Omali Yeshitela, a Pan-Africanist, socialist, and activist, was born on October 9, 1941, in St. Petersburg, Florida, to Lucille and Joseph Waller of Pensacola, Florida, and Eatonton, Georgia. Lucille was a qualified practical nurse and cosmetologist, while Joseph worked for the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. Waller was raised in St. Petersburg’s Gas Plant district by his grandmother, Della Thomas, who taught him to value the collective over the individual.
Waller served in the United States Army from 1959 to 1963, where he earned his GED and became the first person to publicly criticize US imperialism and racism. Waller proofread for the St. Petersburg Times while attending the all-Black Jonathan C. Gibbs Junior College in St. Petersburg from 1963 to 1965. (SPT). St. Petersburg Police (SPP) arrested him in 1964 for lack of identification. One year later, Waller was in Los Angeles, California, for the SPT, where he covered the Watts rebellion of 1965.
In 1966, Waller founded the St. Petersburg Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC); managed the unsuccessful campaign for state House candidate Frank W. Peterman Sr.; launched the successful boycott to desegregate ABC Liquors & Lounge; and removed the George Snow Hill mural Picnicking at Pass-a-Grille from the St. Petersburg City Hall.
His controversial arrest by the SPP during that protest resulted in the United States Supreme Court decision Waller v. Florida (1970), which stated that no two courts can try someone for the same crime. Despite this, he served two years in prison and was unable to vote until his clemency in 2000.
In 1968, Waller was arrested once more in Gainesville, Florida, for claiming that the “assassin’s bullet that killed Dr. Martin Luther King also killed nonviolence.” Later, he and Connie Tucker, leader of the Junta of Militant Organizations, founded The Burning Spear newspaper, and he was arrested again during the St. Petersburg sanitation strike for yelling “white pig!”
Waller changed his name to Omali Yeshitela in 1972 and founded the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement and the African People’s Socialist Party, which successfully fought for the release of Florida death-row inmates Wilbur Lee and Freddie Pitts three years later.
Yeshitela relocated to Oakland, California, in 1981, where he advocated for neighborhood rent control, opposed interracial adoptions, and spoke out against the war on the Black community. Following the SPP’s murder of APSP member Kenneth Harrington shortly after Yeshitela’s return to the city in 1988, he was arrested for chanting “the police and the Klan work hand in hand!”
Following the SPP murder of TyRon Mark Lewis in 1996, Yeshitela demanded justice, sparking the St. Petersburg Rebellion and the teargassing of UHURU headquarters. Yeshitela unsuccessfully ran for SP mayor in 1973 and 2001 on a program that included healthcare as a human right, the abolition of Black people’s taxation, the immediate release of Black prisoners, and the establishment of an African People’s Liberation Army.
His activism lasted well into the twentieth century. UHURU displayed a “What About the Black Community?” sign at a 2008 campaign rally, questioning presidential candidate Barak Obama’s commitment to justice in police shootings, predatory lending, and the Jena 6 case.
Yeshitela wrote 13 books, one of which was The Road to Socialism is Painted Black (1987). He has five children from his marriages to Ruth Ann Munnerlyn, Linda Leaks, and Ironiff Ifoma (aka Harriet Waller). Yeshitela appeared on the Dead Prez’s Let’s Get Free album in 2000, on the track “Wolves.”