The events described here happened during my lifetime, but to many, they’re “history.” Fred’s life, and the principles he lived by, still have much to teach us today.
Fred Hampton (1948-1969), leader of Chicago’s Black Panther Party (BPP), was one of the most brilliant and creative people the USA has produced. And that’s why he was assassinated by the FBI, in conspiracy with the Cook County States Attorney and the Chicago Police. This article commemorates Fred and his achievements.
Fred grew up in Maywood, a majority-Black Chicago suburb. After graduating high school with honors, he attended and graduated from junior college, majoring in pre-law. The rest of his formidable knowledge was acquired out of school.
He first led the Maywood NAACP Youth Council, where he demonstrated extraordinary organizing ability. In a town of only 27,000, the Council’s membership soared from seven to 700. It succeeded in improving Maywood’s recreational facilities and its schools’ educational quality. Then the Panthers’ Ten-Point Program grabbed him. Fred moved to Chicago.
The BPP’s Ten-Point Program:
1) We want freedom. We want the power to determine the destiny of our Black Community.
2) We want full employment for our people.
3) We want an end to the robbery by the capitalists of our Black and oppressed communities.
4) We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.
5) We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present day society.
6) We want all Black men to be exempt from military service. [This was during Vietnam.]
7) We want an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of Black people.
8) We want freedom for all Black men held in federal, state, county and city prisons and jails.
9) We want all Black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of their peer group or people from their Black Communities, as defined by the Constitution of the United States.
10) We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.
Fred joined in November, 1968. Chicago’s Panthers were undergoing stress, caused by the FBI’s COINTELPRO (COunter-INTELligence PROgram): tactics devised by Director J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972). Combining various “dirty tricks”—lying anonymous letters, forged documents, informers/provocateurs, illegal wiretaps, etc. —eroding trust and producing enmity. During the Sixties it focused on Black groups. The Chicago BPP’s original director, Bob Brown, resigned, creating a power vacuum. Fred’s abilities were quickly recognized and he assumed leadership. CONTELPRO dirty tricks continued throughout his tenure. But, largely because of his peacemaking style and superb leadership skills, they failed.
Shortly after Fred took office, the Panthers inaugurated their Free Breakfast Program for Children, soon health clinics and ambulance services were added. Sll this earned them a good name. These nation-wide programs were especially successful in Chicago, where blood banks and buses to prisons for relatives were also included. The chapter’s prestige and membership grew.
Fred had another idea—original and powerful: He organized a meeting of gang leaders. Turf wars were counterproductive, he argued. The real enemies weren’t other ethnic gangs, but the rich, who ran Chicago for their own benefit. Minds started to change. Fred’s being their age probably encouraged his listeners’ receptivity, but his case made sense on its own merits. The Young Lords had begun as a gang. José “Cha-Cha” Jiménez’s (1948- ), their leader, recognized the danger of losing their turf to developers. Fred’s assistance was crucial. Cha-Cha explains: “Fred took the Young Lords under his wing. He gave us the skills that we needed to come right out of the gang and start organizing the community[.]” (quoted in “Fifty Years of Fred Hampton’s Rainbow Coalition,” by Jacqueline Serrato, Southside Weekly:10/6/2019)
As thinking changed, Hampton built a broad coalition. Besides the Panthers and the Lords (Puerto Ricans), it included the Brown Berets (Chicanos), the Young Patriots (white migrants from Appalachia), the Red Guard Party (Chinese-American Maoists) and the Blackstone Rangers (a Black former gang, now politicizing). Fred dubbed them the “Rainbow Coalition.”
Hoover had long feared the emergence of “a Black Messiah, fomenting revolution in the ghetto.” In the Twenties, he focused on Marcus Garvey. During the Sixties, his eye fixed in turn upon Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Fred Hampton. (Not coincidentally, all three died violently.) But in Hampton’s Chicago, COINTELPRO’s usual tactics weren’t working. Hoover made a new, escalatory plan.
He contacted the Chicago Police, who rebuffed him. He turned to the Cook County State’s Attorney, Edward Hanrahan (1921-2009), an up-and-coming Democratic politico—Mayor Richard Daley’s protégé—who dreamed of succeeding Daley as mayor. They talked. Hanrahan agreed. Hoover placed an informer, William O’Neal (c.1948-1990), in the Panthers; Hanrahan prepared a raid on Hampton’s apartment. He selected fourteen police who worked out of his office, rehearsed them and chose a time and date: 0430, 12/04/69. O’Neal drew a floor plan, an “X” denoting Hampton’s bed.
The night before, after Fred taught a nearby class, he and other Panthers adjourned to his apartment, where O’Neal had prepared a meal (surreptitiously druggimg Hampton’s drink). Afterward, some, including O’Neal, left; others stayed the night in the guest room. Fred and Deborah Johnson (1950- ), his fiancée, retired to their bedroom.
Promptly at 0420, the police appeared, silently dividing into two groups. At the zero hour, Group A pounded on the front door, Group B waiting at the rear. Mark Clark (1947-1969), on guard duty, asked, “Who’s there?” A cop yelled, “Tommy Gunn,” and Group A burst in, shooting. Clark died instantly. As he fell from his chair, his finger reflexively tightened on the trigger and a bullet flew into the ceiling. The cops, now all inside, continued firing. In a report by Allie Yang, ABC News (5/14/2019), Deborah (now known as Akua Njeri) continues:
“I saw bullets coming from…the front of the apartment…Sparks of light. I had slid over on top of Chairman Fred. I don’t know what I was thinking, or what I was doing, I just moved over and covered his body,” she remembered. “He didn’t move. Just lifted his head up. It was like he was going in slow motion.”
Hampton “never said a word, he never got up out the bed,” Njeri said. An independent autopsy later determined he had been drugged with secobarbital.
She said it felt like the shooting lasted for hours when it was only minutes because “you don’t know if you’re going to live or die.”
“[Someone] kept calling out, ‘Stop shooting! Stop shooting! We have a pregnant woman, a pregnant sister in here.’ At the time, I was 8 and a half, 9 months pregnant. Pigs [police] kept on shooting.”
Eventually the shooting stopped, Njeri said. She slid out of bed and into Hampton’s house shoes and thought to herself, “Keep your hands up. Don’t stumble. Don’t fall. They will kill you and your baby.”
She said she saw “two lines of police, they were laughing. [They] grabbed me by the top of my head, slung me to the kitchen area.”
“Somebody said, ‘He’s barely alive, he’ll barely make it.’. . .The shooting started back again. The pigs said ‘he’s good and dead now.’”
Several Panthers had been seriously wounded. Wounded or not, all were arrested—charged with aggravated assault and attempted murder (all charges were later dropped). Fred had just joined the National BPP’s Central Committee, as its Spokesman.
The raid was flawless; the cover-up a disaster. The cops unanimously claimed they’d been in a shootout. Hanrahan brought a life-size model of the apartment to CBS-TV, where the police “reenacted the shootout,” while he “explained what happened.” Hanrahan showed photographs of the apartment, with “the Panthers’ bullet holes” circled. But analysis proved the cops had fired at least ninety bullets, the Panthers’ one—Clark’s reflex shot. Negligently, the blood-splattered apartment was unsealed, so the Panthers gave tours, showing those “bullet holes” were actually nailheads.
The Coroner’s inquest dutifully decided the murders were “justifiable homicide.” The Black community’s community’s evolving reaction: confusion, skepticism, disbelief, outrage, fury. When Hanrahan ran for reelection, it voted almost unanimously for his Republican (!) opponent, who won. Hanrahan’s career was over. (Hoover remained invisible.) He ran several other times, always losing badly—a victim of Fred Hampton’s ghost.
In 1971, Fred’s ghost whispered to eight Pennsylvania peace activists: “Concoct a ‘Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI.’ Filch its documents; analyze and publicize them.” On March 8th they burgled the Media, PA FBI office, stealing a thousand documents. Analysis revealed that, according to Margaret Kimberley (The Burglary and COINTELPRO: How Citizen Action Exposed FBI’s Covert, Illegal Program to Crush Dissent, published by Global Research [1/18/2014]):
FBI informers reported on every meeting, every word and every action of members of the Black Panther Party, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and other groups. FBI agents used informers to create dissension among activists and succeeded in weakening and destroying many organizations. . . .Hoover had a special animus against black people and left no stone unturned in his efforts to destroy the freedom struggle.
The Citizens’ Committee’s bombshells eventually led to a Senate Investigating Committee, chaired by Frank Church (D, Idaho) (Authorizing Resolution passed 82-4: 1/27/1975, Final Report issued: 4/1976). COINTELPRO was (supposedly) dead, though some suspect it continues. (Hoover again avoided criticism, dying in 1972.)
The raid’s survivors, plus the families of those killed in it, sued the perpetrators. The suit was a novelty. Till then, Panthers had been defendants, the State the prosecutor. Now the tables were turned: the State was the defendant! Though they filed suit in 1970, the trial took place years later. It lasted eighteen months. After its 1977 conclusion, the jury deadlocked; the Judge dismissed the case. That seemed the end . . . until the plaintiffs appealed. In 1979 the Court of Appeals ruled that the Government had withheld relevant documents and ordered a new trial.
By 1982, Njeri writes, “it got to the point that the plaintiffs didn’t trust each other; we were sick of the lawyers and they were sick of us. . . .The survivors just wanted this nightmare to be over.” (From Akua Njeri: My Dance with Justice, published by Yale Law School Legal Scholarship Repository, 1991). Meanwhile, the defendants were panicky, anticipating more damning facts emerging in open court. Both sides agreed to settle. Each government entity—City, County, Federal—paid ⅓ of the $1.85 million settlement amount. Fred’s ghost approved.
About O’Neal, the informer: He’d played an active role—slipping the knockout drop into Fred’s drink; making the apartment diagram. But he seemed genuinely surprised, even horrified, at the actual murders. He’d returned to Chicago from California in 1984, moving in with his uncle, Ben Heard. Before dawn on Martin Luther King Day, 1990, O’Neal, becoming extremely agitated, rushed from Heard’s apartment, ran onto the nearby Eisenhower Expressway, jumped in front of a car and was killed—a suicide. Fred’s ghost had struck again.
According to Heard, as quoted in the Chicago Reader (The Last Hours of William O’Neal: 1/25/1990, by Michael Ervin): “I think he was sorry he did what he did. He thought the FBI was only going to raid the house. But the FBI gave it over to the state’s attorney and that was all Hanrahan wanted. They shot Fred Hampton and made sure he was dead.” The article continues: “Heard says he was with his nephew the morning after the ambush [raid] when he saw the inside of Hampton’s apartment. ‘There was papers strewn all over the floor, blood all over. There was a trail of blood from where they had dragged Fred’s body. Bill [O’Neal] just stood there in shock. He never thought it would come to all this.’”
+ Two days after the assassinations, the Weathermen, in one of their first actions, burned several Chicago police cars as payback.
+ Roy Wilkins and Ramsey Clark co-chaired a “Commission of Inquiry into the Black Panthers and the Police.” It asserted the police had killed Hampton without justification or provocation and had violated the Panthers’ Constitutional rights against unreasonable search and seizure. Finally it stated that Hampton and Clark had been summarily executed.
+ In 1990, the Chicago City Council unanimously passed a resolution commemorating December 4, 2004 as “Fred Hampton Day in Chicago.” That commemoration has continued annually.
+ A public pool in Maywood was renamed in Fred’s honor. It had been built in response to Youth Council pressure under his leadership. On September 7, 2007, Fred’s bust was placed outside it—a very different sort of payback.
+ In March 2006, supporters of Hampton’s charity work proposed naming a Chicago street in his honor. The Fraternal Order of Police blocked this action.
+ In 2019, The Chicago City Council voted 41-9 to commemorate the Fiftieth Anniversary of Fred Hampton’s death (eight “no” votes cast by Aldermen from white districts).
+ A 27-minute documentary film—Death of a Black Panther: The Fred Hampton Story. was made shortly after his killing.
+ In the 1999 TV mini-series The 60s, Fred appears, serving free breakfasts.
+ Another documentary, from 2015, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, features footage of Fred.
+ Eyes on the Prize, Episode 12 (“A Nation of Law?”) devotes much of its first half to chronicling Fred’s leadership, his rise to prominence, Hoover’s targeting him and his extrajudicial execution.
+ Judas and the Black Messiah, a feature film about Hampton and O’Neal, is scheduled for 2021 release.
+ A dozen or more songs are either about Fred or refer to him.
These tributes suggest a reluctance to let Fred go. Many Chicagoans must wonder as news stories break, “What would Fred be thinking and doing now?” His life and death offers four perspectives to ponder:
The FBI: It’s our Secret Police. In an Intercept article (10/22/2019), Alice Speri writes: “Since 2010, the FBI has surveilled black activists and Muslim Americans, Palestinian solidarity and peace activists, Abolish ICE protesters, Occupy Wall Street, environmentalists, Cuba and Iran normalization proponents, and protesters at the Republican National Convention. And that is just the surveillance we know of. . .”
Racism: Hampton pushed neither integration nor nationalism. Instead he favored “Solidarity” through multi-racial coalitions based on shared revolutionary ideology. This interesting approach merits much more study and thought than it has received.
Socialism: Recruits joined Fred’s Panthers because of their prestige. Similarly, due partly to Bernie Sanders’ campaigns, the Youth views Socialism positively. If that’s you, and, like Fred, you didn’t receive a Socialist grounding in school, educate yourselves, like Fred did. Form study groups. Some curricular suggestions (all, except the first, American): Read the Communist Manifesto, John Reed’s Ten Days that Shook the World, a biography of Eugene Debs. Listen to Richard Wolff’s talks. Study David Harvey’s approach to Marx’s Capital. Watch the film Salt of the Earth. Read W.E.B. DuBois’, Malcolm’s and MLK’s writings and speeches from their last years of life. Think critically. Speak with others; consider their thoughts. Then act!
Fred Hamptons are all too rare. When they do appear, we must recognize, treasure, and crucially, protect them, so their full potential can be realized!
Fred Hampton: A Dozen Statements
(It’s appropriate that Fred have the last word.)
“If you walk through life and don’t help anybody, you haven’t had much of a life.”
“We [Panthers] don’t think you fight fire with fire best; we think you fight fire with water best. We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight [it] with solidarity. We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism. We’ve stood up and said we’re not going to fight reactionary pigs and reactionary State’s Attorneys like Hanrahan with any other reactions on our part. We’re going to fight their reactions with all of us people getting together and having an international proletarian revolution.”
“We say that we will work with anybody and form a coalition with anybody that has revolution on their mind.”
“You can’t build a revolution with no education. Jomo Kenyatta did this in Africa, and because the people were not educated, he became as much [of] an oppressor as the people he overthrew.”
“With no education, you have neocolonialism instead of colonialism, like you’ve got in Africa now and like you’ve got in Haiti. So what we’re talking about is there has to be an educational program. That’s very important.”
“We say primarily that the priority of this struggle is class. That Marx and Lenin and Che Guevara and Mao Tse-Tung, and anybody else who ever said or knew or practiced anything about revolution, always said that a revolution is a class struggle.”
“We’re not a racist organization, because we understand that racism is an excuse used for capitalism, and we know that racism is just – it’s a byproduct of capitalism.”
“Black people need some peace. White people need some peace. And we are going to have to fight. We’re going to have to struggle. We’re going to have to struggle relentlessly to bring about some peace, because the people that we’re asking for peace, they are a bunch of megalomaniac warmongers, and they don’t even understand what peace means.”
“A lot of people think the Breakfast for Children program is charity. But what does it do? It takes the people from a stage to another stage. Any program that’s revolutionary is an advancing program. Revolution is change.”
“I believe I’m going to die doing the things I was born to do. I believe I’m going to die high off the people. I believe I’m going to die a revolutionary in the international revolutionary proletarian struggle.”
“If you ever think about me, and you ain’t gonna do no revolutionary act, forget about me. I don’t want myself on your mind if you’re not going to work for the people.”
“Nothing is more important than stopping fascism, because fascism is gonna stop us all.”