“If you ever think about me, and you ain’t gonna do no revolutionary act, forget about me. I don’t want myself on your mind if you’re not going to work for the people.”
– Fred Hampton
Born on August 30th, 1948, Frederick Allen Hampton was a revolutionary socialist and a prominent leader of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPP). Hampton rose to become the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the BPP, and through his skills as a leader and orator, helped create and fund coalitions of working-class and oppressed racial and/or ethnic groups across Chicago. Of this, the most notable group was the Rainbow Coalition. For his organizational efforts, in 1967, Hampton was identified by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a radical threat. On December 4th, 1969 he was brutally shot and killed in his bed as part of a planned assassination by the Chicago Police and FBI.
Hampton was born as the third child of Francis and Iberia and raised in the suburbs of southwestern Chicago. Their families farmed the lands their great-grandparents had worked on as slaves in Louisiana. And so, like many black people, his father shifted to Chicago in the 1930s, seeking employment. Growing up in the suburbs, Hampton was subjected to racial attacks, especially by rednecks. Though a talented and athletic student, he was mocked by his peers through racially charged phrases, such as “watermelon head”. Though upset, Hampton learned to defend himself through his words.
Hampton took on the role of a community leader at a young age. On the weekends, he would organize children in the neighborhood to collectively buy, cook, and distribute food since many of them did not have much to eat. This practice would be continued by the Black Panthers. As a student at Proviso East High School, he organized walkouts and a boycott for lack of diversity in teaching, administrative and leadership positions in the school. He also helped found the Maywood NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and worked to improve educational and recreational facilities for the neighbourhood’s impoverished youth. As the leader of the NAACP Youth Chapter, Hampton initially marched for raising police wages in order to get more professional police in their neighbourhood, and later to make the police more accountable by giving the citizens power to fire brutal officers.
Around the same time, Hampton became increasingly attracted to the rising national Black Panther Party’s approach, which based its praxis at the intersection of black self-determination and the economic critique of class. He was also growing further towards Malcolm X’s message of self-defense. So, in 1968, Hampton founded the Illinois and Chicago chapters of the Black Panthers (C-BPP). As a part of the organization, Hampton established a multitude of community service programs, including a free medical clinic, free breakfasts for children, and most notably, political education classes.
Hampton himself was very well-read, and carefully studied the speeches of Dr. King, Malcolm X as well as the preaching techniques of reverends in black Baptist churches. He became a charismatic public speaker, and could both instill hope and pride in working-class Chicagoans, as well as speak out against police brutality and advocate for the members to mobilize and defend their communities. His charisma and critical eye attracted people to reach across boundaries and build coalitions which included black, white, and Latino people from both welfare groups and street gangs. He also created coalitions with students, such as the Students for a Democratic Society.
In particular, he coined the phrase “Rainbow Coalition” to describe his assemblage of a broad array of politicized actors. For Hampton, the destruction of working-class unity was at the core of fighting against the racialized capitalism that America was founded upon. He stated, “When they brought slaves over here, it was to make money. So first the idea came that we want to make money, then the slaves came in order to make that money. That means, through historical fact, that racism had to come from capitalism.”
Through the Rainbow Coalition, he incorporated into the Panthers, two groups. First were the “Young Lords”, a Peurto Rican gang that would organize against the gentrification of their neighbourhoods. And second were the Young Patriots, consisting of immigrants from coal-mining families. According to Hampton, the groups had to work together for their “shared community”. This especially included educating themselves through “revolutionary education”, and arming themselves against the violence and brutality of state forces.
As Hampton’s popularity rose and the BPP publicly declared the need to take up arms to protect black communities against the police, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover vowed to prevent his development into a “Black Messiah”. Surveillance measures increased to subdue Hampton. In particular, the FBI created the “Racial Matters” squad to coordinate attacks against the C-BPP. In order to make the Panthers vulnerable, they began isolating individuals and groups, including the “Rainbow Coalition”, which was decimated in 1969. Furthermore, the Chicago police deliberately attacked C-BPP medical and food supplies marked for the needy.
The final and most profound attack on the C-BPP came with the assassination of Fred Hampton. FBI agents used an informant, William O’Neal, to acquire detailed plans on Hampton’s dwelling, which included the plan of his room and the bed he slept on. On the night of 3rd December, O’Neal drugged Hampton as part of a dinner he made for the Panthers. At 4:45 am, 4th December, Chicago police raided Hampton’s house. In the living room, they found another drugged Panther, Mark Clark, whom they shot dead immediately. Hampton had been lying unconscious next to his pregnant fiancee, a frightened Deborah Johnson, who was ordered out of the room. Deborah alleges that she heard an official claim that he was “barely alive”, immediately after which, with two shots, he was brutally killed. “He is good and dead now”, a raiding officer critically mused of the 21-year-old panther.
“When Fred was shot in Chicago, black people in particular, and decent people in general, bled everywhere”
– Jesse Jackson
Fifty years after Hampton’s death, perhaps tragically, his words continue to speak to the lives of marginalized classes, races, and castes across countries who continue to be persecuted by the same institutionalized foot soldiers of racialized capitalism. However, despite the continued efforts by mainstream media to erase or appropriate his narrative, Hampton is able to inspire radical ideas through his speeches and articulate a language for people’s movements against the very institutions that shot him down.
- Encyclopedia of African American History-Leslie M. Alexander and Walter C. Rucker
- The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther- Jeffrey Haas
- Power to the Poor: Black-Brown Coalition and the Fight for Economic Justice, 1960-1974- Gordon K. Mantler