“So we say — we always say in the Black Panther Party that they can do anything they want to to us. We might not be back. I might be in jail. I might be anywhere. But when I leave, you’ll remember I said, with the last words on my lips, that I am a revolutionary. And you’re going to have to keep on saying that. You’re going to have to say that I am a proletariat, I am the people.” ~ Fred Hampton
Not many people today know who Fred Hampton was outside of Chicago. In 1969, not many knew either. At 21 years of age in 1969, Hampton and fellow Black Panther Mark Clark were assassinated by the Chicago Police Department and the FBI. The resulting investigation into their deaths would end careers but also shed light on the dirty tactics of J. Edgar Hoover and the cult of fear in white America surrounding the Black Panther Party.
The Black Panther Party did not begin in Illinois. It migrated there from California. Formed by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in Oakland in 1966, the original purpose of the party was to defend itself from police brutality and authority. Their ten point plan (see poster below) called for the taking back of neighborhoods through programs in the community. In White America, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was a cause for major concern as the party itself was an armed group. Photographs of armed black radicals caused the rise of fear in the public eye and in the halls of Washington, mainly the office of J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI. Hoover deemed the group too radical and went as far as calling them terrorists.
For Fred Hampton and many other black youth of the time period, the Black Panther Party attracted youth for their radical ideas of standing up to oppression in black communities. At this time, America was at war in Vietnam and here at home. The Civil Right movement that began in the south in the 1950s and early 1960s fought segregation. By the middle 1960s, the movement had come north but the goals were completely different. The movements in the South had fought for the extinction of the last vestiges of Jim Crow Laws. While in the North, unwritten forms of segregation were evident in housing, jobs, education, and opportunity.
Hampton grew up in Maywood, Illinois, and graduated with honors from Proviso East High School in 1966. He was a scholar and an athlete and dreamed of playing for the New York Yankees. In 1967, Hampton was arrested for allegedly robbing a Good Humor Ice Cream truck of $71. The case would take two years to get to trial.
In 1967 and 1968, Hampton was an organizer for the NAACP recruiting over 500 people to join the ranks. In addition, he tried to create more recreational areas for youth in the city. A pre-law major at Triton Junior College, Hampton was well aware of the brutality of the day as he and fellow NAACP would often follow police on their rounds to find instances of police brutality in the community. The non-violent structure of the NAACP was not enough for Hampton. He wanted something more.
In 1968, Fred Hampton joined the Black Panther Party. He rose quickly through the ranks. Hampton was a charismatic young leader. He was knowledgeable, well read, and commanded the microphone. He brokered peace deals between rival street gangs, and additionally coalesced several student and civil rights groups into what he called “the rainbow coalition” years before Jesse Jackson and Operation PUSH.
In 1969, Hampton ascended to be the head of the Black Panther Party in Chicago. With that title came scrutiny from within Chicago and Washington. The FBI actually opened a file on Hampton beginning in 1967. By 1969, the file was 4000 pages long. But as a Panther, Hampton’s so called “radical” activities included: starting a People’s Medical Clinic, education classes, a free breakfast program, police oversight, and holding weekly rallies in the community to raise awareness and inform the public.
Throughout 1968 and 1969, leaders in this new era of the Civil Rights movement wound up either in dead or in jail. Some groups even fragmented. Hampton’s mentor, Bob Brown left to start a new group with Bobby Seale. Hampton knew his days as a free man were numbered. Hampton’s previous arrest from 1967 finally saw the inside of courtroom in May of 1969. He was found guilty and sentenced to 2-5 years. Hampton got out a $25,000 appeal bond.
Throughout 1969, confrontations between Chicago Police and the Black Panther Party grew with deaths on both sides. With urging from J. Edgar Hoover, the Chicago Police and the FBI stepped up their surveillance on Hampton, his new girlfriend, and their living arrangements. The FBI had grown tired of Hampton and saw him as a threat to stability. They got a warrant to search his apartment for weapons and were hoping to put him away on that charge since the burglary charge had not stuck yet. The FBI even had an informant, William O’Neal, infiltrate the organization. The night before the raid, O’Neal put a chemical substance into Hampton’s food and drink so that Hampton would be unconscious when the raid began in the morning.
December 4, 1969, the Chicago Police entered Hampton’s apartment expecting to find 20 Black Panther Party members in residence. Only Clark and Hampton were there. They were soon killed. The amount of fire power used to kill the two men was overwhelming and overpowering creating a bloodbath. State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan claimed that Hampton and Clark fired first citing two holes near a door as evidence. They later turned out to be nails.
Hampton’s girlfriend, Deborah Johnson, who was present, describes the carnage and how the raid took place
“Someone came into the room, started shaking the Chairman, said, “Chairman, Chairman, wake up. The pigs are vamping.” Still half asleep, I looked up, and I saw bullets coming from, it looked like, the front of the apartment, from the kitchen area. They were — pigs were just shooting.
And about this time, I jumped on top of the Chairman. He looked up. Looked like all the pigs had converged at the entranceway to the bedroom area, back bedroom area. The mattress was just going — you could feel bullets going into it. I just knew we’d be dead, everybody in there. When he looked up, just looked up, he didn’t say a word. He didn’t move, except for moving his head up. He laid his head back down, to the side like that. He never said a word. He never got up off the bed.
The person who was in the room, he kept hollering, “Stop shooting! Stop shooting! We have a pregnant woman, a pregnant sister in here!” At the time I was eight-and-a-half, nine months pregnant. My baby was to be delivered in two weeks. Pigs kept on shooting. So I kept on hollering out. Finally, they stopped.
They pushed me and the other brother by the kitchen door and told us to face the wall. Heard a pig say, “He’s barely alive. He’ll barely make it.” I assumed they were talking about Chairman Fred. Then they started shooting. The pigs, they started shooting again. I heard a sister scream. They stopped shooting. Pig said, “He’s good and dead now.” The pigs were running around laughing. They was really happy, you know, talking about Chairman Fred is dead. I never saw Chairman Fred again.”
The police claimed they were fired upon twice by the Black Panthers and as a result, used excessive force to “protect and defend” themselves.
In the community, cries of a coverup and a conspiracy began as soon as the news hit the street. Hanrahan claimed,
“The immediate, violent, criminal reaction of the occupants in shooting at announced police officers emphasizes the extreme viciousness of the Black Panther Party. So does their refusal to cease firing at the police officers when urged to do so several times.”
Hanrahan had been seen as an up and comer in the Daley Administration and the Democratic Party. His cover up of the investigation would result in the downfall of his political career and a Republican, in Chicago of all places, winning the next election for State’s Attorney. This newspaper article details some of the actions Hanrahan took in the cover up of the assassinations of Clark and Hampton.
No one was ever convicted for the crime of killing Hampton and Clark. In 1971, a raid in Pennsylvania on a FBI office there uncovered documents about O’Neal’s role in the assassination and the lengths the FBI went to in order to take Hampton. O’Neal later killed himself, despondent over his role in the assassinations.
In 1983, a civil suit ended with $1.8 million being awarded to the victim’s families.
Author and Hampton family lawyer Jeffery Haas states the assassination marked a turning point in politics between blacks and whites in Chicago:
Well, I think, for one thing, it marked the independence of the black political leaders in Chicago, who had, up until then, had been pretty much lackeys of the mayor and the Democratic machine. And a young congress — a young state senator named Harold Washington spoke out, and Danny Davis spoke out, and Jesse Jackson welcomed Bobby Rush. And all of a sudden you had an independent and much more progressive black political machine, or part of the machine, that was independent. And I think that group and white liberals were given credit for eventually electing Harold Washington mayor, as Chicago’s first black mayor.
Chicago and the Black Panther Party have never been the same since. Deborah Johnson (now called Akua Njeri) gave birth to Fred Hampton, Jr. a few weeks after the raid.
For Further Reading
Jeffrey Haas: The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther
Chicago Tribune Newspaper Articles
Court Orders New Autopsy of Hampton; Chicago Tribune; Feb 7, 1970
Koziol, Ronald: Panther Slayings Split the City Into Name Calling’ Factions; Chicago Tribune, Dec 14, 1969
Lee, Edward: Hanrahan Backs Police; Gunfight Probe Urged: Praises Judgment: Chicago Tribune, Dec 9, 1969
O’Brien, John: ‘Let U. S. Probe Killing’–Hanrahan: Negro Lawyers Demand Action; Chicago Tribune, Dec 12, 1969
Hanrahan Actions Reviewed: Chicago Tribune, Nov 6, 1970
WHY JUDGE JAILED BLACK PANTHER AID: He Saw Hampton as ‘Dangerous’: Chicago Tribune, Dec 12, 1969
For Further Viewing