On July 28, 1966, the Omaha World-Herald published a report about a a “200 member gang known as the Black Panthers” that “planned much of the systematic firebombing, sniping and looting in Cleveland’s slum riots.” From the outset, Omaha’s media portrayed the Black Panther Party as violent hoodlums, and in the next several years they wouldn’t stop. This is a short history of the reality of the Black Panthers in North Omaha.
Understanding the Past
African Americans have been discriminated against in Omaha since the city was founded in 1854. De facto segregation was the norm In 1919, that discrimination intensified with the U.S. Army was called to secure a perimeter around the segregated neighborhoods where they lived, after thousands of white Omahans invaded the neighborhood in bloodlust after a lynching.
The struggle for civil rights had been active in North Omaha since the 1880s. During that decade, several organizations were founded to push for justice for African Americans. Members were professionals and working people, men and women, and activists, all. In the 1920s, the NAACP and Urban League started Omaha chapters. Several Black newspapers kept the community abreast of important local and national events, and the community’s power was growing.
Then in the 1930s, the federal government adopted formal policies discriminating against African Americans in Omaha through the Home Owners Loan Corporation. These federal policies kept Blacks formally restricted in a neighborhood historically referred to as the Near North Side, as well as the neighboring Long School neighborhood.
In that same era, African Americans in North Omaha were being routinely targeted by the Omaha Police Department. With their cars pulled over, harassment by police on the streets, in businesses and at home, as well as through the legal system, North Omaha’s Black community was reaching a boiling point.
World War II saw things change. Suddenly, African American men and women in North Omaha were shipped off to fight overseas. Some adults who stayed in Omaha filled in essential jobs with the defense industry and supporting the community. When the war was over, it was only logical they’d want equal rights.
When middle class sustenance was still out of reach, it was young people working with adult allies in Omaha who led the change. Seeking to eliminate hiring discrepancies between Blacks and whites, end segregation in public places, and get better educational opportunities for all kids, the DePorres Club launched civil rights campaigns throughout the city. In the early 1960s, their efforts were taken over by 4CL, a citywide campaign led by ministers. The entire time, Mildred Brown of The Omaha Star kept vigilant eyes over progress in the community.
By the mid-1960s though, all of these efforts were overshadowed. In 1966, the first civil rights-era riot in North Omaha ravaged the community. More major riots plagued the community in 1967, ’68 and ’69, with smaller actions happening all three years. An African American young man was murdered by the Omaha Police Department during a riot in 1966, and 14-year-old Vivian Strong was shot in the back by an Omaha police officer in 1969.
Activating for Action
Its against this background that the Black Panther Party, or BPP, emerged in North Omaha.
In 1966, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California, to stop police brutality. They were immediately armed and ready to aggressively fight police. Acknowledging the national pattern of police brutality, criminal injustice and white hatred against African Americans and other people of color, local Black Panther chapters opened across the country.
Rallying the community, building opportunities and challenging the irrepressible white supremacy within and throughout Omaha apparently became the focus of African American activists in the city. After years of rioting, ongoing police brutality and the diminished capacity of the Black community, Eddie Bowen thought he had to take action.
The Black Panthers Launch in Omaha
“[A] 200 member gang known as the Black Panthers […that…] planned much of the systematic firebombing, sniping and looting in Cleveland’s slum riots.”–The Omaha World-Herald announces the launch of the Omaha Black Panther Party on July 28, 1966.
The history of the Black Panther Party in Omaha is challenging to find in print or online, and that’s why I’ve written this article. A commenter named William C shared the following information with me, and I’m including it here to increase awareness.
In July 1968, Eddie Bowen traveled to Oakland for permission to open a Black Panther Party chapter in Omaha. After going through the BPP’s training, he came back to Omaha. Apparently, approximately 20 people joined early. However, when Eldrige Cleaver, the national Black Panther Party minister of information, came to speak in Omaha in 1968 more than 400 people came to hear him.
Located at 3120 North 24th Street on the corner of Spencer, the first BPP office was opened in late July 1968.Forming armed citizen patrols, the Panther’s sought to monitor the Omaha Police Department and challenge police brutality. By 1969, Omaha’s Black Panthers were leading social programs in North Omaha. They led several free breakfast programs, summer Freedom Schools, clothing drives, and held other activities.
In my research, I’ve learned that summer 1969, the FBI started aggressively challenging the BPP, working with the Omaha Police Department to discredit and arrest members of the Omaha chapter. According to official FBI memos, in June 1969, a high school student-led group called the Black Association for Nationalism through Unity, or BANTU, was added to federal government target list. In July 1969, there was a late night shooting at the headquarters, and several items were stolen from the headquarters. All summer long, the Omaha World-Herald, local TV stations, politicians and others repeatedly blamed the BPP for riots, sniping incidents, firebombings, and break-ins throughout North Omaha. William C writes that Omaha’s BPP chapter closed in August 1969.
Within days, a group of BPP members formed a new organization that led action in the city called the United Front Against Fascism, or UFAF. Edward Poindexter was the leader. They soon renamed their organization as the National Committee to Combat Fascism, or NCCF. Their new headquarters at 3120 North 24th opened up in August.
That same year, the FBI’s COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program), at the command of J. Edgar Hoover, stepped up their action against Omaha’s remaining Black Panthers who were active with UCCF. They soon destroyed Omaha’s chapter entirely.
Ending Omaha’s Black Panthers
David Rice was the Deputy Minister of Education for the UCCF. From his youngest years, he was involved in North Omaha’s Holy Family Catholic Church all of his life. Father John McCaslin there was a former Freedom Rider and tireless fighter for social justice. Rice’s membership in the Black Panther Party came as a surprise to nobody. Rice changed his name to Mondo we Langa.
Ed Poindexter was the deputy chairman of the organization. He was born in North Omaha in 1944. When he got involved in the Panthers, Poindexter was a Vietnam vet, 1968 Democratic National Convention delegate.
Working with the Omaha Police Department, in 1968 the FBI began devising a smooth plan to eliminate the city’s Black Panthers by making an example of two leaders. According to documents obtained through a FOIA request, Omaha Police Department had already been actively instigating against the Panthers before fall 1968. Then, in December 1969, J. Edgar Hoover sent ordered the Omaha FBI office to eliminate the city’s Black Panther chapter.
In August 1970, an Omaha Police Department officer was killed when a bomb exploded in a vacant house he was searching. The ensuing 1971 trial framed Poindexter and Rice as the murderers by regularly violating their constitutional rights. In the 45 years since, this has continued.
Ed Poindexter and Mondo we Langa spent more than four decades behind bars since then. we Langa died in the Nebraska State Penitentiary early in 2016, and Poindexter is still there after several appeals. As of October 2016, Poindexter is still locked up. He earned a Master’s degree from Goddard College in Vermont, has written several books, and helps inmates getting ready for release. He’s also an artist, writer and teacher.
The imprisonment of Poindexter and we Langa is widely recognized for its effectiveness at shutting down the UFAF. COINTELPRO, the FBI’s special effort led by J. Edgar Hoover, was recognized by Congress in the 1970s as an infringement on individual civil liberties and democracy in the United States. After their file on Omaha’s UFAF was released in the 2000s, it was shown that they concluded the UFAF, the NCCF and the BPP were never guilty of illegal activities in Omaha.
According to a 1983 interview with Frank Peak, a UCCF member, Omaha’s Black Panther Party never really ended – its members just used more sophisticated techniques, many in other cities, and continued their activism. Before they existed, there were no free breakfast programs, longterm summer programs, youth empowerment activities or community pride campaigns for African Americans in North Omaha. Today, these are standard programs. Nationally, the Black Panther Party is credited with creating the template for Head Start, free hot breakfast programs in schools, summer food programs, and many other important social programs.
The original Omaha Panther headquarters was bulldozed by 1973. The headquarters house used by the UCCF was at 3508 North 24th Street was demolished in 1983. There are no plaques, historical markers or other activities in Omaha designed to honor the efforts of the BPP, the UFAF or the NCCF.
You Might Like…
- “FRAMED” by Michael Richardson – A series about the Omaha Two (Poindexter and we Langa)
- A Timeline of Race and Racism in Omaha
- A Biography of Rice and Poindexter
- A History of Omaha’s Black Association for Nationalism through Unity, or BANTU
- Nebraska’s Two Political Prisoners: Injustice in the Midlands
- Cory Zurowshi (May 24, 2007) “Bloodletting: The Minard murder, the FBI and the end of Omaha’s Black Panther Party,” The Reader.
- Michael Richardson (December 28, 2011) “J. Edgar Hoover and the Framing of the Omaha Two” Crime Magazine.
- United Front Against Fascism. (February 20, 1970) “Necessary: UFAF Newsletter“
- “Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts. Subject: (COINTELPRO) Black Extremist 100-448006 Section 15“. Federal Bureau of Investigation.
- The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (2015 documentary on Netflix)