Fred Hampton joined the Black Panther party (BPP) in late 1967 following a history of political involvement with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
What made Hampton move away from the established and comparatively respectable NAACP to the highly controversial and demonised BPP? For Hampton, it was a recognition of the need not simply to campaign against racism, but actually to fight for something: socialism.
The BPP understood that racism was merely a symptom of a far greater illness in the USA, namely, capitalism.
As Hampton said in 1969: “When I talk about the masses, I’m talking about the white masses, I’m talking about the black masses, and the brown masses, and the yellow masses, too. We’ve got to face the fact that some people say you fight fire best with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water.
“We say you don’t fight racism with racism. We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity. We say you don’t fight capitalism with black capitalism; you fight capitalism with socialism.”
This political awareness, and rejection of non-violence, made the BPP ‘public enemy number one’ for the FBI. The infamous Cointelpro (Counter-intelligence programme) pumped millions of dollars into undermining and decimating the BPP leadership.
Arrests and intimidation played their part in removing the more experienced cadres from BPP activity, but they also brought Hampton to prominence in Chicago. The FBI’s Racial Matters Squad opened a file on Hampton in 1967, which, during the last two years of his life, expanded into 12 volumes, some 4,000 pages! Clearly, his leadership qualities and political abilities were not only acknowledged by his peers.
Fred Hampton was a gifted organiser, and was almost successful in reforming Chicago’s biggest street gangs and recruiting them into the BPP. That he did not ultimately succeed in this endeavour was due entirely to the machinations of the FBI, who used paid informants to spread dissension between the gangs and the party.
He did, however, provide crucial leadership to Puerto Rican revolutionaries, enabling them to turn the Young Lords from a street gang into a revolutionary organisation sympathetic to Marxism-Leninism.
Hampton’s goal of politicising the street gangs and engaging them in community work ran contrary to the interests of the US authorities, and the FBI’s Chicago BPP infiltrator William O’Neal personally instigated an armed clash between the party and the Blackstone Rangers gang.
Reducing the influence of the Panthers was high on the agenda of the FBI, and its boss, J Edgar Hoover, himself took a personal interest in ensuring that Cointelpro destroyed “what the [BPP] stands for”.
This meant taking action against the Panthers’ Serve the People programmes, such as free breakfasts for school children. Additionally, BPP literature and newspapers were targeted, in an attempt to stop the party’s political message being transmitted. Racist cartoons were printed and ascribed to the BPP in an attempt to alienate its white supporters.
Indeed, the message of the BPP, along with Hampton’s charisma and ability to spread the idea of socialism and communism within the black community, was what singled the party out for special repression from the US government.
Tacit support was given to cultural nationalist groups who preached black chauvinism and separatism, as this only served further to divide America’s workers, and black activists in particular. “Racism is a by-product of capitalism,” he said.
To Hampton, education was key, and programmes were only effective to the extent that they were understood by the people. He cited examples such as Papa Doc’s Haiti, and African states where colonialism had been replaced by neo-colonialism, stressing that for the proletariat it matters not what colour the exploiter’s skin is.
As Hampton explained, people joining the BPP from a background of poverty might not understand the ultimate goal of “a communistic state”. Without political education, those who joined the party because they “wanted something” would find themselves wanting more. This would lead the revolutionary movement to capitalism, and “before you know it, you’ve got Negro imperialists”.
Hampton was not scared to use the terms socialism and communism, as he explained to those who were benefiting from the BPP free health clinics and food for kids programmes: “They’re endorsing it, they’re participating in it, and they’re supporting socialism.” “They [the police] can call it communism, and think that that’s gonna scare somebody, but it ain’t gonna scare nobody.”
To those who believed the McCarthy era propaganda against socialism, Hampton said: “Socialism is the people! If you’re afraid of socialism, you’re afraid of yourself!”
Just a few days before his murder, the BPP published an article by Hampton about a speaking tour he and other comrades had made to Canada, in which he expressed his particular support for the Korean revolutionary leader, Comrade Kim Il Sung:
“Every campus that we spoke on we were heckled by the same pigs. They tried to start fights at two of the campuses but they were unsuccessful. The pigs even got up and took a very strong position against Kim Il Sung.
“We knew very well, when they took that anti-position, that Eldridge [Cleaver] and the leadership of our party were definitely on the right line in following the teachings of the great leader of north Korea, Kim Il Sung.” (Deputy Chairman Fred Hampton on Canada, Black Panther: Black Community News, 29 November 1969)
Fred Hampton was a dedicated revolutionary who studied theory and carried this through into everyday action. Throughout 1969, he maintained a demanding speaking schedule; he organised weekly rallies in support of BPP members in jail or on trial.
He worked with volunteers and party members in organising a free ‘people’s clinic’ in Chicago’s west side, whilst organising and teaching political education classes at the BPP ‘liberation school’. And all this was on top of helping out at the Breakfast for Children programme each morning from 6.00am.
Following the established party model, Hampton also instigated a Community Control of the Police project, in order to remind the police that they were public servants, and not above the law.
In November 1969, Hampton was appointed to the BPP central committee as chief of staff and also gave a lecture to UCLA law students in California. This was all reported by FBI infiltrator O’Neal, whose bosses were clearly unhappy.
The Chicago chapter of the BPP was becoming one of the strongest in the country, and, despite all attempts to derail it, its Serve the People programme was by far one of the most successful.
O’Neal’s FBI handler, Special Agent Mitchell, decided drastic action was necessary to eliminate the threat that Hampton posed. A detailed floorplan of Hampton’s apartment was drawn up, and an illegal weapons raid was planned.
Initially, the Chicago Police’s ‘Gang Intelligence Unit’ was to handle the raid under the misinformation that the BPP was responsible for the deaths of two of its officers. However, the GIU’s head Thomas Lyons correctly intervened, since there was no evidence at all to link either Hampton or the BPP to the aforementioned killings.
This did not stop Mitchell finding those who would cooperate, however. This time, it was the Special Prosecutions Unit, which assembled a 14-man team for the raid, equipped with pistols, carbines, and even a Thompson sub-machine gun.
At 4.30am on 4 December 1969, the raid took place. The apartment was used that night not only by Hampton and his pregnant partner but also by several BPP members who were ‘crashing’ there for the night, O’Neal having left at 1.30am.
The raid began with the front door to the apartment being kicked open, and the man nearest the door, Mark Clark, being shot point-blank in the chest with a .30 calibre M1 Carbine (a battlefield weapon used by US paratroops during the second world war).
Clark had been sleeping with a shotgun across his lap, and upon being shot his weapon discharged. The Panthers fired no other shots during the raid.
The same policeman who had shot Clark then proceeded to shoot the unarmed 18-year-old Brenda Davis, who was then shot by a second officer. The policemen unleashed automatic fire from the Thompson sub-machine gun through the walls into the bedrooms beyond, with 42 rounds converging on the spot where O’Neal had informed them would be the head of Hampton’s bed.
Amazingly, Hampton was hit just once in the left shoulder by this barrage, although it was a serious wound.
A second team of policemen entered through the rear of the apartment, again shooting as they entered. There then followed a lull in the firing, during which the following exchange took place between two officers, as testified to by surviving witnesses:
“That’s Fred Hampton …”
“Is he dead? Bring him out.”
“He’s barely alive; he’ll make it.”
Two shots were then fired, followed by one of the officers announcing: “He’s good and dead now.”
Fred Hampton, aged 21, had been asleep when first hit, and, as he lay prone on the floor, was shot twice at point-blank range in the head. His body was then dragged into the doorway in a pool of blood.
The police opened fire on the remaining bedroom, hitting several Panthers repeatedly. The survivors were beaten, dragged into the street, and arrested on a charge of the attempted murder of the police officers who had carried out the raid, and aggravated assault.
The survivors were assigned bail of $100,000 each, yet five months later all charges against them were dropped.
The official investigation into the shootings was a farce, and it was left up to the survivors and the BPP to pursue a civil case against the SPU and the FBI. Finally, in 1983, it was acknowledged that there “had in fact been an active governmental conspiracy to deny Hampton, Clark and the BPP plaintiffs their civil rights”.
Damages of $1.85m were awarded to the survivors and the families of the deceased. The organisers and perpetrators of the assassination of Fred Hampton served not one day for the offence, and, by the time it was acknowledged by the US justice system, the Cointelpro programme had served its purpose in destroying the BPP from the inside.
What set Fred Hampton apart from so many other would-be revolutionaries of the late 1960s was his dedication to both theory and practice. It was this that made him such a dangerous adversary of the US bourgeoisie.
Comrade Hampton was not manipulated by the racism he suffered and witnessed. He was not blinded by hate or prejudice, but rather he was motivated by the true spirit of proletarian internationalism: a love of the people.
In 1968, Hampton clarified the distinction between reaction and revolution with the following statement:
“You know, a lot of people have hang-ups with the party because the party talks about a class struggle. We say primarily that the priority of this struggle is class. That Marx and Lenin and Che Guevara and Mao Zedong and anybody else that has ever said or knew or practised anything about revolution always said that a revolution is a class struggle.
“It was one class – the oppressed, and that other class – the oppressor. And it’s got to be a universal fact. Those that don’t admit to that are those that don’t want to get involved in a revolution, because they know as long as they’re dealing with a race thing, they’ll never be involved in a revolution.”
The saying most often associated with Fred Hampton is: “You can kill a revolutionary, but you cannot kill a revolution. You can jail a liberation fighter, but you cannot jail liberation.”
Fred Hampton Jnr was born a few months after his father’s murder. He, too, is active in the African-American revolutionary movement and has spent almost nine years in jail on politically-related charges.
He is currently the chairman of the Prisoners of Conscience Committee.