To members of Chicago's African American community in the late 1960s, no leader was more inspiring, more articulate, or more effective than Fred Hampton. He organized food pantries, educational programs, and recreational outlets for impoverished children, and he helped bring about a peaceful coexistence among the city's rival street gangs. To civic leaders in Chicago, the FBI, and many others, however, he was a dangerous revolutionary leader, committed to the violent overthrow of the white-dominated system. Hampton was killed in a 1969 raid on the headquarters of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther party, in what was almost certainly a planned assassination orchestrated by Federal agents and city leaders, who feared that Hampton's influence could lead to an all-out armed uprising by the city's most disenfranchised residents.
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 $47.7M 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."