Hampton’s death not quite forgotten: 45th anniversary of the death of Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton calls the party’s legacy into question

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Hampton’s death not quite forgotten: 45th anniversary of the death of Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton calls the party’s legacy into question

Fred Hampton

Fred Hampton

Alex Aghayere

Fred Hampton

Alex Aghayere

Alex Aghayere

Fred Hampton

By Arts & Culture Editor

On the dark winter morning of Dec. 4, 1969, 14 Chicago Police Department officers gathered outside the West Side apartment of 21-year-old Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton. Officers stormed through the door of 2337 W. Monroe St. around 4:30 a.m. and fired between 82 and 99 shots, killing Hampton and fellow party member Mark Clark and wounding seven other BPP members.

After a few short minutes, the raid was over. Hampton’s bloodied body had been dragged from the bed he shared with his then-pregnant girlfriend, Deborah Johnson, to the doorway of his bedroom. Torn clothes, bullet holes and blood littered the rooms of Hampton’s home while the survivors of the raid were removed from the apartment and arrested on charges of aggravated assault and attempted murder of the officers. In the days following Hampton’s death, hundreds of people from the black community and fellow BPP members passed through the apartment, which had been abandoned by the CPD without any crime scene tape, while lawyers from Chicago’s People’s Law office collected evidence. An elderly woman who came to pay her respects was reported as saying, “Ain’t nothing but a northern lynching,” upon seeing the destruction left behind.

It was later revealed that an FBI informant named William O’Neal had given federal agents a detailed floor plan of Hampton’s apartment, which was then passed on to Cook County State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan’s Special Prosecutions Unit, a squad of CPD officers specially assigned to him. Hanrahan’s career unraveled after the shooting was linked to his office. In civil court, lawyers from the People’s Law offices, a law firm who specializes in civil rights and police brutality cases, successfully won a $1.85 million lawsuit for the families of Hampton, Clark and the other party members affected. They won the lawsuit because of evidence that included hidden FBI documents showing a request for a cash bonus for the informant based on his success at arranging the killings, according to Flint Taylor, one of the two lawyers who argued Hampton’s civil rights lawsuit in court.

Despite the outcome of the trial, few outside of Hampton’s family and friends have made efforts to remember him, apart from his hometown of Maywood, Illinois, where a street called Fred Hampton Way as well as a community swimming pool is named after him. A bid to name a Chicago street for Hampton came in 2006 but only  opened up old wounds over the controversy and ultimately failed. Over time, his political statements and intentions have been misrepresented some say. The BPP’s activities and mission have been cloaked by a negative perception of radical black power movements, and the rare incidence of illegal activities perpetrated by a handful of BPP members has marked the party as being violent and unpatriotic despite the assistance programs it brought the members of black communities across the country. 

The Black Panther Party was founded Oct. 22, 1966, in Oakland, California, by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. Originally called “The Black Panther Party for Self Defense,” the organization was touted by politicians and the media as a violent paramilitary organization because many members carried guns in public, Seale said from Oakland in a phone interview. This tactic was used to show that the party was willing to protect itself and to draw the attention of both the black and white communities in America, he said.

“What we were and what I was designing in the Black Panther Party was a political organization—a political revolutionary organization,” Seale said. “Revolution was not about the need for violence. Revolution was about a need to re-evolve more political, economic, ecological and social justice empowerment back into the hands of the people.”

Seale said the BPP would organize neighborhood patrols to observe local police and protect the black communities of the Oakland area from potential police brutality. The guns were not required and were only carried for self-defense, which the group seldom exercised. Furthermore, the group’s choice to carry guns was representative of its members’ willingness to stand up for themselves and their community, Seale said.

“Before we even went out into the streets to observe the police, we had trained all the party members,” Seale said. “We knew every law concerning guns under the State of California at the time—the guns were very legal.”

Jane Rhodes is the chair of the American Studies Department at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and the author of “Framing the Black Panthers: The Spectacular Rise of a Black Power Icon.” She said the BPP is symbolic of the failure of black militancy and the resistance movements of the 1960s and 1970s. However, she said the group is also seen in a more positive light by communities of color and other activists because of the stand it took against oppression and the group’s visibility in the American media.

“There tends to be—in mainstream America—a negative legacy of the Black Panthers,” Rhodes said. “I do think there is a very different legacy that resides—particularly in communities of color—among young people, among activists … they are a legacy of an age of radical resistance that doesn’t exist any longer, and I think the Panthers get romanticized a lot.”  

The Panthers also gained a reputation for their 10-point program and platform, which called for basic human rights such as decent housing and the right to a fair trial by peers. The BPP instituted community programs such as the Free Breakfast for Children Program, an initiative that served free, hot meals to inner-city children before school, along with offering free testing for sickle cell anemia and other forms of preventative medicine, according to Seale. The social programs like these, along with the assassination of prominent civil rights activists such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., inspired other blacks across the country—including Fred Hampton and Bobby Rush—to join the Black Panthers and start new chapters outside California, exponentially increasing membership, Seale said.

“When they killed Martin Luther King, Jr., I’m telling you, Bobby Rush and Fred Hampton got on a plane from Chicago and came out to Oakland,” Seale said. 

Hampton and other party members soon started their own programs and demonstrations once the Illinois chapter of the BPP was founded in Chicago. Hampton allied himself with political organizations of other races in Chicago and started the Rainbow Coalition, according to Jose “Cha Cha” Jimenez, a co-founder of the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican political group, and a past member of the Rainbow Coalition. 

Through the Rainbow Coalition, the Black Panthers, the Young Lords and the Young Patriots—a political organization made up of whites from the Appalachia region—all shared similar ideals, supported each other’s causes and community programs and attended each other’s demonstrations, Jimenez said.

“We supported each other, and the thing is that we were from the streets, so we were ready to die for each other—that’s the kind of situation that we had,” Jimenez said.

Jimenez, who had been arrested with Hampton multiple times while protesting, said despite the racial differences among the three groups, they all struggled with the same issues within their own communities.   

“We [are] just like the Black Panther Party,” Jimenez said. “We see that the police run the community and that the mayor runs the police, so we were fighting Mayor [Richard J.] Daley and fighting City Hall at that time. That’s why we were in the Rainbow Coalition that Fred Hampton started and originated.” 

Hy Thurman, a founder of the Young Patriots organization, said Hampton’s work with the BPP and the Rainbow Coalition, along with his charisma and leadership qualities, made him a respected member of the community. Those same characteristics attracted attention from the federal government.

“He was an extremely intelligent young person who had a deep commitment and a deep feeling for the community, for his people and all people actually,” Thurman said. “He was a leader that people would follow, which was of course what got him killed. I believe that if he had not been assassinated that he would certainly be high up in politics. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was president of the United States someday.”

Taylor, who remains the Hampton family’s lawyer, said Hampton could capture anyone’s attention, from a group of mostly white, male law students at Northwestern University to a church full of black men and women. Taylor said the police and the FBI both saw his ability to communicate as a threat at the time.

“He was very charismatic … the kind of person that you instantly gravitate toward, have respect for and listen to,” Taylor said. “The police—and, it turns out, the FBI—knew that as well, and at this point, it wasn’t known publicly that the FBI had a program to destroy the Black Panthers and destroy its leadership.”  

The People’s Law Office began to pursue what would be called the trial of the decade—a civil rights suit that sought damages for the families of Hampton and the other victims of the raid. It was one of the longest civil trials to take place at that point, Taylor said.

During the discovery process—a legal process in which each side of the argument can obtain the other’s evidence—in the early 1970s, Taylor and fellow attorney Jeffrey Haas were able to ascertain the FBI’s involvement in the raid after obtaining more than 200 documents the FBI had hidden. The documents contained information revealing the bureau’s counterintelligence program, or COINTELPRO, and detailed the success of the raid and designs to disrupt and ultimately destroy other black organizations, targeting Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., according to Taylor.

“The FBI had hidden some 200 volumes of documents that were Black Panther documents,” Taylor said. “We called one of these the ‘bonus document’ … it was a memo from Chicago to the FBI agents that controlled the informant and who were secretly behind the raid for COINTELPRO to J. Edgar Hoover … in Washington, D.C., claiming the success of the raid right after the raid and asking for a bonus for O’Neal for his exemplary work setting up these murders.”

Jimenez was also called to Hampton’s apartment the morning of the raid through a “grapevine” network set up with the organizations of the Rainbow Coalition to march in the street and help protect the lawyers as they gathered evidence. Jimenez said that after seeing the condition of the apartment, he was convinced that Hampton had been assassinated. 

“This was a planned assassination to kill,” Jimenez said.

Taylor and Haas eventually won the civil rights lawsuit in 1982, the same year the BPP officially disbanded. Neither the CPD nor the FBI have ever confirmed or denied complicity in the events of that night, and no one involved has ever been convicted, according to Taylor. 

“Right from the jump, they put out the false story, and they’ve stuck with that,” Taylor said. “They’ve stuck with that during the trials, they’ve stuck with that previously during the criminal proceedings. They’ve always said that it was a shootout, they’ve never had any explanation for where the bullets went that the Panthers supposedly fired and there was no physical evidence whatsoever to support their story.”

A CPD Office of News Affairs officer was not familiar with Hampton or the case when contacted for comment  and said that it was “over 40 years ago” and it would be unlikely to “elicit a statement from the CPD.”

Thurman—like many activists of that time—said he is happy that people still remember groups like the Black Panther Party. He said he hopes events like the anniversary of Hampton’s death will be something that will be taught in schools to remind people of the movement and what the members stood for.

“I just think the history’s been hidden, and we’re finally at a point where we’ll be able to get some of the history of the past into the textbooks,” Thurman said. “But they’re certainly being changed, too, and they’re not really teaching any of this in our schools, which is unfortunate.”

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