Fred Hampton (August 30, 1948 – December 4, 1969) was an African-American activist and revolutionary, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP), and deputy chairman of the national BPP. Hampton and fellow Black Panther Mark Clark were killed during a raid by a tactical unit of the Cook County, Illinois State's Attorney's Office, in conjunction with the Chicago Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation in December 1969. In January 1970, a coroner's jury held an inquest and ruled the deaths of Hampton and Clark to be justifiable homicide. However, a civil lawsuit was later filed on behalf of the survivors and the relatives of Hampton and Clark. It was eventually resolved in 1982 for a settlement of $1.85 million with the City of Chicago, Cook County, and the federal government each paying a third to a group of nine plaintiffs.
Hampton was born on August 30, 1948, in present-day Summit, Illinois, and grew up in Maywood, both suburbs of Chicago. His parents had moved north from Louisiana, and both worked at the Argo Starch Company. As a youth, Hampton was gifted both in the classroom and on the athletic field, and strongly desired to play center field for the New York Yankees. He graduated from Proviso East High School with honors in 1966. Following his graduation, Hampton enrolled at Triton Junior College in nearby River Grove, Illinois, where he majored in pre-law. He planned to become more familiar with the legal system, to use it as a defense against police. He and fellow Black Panthers would follow police, watching out for police brutality, and used this knowledge of law as a defense.
He also became active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and assumed leadership of the Youth Council of the organization's West Suburban Branch. In his capacity as an NAACP youth organizer, Hampton began to demonstrate his natural leadership abilities; from a community of 27,000, he was able to muster a youth group 500-members strong. He worked to get more and better recreational facilities established in the neighborhoods, and to improve educational resources for Maywood's impoverished black community. Through his involvement with the NAACP, Hampton hoped to achieve social change through nonviolent activism and community organizing.
About the same time that Hampton was successfully organizing young African-Americans for the NAACP, the Black Panther Party (BPP) started rising to national prominence. Hampton was quickly attracted to the Black Panthers' approach, which was based on a ten-point program that integrated black self-determination on the basis of Maoism. Hampton joined the Party and relocated to downtown Chicago, and in November 1968 he joined the Party's nascent Illinois chapter—founded by Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizer Bob Brown in late 1967. Over the next year, Hampton and his associates made 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. Emphasizing that racial and ethnic conflict between gangs would only keep its members entrenched in poverty, Hampton 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.
Fred Hampton met the Young Lords in the Chicago Lincoln Park Neighborhood, the day after the Young Lords were in the news after they had occupied a police community workshop meeting, held on the second floor hall of the Chicago 18th District Police Station. Later, the Rainbow Coalition was joined nationwide by the Students for a Democratic Society ("SDS"), the Brown Berets, and the Red Guard Party. In May 1969, Hampton called a press conference to announce that this "rainbow coalition" had formed. It was a phrase coined by Hampton and made popular over the years by Reverend Jesse Jackson, who eventually appropriated the name in forming his own, unrelated, coalition, Rainbow/PUSH.
Hampton's organizing skills, substantial oratorical gifts, and personal charisma allowed him to rise quickly in the Black Panthers. Once he became leader of the Chicago chapter, he organized weekly rallies, worked closely with the BPP's local People's Clinic, taught political education classes every morning at 6am, and launched a project for community supervision of the police. Hampton was also instrumental in the BPP's Free Breakfast Program. When Brown left the Party with Stokely Carmichael in the FBI-fomented SNCC/Panther split, Hampton assumed chairmanship of the Illinois state BPP, automatically making him a national BPP deputy chairman. As the Panther leadership across the country began to be decimated by the impact of the FBI's COINTELPRO, Hampton's prominence in the national hierarchy increased rapidly and dramatically. Eventually, Hampton was in line to be appointed to the Party's Central Committee's Chief of Staff. He would have achieved this position had it not been for his death on the morning of December 4, 1969.
While Hampton impressed many of the people with whom he came into contact as an effective leader and talented communicator, those very qualities marked him as a major threat in the eyes of the FBI. Hence, the bureau began keeping close tabs on his activities. Subsequent investigations have shown that FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover was determined to prevent the formation of a cohesive Black movement in the United States. Hoover saw the Panthers, Young Patriots, Young Lords, and similar radical coalitions forged by Hampton in Chicago as a frightening steppingstone toward the creation of such a revolutionary body that could, in its strength, cause a radical change in the U.S. government. The FBI opened a file on Hampton in 1967. Hampton's mother's phone was tapped in February 1968, and Hampton was placed on the Bureau's "Agitator Index" as a "key militant leader" by May. In late 1968, the Racial Matters squad of the FBI's Chicago field office recruited an individual named William O'Neal, who had recently been arrested twice for interstate car theft and impersonating a federal officer. In exchange for having his felony charges dropped and a monthly stipend, O'Neal agreed to infiltrate the BPP as a counterintelligence operative. He joined the Party and quickly rose in the organization, becoming Director of Chapter security and Hampton's bodyguard. In 1969, the FBI special agent in San Francisco wrote Hoover that the agent's investigation of the BPP revealed that in his city, at least, the Panthers were primarily feeding breakfast to children. Hoover fired back a memo implying that the career prospects of the agent were directly related to his supplying evidence to support Hoover's view that the BPP was "a violence-prone organization seeking to overthrow the Government by revolutionary means".
By means of anonymous letters, the FBI sowed distrust and eventually instigated a split between the Panthers and the Rangers, with O'Neal himself instigating an armed clash between the two on April 2, 1969. The Panthers became effectively isolated from their power base in the ghetto, so the FBI went to work to undermine its ties with other radical organizations. O'Neal was instructed to "create a rift" between the Party and SDS, whose Chicago headquarters was only blocks from that of the Panthers. The Bureau released a batch of racist cartoons in the Panthers' name, aimed at alienating white activists, and launched a disinformation program to forestall the realization of the Rainbow Coalition but nevertheless it was formed with an alliance of the Young Patriots and Young Lords. In repeated directives, Hoover demanded that the COINTELPRO personnel investigate the Rainbow Coalition and "destroy what the [BPP] stands for" and "eradicate its 'serve the people' programs".
Documents secured by Senate investigators in the early 1970s revealed that the FBI actively encouraged violence between the Panthers and other radical groups, which provoked multiple murders in cities throughout the country. On July 16, there was an armed confrontation between party members and the Chicago Police Department, which left one BPP member mortally wounded and six others arrested on serious charges. In early October, Hampton and his girlfriend, Deborah Johnson (now known as Akua Njeri), pregnant with their first child (Fred Hampton Jr.), rented a four-and-a-half room apartment on 2337 West Monroe Street to be closer to BPP headquarters. O'Neal reported to his superiors that much of the Panthers' "provocative" stockpile of arms was being stored there and drew them a map of the layout of the apartment. In early November, Hampton traveled to California on a speaking engagement to the UCLA Law Students Association. While there, he met with the remaining BPP national hierarchy, who appointed him to the Party's Central Committee. Shortly thereafter, he was to assume the position of Chief of Staff and major spokesman.
Fred Hampton was quickly moving up the ranks in the Black Panther Party, and his talent as a political organizer was described as remarkable. In 1968, he was on the verge of creating a merger between the BPP and a southside street gang with thousands of members, which would have doubled the size of the national BPP. Moreover, it meant an alliance extending the Black Panther Party reach and influence united with white and Latino organizers, a step which Hoover viewed as an untenable ultimate threat and ordered an intensified FBI crackdown to the level of "any means necessary" to destroy the BPP.
In November 1969, Hampton traveled to California and met with the National BPP leadership at UCLA. It was there that they offered him a position on the Central Committee as the chief of staff and asked him to serve as the national spokesman for the BPP. While Hampton was out of town, two Chicago police officers, John J. Gilhooly and Frank G. Rappaport, were killed in a gun battle with Panthers on the night of November 13. A total of nine police officers were shot; a 19-year-old Panther named Spurgeon Winter Jr. was killed by police and another Panther, Lawrence S. Bell, was charged with murder. In an unsigned editorial headlined "No Quarter for Wild Beasts", the Chicago Tribune urged that Chicago police officers approaching suspected Panthers "should be ordered to be ready to shoot." The FBI, determined to prevent any enhancement of the BPP leadership's effectiveness, decided to set up an arms raid on Hampton's Chicago apartment. FBI informant William O'Neal provided them with detailed information about Hampton's apartment, including the layout of furniture and the bed in which Hampton and his girlfriend slept. An augmented, 14-man team of the SAO—Special Prosecutions Unit—was organized for a pre-dawn raid armed with a warrant for illegal weapons.
On the evening of December 3, Hampton taught a political education course at a local church, which was attended by most members. Afterwards, as was typical, several Panthers went to the Monroe Street apartment to spend the night, including Hampton and Deborah Johnson (also known as Akua Njeri), Blair Anderson, Ronald "Doc" Satchell, Harold Bell, Verlina Brewer, Louis Truelock, Brenda Harris, and Mark Clark. Upon arrival, they were met by O'Neal, who had prepared a late dinner, which the group ate around midnight. O'Neal had slipped the barbiturate sleep agent, secobarbitol, into a drink that Hampton consumed during the dinner, in order to sedate Hampton so he would not awaken during the subsequent raid. O'Neal left at this point, and, at about 1:30 a.m., December 4, Hampton fell asleep mid-sentence talking to his mother on the telephone. Although Hampton was not known to take drugs, Cook County chemist Eleanor Berman would report that she ran two separate tests which each showed evidence of barbiturates in Hampton's blood. An FBI chemist would later fail to find similar traces, but Berman stood by her findings.
The raid was organized by the office of Cook County State's Attorney Edward Hanrahan, using officers attached to his office. Hanrahan had recently been the subject of a large amount of public criticism by Hampton, who had made speeches about how Hanrahan's talk about a "war on gangs" was really rhetoric used to enable him to carry out a "war on black youth". At 4:00 a.m., the heavily armed police team arrived at the site, divided into two teams, eight for the front of the building and six for the rear. At 4:45 a.m., they stormed into the apartment. Mark Clark, sitting in the front room of the apartment with a shotgun in his lap, was on security duty. He was shot in the chest and died instantly. His gun fired a single round which was later determined to be caused by a reflexive death convulsion after the raiding team shot him; this was the only shot the Panthers fired. Automatic gunfire then converged at the head of the south bedroom where Hampton slept, unable to awaken as a result of the barbiturates the FBI infiltrator had slipped into his drink. He was lying on a mattress in the bedroom with his fiancée, who was nine months pregnant with their child. Two officers found him wounded in the shoulder, and fellow Black Panther Harold Bell reported that he heard the following exchange:
Two shots were heard, which were later discovered were fired point blank in Hampton's head. According to Johnson, one officer then said:
Hampton's body was dragged into the doorway of the bedroom and left in a pool of blood. The officers then directed their gunfire towards the remaining Panthers, who had been sleeping in the north bedroom (Satchel, Anderson, and Brewer). Verlina Brewer, Ronald "Doc" Satchel, Blair Anderson, and Brenda Harris were seriously wounded, then beaten and dragged into the street, where they were arrested on charges of aggravated assault and the attempted murder of the officers. They were each held on US$100,000 bail.
Hampton's fiancée, Deborah Johnson, was sleeping next to him when the police raid began. She was forcibly removed from the room by the police officers while Hampton lay unconscious in bed. The seven Panthers who survived the raid were indicted by a grand jury on charges of attempted murder, armed violence, and various other weapons charges. These charges were subsequently dropped. During the trial, the Chicago Police Department claimed that the Panthers were the first to fire shots; however, a later investigation found that the Chicago police fired between ninety and ninety-nine shots while the Panthers had only shot once. After the raid, the apartment was left unguarded, which allowed the Panthers to send some members to investigate. They were accompanied by a videographer and the footage was later released in the 1971 documentary The Murder of Fred Hampton. After a break-in at an FBI office in Pennsylvania, the existence of COINTELPRO, an illegal counter-intelligence program, was brought to light. The awareness of this program caused many to suspect that the police raid and the shooting of Fred Hampton were parts of the program's initiative. One of the documents that were released after the break-in was a floor plan of Hampton's apartment. Another document outlined a deal the FBI brokered with the deputy attorney general to conceal the FBI's role in the assassination of Hampton and the existence of COINTELPRO.
At a press conference the next day, the police announced the arrest team had been attacked by the "violent" and "extremely vicious" Panthers and had defended themselves accordingly. In a second press conference on December 8, the assault team was praised for their "remarkable restraint", "bravery", and "professional discipline" for not killing all the Panthers present. Photographic evidence was presented of "bullet holes" allegedly made by shots fired by the Panthers, but this was soon challenged by reporters (although the Chicago Tribune initially published these photos in support of the police action). An internal investigation was undertaken, and the assault team was exonerated of any wrongdoing. Hampton's funeral was attended by 5,000 people, and he was eulogized by black leaders, such 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." On December 6, members of the Weather Underground destroyed numerous police vehicles in a retaliatory bombing spree at 3600 N. Halsted Street, Chicago.
The police described their raid as a "shootout". The Black Panthers countered Hanrahan's claim of a "shoot out" by describing it as a "shoot-in", not a shootout, because all but one bullet were fired by the police. A firestorm erupted on December 11 and 12 between the two competing daily newspapers, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times. At that time, the Chicago Tribune was considered the politically conservative newspaper, and the Chicago Sun-Times was considered the politically liberal newspaper. On December 11, the Chicago Tribune published a page 1 article titled, "Exclusive – Hanrahan, Police Tell Panther Story." The article included photographs supplied by Hanrahan’s office that depicted bullet holes in a thin white curtain and door jamb as evidence that the Panthers fired multiple bullets at the police. The firestorm was triggered in part by Jack Challem, editor of the Wright College News, the student newspaper at Wright Junior College in Chicago. Challem visited the Hampton apartment on Saturday, December 6, and took numerous photographs. The house was not sealed as a crime scene, and a member of the Black Panthers was allowing visitors to tour the apartment. Challem's photographs did not show any bullet holes. On the morning of December 12, after the Chicago Tribune article was published, Challem contacted a reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times, showed him the photographs, and encouraged him to visit the apartment. That evening, the Chicago Sun-Times published a page 1 article with the headline: "Those 'bullet holes' aren't." According to the article, the alleged bullet holes (supposedly the result of the Panthers shooting in the direction of the police) were nail heads.
But Challem’s story and photographs, published in the Wright College News, tell a different story and pose unanswered questions. First, there were no nail heads (or bullet holes) in his photographs. The implication, though speculative, is that someone tampered with the crime scene between December 6 and December 12 to make it appear as though the "nail heads" were innocently mistaken as "bullet holes." Second, it is difficult, if not impossible, to photograph a bullet hole in a thin white curtain without retouching the photograph, another sign that evidence had been tampered with. Four weeks after witnessing Hampton's death at the hands of the police, Deborah Johnson gave birth to Fred Hampton Jr. Civil rights activists Roy Wilkins and Ramsey Clark (styled as "The Commission of Inquiry into the Black Panthers and the Police") subsequently alleged that the Chicago police had killed Fred Hampton without justification or provocation and had violated the Panthers' constitutional rights against unreasonable search and seizure. "The Commission" further alleged that the Chicago Police Department had imposed a summary punishment on the Panthers. The federal grand jury did not return any indictment against anyone involved with the planning or execution of the raid. The officers involved in the raid were cleared by a grand jury of any crimes. The FBI informant, William O'Neal, committed suicide in 1990 after admitting his involvement in setting up the raid.
Shortly afterwards, Cook County coroner Andrew Toman began forming a special six member coroner's jury to hold an inquest into the deaths of Hampton and Clark. On December 23, Toman announced four additions to the jury which included two African-American men: physician Theodore K. Lawless and attorney Julian B. Wilkins, the son of J. Ernest Wilkins, Sr. He stated the four were selected from a group of candidates submitted to his office by groups and individuals representing both Chicago's black and white communities. Civil rights leaders and spokesmen for the black community were reported to have been disappointed with the selection. An official with the Chicago Urban League said: "I would have had more confidence in the jury if one of them had been a black man who has a rapport with the young and the grass roots in the community." Gus Savage said that such a man to whom the community could relate need not be black. The jury eventually included a third black man who was a member of the first coroner's jury sworn in on December 4.
The blue-ribbon panel convened for the inquest on January 6, 1970 and on January 21 ruled the deaths of Hampton and Clark to be justifiable homicide. The jury qualified their verdict on the death of Hampton as "based solely and exclusively on the evidence presented to this inquisition"; police and expert witness provided the only testimony during the inquest. Jury foreman James T. Hicks stated that they could not consider the charges of the Black Panthers in the apartment who stated that the police entered the apartment shooting; those who survived the raid were reported to have refused to testify during the inquest because they faced criminal charges of attempted murder and aggravated assault during the raid. Attorneys for the Hampton and Clark families also did not introduce any witnesses during the proceedings, but described the inquest as "a well-rehearsed theatrical performance designed to vindicate the police officers". State's Attorney Edward Hanrahan said the verdict was recognition "of the truthfulness of our police officers' account of the events".
Released on May 15, 1970, the reports of a federal grand jury criticized the actions of the police, the surviving Black Panthers, and the Chicago news media. The grand jury stated that the police department's raid was "ill conceived" and that there were many errors committed during the post-raid investigation and reconstruction of the events, that the refusal of the surviving Black Panthers to cooperate hampered the investigation, and that the press "improperly and grossly exaggerated stories".
In 1970, a $47.7 million lawsuit was filed on behalf of the survivors and the relatives of Hampton and Clark stating that the civil rights of the Black Panther members were violated. Twenty-eight defendants were named, including Hanrahan as well as the City of Chicago, Cook County, and federal governments. The following trial lasted 18 months and was reported to have been the longest federal trial up to that time. After its conclusion in 1977, Judge Joseph Sam Perry of United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois dismissed the suit against 21 of the defendants prior to jury deliberations. Perry dismissed the suit against the remaining defendants after jurors deadlocked. In 1979, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago stated that the government had withheld relevant documents thereby obstructing the judicial process. Reinstating the case against 24 of the defendants, the Court of Appeals ordered a new trial. The Supreme Court of the United States heard an appeal but voted 5-3 in 1980 to return the case to the District Court for a new trial.
In 1982, the City of Chicago, Cook County, and the federal government agreed to a settlement in which each would pay $616,333 to a group of nine plaintiffs, including the mothers of Hampton and Clark. The $1.85 million settlement was believed to be the largest ever in a civil rights case. G. Flint Taylor, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said: "The settlement is an admission of the conspiracy that existed between the F.B.I. and Hanrahan's men to murder Fred Hampton." An Assistant United States Attorney, Robert Gruenberg, stated that the settlement was intended to avoid another costly trial and was not an admission of guilt or responsibility.
The allegation that Hampton was assassinated has been debated since the day he and Clark were killed in the police raid. Ten days afterward, Bobby Rush, then the deputy minister of defense for the Illinois Black Panther party, called the raiding party an "execution squad". Despite the settlements, controversy remained as to whether the men died in an exchange of gunfire with police or were intentionally slain.
Michael Newton is among those authors which have stated that Hampton was assassinated. In his 2016 book Unsolved Civil Rights Murder Cases, 1934-1970, Newton asserts that Hampton "was murdered in his sleep by Chicago police with FBI collusion."
According to a 1969 Chicago Tribune report, "The raid ended the promising political career of Cook County State's Atty. Edward V. Hanrahan, who was indicted but cleared with 13 other law-enforcement agents on charges of obstructing justice. Bernard Carey, a Republican, defeated him in the next election, in part because of the support of outraged black voters." The families of Hampton and Clark filed a US$47.7 million civil suit against the city, state, and federal governments. The case went to trial before Federal Judge J. Sam Perry. After more than 18 months of testimony and at the close of the Plaintiff's case, Judge Perry dismissed the case. The Plaintiffs appealed and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed, ordering the case to be retried. More than a decade after the case had been filed, the suit was finally settled for $1.85 Million. The two families each shared in the settlement. Jeffrey Haas, who, together with his law partners G. Flint Taylor and Dennis Cunningham and attorney James D. Montgomery, were the attorneys for the plaintiffs in the federal suit Hampton v. Hanrahan, wrote in his book about Hampton's death that Chicago was worse off without Hampton:
|“||Of course, there's also the legacy that, without a young leader, I think the West Side of Chicago degenerated a lot into drugs. And without leaders like Fred Hampton, I think the gangs and the drugs became much more prevalent on the West Side. He was an alternative to that. He talked about serving the community, talked about breakfast programs, educating the people, community control of police. So I think that that's unfortunately another legacy of Fred's murder.||”|
In 1990, the Chicago City Council unanimously passed a resolution, introduced by then-Alderman Madeline Haithcock, commemorating December 4, 2004, as "Fred Hampton Day in Chicago". The resolution read in part: "Fred Hampton, who was only 21 years old, made his mark in Chicago history not so much by his death as by the heroic efforts of his life and by his goals of empowering the most oppressed sector of Chicago's Black community, bringing people into political life through participation in their own freedom fighting organization."
A public pool was named in his honor in his home town of Maywood, Illinois. In March 2006, supporters of Hampton's charity work proposed the naming of a Chicago street in honor of the former Black Panther leader. Chicago's chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police opposed this effort. On Saturday September 7, 2007, a bust of Hampton was erected outside the Fred Hampton Family Aquatic Center.
In response to the killings of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in December 1969, on May 21, 1970, the Weather Underground issued a "Declaration of War" against the United States government, using for the first time its new name, the "Weather Underground Organization" (WUO); they also adopted fake identities, and decided to pursue covert activities only. These initially included preparations for a bombing of a U.S. military non-commissioned officers' dance at Fort Dix, New Jersey, in what Brian Flanagan said had been intended to be "the most horrific hit the United States government had ever suffered on its territory".
We've known that our job is to lead white kids into armed revolution. We never intended to spend the next five to twenty-five years of our lives in jail. Ever since SDS became revolutionary, we've been trying to show how it is possible to overcome frustration and impotence that comes from trying to reform this system. Kids know the lines are drawn: revolution is touching all of our lives. Tens of thousands have learned that protest and marches don't do it. Revolutionary violence is the only way.
A 27-minute documentary entitled Death of a Black Panther: The Fred Hampton Story was used as evidence in the civil suit. Although Hampton had criticized the predominantly white Weather Underground (also known as the Weathermen) two months earlier for being "adventuristic, masochistic and Custeristic", Bernardine Dohrn of the Weathermen, which had a close relationship with the Black Panthers in Chicago at the time of Hampton's death, said in the documentary The Weather Underground (2002) that the killing of Fred Hampton caused them to "be more grave, more serious, more determined to raise the stakes, and not just be the white people who wrung their hands when black people were being murdered." Much of the first half of "A Nation of Law?", Eyes on the Prize episode 12, chronicles the leadership and extrajudicial killing of Fred Hampton. The events of Hampton's rise to prominence, J. Edgar Hoover's targeting of him, and Hampton's subsequent death are also recounted with footage in the 2015 documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.
Haas wrote an account of Hampton's death, entitled The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther (2009). Stephen King refers to Hampton in the novel 11/22/63 (2012), where a character discusses the ripple effect of traveling back in time to prevent President John F. Kennedy's assassination, which the character postulates would give rise to a series of events that could prevent Fred Hampton's assassination as well.
Artists that have mentioned Hampton in their music include:
Son of a Panther that the government shot dead Back in twelve four, nineteen sixty-nine Four o'clock in the mornin', it's terrible but it's fine, 'cause Fred Hampton Jr. looks just like him Walks just like him, talks just like him And it might be frightenin' the Feds and the snitches To see him organize the gang brothers and sisters".
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