UPDATED 12:23 p.m. EDT, Dec. 4, 2018 — Fred Hampton, one of the major figures in the original Black Panther Party that rose to prominence during the civil rights era in the 1960s, was killed on Dec. 4, 1969. Tuesday marked the 49th year since he was killed by police in an example of law enforcement using unnecessary force against Black men — an unfortunate trend that has lingered for centuries in America and continues to thrive in 2018.
On December 4, 1969, Fred Hampton—21-year-old chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP)—and Mark Clark—22-year-old Peoria Panther leader—were murdered by Chicago police officers working with the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. At the time of the attack, Hampton and Clark were not inciting violence, nor were they standing off with police. Conversely, they were both asleep inside their Chicago home.
Driven by Cook County State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan, the deadly raid of the local BPP chapter—which left four other BPP members severely injured—was one of multiple attempts to attack the Black Panther Party amid Cointelpro’s mission to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist hate type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership and supporters,” as written in a FBI document.
Along with being chairman of the BPP’s Illinois chapter, Hampton was known as a charismatic leader. Some of his other accomplishments include organizing a student chapter of the NAACP in Maywood, Ill. Hampton also brought together poor Black, white and Puerto Rican people as part of the “Rainbow Coalition” and inspired peace among several gangs in rivalry with one another.
On the anniversary of Hamption’s death, we remember the life of an inspiring revolutionary, as well as the other lives lost on this date 48 years ago.
Join us by watching the Fred Hampton documentary below.
Hampton, Fred (1948-1969)
The following is a re-print from African American Publications. African American Publications is committed to providing students and adult researchers with accurate, authoritative, and accessible information on a wide variety of ethnic and ethno-religious groups in the United States and Canada.
Hampton was born in 1948 in Chicago, and grew up in Maywood, a suburb just to the west of the city. His parents had moved north from Louisiana, and both held jobs at the Argo Starch Company. As a youth, Hampton was gifted both in the classroom and on the athletic field. To those who knew him, he seemed a likely candidate to escape the ghetto and "make it" in the white-dominated world outside. At Proviso East High School in Maywood, Hampton earned three varsity letters and won a Junior Achievement Award. He graduated with honors in 1966.
Following his graduation, Hampton enrolled at Triton Junior College in nearby River Grove, Illinois, majoring in pre-law. He also became active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), assuming leadership of the Youth Council of the organization's West Suburban Branch. In his capacity as an NAACP youth organizer, Hampton began to show signs of his natural leadership ability. From a community of 27,000, he was able to muster a youth group 500-members strong, an impressive size even for a constituency twice as large. Hampton considered it his mission to create a better environment for the development of young African Americans. He worked to get more and better recreational facilities established in the neighborhoods, and to improve educational resources for Maywood's African American community. Through his involvement with the NAACP, Hampton hoped to achieve social change through nonviolent activism and community organizing.
At about the same time that Hampton was successfully organizing young African Americans for the NAACP, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense started rising to national prominence. Hampton was quickly attracted to the Black Panther approach, which was based on a ten-point program of African American self-determination. Hampton joined the Black Panther Party and relocated to downtown Chicago, where he launched the party's Illinois chapter in November of 1968.
Over the next year, Hampton and his associates recorded a number of significant achievements in Chicago. Perhaps his most important accomplishment was his brokering of a nonaggression pact between Chicago's most powerful street gangs. By emphasizing that racial and ethnic conflict between gangs would only keep its members entrenched in poverty, he was able to forge a class-conscious, multiracial alliance of black, Puerto Rican, and poor white youths. In May of 1969, Hampton called a press conference to announce that a truce had been declared among this "rainbow coalition," a phrase coined by Hampton and made popular over the years by Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Equally important was Hampton's work as a developer of community service programs. His leadership helped create a program that provided free breakfasts for schoolchildren, a program the Panters had initiated in several cities. Hampton was also instrumental in the establishment of a free medical clinic, and other programs accessible to poor African Americans. By the tender age of 20, Hampton had become a respected community leader among Chicago's black population.
Meanwhile, Hampton was growing more militant in his political views. One factor in the increasing intensity of his rhetoric was his 1969 arrest for the strong-arm theft of $71 worth of Good Humor bars, which he then allegedly gave away to neighborhood children. Hampton was initially convicted and sentenced to two to five years in prison before the decision was overturned. He came away from the experience with a reinforced distrust of the American legal system, and a renewed conviction that it must be completely overhauled.
Although he was still more of an organizer than a revolutionary, Hampton's commitment to non-violence seemed to weaken. He began carrying guns, and, in a 1969 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, openly declared that "I'm not afraid to say I'm at war with the pigs." Still, his position on violence was that it was necessary for self-defense; African Americans needed to protect themselves against the brutal tactics of the police and other white-dominated institutions. "What this country has done to nonviolent leaders like Martin Luther King--I think that objectively says there's going to have to be an armed struggle," he was quoted as saying in the Sun-Times article.
By all accounts, Hampton was one of the most articulate and persuasive African American leaders of his time. His quiet demeanor and restrained speaking style belied the abrasive image most people attached to the Black Panthers. The Rev. Thomas Strieter, a member of the Maywood village board who knew Hampton from his earliest days as an organizer, was quoted in a 1994 Chicago magazine article as saying that Hampton "had charm coming out his ears. My impression of the Black Panthers in Oakland (California) was that they were thugs. Fred was not a thug." Former Chicago corporation counsel James Montgomery called him "one of the most persuasive speakers I've ever heard." Dr. Quentin Young, a member of Chicago Mayor Harold Washington's inner circle, went even further. "He (Hampton) was a giant, and this is not some idle white worship of a black man," he was quoted in Chicago as saying. "This is a terrible way to put it, but the people who made it their business to kill the leaders of the black movement picked the right ones."
Indeed, while Hampton impressed many of the people with whom he came into contact as a great leader and talented communicator, those very qualities marked him as a major threat in the eyes of the FBI and other concerned agencies. The FBI began keeping close tabs on his activities, and subsequent investigations have shown that FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover was determined to prevent the formation of a cohesive Black radical movement in the United States. Hoover saw the Panthers, and gang coalitions like that forged by Hampton in Chicago, as frightening stepping stones toward the creation of just such a revolutionary body.
Urged on by the FBI, the Chicago police launched an all-out assault on the Black Panthers and their allies, characterizing the group as nothing more than a criminal gang. Over the course of the escalating conflict in 1969, eleven black youths from Chicago's South Side were killed in separate skirmishes with police. During that year alone, shoot-outs killed or wounded a dozen Panther members and almost as many police officers. Over 100 Black Panthers were arrested during the year, and Panther party headquarters at 2337 West Monroe Street on the city's West Side were raided by police and FBI agents four separate times. The last of these four raids was the one in which Hampton was killed.
One of the individuals who spent a lot of time at Panther headquarters in Chicago was William O'Neal. It turned out that O'Neal, a convicted car thief, had been recruited out of the county jail to be a paid informant for the FBI. One of O'Neal's chief contributions to the FBI's infiltration of the Black Panthers was to provide them with a floor plan of the building. O'Neal's information was key to the December 4, 1969, police raid that killed Hampton and fellow party member Mark Clark. Four other Panthers were seriously injured.
Chicago Police entered the building at 4:45 in the morning. The police version of the raid claimed that the Panthers began firing guns at them the moment they began knocking on the door. According to this version of events, a ten-minute shootout ensued, resulting in the deaths of Hampton and Clark. Subsequent investigations suggest otherwise; it is likely, in fact, that the raid more closely resembled an execution than a legitimate police action. For example, ballistic evidence showed that at most one shot could have been fired by a Panther. The police did virtually all of the shooting that took place. Hampton died in bed. There is strong evidence that he had been drugged that night, probably by O'Neal, and it is likely that he slept through the entire ordeal.
Hampton's funeral was attended by 5,000 people, and he was eulogized by such black leaders as Jesse Jackson and Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King's successor as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In his eulogy, Jackson noted that "when Fred was shot in Chicago, black people in particular, and decent people in general, bled everywhere."
The officers involved in the raid were cleared by a grand jury of any crimes. The families of Hampton and Clark filed a $47.7 million civil suit against the city, state, and federal governments. More than a decade later, the suit was finally settled, and the two families each received a large but undisclosed sum. In 1990, the Chicago City Council passed a resolution declaring "Fred Hampton Day" in honor of the slain leader.
Since Hampton's death, the Black Panthers have faded from the limelight, thanks in large part to the concentrated efforts of the FBI and various other police agencies. Hampton's memory lives on, however, in part due to a scholarship fund set up in his name by Jackson and Abernathy. Education may be a less dramatic path to social change than armed revolt, but Hampton's idea of revolution was broad enough to include it. As Hampton often said, according to The Nation, "You can kill a revolutionary, but you cannot kill a revolution. You can jail a liberation fighter, but you cannot jail liberation."
Biography Resource Center
Fred Hampton, deputy chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, was born on August 30, 1948, and raised in the Chicago suburb of Maywood, Illinois, where he attended Proviso East High School. In high school, he excelled in academics and athletics. Afterwards, Hampton enrolled in the Developmental Institute at the YMCA Community College in Chicago and then enrolled in a pre-law program at Triton Junior College in River Grove, Illinois.
Hampton also became involved in the civil rights movement, joining his local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). His dynamic leadership and organizational skills in the branch enabled him to rise to the position of Youth Council President. Hampton mobilized a racially integrated group of five hundred young people who successfully lobbied city officials to create better academic services and recreational facilities for African American children.
In 1968, Hampton joined the Black Panther Party (BPP), headquartered in Oakland, California. Using his NAACP experience, he soon headed the Chicago chapter. During his brief BPP tenure, Hampton formed a “Rainbow Coalition,” which included Students for a Democratic Society, the Blackstone Rangers, a street gang, and the National Young Lords, a Puerto Rican organization. Hampton was also successful in negotiating a gang truce on local television.
In an effort to neutralize the Chicago BPP, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Chicago Police Department placed the chapter under heavy surveillance and engaged in a campaign of harassment. In 1969, several BPP members and police officers were either injured or killed in shootouts, and over one hundred local members of the BPP were arrested.
During an early morning police raid of the BPP headquarters at 2337 W. Monroe Street on December 4, 1969, twelve officers opened fire, killing the 21-year-old Hampton and Peoria, Illinois Panther leader Mark Clark. Police also seriously wounded four other Panther members. Many in the Chicago African American community were outraged over the raid and what they saw as the unnecessary deaths of Hampton and Clark. Over 5,000 people attended Hampton’s funeral where Reverends Ralph Abernathy and Jesse Jackson of the Southern Christian Leadership Conferenceeulogized the slain activist. Years later, law enforcement officials admitted wrongdoing in the killing of Hampton and Clark. In 1990 and later in 2004, the Chicago City Council passed resolutions commemorating December 4 as Fred Hampton Day.
Peniel E. Joseph, Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America(New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006); Huey P. Newton, War against the Panthers: A Study of Repression in America (New York: Harlem River Press, 1996); John Kifner, “Police in Chicago Slay 2 Panthers,” New York Times, December 5, 1969; John Kifner, “Panthers Say an Autopsy Shows Party Official was Murdered,” New York Times, December 7, 1969; Stan Greenbuam email to author, November 25, 2017.