Tekla Agbala Ali Johnson
In 1969 my parents took me to Vivian Strong’s wake. Strong (age 14) had been shot in the head by a police officer (James Loder). I was lifted up by an adult to look into her coffin. Later, David Rice, a local leader of the Black Panther Party would organize a Vivian Strong Liberation School to help African Americans organize for their political rights and freedom in Omaha, Nebraska.
In 1982, I entered a poetry contest announced on local television in Omaha, Nebraska. My poem won. My work would appear in a book, that I learned was to be produced by the Harambee African Cultural Organization, from inside the Nebraska State Penitentiary. The project was edited by David L. Rice, a former member of the Black Panther Party. After the publication of my poem, I read other books of poetry by the editor, I also began reading all I could find about political imprisonment.
A correspondence between myself and the editor of the poetry volume began and would last for 34 years. In the beginning I regarded Mondo as an uncle or elder brother, but he asked me to keep my mind open. Between 1983 and 1984 I lived with his mother and one of brothers for about six months. In 1985 and 1986 Mondo and I did a program on KZUM, a local public access radio station. Our show was called “African Synthesis” we played non-commercial music and interviewed local guests—me from the studio and him by calling in from the prison. I learned from Mondo about Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, and John and Alice Coltrane. We exchanged passionate love letters. To this day, I have never experienced a yearning as poignant as that of loving someone who the government is intent upon isolating. (Later in life, I would learn that I was but one of at least three women to fall under the spell of Mondo’s poetry, literary prowess, and romance). In 1984 David chose African names for both of us, his Woposhitwe Mondo Eyen we Langa, (Wild Man Child of the Sun) and mine Agbala (Woman) Nany Ocho Azioku (both names composed of more than one African language).
By 1983 I had started the work of rebuilding the Calvin Memorial Church Legal Defense Fund of Omaha. Months later I worked to rebuild the Lincoln Defense Committee, demanding the support of the local NAACP, pestering the Peak family, with the help of the younger McClarty, the Parks, and others breathed life into an Omaha Defense Committee-- recruiting many people who had work years earlier. Historic divisions between these groups resurfaced, after a bitter struggle with Mondo, we combined these under an organization that I named “Nebraskans for Justice. “
In 1987, my daughter was born. Mondo told me that I had betrayed him. I told him that I would always be his friend. I recruited Leola Bullock to his cause, a leading Civil Rights mother whom I had known since I was about three. This turned out to be a boon, as Mrs. Bullock made it respectable to support the Omaha Two, and she did so from every podium she spoke from thereafter. Much of our work in the 1980’s and so much of our conversation centered around anti-apartheid and American apartheid. Mondo would later tell me that he identified more with Mrs. Bullock than anyone alive. Throughout the 1990s there were a host of local leaders of Mondo’s and Ed’s freedom struggle (Including the head of the Ministerial Alliance). There was also significant grass roots activism. I remember the younger Mrs. McClary and I pushing our baby strollers through Hilltop Homes and other housing projects in North O, passing out literature and talking to the people. There truly was a ground swell of activism, but the courts would not give any relief. Late in the decade Ed Poindexter, Mondo’s Co-defendant, would be returned to Nebraska from Minnesota where he had spent decades working on college and graduate degrees. In 1997, I attended a conference on political imprisonment at Boulder, Colorado. Ward Churchill, author of Agents of Repression: The FBI's Secret Wars Against the Black Panther Party and the American Indian Movement (along with Jim Vander Wall), was a keynoter. During his talk, a woman named Safiya Bukari and I asked multiple questions. After the proceedings Safiya strode over squeezing me. “You are the one I came looking for.” Later, I learned that this strong loving woman had herself been a political prisoner and had loved another political prisoner. She had come across the country to build support for Jericho98, a march on Washington DC (the brainchild of Jalil Muntaqim), to demand freedom for all Political Prisoners. We in Nebraska were able to send Diane Myers to the march to represent Mondo and Ed, I still have the plane recipts.
The march was enormously successful, and our representative said that between 10,000 and 50,000 people attended. The next year Brother Herman Ferguson, a founder of the Jericho Movement, came to visit us in Nebraska staying in my home with my family. We went to the prison to rally outside in support of Mondo and Ed. Herman Ferguson spoke declaring that Mondo and Ed and “All Political Prisoners” must be free. (We also brought Angela Davis, who joined Brother Ferguson and other speakers in a room we had reserved at the University). During these years I had the opportunity to attend one or two conferences of Davis’ National Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression I found her brilliant when speaking to a group, but was dismayed in a one-on-one conversation. I asked her to provide political direction to our group, she replied that her generation had done their work, and that my generation had to take on the task before us.
Before he left, Brother Herman talked about Jericho’s goals and strategy, and named me as a Regional Jericho Coordinator, a post I kept for two years.
From 2000 to 2010 I was consumed with raising 3 kids and going to graduate school. Over these married years, Mondo and I corresponded at least twice a week. He told me that since he had no children that he considered mine as his own-tasking me with writing about all of their activities. (Their names a reflection perhaps of our discourse: Daleelah, Eliga Malik, Akhenaten), all of whom visited Mondo. Mondo could be dogmatic about politics—we fought bitterly over sexism. As such, after learning that my given name “Tekla” was actually Kenyan, I began to use it again in my late twenties as a part of my liberation from male “tyranny.” On that subject, let me say that once Tarik Al Amin (who I am proud to say I recruited) and Mary Dickenson who were co-chairs of Nebraskans for Justice, brought Angela Davis to speak. Davis gave a powerful speech on the steps the Nebraska State Capital on behalf of the Omaha Two (Mondo an Ed)—. Mondo was surprisingly livid. He told me that he had written Angela with a new African name, and called her by it during their visit, she had looked the other way and not responded. I told Mondo that he was out of order, that in Africa men don’t name women.
In my adolescence my mother told me that my relationship with Mondo had ruined me. In truth meeting him focused my political education--which had begun with my reading of Malcolm X’s autobiography.
After graduate school I again began working with Jericho, this time in 2014 as a member of the National Staff. I had found an extended family with all of the aggravation and exceptional familiarity of families everywhere, with the plus that all of the members were (in spite of a host of ideocracies) dedicated to the cause of human freedom.
I have mentioned that Ed returned to Nebraska from Minnesota with a Bachelors and a Masters degree. Two university colleagues and I got special permission to interview Mondo and Ed together. We spent 8 hours on two separate days. Mondo an Ed laughed and became emotional as they recalled their days in the Party. In 2015 we scored another feat. The National Jericho Movement Annual Conference came to Nebraska. We made elaborate plans for folks to stay in the community (Eliga Ali helped greatly in this respect) and we had our conference at the Malcolm X Center under the approving eye of Elder, Marshall Taylor. We took a van load of Jericho folks to the prison for a visit with Mondo and Ed. I was the driver and waited outside to carry the comrades to Lafeefah for a meal after the visit. A week later Mondo wrote me about what a good time he had had and how encouraged he was, seemly unaware that I had any knowledge of the affair. For that, and many reasons, I considered our hosting of the Jericho National Conference as one of our greatest feats (Mondo hated talking about his case with me and so I had stopped talking my work on it)…The next year Mondo would pass to the ancestors. Thank goodness for Anne Else, who asked him who he wanted to see. She reported that he did not believe that he was dying, but would take advantage of her estimation and ask to see “Agbala” and Buddy. Anne urged Buddy Hogan and I to fly In, myself from North Carolina and the former head of the Omaha NAACP from California. We hunkered in at my best friend Lateefah’s and compared notes between visits. Buddy and Mondo talked politics, about Mondo’s book of Poetry “A Panther is an African Cat,” and Wilma, Buddy’s wife. When it was my turn to visit, Mondo and I mostly sang. For hours upon hours we sat on Mondo’s bed in the infirmary-- it was the first time in at least 30 years that we had been alone. Mondo had a breathing tube in and papers all across the bed. He moved them and we acted silly, taking turns singing, doing duets, and laughing. At one point a porter came along to ask whether Mondo had his guitar. He tried to go and get it from Mondo’s cell but was stopped. Mondo turned to me and said “You do know that I am treasuring this.” I told him, “so am I.” A few weeks later James Davis, an old college friend who worked in the Ombudsman’s Office, called to say that Mondo was actively dying. Before I could figure out how to speak with Mondo once more… He had made his transition. I confess that I have never felt such a profound sense of failure… we did not free him. I could feel rage pulse through me for months on end. As is the way with grief, at first fleetingly and now often I feel him laughing. (Even this ridiculously long bio is being coaxed out by his encouraging and self-satisfied smile “that’s Right-damn it” I hear him say).
For the past year I have been working with the Freedom for Ed Committee. This is a group comprised of many brilliant people including: a medical doctor, two journalists (one is Kietryn Zychal a long-timer like me, who I met in my twenties when she knocked at my door and said “I hear your Mondo’s girlfriend”), a state administrative worker, Ed’s niece, three attorneys (two with experience in political prisoner cases). We are all racing against the clock because Ed (at 76 years old) is suffering from diabetes and is on dialysis.
From my political education over the course of three decades, I can only relay those phrases which once sounded so trite and simplistic but which I now hold as my core political philosophy. FREE ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS; END COLONIALISM (including mass incarceration), FREE THE LAND!