Recent history has given us the likes of Mahatma Ghandi, Mikhail Gorbachev, Nelson Mandela, Betty Williams, and Martin Luther King Jr., among countless others. These people led their lives by shunning hate and embracing love.
Fred Hampton is a less known, but more than worthy companion to this group. He had the tools to effect change; the ability to communicate and the passion to execute. Here’s why Fred Hampton’s story and self should never be forgotten.
1. A Life Dedicated to Nonviolent Social Change
Hampton wasn’t interested in gathering arms and waging a revolution for change rooted through violence. He knew it’d be a vicious cycle that would never get anywhere. Instead, Hampton focused on improving and empowering the lives of those in communities he knew and loved.
He advocated to local gangs about reducing crime in favor of more productive social wars, eventually getting Chicago’s biggest gangs to agree to a non-aggression peace pact. Even when J. Edgar Hoover and COINTELPRO tried to pit Chicago’s Blackstone Rangers against the Black Panther Party (BPP), Fred won the gang’s approval.
2. He United Through Speech and Action
It’s rare for public speakers to match their words with action; it’s something we typically don’t count on.
Hampton united people with his words, then showed them the way through action. Unsurprisingly, he rose quickly in the BPP; by age 20 he had become chairman of the Illinois Chapter, and deputy chairman of the national party.
He first demonstrated his knack for community leadership as NAACP youth organizer in his hometown of Maywood, Illinois. Hampton recruited a group of over 500 from 27,000 community members with the goal of improving recreational facilities and access to more educational resources.
Hampton would later initiate social assistance programs that the Black Panthers were known for overall, such as serving 3,500 kids a week through the free breakfast program, helping to create a free medical center, starting door-to-door health services to test people for sickle cell anemia, and launching a police surveillance program. He even taught political daily 6 a.m. education classes.
He also co-founded the Rainbow Coalition during this time, a multiracial alliance group of prominent organizations like the Young Patriots, Young Lords, and later, Students for Democratic Society, Brown Berets, and the Red Guard Party.
3. Education, Not Emotion, Prior to Action
How many leaders of yesterday and today use nationalism to acquire members and rally their groups? The thing with nationalism, though, is that it appeals to the emotions. It runs the risk of being tainted with people acting for reasons they don’t fully understand. Hampton and the Panthers put education before everything. Here’s Fred Hampton speaking on the importance of education before action:
(In the clip) Hampton on the dangers of appealing to emotion over education:
[“You might get caught up in the emotion of this movement. You understand me? You might be able to get them caught up because they’re poor and they want something. And then, if they’re not educated, they’ll want more, and before you know it, they’ll be capitalists, and before you know it, we’ll have Negro imperialists.”]
4. An Unjust Killing
Fred’s fiancé, Deborah Johnson, was eight-and-a-half months pregnant when she couldn’t wake Fred up in the early morning hours of Dec 4th, 1969, even after the sound of gunfire had erupted at their west-side apartment.
An informant named William O’Neill was to blame. In addition to giving police detailed layouts of Hampton’s apartment, including where Fred and Deborah slept, he slipped a barbiturate in Hampton’s drink a few hours before the raid.
Yet after seven minutes of gunfire from 14 officers, Fred Hampton wasn’t dead. According to Deborah Johnson, when police came into the room where Fred was lying an officer said, “looks like he’ll make it,” before another officer fired two shots into Hamptons’ head followed by the words, “he’s dead now.”
Fellow Illinois Panther Mark Clark also died in the raid. Early reports claimed the Panthers started the gunfire, like this statement that was released the day of the shooting by Illinois State Attorney, Edward Hanrahan’s office:
The immediate, violent and criminal reaction of the occupants in shooting at announced police officers emphasizes the extreme viciousness of the Black Panther Party. So does their refusal to cease firing at police officers when urged to do so several times.
A federal investigation months later showed that a maximum of one shot was fired by the Panthers (which was likely a reactionary wound shot after Mark Clark took a bullet to the heart) to police’s 83–99 shots.
The raid was a coordinated effort of the FBI, the office of State Attorney Edward Hanrahan, the Chicago Police Department, and informant William O’Neill. Only O’Neill—who would later kill himself—seemed to feel any remorse at the thought of contributing to the cold-blooded murder of an exceptional man. Thankfully, Hanrahan’s involvement in the matter effectively ended his promising political career, though he unfortunately still lived a long false 88 years, dying peacefully at home.
5. Edgar Hoover Was a Pile of Trash
Hoover saw the civil rights and anti-war movement as a threat to American liberties. Under his direction, the FBI ran COINTELPRO for 15 years, but it would’ve been longer had an FBI office not been burglarized in 1971 and the program exposed.
Hoover bugged Martin Luther King Jr.’s rooms. He put Fred Hampton on the Key Agitator Index. He saw them both as messiahs who could start the revolution. Hoover has blood and constitutional violations on his hands, yet his name remains on the FBI building in D.C. The last attempt to strip his name off the building came in 2015, when Democratic Rep Steven Cohen introduced a bill arguing that, among other things, the rights Americans enjoy today are in spite of Hoover and not because of him.
We can only imagine what we’d be saying about Hampton if he was with us today. His murder is a tragic case of evil overtaking good, a despicable overreach by our government. But it’s also the wake-up call that nobody is going to be the next Fred Hampton until someone is. And that true leaders embody big-picture ideas that follow through on them through community-improving actions.
Read about more inspiring men, women, places, and moments in time, all a part of VK Nagrani’s Badass series.