Adam’s Note: I’m excited to introduce a series for NorthOmahaHistory.com called Framed: J. Edgar Hoover, COINTELPRO and the Omaha Two Story. Written by author Michael Richardson (San Francisco Bay View, OpEdNews.com and Examiner.com), I believe this series tells a vital story missing from Omaha’s history. Its the story of men convicted with malice; a Black neighborhood terrorized by white supremacy; and justice long-sought and not gained.
“Negro youths respond to the leadership of militant malcontents.”—J. Edgar Hoover, May 23, 1967.
On a hot Sunday evening in August 1970, Larry Minard, Sr. had supper with his wife Karen and five children. It would be Larry’s last meal. Later that night Larry put on his uniform. The seven-year veteran of the Omaha Police Department worked the midnight shift on the Near-Northside. As he departed, Minard told his wife not to worry, his customary message to calm her fears about the dangers of his work. Karen never saw Larry alive again.
Minard’s bombing death would be blamed on the Black Panthers. Two group leaders ended up with life sentences in prison. However, the true story was never told to the jury and has only emerged in bits and pieces over the years. J. Edgar Hoover, the infamous director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, for whom the FBI headquarters building is named, intervened in the criminal investigation and ordered a laboratory report on the identity of an unknown 911 caller in the case to be withheld. Hoover let one of Minard’s killers get away with murder to frame a case against the two black leaders as part of his clandestine COINTELPRO operation. This is the story the jury never heard and the history behind that story, a tale of justice corrupted by the nation’s highest police official.
Omaha, Nebraska was settled by white pioneers and according to English poet Rudyard Kipling the prairie city was “populated entirely by Germans, Poles, Slavs, Hungarians, Croats, Magyars, and all the scum of the Eastern European States.”[i]
Early black residents of the city were lured from the South beginning in the 1880’s as strikebreakers by railroad companies and the meat packing industry. The competition for work did nothing to mitigate existing racial prejudices and black residents suffered from discrimination and white misconduct.
On October 9, 1891, George Smith, a black man accused of raping a five year-old white girl, was lynched by a frenzied mob of eight thousand that stormed the city jail. A journalist observed, “that men began to look at each other in a strange way, and that something happened which it would be impossible to put into words.” Elia Peattie wrote, “It was the sudden growth of a terrible mental disease.”
“This fever raged in every vein and artery of the city.”[ii]
Smith was not properly identified as the culprit although that did not stop the lynching while racism stormed in the streets. The Omaha Bee described the brutal scene as Smith was hauled out a jail window into the hands of the bloodthirsty crowd.
“The mob rushed upon him, kicking and jumping upon him as he was jerked down over the rough pavement, his clothing almost entirely torn from his body, and the skin and flesh bruised and bleeding in a shocking manner.”[iii]
The Great Migration of rural Southern sharecroppers to Northern cities following World War I helped swell Omaha’s black population but did little to reduce the racism and hatred festering in the heart of the Midwest. The so-called Red Summer of 1919 was difficult for black America and the nation was scarred by race riots and lynchings across the land. Omaha did not escape the white terror bloodshed.
On September 28, 1919, a newspaper-fueled hysteria swept Omaha and a crowd, estimated at 20,000 in one account, gathered at the Douglas County Courthouse where Will Brown, a black man accused of raping a white woman, was lynched. One member of the lynch mob expressed the mood of the others.
“We are going to teach these negroes a lesson. The white people of this town are tired of putting up with them. If the courts don’t do justice, fire, guns and a rope will be a sufficient lesson.”[iv]
Professor Steven Willborn, of the University of Nebraska College of Law, has written about the riot and lynching. “Racial tensions were also high in Omaha as the newspapers competed to sensationalize Black crime, both real and imagined, especially when directed at White women.”[v]
An illustrated history of the riot, Omaha’s Riot in Story and Picture, later documented the violence of the frenzied scene. “The crowd wrested revolvers, badges and clubs from policemen. They chased and beat every colored person who ventured into the vicinity. White men, who attempted to rescue innocent negroes from unmerited punishment, were subjected to physical abuse. Law-abiding citizens became maniacal anarchists.”[vi]
“Fury was throbbing through the throngs in the streets.”[vii]
“Boys and young men placed firemen’s ladders against the building. They mounted to the second story. One man had a heavy coil of new rope on his back. Another had a shotgun. Together they climbed up the outside of the west wall of the court house. Grasping cornices and window ledges, they squirmed upward. Automobilists turned powerful searchlights on the building to light their perilous way. The mob applauded each nimble twist of the lithe bodies. Never, perhaps, in any mob scene was there such a spectacular sight.”[viii]
Fires were started in the courthouse and the sheriff gave up the terrified prisoner to the mob to save the other inmates. Brown was seized and beaten immediately, his clothes were torn off by the time he was taken from the building. With a roar from the crowd, Brown was dragged to a nearby lamp pole. A rope was placed around Brown’s neck and he was hoisted in the air, his body twisting as it was jerked upward.
“Hundreds of revolvers and shotguns spat at the corpse as it dangled in mid-air. Then the rope was cut. Brown’s body was tied to the rear end of an automobile. It was dragged through the streets….It was burned. Members of the mob hauled the charred remains through the business district for several hours.”[ix]
Actor Henry Fonda was fourteen at the time of the lynching. Fonda’s father owned a printing plant across the street from the courthouse. Fonda watched the riot from the second floor window of his father’s print shop.
“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.”[x]
Omaha was placed under martial law and the U.S. Army was called in to end the riot, stationing troops to patrol city streets. Omaha was a city divided by color and wounded by hatred and fear.
Two weeks after the Omaha lynching, J. Edgar Hoover, a Bureau of Investigation supervisor, received a tip from the Bureau office in the Panama Canal Zone about Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey, founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association.
Hoover, who spent World War I chasing immigrants and radicals, launched what would become a personal war against black leaders that he considered undesirable.
Hoover wrote to his superior: “Garvey is a West-Indian negro and in addition to his activities in endeavoring to establish the Black Star Line Steamship Corporation he has also been particularly active among the radical elements in New York City in agitating the negro movement. Unforturnately however, he has not as yet violated any federal law whereby he could be proceeded against on the grounds of being an undesirable alien, from the point of view of deportation. It occurs to me, however, from the attached clipping that there might be some proceeding against him for fraud in connection with his Black Star Line propoganda.”[xi]
Hoover hired four black undercover agents and went to work penetrating Marcus Garvey’s organization. As the investigation proceeded, Hoover began lining up witnesses against Garvey. In 1923, on New Years Day, a key witness was attacked and shot. Reverend J. W. H. Eason died in New Orleans following an after-church shooting. The murdered pastor, who had split with Garvey, was to be a leading witness in the Black Star Line mail fraud case. According to a Bureau of Investigation source, Garvey announced the shooting of Eason at Liberty Hall in New York just one hour after it occurred in New Orleans.[xii]
Hoover suspected Garvey of ordering Eason’s murder to silence his rival. Prosecution against Garvey was ruled out in New Orleans by local authorities who feared the expense of such an undertaking. Although Hoover saw Garvey imprisoned and then deported for mail fraud over his back to Africa promotion, Hoover’s inability to see Garvey prosecuted for murder was a source of lifelong frustration. The Garvey case shaped and influenced Hoover’s future counterintelligence directives, he would no longer play by the rules.
In Omaha, Malcolm Little, later known as Malcolm X, was born May 19, 1925, on the Near North Side. Malcolm was not long a resident, moving early in life and never developing much regard for the city. Malcolm X commented briefly on the first page of his autobiography that a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to his home one night brandishing shotguns and rifles. Malcolm’s pregnant mother told them she was alone with her three small children and that her husband was away preaching in Milwaukee. The Klansmen shouted threats and warnings that the family get out of town because “the good Christian white people” were not going to stand for Malcolm’s father spreading trouble among the “good Negroes” of Omaha with the back to Africa preachings of Marcus Garvey.[xiii]
An increasingly aggressive J. Edgar Hoover was named to head the Bureau of Investigation and commanded a growing national police force.
A US Senator from Nebraska named George Norris came to view Hoover as a menace to good government. In 1940, Norris took the step that very few ever had the courage to take and called into question the leadership of Hoover. The Nebraska lawmaker wrote to Attorney General Robert Jackson about actions of FBI agents: “I have heard so many complaints of the activities of this Bureau that it has seemed to me I ought to write you regarding them.”
“I cannot help but reach the conclusion that there is some well-grounded fear that the activities of this Bureau are overstepping and over-reaching the legitimate objects for which it was created.”[xiv]
Norris portended a future that would come to pass. “I fear the activities of this Bureau, covering as they do the entire country, are going to bring into disrepute the methods of our entire system of jurisprudence.”[xv]
Meanwhile, life in Omaha for the residents of African descent was one of segregation, discrimination and deprivation. A Works Projects Administration publication, Negroes of Nebraska, told the story:
“In Omaha, Lincoln, and Grand Island, and, to a lesser extent, in other cities of Nebraska, Negroes are concentrated in districts sometimes referred to as Negro Town….As a rule, these districts relegated to the Negroes are characterized by unpaved or poorly paved streets, inadequate street lighting, absence of playgrounds or other recreational facilities for children, and houses, many of them mere hovels, usually in dire need of repair.”[xvi]
“The span of human memory still overlaps the time when Negroes were illiterate slaves. Many white men still regard the Negro race as inferior to the white race, and many white men even hold Negroes in contempt.”[xvii]
Post-World War II conditions in Omaha had not improved much for the city’s black residents. Formal segregation at Peony Park was ended but there was still a great divide in the races. White Omaha paid little attention to the black community, hemmed in on the Near-Northside.
A sweltering Independence Day weekend in Omaha in 1966, with hundred-degree heat, turned ugly when rioting broke out. According to the Omaha World-Herald the trouble began when a “band of Negro youths” went along Twenty-fourth Street breaking windows and taunting police. The group had left a dance at the Music Box in downtown and grew in size as it headed northward.[xviii]
By 1:00 a.m. police had arrested twenty people. Vandalism, looting, and an attack on a police car and taxi cab led to a brawl between police and a crowd of two hundred in the Safeway parking lot at Twenty-fourth and Lake Streets. It took the police until 3:00 a.m. to clear the parking lot and arrest eight more individuals.[xix]
A month later, during more rioting, Paul Young began his duties as Special Agent in Charge of the Omaha FBI office, his first command. Young could not foresee the awful deed he would do four years later, allowing a policeman’s killer to get away with murder. Omaha’s explosive racial problems would soon come to dominate Young’s attention.
Director Hoover, unhappy with President Lyndon Johnson over civil rights legislation, made it a practice of flooding the White House staff with every racial incident in the country that came to the attention of the FBI network of field offices. Hoover submitted a written report to the White House of events in Omaha covering Young’s first day on the job: “Approximately 50 Negro youths gathered in the Negro district of Omaha, Nebraska, during the early morning of July 31, 1966. The group became unruly and broke windows in several business establishments. Before any looting occurred, however, the Omaha Police Department arrived on the scene and arrested six individuals. The group was dispersed and order restored.”
“During the late evening of July 31, 1966, and early morning of August 1, 1966, Negro youths again took to similar activities. Seven stores were looted and at least four stores were the object of fire bombs. Fifty extra police officers were dispatched to the Negro area of Omaha where 17 individuals were arrested on suspicion of burglary and a crowd of about 150 individuals was dispersed. One Negro boy, aged 18, was struck by shotgun pellets as he left a liquor store that had been burglarized.”[xx]
In May 1967, Hoover sent a special report on racial problems in Omaha to President Johnson and warned of the prospects for summer rioting.
“Informed sources consider the present situation tense and rate the possibility of racial violence “quite high” due to the ill feeling created by the past incidents and the rapidity with which Negro youths respond to the leadership of militant malcontents who are not associated with any civil rights groups. Informed sources agree that communications between law enforcement and city officials are open but are not as good as they were a year ago.”
“The prevailing mood in the city is one of impatience. Statements that the city will tolerate no more violence are creating greater hostility and tension. Negro leaders are criticizing the Police Department for inadequate protection against the rampaging youths, alleging that the police are reluctant to enter the Negro district and possibly precipitate an incident that could lead to further violence.”[xxi]
That summer, J. Edgar Hoover launched a new counterintelligence program against so-called Black Nationalists in a memorandum to twenty-three FBI field offices.
“The purpose of this new counterintelligence endeavor is to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist, hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership, and supporters, and to counter their propensity for violence and civil disorder. The activities of all such groups of intelligence interest to this Bureau must be followed on a continuous basis so we will be in a position to promptly take advantage of all opportunities for counterintelligence and to inspire action in instances where circumstances warrant.”[xxii]
“No opportunity should be missed to exploit through counterintelligence techniques the organizational and personal conflicts of the leadership of the groups and where possible an effort should be made to capitalize upon existing conflicts between competing black nationalist organizations.”
“Many individuals currently active in black nationalist organizations have backgrounds of immorality, subversive activity, and criminal records. Through your investigation of key agitators, you should endeavor to establish their unsavory backgrounds.”[xxiii]
“All Special Agent personnel responsible for the investigation of black nationalist, hate-type organizations and their memberships should be alerted to our counterintelligence interest and each such investigative Agent has a responsibility to call to the attention of the counterintelligence coordinator suggestions and possibilities for implementing the program. You are also cautioned that the nature of this new endeavor is such that under no circumstances should the existence of the program be made known outside the Bureau and appropriate within-office security should be afforded to sensitive operations and techniques considered under the program.”
“You are urged to take an enthusiastic and imaginative approach to this new counterintelligence endeavor and the Bureau will be pleased to entertain any suggestions or techniques you may recommend.”[xxiv]
Hoover’s secret war on black Americans was now official policy and considerable Bureau resources were directed to the clandestine program against unaware citizens.
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- [i] “Omaha Between Trains,” Roundup: A Nebraska Reader, Virginia Faulkner, p. 168, 1957
- [ii] Impertinences: Selected Writings of Elia Peattie, Susanne Bloomfield, p. 106, 2005
- [iii] A Dirty, Wicked Town: Tales of 19th Century Omaha, David Bristow, p. 251, 2000
- [iv] “Death by Rope is Verdict of Mob,” Omaha World-Herald, p. 1, September 28, 1919
- [v] “The Omaha Riot of 1919,” Steven L. Willborn , Nebraska Lawyer, p. 49, December 1999
- [vi] Omaha’s Riot in Story and Picture, Educational Publishing Company, p. 10, 1920
- [vii] Omaha’s Riot in Story and Picture, Educational Publishing Company, p. 20, 1920
- [viii] Omaha’s Riot in Story and Picture, Educational Publishing Company, p. 22-24, 1920
- [ix] Omaha’s Riot in Story and Picture, Educational Publishing Company, p. 22, 1920
- [x] www.NebraskaStudies.org, “Racial Tensions in Omaha–A Horrible Lynching,” downloaded November 29, 2010
- [xi] National Archives, RG 60, file 198940, October 11, 1919
- [xii] FBI Vault, Marcus Garvey, Part 3, p. 56, January 6, 1923
- [xiii] Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X, p. 1, 1965
- [xiv] FBI Vault, George Norris, Part 3, p. 24, February 22, 1940
- [xv] FBI Vault, George Norris, Part 3, p. 25, February 22, 1940
- [xvi] The Negroes of Nebraska, Nebraska Writers Project, Works Project Administration, p. 19, 1940
- [xvii] The Negroes of Nebraska, Nebraska Writers Project, Works Project Administration, p. 46, 1940
- [xviii] “Window-Breaking Continues Second Night on North Side,” Omaha World-Herald, p. 1, July 4, 1966
- [xix] “Window-Breaking Continues Second Night on North Side,” Omaha World-Herald, p. 8, July 4, 1966
- [xx] FBI memo from Hoover to White House, LBJ Library, p. 3, August 1, 1966
- [xxi] “Racial Violence Potential In The United States This Summer,” Memorandum to White House, p. 38, May 23, 1967. Declassified on June 17, 2002.
- [xxii] Church Committee, Vol. 6, p. 383, August 25, 1967
- [xxiii] Church Committee, Vol. 6, p. 384, August 25, 1967
- [xxiv] Church Committee, Vol. 6, p. 385, August 25, 1967
About the Author
Michael Richardson is a former Omaha resident who attended Westside High School and the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Richardson was a VISTA Volunteer on the Near-Northside and served on the Nebraska Commission on Aging before moving from the state. Richardson attended the Minard murder trial and reported on the case in 1971 for the Omaha Star in his first published article. After a nineteen year career as a disability rights advocate, Richardson worked for Ralph Nader coordinating his ballot access campaigns in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections. Richardson has written extensively for the San Francisco Bay View, OpEdNews.com and Examiner.com about the trial while spending the last decade researching and writing the book.