As I’ve learned to decolonize what I once thought was true and reeducate myself on the actual histories of different groups throughout time, I’ve discovered famous figures and events that have not only reformed my opinion of law enforcement, but also opened my eyes to how history is recorded. Fred Hampton is one of the incredible activists I learned about a handful of years ago when I concluded that everything I believed about The Black Panther Party was grossly inaccurate. Today would have been Fred’s 72nd birthday, so I wanted to focus on remembering Fred Hampton for exactly who he was– an intelligent, compassionate, and brave organizer who fought to save and change lives and was murdered at such a young age.
Fred Hampton was a brilliant student and athlete, growing up in 1950s Chicago. He excelled in the classroom and graduated with honors in 1966, desiring a future in MLB as center field for the New York Yankees. He was a pre-law student at Triton Junior College so that he could become fluent in the law as a defense against law enforcement. While in college, he joined fellow members of the Black Panthers in following cop activity so they could look out for instances of police brutality. Fred also joined the NAACP as a leader of the Youth Council where he helped establish more and better recreational facilities and improve education for the poorer Black members of Maywood’s community. As a youth organizer, Fred Hampton was intrigued by the Black Panthers’ Ten-Point Program for Self-Defense, which included points such as:
- We Want Freedom. We Want Power To Determine The Destiny Of Our Black Community.
- We Want Full Employment For Our People.
- We Want An End To The Robbery By The Capitalists Of Our Black Community.
- We Want Decent Housing Fit For The Shelter Of Human Beings.
- 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.
- We Want All Black Men To Be Exempt From Military Service.
- We Want An Immediate End To Police Brutality And Murder Of Black People.
- We Want Freedom For All Black Men Held In Federal, State, County And City Prisons And Jails.
- 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.
- We Want Land, Bread, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice And Peace.
In November 1968, Fred Hampton joined the new Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party where his most important achievement was his establishment of a nonaggression pact between many of Chicago’s most affluent gangs. He “strove to forge a class-conscious, multi-racial alliance between the BPP, the Young Patriots Organization, and the Young Lords under the leadership of Jose Cha Cha Jimenez.” He eventually formed the Rainbow Coalition, which brokered treaties to end gang violence and crime. As he rose in leadership through the Party, Fred became the leader of the Chicago chapter and organized meetings every week, taught daily political education classes, established community watch over police activity, and helped form the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast Program (which Chicago destroyed and shut down and then the whole of America recreated).
One of Fred’s greatest gifts was his way with language, making him an exciting and moving orator. In Jeffrey Haas’ book The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther (which I wrote about here), he shared parts of an especially powerful speech by Fred, where the BPP Chairman said, “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. If you’re asked to make a commitment at the age of twenty, and you say I don’t want to make a commitment at the age of twenty, only because of the reason that I’m too young to die, I want to live a little longer, then you’re dead already. You have to understand that people have to pay a price for peace. If you dare to struggle, you dare to win. If you dare not struggle then damn it, you don’t deserve to win. Let me say peace to you if you’re willing to fight for it. I believe I was born not to die in a car wreck or slipping on a piece of ice, or of a bad heart, but I”m going to be able to die doing the things I was born for. I believe I’m going to die high off the people. I believe that I’m going to be able to die as a revolutionary in the international proletarian struggle. And I hope that each of you will be able to die in the international revolutionary proletarian struggle or you’ll be able to live in it. And I think that struggle’s going to come. Why don’t you live for the people? Why don’t you struggle for the people? Why don’t you die for the people?” (Haas 4-5).
Despite all of the good work that he was achieving, Fred Hampton became a target for the FBI as bureau chief J. Edgar Hoover was determined to undermine the formation of a cohesive Black movement. The bureau opened a file on Fred in 1967 and one year later, his mother’s home phone was tapped and he was labeled a “key militant leader”. Later that year, the FBI hired William O’Neal as an informant to infiltrate the Party in exchange for the dropping of charges against him. O’Neal quickly rose to fame in the Party and became Fred’s bodyguard though he personally instigated many fatal clashes between members of the Party and Chicago gangs. By 1968, Fred Hampton was on the verge of establishing an alliance between the BPP and a South side gang with thousands of members as well as white, Italian and Latinx organizers, which would have increased the Party’s numbers tenfold. After two CPD officers were killed in a shootout with Party members, the Chicago Tribune suggested cops approaching Panthers “should be ordered to be ready to shoot.” O’Neal provided information about Fred’s apartment layout as the FBI prepared to set up an arms raid and on December 3, he slipped a sleeping pill in Fred’s drink so he would be unconscious during the raid. At 4 a.m. on December 4, CPD officers stormed into Fred’s apartment and fired approximately 99 shots where nine people, including Fred’s pregnant girlfriend Deborah Johnson, were asleep. After he had been wounded by the gunfire, Fred’s body was dragged by CPD into his living room where they fired two point blank shots at his head, killing him instantly. The next day, CPD announced in a press conference that they had been attacked by the “extremely violent and vicious” Panthers and they were celebrated for their “remarkable restraint”, “bravery”, and “professional discipline.”
It’s important to remember the incredible organizers like Fred Hampton who came before us and who were murdered by police and federal agencies. As I continue to relearn everything I was taught and acknowledge that history is documented with biases, I hope we always focus on remembering Chairman Fred and all of the Panthers who were targeted and eliminated for their activism and their fight to create a society where they and their future generations could live in equality and justice. I’m thankful that we have literature and living activists who stood side by side with this brave man so we can continue remembering Fred Hampton for the person he was and everything he gave to his community and the world.