat with stones / tied around our necks / and throw us dead into / the goddam milky sea.”
Through perjured testimony, withholding exculpatory evidence and planted evidence, both men were found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Maya Angelou wrote: “(A) caged bird stands on the grave of dreams / his shadow shouts soon a nightmare scream / his wings are clipped and his feet are tied / so he opens his throat to sing.”
Wopashitwe Mondo Eyen we Langa continued to speak out in prison. He was an author, a painter, playwright and sculptor. He was a prolific writer and poet.
His works have appeared in more than 40 magazines and literary publications. In 1994, he compiled several of his writings in “A View from Taney’s Place.” In 2012, he released the second edition of his poetry anthology, “The Black Panther Is an African Cat,” his seventh work of poetry.
Mondo was a regular contributor for The Omaha Star and other newspapers. He did a stint as a paid columnist for the Lincoln Journal Star newspaper during his incarceration. In 1992, a piece of his writing was featured in the booklet of Nebraska authors published for 125th anniversary of Nebraska’s statehood.
His poem, “Great Bateleur,” was featured in “Malcolm X: By Any Means Necessary” by Walter Dean Myers. He has contributed material to scholarly publications as well. Youth theatre groups in Nebraska have performed Mondo’s plays; a New York group performed his play, “Different Dances.” Mondo was an early member of the Harambee Afrikan Cultural Organization inside the penitentiary.
Mondo served as a mentor to young men new to the prison. “Some of the younger ones in here listen to me because I treat them with respect,” Mondo said. The respect shown to Mondo came not only from inmates but from guards and prison officials as well.
Joleet Poole, who worked with Mondo in a prison “Porter Program” to help older inmates with everyday tasks, said in a 2013 Lincoln Journal Star interview that Mondo was regularly greeted by more than two dozen inmates just on the way to the chow hall. Then, “the entire time he is eating, the poor guy’s food ends up getting cold because so many people are well-wishing him,” Poole said. On the day he died, Mondo received visits from three prison officials.
Respect notwithstanding, this is still Nebraska. It is a conservative place. Though Mondo and Ed did not commit the crime, the man who died was a police officer.
Their case, which was upheld on appeal to the state Supreme Court, was overturned by federal District Judge Warren Urbom. The judge maintained the defendants should be released or retried, that there had not been sufficient cause or justification to issue a warrant to search Mondo’s house, where authorities purportedly found the dynamite used to make the suitcase bomb which killed the officer.
The Eighth Circuit Court agreed with Judge Urbom in an appeal, but in 1975, the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately undermined Judge Urbom’s ruling by deciding that, beginning with this case, appeals could not be pursued in the way Mondo had appealed – which was perfectly lawful when he filed his appeal.
In 1974, the FBI admitted it had violated the constitutional rights of hundreds of United States citizens through COINTELPRO. The government apologized, but nothing was done to reverse the wrongs or repair the lives it shattered. In 1977, an Omaha World Herald article revealed that the Omaha FBI had targeted the Omaha Black Panther Party between 1968 and 1970.
In addition, Article IV, Section 13, of Nebraska’s Constitution states that parole may be granted for every offense except treason and cases of impeachment. Mondo and Ed Poindexter were convicted of neither.
According to Ethel Landrum Shobe, who was on the Nebraska State Board of Parole at the time, the board voted unanimously at least twice between the years 1992 and 1995 for commutation of Mondo’s sentence. (Ed was in the Minnesota State Penitentiary at that time, so the votes related only to Mondo.)
Still, none of that held sway with the state of Nebraska Pardons Board, made up of the governor, the attorney general and the secretary of state. To date, the board has refused to grant a hearing on the Parole Board’s sentence commutation recommendations.
Each time there was hope for Mondo, it was dashed and new evidence apparently meant nothing.
A concerted effort will continue to clear Wopashitwe Mondo Eyen we Langa’s name and to free Edward Poindexter.
“…for the caged bird / sings of freedom.”
Linda Kennedy is a freelance broadcast and print journalist who teaches media literacy and lives in Seattle, Wash. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.