September 25, 2023

Criminal Justice Reform

By Omowale Lithuli Allen

Sadly, too late for Houston frontline activist…

Recently, 45 and POTUS (President of the United States) signed into law a criminal justice bill that provided relief for thousands of low-level offenders in the federal penal system. There are only 2.2 million people in jails and prisons in the United States.

In 1968, Lee Otis Johnson was sold 1 marijuana cigarette by an undercover Houston Police Officer and sentenced to 30 years in prison.  Before he was incarcerated, Lee Otis Johnson flew to issues of injustice and inequality and quickly became a gadfly and nemesis to the power structure.

At this time, our local police department was led by a “Bull Connor” styled police chief who had vowed to crush any disorder or rebellion by communities that went too far.  

Too far for Chief Hermann Short meant vigorous civil disobedience against Jim Crow attitudes and policies.  Police Chief Short was the third leg of an old corrupt order that encompassed Mayor Louie Welch and District Attorney Carol Vance.  The stool that they supported was the “good old boy” rulers, who were dedicated to maintain the Houston status quo, despite the winds of change sweeping America.

Lee Otis deteriorated in prison, but the same system that unjustly incarcerated him released him after four years.  A judge ruled that he should not have been tried in Houston.  While in prison, diabetes wrecked havoc on his personal health and he deceased after being released.

During his incarceration a few Free Lee Otis Committees multiplied around college campuses in Texas, most notably Texas Southern University.  Lee Otis was an activist leader with Friends of SNCC-Student Non-violent Coordination Committee.

There is a mountain of folklore and near ironclad evidence that Lee Otis was far from being a choir boy. Most of the insider activists were aware that he had a “Jones”.  Jones was a 60’s slang for a habit.  America lost 70,000 citizens in 2018 who over dosed because of a narcotic jones. National karma can be unforgiving. History is full of ironies. Referendums have passed nationwide to decriminalize marijuana.  Mega profits are being made for a new class of opportunistic entrepreneurs. 

 If you didn’t live through the 1960’s, it is not possible to wrap your mind around one solitary black man being sentenced to 30 years in prison because of one marijuana cigarette.  So much for the color-blindness and a level playing field. For a moment, The War on Drugs became the War on Lee Otis Johnson.


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