FRED HAMPTON Sr. August 30th 1948 – DECEMBER 4, 1969
Activist and deputy chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. He was assassinated while sleeping in his apartment 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 . Hampton’s murder was chronicled in the 1971 documentary film The Murder of Fred Hampton, as well as an episode of the critically acclaimed documentary series “Eyes on the Prize”.
Hampton was born on August 30, 1948, in present day Summit, Illinois and grew up in Maywood, a suburb to the west of the city. 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, having a strong desire to play center field for the New York Yankees, and graduating from Proviso East High School with honors in 1966.
Following his graduation Hampton enrolled at Triton Junior College in nearby River Grove, Illinois, majoring in pre-law. He studied law to become more familiar with the law, using it as a defense against police. He and fellow Black Panthers would follow police, watching out for police brutality using this knowledge of law as a defense. 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 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 of a mix of black self-determination and certain elements 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 National Young Lords under the leadership of Jose Cha Cha Jimenez. Later they were joined by the Students for a Democratic Society, the Blackstone Rangers, the Brown Berets and the Red Guard Party. In May 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, 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 assassination 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. It 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, and radical coalitions like that forged by Hampton in Chicago, as a frightening stepping stone toward the creation of just 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 that over the next two years expanded to twelve volumes and over four thousand pages. A wire tap was placed on Hampton’s mother’s phone in February 1968. By May of that year, Hampton’s name was placed on the “Agitator Index” and he would be designated a “key militant leader for Bureau reporting purposes.”
In late 1968, the Racial Matters squad of the FBI’s Chicago field office brought in an individual named William O’Neal, who had recently been arrested twice, for interstate car theft and impersonating a federal officer. In exchange for dropping the felony charges and a monthly stipend, O’Neal apparently 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 his investigation of the Black Panther Party (BPP) revealed that in his city, at least, the Panthers were primarily feeding breakfast to children. Hoover fired back a memo implying the career ambitions 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”.
Hoover was willing to use false claims to attack his political enemies. In one memo he wrote: “Purpose of counterintelligence action is to disrupt the BPP and it is immaterial whether facts exist to substantiate the charge.”
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 powerbase 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.” In repeated directives, J. Edgar Hoover demanded that the COINTELPRO personnel “destroy what the BBP stands for” and “eradicate its ‘serve the people’ programs”.
On July 16 there was an armed confrontation between party members and the Chicago Police Department, which left one member mortally wounded and six others arrested on serious charges.
On May 26, 1969, Hampton was successfully prosecuted in a case related to a theft in 1967 of $71 worth of Good Humor Bars in Maywood. He was sentenced to two to five years, but he managed to obtain an appeal bond and was released in August.
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. 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.
“We expected about twenty Panthers to be in the apartment when the police raided the place. Only two of those black niggers were killed, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.”
—FBI Special Agent Gregg York
The bed that Hampton was initially shot in during the raid, was filled with a large amount of blood on mattress and numerous bullet holes in the walls.
Fred Hampton was quickly moving up the ranks in the Black Panther Party, and his talent as a political organizer was 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.
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 9 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 editorial headlined “No Quarter for Wild Beasts” the Chicago Tribune urged that Chicago police be given the order to approach all Panther suspects prepared to shoot.
The FBI, determined to prevent any enhancement of the effectiveness of BPP leadership, decided to set up an arms raid on Hampton’s Chicago apartment. FBI informant William O’Neal provided them with detailed information of Hampton’s apartment, including the location of furniture and the bed in which Hampton and his then-pregnant girlfriend slept. An augmented, fourteen-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 retired to the Monroe Street apartment to spend the night, including Hampton and Deborah Johnson, Blair Anderson, 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 was eaten by the group around midnight. O’Neal had slipped the powerful barbiturate sleep agent, secobarbitol into a drink that was consumed by Hampton during the dinner in order to sedate Hampton so that he would not awaken during the subsequent raid. O’Neal left at this point, and, at about 1:30 a.m., Hampton fell asleep in 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 a powerful barbiturate had been introduced into Hampton’s blood. An FBI chemist would later fail to find similar traces, but Berman stood by her findings.
Body of Fred Hampton, after being shot twice in the head at point blank range by members of the Chicago Police Department.
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, dividing into two teams, eight for the front of the building and six for the rear. At 4:45, they stormed in the apartment.
Mark Clark, sitting in the front room of the apartment with a shotgun in his lap, was on security duty. He was killed instantly, firing off a single round which was later determined to be a reflexive reaction in his death convulsions after being shot by the raiding team; this was the only shot the Panthers fired.
Automatic gunfire then converged at the head of the bedroom where Hampton slept, unable to wake up as a result of the barbiturates that the FBI infiltrator had slipped into his drink. He was lying on a mattress in the bedroom with his pregnant girlfriend. Two officers found him wounded in the shoulder, and fellow Black Panther Harold Bell reported that he heard the following exchange:
“That’s Fred Hampton.”
“Is he dead?… Bring him out.”
“He’s barely alive.
“He’ll make it.”
Two shots were heard, which it was later discovered were fired point blank in Hampton’s head. According to Deborah Johnson, one officer then said:
“He’s good and dead now.”
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 were hiding in another bedroom. They were 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 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.”
Four weeks after witnessing Hampton’s murder 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, later committed suicide after admitting his involvement in setting up the raid.