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Born in 1948 in Chicago, IL; both parents were starch company employees;
children: Fred Hampton, Jr. Education: Attended Triton Junior
NAACP, Youth Council leader for West Suburban (Chicago) Branch,
1967-68; founded and leader of Black Panther Party, Illinois
Junior Achievement Award, 1966; "Fred Hampton Day" declared
in Chicago, 1990.
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
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
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
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 $47.7
million 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
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
Newton, Michael, Bitter Grain, Holloway House, 1980.
Search and Destroy: A Report by the Commission of Inquiry into
the Black Panthers and the Police, Metropolitan Applied Research
Center, Inc., 1973.
Chicago, November 1994, p. 100.
Jet, March 21, 1983, p. 5; December 10, 1990, p. 9.
The Nation, December 25, 1976, pp. 680-684.
New York Times, November 25, 1990, p. 24.
Biography Resource Center
© 2001, Gale Group, Inc.