Adam’s Note: This is Chapter 6 in the series on NorthOmahaHistory.com called Framed: J. Edgar Hoover, COINTELPRO and the Omaha Two Story. It was written by Michael Richardson. Learn more here.
“Near North Like Fires From Hell”
—Omaha World-Herald, June 26, 1969
Paul Young reported to J. Edgar Hoover in May 1969 there was organizing activity by the Black Panthers at a high school in Omaha and a public park rally in Des Moines.
“The Black Panther Party in Omaha under the leadership of [Eddie Bolden] is apparently under the process of reorganization. This organization recently sponsored the organization of BANTU at Technical High School, Omaha….[Bolden] attempting to interest young Negroes, especially in the Black Panther Party; however, to date he has had little success in recruiting youth to his cause.”
“In connection with the Black Panther Party chapter in Des Moines, Iowa, this organization in mid-April, 1969, held a public park rally, which rally resulted in racial disturbance when police officers questioned [Charles Knox], BPP, who was speaking to the public gathering when police arrived.”
“As indicated…the BPP in Des Moines has been in recent conflict with a Des Moines street gang over control of the Negro community. This situation continues and it is expected that this situation will eventually result in counterintelligence measures being utilized in taking advantage of the situation.”1
The Black Association for Nationalism Through Unity at Tech High School staged a one-day boycott of classes. At issue were twenty-three demands made by BANTU on the school administration. Young informed Hoover of the BANTU boycott, held on the anniversary of Malcolm X’s birth. Young assured,
“Omaha is remaining alert to various activities of the BPP and BANTU that might lend themselves to counterintelligence activity and it is anticipated that such situations will arise in the very near future.”2
The end of the school year brought a close to BANTU’s activity in Omaha. Although Young wrote to Hoover that the group was primarily concerned with local educational issues, not revolution, he proceeded to plot against the black student group. “This matter will continue to receive close attention and suggestions for counterintelligence activity against the Black Panther Party, BANTU and the leadership of these organizations at a future date will be submitted by separate letter.”3
Two weeks later later, Young reported to Hoover on the Black Panther breakfast for children program at two churches in Des Moines. The breakfast program was one of Hoover’s most despised targets for counterintelligence mischief. “Once this program was instituted and publicized it received favorable comment and support from both the black and white communities; and the Des Moines Register, a daily Des Moines, Iowa, newspaper, praised the Panthers for this program noting that when the Panthers instituted this type of program in the black community they had, in effect, achieved something the Des Moines School Board had been unable to accomplish.
“In view of the foregoing, it would be most difficult to undertake any kind of counterintelligence activity relative to the Black Panther Party breakfast program, and no recommendation in this regard is being submitted.”4
In June, the San Francisco FBI office advised J. Edgar Hoover to reject a proposal from the Denver FBI office. “San Francisco feels obliged to point out the possible danger of planting the idea in the BPP that a certain member, now separated from the BPP, furnished information allowing the successful apprehension of two BPP members wanted for murder. The fact that those people were wanted for murder indicates the possibility of BPP taking violent action against this individual. Even if such action could be justified against an active leader it is not felt that Bureau should become even remotely involved in furnishing anonymously incorrect information that might lead to the homicide of a young teenager who has apparently separated from the BPP.”5
Hoover had his own ideas about Denver and told the SAC to anonymously mail five caricature cartoons to the Denver Black Panther headquarters to incite conflict between the US organization and the Black Panthers. “BPP has accused US of killing two BPP members some time ago. We have previously distributed a cartoon of [Ron Karenga] sitting on a chair crossing off various BPP members from a list with excellent disruptive results….This cartoon should continue the breach between the BPP and US both nationally and on a local basis.”6
On June 24, 1969, fourteen year-old Vivian Strong was shot to death at the Logan Fontenelle Housing Project in Omaha where she lived. Police responded at 10:25 p.m. to a call about a break-in. Police said they caught a young man exiting a building while a small group of youth scattered and ran. Patrolman James Loder shot at the group and killed Vivian with a shot to the back of the head.
Deputy Chief of Police Glen Gates told a reporter the investigation into the shooting was delayed because of the “unruliness” of the crowd of two hundred at the scene. Investigators were chased from the scene and did not return for three hours. A seven block section of Twenty-fourth Street was vandalized and firebombed. As the night wore on vandalism spread to other parts of the Near North Side and police began sealing off the area.7
The next day, Ernie Chambers spoke to a large crowd on a ball field adjacent to Logan Fontenelle Homes. A leaflet promoting the gathering asked a question. “How many black children have to be murdered by cops before something is done?” The Omaha World-Herald reported, “More than a dozen Negroes were reported milling through the crowd carrying rifles.”8
Nightfall brought more trouble to the streets. Several white motorists were injured during the night when they were either pulled out of their cars and beaten or objects were thrown through auto windows. Police formed a skirmish line fifteen officers abreast, all armed with shotguns, and walked along Twenty-fourth Street dispersing the crowd.
Policemen displaying shotguns were riding on firetrucks as firemen responded to some of the blazes on a ten-block section of North Twenty-fourth Street that was the scene of rioting. Many of the fires were ignited by firebombs. Twenty-three people were arrested during the evening.9
At the National Guard Armory on Sixty-ninth Street, Major Jack Hultgren was on alert with a special anti-riot team that had been mobilized during the day. “We’re ready to go at a moment’s notice.”10
Rodney Wead, executive director of the United Methodist Community Center, was critical of the Omaha Police Department. “You work to pull the pieces together and then bingo, some policeman shoots a black child. It’s depressing.”
“I talked to Mayor Sorenson and after every incident all I got was rhetoric. I took time to talk with Chief Anderson and it was even worse. It’s useless to talk to anyone who is associated with that inadequate police force.”11
Ed Poindexter was pictured on the front page of the Omaha World-Herald in a photograh of three Black Panthers, wearing black berets, protecting an office of Greater Omaha Community Action. Mondo worked at the GOCA office and with others was providing a safe haven for those seeking refuge from rioting as police patrols were overwhelmed. Panther leader Eddie Bolden was shown holding a shotgun and wearing an ammunition bandoleer to keep rioters away. The photo would cost Poindexter his job with the Post Office. Kenneth Shearer, director of GOCA, said assistance was provided to the community agency during the riot by Black Panthers “who were willing to help and
who acted responsibly in helping get kids off the street.”12
The Black Panthers announced the sanctuary was to provide a safe place for children but that anyone seeking safety would be protected. Also responding to the chaos were representatives of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons who walked the streets attempting to quiet rowdy youth.13
Reporter Robert Hoig rode in an armed caravan behind five fire trucks into the Near North Side. Hoig described the riot scene as like “fires from hell.”14 The newspaper said “sporadic violence” continued on the Near North Side. In the three nights of rioting, over fifty people were arrested. A policeman, David Heese, compared the rioting with the 1966 Omaha riots which he witnessed. “This one is worse. Perhaps there was more looting then, but there have been more fires this time. It’s incredible down there. It looks like a bombed out area.”15
The rage over Vivian Strong’s death exhausted itself, however the anger and angst lingered. Years later, while in prison, Mondo wrote a seething poem entitled “Braids in the Sunset” about the shooting of Vivian.
“…there are pigtails sticking up out of the graveyard
little girl died years ago
“pigtails coated and withered
by the mystic fingers of death”
“an expendable people
marked as targets for goons
with death in their eyes
monsters who spit lead
and wear bright stars on they chests”
“pigtails of vivian strong
how many of us have/will died like her
the line is very long”16
The day after the riots ended, J. Edgar Hoover wrote to Paul Young that the Omaha FBI office had not been “effective” against the Black Panthers. Hoover was unhappy about Young’s favorable report on the Des Moines breakfast program. “Referenced letter pointed out that the BPP Breakfast for Children Program was well received in Des Moines and was praised by various civic organizations and the press. It is apparent that the counterintelligence program of the Omaha Office has not been effective and needs a fresh approach.”
Hoover reminded Young why the breakfast program was so bad. “The BPP has extorted food for this program from local businessmen all over the country and most probably in Des Moines also. The children receiving the food also received “political training.” In some cases they sang “Free Huey.”
“Omaha has furnished a negative counterintelligence communication. We are pointing out various aspects of a BPP breakfast program which may assist them in their endeavors.”17
Young replied to Hoover’s criticism. “Omaha will review its files for additional information relative to the Black Panther Party Breakfast for Children Program in an effort to formulate an effective counterintelligence action against this program.”18
Hoover sent a memorandum to Omaha and eleven other FBI offices with a series of articles about the Black Panthers and a copy of the “Black Panther Coloring Book.” The memo’s purpose was to encourage counterintelligence proposals against Panther breakfast programs. Hoover explained his hostility to the breakfasts.
“They are able to poison the minds of small children who take this hate into their homes. The food used is usually obtained as a result of semi-extortion and veiled threats. The Party uses naïve thinking clergymen in their breakfast program.”19
Young knew Hoover was keen on action against the Black Panthers so he had to explain something would be done against the breakfast program. “In the event this program is reactivated in September, Omaha will attempt to formulate an effective counterintelligence against same.”20
Unaware and unconcerned about FBI subterfuge, Mondo was busy getting ready to travel to the United Front Against Fascism conference in Oakland. Mondo was eager to ask the Black Panther leadership about the status of Omaha’s chapter. Rumors were circulating the Omaha chapter was defunct or had been expelled and Mondo hoped to be able to find out.21
J. Edgar Hoover sent a memorandum to Omaha and fifteen other FBI offices urging renewed action against the Black Panthers. “Numerous arrests by both local police agencies and the FBI have injured not only the physical ranks of the BPP but also its image throughout the country. Its invincibility was challenged and struck down as a result of the arrests.”
“At this time it is most imperative that we capitalize on these weaknesses. The disruption of this organization through counterintelligence should continue and even increase as the weaknesses appear….The full cooperation of recipient offices is needed so that the threat posed by the BPP can be eradicated.”22
In mid-July, Hoover responded favorably to a Kansas City FBI office suggestion with his own commentary on using organized crime against the Black Panthers. “Logical counterintelligence pitting the organized crime element and the BPP is feasible and logical but the use of informants and sources to plant questions of ill feeling between those two elements should be avoided. There are ways of bringing the desired antagonisms to bear. Things such as anonymous communications whereby a Panther blamed for causing the arrest of a hoodlum or vice versa is one example. Kansas City should consider above and if feasible, submit a specific counterintelligence proposal.”23
Mondo arrived in Oakland to attend the United Front Against Fascism conference. “It was a weekend conference and Sunday night had a question and answer thing so I said, ‘Look, I’m from Omaha and the Black Panther chapter there I just joined, I’ve heard that our chapter has been disbanded by national, is that true?’ They confirmed it was true.”24
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- FBI Vault, Black Extremists, Sec. 9, p. 33, May 5, 1969
- FBI Vault, Black Extremists, Sec. 10, p. 202, May19, 1969
- FBI Vault, Black Extremists, Sec. 10, p. 74, June 2, 1969
- FBI Vault, Black Extremists, Sec. 11, p. 14, June 16, 1969
- FBI Vault, Black Extremists, Sec. 12, p. 58, June 18, 1969
- FBI Vault, Black Extremists, Sec. 10, p. 71, June 18, 1969
- “Negro Girl Killed By a Police Bullet At Housing Project,” Omaha World-Herald, p. 1, June 25, 1969. Vivian’s babysitter said that she and Vivian were in the alley playing records when the chaos broke out. However, a close friend of Vivian has said she was in the vacant apartment with others when the police arrived. James Loder was prosecuted for manslaughter and acquitted by an Omaha jury.
- “Buildings Are Burned As Violence Erupts,” Omaha World-Herald, p. 1, June 26, 1969
- “North Side Business Hit by Firebombs,” Omaha World-Herald, June 26, 1969
- “Guard Force Is Ready At Moment’s Notice,” David Tishendorf, Omaha World-Herald, June 27, 1969
- “Wead: Negro Feels Girl’s Life Worth More Than Bread,” Omaha World-Herald, June 27, 1969
- “Several Negroes Try To Ease the Tensions,” Omaha World-Herald, June 28, 1969
- “Buildings Are Burned As Violence Erupts,” Omaha World-Herald, p. 1, June 26, 1969. Benny Johnson of the Omaha Star took the photograph.
- “Near North Like Fires From Hell,” Robert Hoig, Omaha World-Herald, June 26, 1969
- “North Side Violence Continues a 3 rd Night,” Omaha World-Herald, p. 1, June 27, 1969
- “Braids in the Sunset,” Mondo, Prison Writings No. 355, undated, circa 1975
- FBI Vault, Black Extremists, Sec. 11, p. 16, June 17, 1969
- FBI Vault, Black Extremists, Sec. 11, p. 103, June 30, 1969
- FBI Vault, Black Extremists, Sec. 11, p. 116, July 2, 1969. The irony of the Black Panther coloring book is that the FBI was its distributor as the Panthers decided against its use.
- Paul Young to J. Edgar Hoover, July 14, 1969, Black Nationalist Hate Group, Reel 2 microfilm, 1978
- Mondo, prison interview, date unknown
- FBI Vault, Black Extremists, Sec. 11, p. 242, July 11, 1969
- FBI Vault, Black Extremists, Sec. 11, p. 121, July 15, 1969
- Mondo, prison interview, September 28, 2007
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.
- “Framed” Preface by Michael Richardson
- A History of North Omaha’s BANTU
- A History of Technical High School in Omaha
- A History of Race and Racism in Omaha
- A History of the Logan Fontenelle Housing Project
- A History of the Riot on June 24, 1969 in North Omaha