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Black Panther Gets 30 Years for One Joint (1968)

Lee Otis Johnson died June 12, 2002. Please read the update at the bottom of the page. May he rest in peace.

In the past six months, police have placed more than 16 different charges against Lee Otis Johnson, chairman of Houston SNCC and a member of the Black Panther Party. They wanted him very badly. They got him. He is now serving 30 years in prison.

He was convicted of giving one marijuana cigarette to an undercover agent. The agent was black. He was the only witness the prosecution produced. His testimony was the only evidence the prosecution entered. For the jury, it was enough.

Johnson’s wife, Helen, described the attitude the police had toward her husband and his activities. It is not unlike that held by police against the Panthers in Oakland or in New York, where 200 off-duty police beat up 10 Panthers who showed up at the court where one of their members was being tried.

One night, several months ago, a car in which the Johnsons and two others were driving was stopped for allegedly going through a stop sign. While checking all the occupants’ ID’s, the policeman recognized Johnson’s name. He radioed police headquarters and five more officers arrived.

Johnson and his friends were taken to the Burglary and Theft Bureau, questioned, and charged with trespassing. They remained in jail for half a day before SNCC could bail them out. While in jail, Johnson’s wrists were beaten with handcuffs.

His wife’s treatment was much worse. She describes this: This cop took me down to the booking room and on the way he cursed and kicked me. I repeated this to the desk sergeant and he told me to shut up.

A matron came over and asked me why I was dressed the way I was. I had on a long dress and wore my hair in the Afro style. I told her I dressed to please my husband. She screamed that my husband was nothing but blackpower scum, a communist, and should be hung. I told her to talk to my husband about it.

A cop grabbed me, pulled my hair and began punching me in the stomach. They took me to a cell and smashed my head against the concrete. I kept passing out. One tooth was knocked out and the partial plate I wear was cracked. The FBI three days later photographed the bruises. I haven’t heard anything from them.

After the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Lee Otis Johnson organized and led a memorial march of 8,000 people through Houston. According to those present, Johnson was given a steady ovation after he finished speaking. Apparently such popularity with his people alarmed the police.

The next day, police raided the SNCC freedom house and arrested three persons; one was Johnson. They were charged with sale and possession of marijuana; later the possession charge was dropped.

The undercover agent, Mrs. Johnson said, was a Negro. I wouldn’t call him black. He had an Afro haircut that had to take him six months to grow. That’s how long they were planning this. It was this guy’s word against Lee Otis’s. The jury believed him.

Today Johnson is in a prison that is 80 percent black. He is isolated from the other prisoners, obviously because the authorities fear he may carry on his organizing work among the inmates. He has written a letter from jail addressed to his people.

In it he says, We still got house niggers running around here. Just as the slave masters used TOM in those days to keep an eye on us in the field-to keep him informed-he is still using the ole house nigger today to keep us in check. Its the same situation, he loved his master then, he loves his master now. He betrayed his people then; he was dangerous, he is a danger to all of us today.


Lee Otis Johnson (1939-2002). Icon of the turbulent sixties. Finally escapes his past.

by John Schwartz

LEE OTIS JOHNSON WAS A symbol of many things, and that can be a killing burden. All his life he had been reduced to shorthand labels: radical student agitator, black power advocate, casualty of Texas’ draconian drug laws, victim of racism, petty criminal. But labels are beside the point in death, and Lee Otis Johnson died alone, in Houston, on June 12 of complications from circulatory problems. He was 62 years old.

He was best known for the thirty-year prison sentence he got in 1968 for passing a marijuana cigarette to an undercover police officer in Houston. Those who thought the punishment didn’t fit the crime distilled their outrage into a chant—Free Lee Otis!—that was heard on campuses around the state, including Texas Southern University, where he had been a leader of the Student Non- Violent Coordinating Committee in the mid-sixties. In a famous incident in 1970, protesters disrupted a speech by then-governor Preston Smith at the University of Houston. Unfamiliar with Lee Otis’ case, Smith asked a reporter, What in the world do they have against beans? When the reporter explained what the crowd was shouting, Smith said, I thought they were saying ‘frijoles.’ The papers loved it, and the Lee Otis story took on yet another bit of symbolic cachet, providing a perfect example of the clueless politician.

Lee Otis was released after four years when a federal judge ruled that his trial should not have been held in Houston, where passions about the case were running high. But although physically free, he could not escape his personal demons, and from then on he was in and out of trouble, trapped in a cycle of heroin addiction, crime, and prison time.

Dick Reavis, a writer who befriended Lee Otis during their days as campus radicals in the sixties, recalls him as an insightful political thinker who couldn’t rise above his inclination toward low living. After Lee Otis’ release from prison, in 1972, Reavis helped where he could. When Lee Otis was in prison again, on a burglary charge, Reavis posted the bond to get him released when his conviction was set aside, putting him up in his home and counseling him on a new start. Lee Otis repaid the kindness by bringing a thief into Reavis’ house to steal his wife’s jewelry. In 1980 Reavis told the story in Texas Monthly, writing that he felt close to Lee Otis Johnson, but also, like so many other people, betrayed by him. If not for the movement, Reavis says today, he’d have been just another hood.

His life deteriorated in prison, says Lee Otis’ sister Dorothy White-Lewis, who prefers to recall the charismatic, fun-loving brother she knew. He once gave her a photograph of himself with the inscription I don’t know why God didn’t make me rich, but he certainly made me beautiful. According to White-Lewis, he turned down requests from people who wanted to write books or make movies about his life: He said he didn’t want other people to make money on his story. Between troubles, he would settle into managing apartments his family owned in Houston, occasionally using the legal skills he had developed as a writ writer in the Texas prisons.

He was a wonderful young man, brilliant, says a pastor of Lee Otis’ church in Houston, who prefers not to be named. He tried to come back to the church, but he had to wrassle. It was a struggle. The pastor recalls that once, while helping him fix a broken faucet, Lee Otis said, I really want to do the right thing. He told Lee Otis that he had the power to choose good over evil. But that’s my struggle, Reverend, Lee Otis replied. That’s my struggle.

In his last days, the doctors told him that he would die if they didn’t amputate both of his legs, but he said no. He did not want to be an amputee, his sister says. He never had any regrets. He told me, ‘Whatever happened to me is not my parents’ fault; it’s not your fault. It’s what I decided to do. The way I am now, I did it to myself.’

Posted by: Skip
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