Modern history does not have many 21-year-olds like Fred Hampton. With a great deal of confidence, one may say the next century will not have many 21-year-olds like Fred Hampton.
In 1969, on paper, the American civil rights struggle should have been winding down if not ended. No less than five laws had been passed by the United States Congress since the 1920s barring racial discrimination in employment and other aspects of American life. But the social reality stood in jest of legislations. This much was not lost on young Hampton from Chicago because as some say, he was wise beyond his years.
Contrary to the popular narrative that fierce radicals are usually incapable of articulating their philosophies decently, Hampton was different. He had been a good student who also excelled in athletics. One of Hampton’s major inspirations had been Paul Robeson, the ultimate done-it-all African-American civil rights activist from the 1940s and 50s. Robeson was an athlete, a singer, a lawyer and, a consummate intellectual.
Hampton wanted to play for the New York Yankees; it was the typical teenager’s “my name in the shining lights” dream. But he also wanted to become a lawyer, a hope borne out of communal responsibility to his people who were at the mercy of cruel policing.
After leaving Proviso East High School, Hampton enrolled at Triton Junior College and studied pre-law. That education proved useful as Hampton relied on his understanding of the law when he became socially conscious.
If manners maketh a man, it stands to reason that the times toughened him. Social consciousness was not particularly a choice Hampton would have made as a late-stage teenager. But in Illinois, where Hampton had been born to parents who had come from Louisiana, it was costlier to insist on one’s right to ignorance. This is in a space where the law’s officers had little to no interest in carrying out justice on behalf of black people.
The police constantly harassed people who looked like Hampton. Access to social goods too was made difficult, if not curtailed, in the areas with heavy black populations. The Black Panther Party, with its politics and ideals, consequently became for Hampton, a home.
The party was a creation of Huey Newton and Bobby Seale from California, who insisted on a black nationalist response to racial discrimination. Philosophically leftist, the Black Panthers sought inspiration from the likes of Kwame Nkrumah, Frantz Fanon, Marcus Garvey and even Ernesto Guevara.
The party’s Illinois chapter was opened in 1967 and Hampton joined in 1968, aged just 20. At the time, he was also a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and even became its youth leader at the West Suburban branch in Chicago.
For the Black Panthers, Hampton’s charisma, leadership skills and intelligence began to show. After Stokely Carmichael’s Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) failed to merge with the Panthers in 1968, Hampton headed the Illinois chapter of the Panthers.
Many who have looked back believe Hampton could have moved further into national prominence from the state of Illinois had he not been killed. However, the FBI was taking notice of Hampton and this was never a good thing for all who were advancing the cause of equality in dignity around the 1950s and 60s.
The FBI had established in that time, COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program), a special, largely illegal series of undercover investigations and nippings of buds among groups that the FBI decided threatened American security and freedom of Americans.
J. Edgar Hoover’s time as FBI chief saw one of the most comprehensive state-sponsored terrorizing of the American people. Black people, automatically, saw the worst-case scenarios.
Indeed, it was the FBI that planted mole William O’Neal within the Illinois Black Panther Party to spy on Hampton and co. O’Neal, who later committed suicide, cooperated with the FBI so as to reduce his criminal charges.
Among O’Neal’s markers of a productive alliance with the FBI was a map he allegedly gave of the two-flat at 2337 W. Monroe Street apartment that housed Hampton and other Panthers.
In the early hours of December 4, 1969, state police with the cooperation of the FBI, went into the apartment. Hampton was fatally shot in the head.
One surviving Panther on the scene said he heard an exchange between two police officers who realized that Hampton had not died from the initial barrage of bullets sprayed on the Panthers in their rooms.
The pair of officers then went ahead to make sure Hampton was dead. “He’s good and dead now”, one of the officers allegedly said afterward.
The State Attorney of Cook County, Edward Hanrahan, a sworn crusader against “gangs”, had organized the raid. In a fashion oddly familiar to today’s defense of law enforcement officers after a young Black man is tragically killed, Hanrahan defended the killings of the Panthers describing them as violent people who shot at the police first. Investigations later showed that only one shot had been made from a Panther’s gun while over fifty had been shot by the officers.
No one has quite the perfect story of what happened in the apartment on that dawn. In a 1970 coroner’s jury ruling, the deaths of Hampton and his friend Mark Clark were declared justifiable homicides. But the timing had been more than suspect.
Hampton’s rapid fame had depended not only on his charisma but his execution of the ten-point program of the Black Panther Party.
He regularly organized meals, medical check-ups as well as education programs for black and brown kids in deprived areas. He sought to practicalize the enormity of his socialist philosophy in the everyday lives of the people.
But in a never-seen-before twist, Hampton moved to establish fraternal relationships with gangs in parts of Chicago so as to end street violence. Hispanic, Black and Chinese gangs were committed to peace under the leadership of Hampton. He even invited rednecks to this assembly of the hurt.
Hampton called the work of uniting gangs of different ethnic backgrounds, the rainbow coalition. Twenty years or so later, Rev. Jesse Jackson would use the name in describing his presidential campaign.
The rainbow coalition ideology is simple – the poor and marginalized are people of different ethnicities. They should not be fighting among themselves Rather, they should be brought together to seek power relations that cater to their lack.
But Hoover feared a “Black Messiah” – something he literally communicated to his team. He directed that the last thing Black people could be allowed to have was a figure that would inspire them to some revolution in America. That would explain Hoover’s deep-seated hatred for Martin Luther King Jr.
Hampton’s killing comes off, in this light, as commonplace diligence to Hoover and like-minded Americans.