50 years ago, police killed 21-year-old Fred Hampton for championing a new dawn in civil rights

Nii Ntreh Dec 4, 2019 at 09:00am

December 04, 2019 at 09:00 am | History, Opinions & Features

Nii Ntreh

Nii Ntreh | Associate Editor

December 04, 2019 at 09:00 am | History, Opinions & Features

Fred Hampton addressing a rally in Chicago. Photo Credit: Eventbrite.com

Modern history does not have many 21-year-olds like Fred Hampton. With some 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. No less than five laws had been passed by congress since the 1920s barring racial discrimination.

But the social reality stood in jest of legislations. This much was not lost on young Hampton from Chicago – because some say he was wise beyond his years.

Contrary to the popular narrative that fierce radicals are usually deficient in intellect, Hampton was 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 a 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 toughen 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 for 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 was consequently for Hampton, a natural home.

The party, a creation of Huey Newton and Bobby Seale form California, insisted on 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 the youth leader at the West Suburban branch in Chicago.

For the Black Panthers, Hampton’s charisma, leadership skills and intelligence began to show. So when Stokely Carmichael’s Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) split from the Panthers in 1969, Hampton headed the Illinois chapter of the Panthers.

Students of the history of the time believe Hampton could have moved further into national prominence from the state of Illinois had he not been killed.

But 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 in the 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.

J. Edgar Hoover’s time as FBI chief saw one of the most comprehensive state-sponsored terrorizing of its people. Black people, naturally, 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 late 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 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 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 realised 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 organised the raid. In a fashion oddly familiar to today’s generation, Hanrahan defended the killings of the Panthers describing them as violent people who shot at the police first.

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 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 organised meals, medical check-ups as well as education programs for black and brown kids in deprived areas. He sought to practicalise 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 called the work of uniting gangs, 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 marginalised are not people who should be fighting among themselves. 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.

Hampton’s killing comes off, in this light, as commonplace diligence to Hoover and like-minded Americans.

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