Fred Hampton in 1969
Fred Hampton in 1969 Credit: Paul Sequeira

The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther Jeffrey Haas (Lawrence Hill)

Maybe we all have points at which our consciousness changes and we cannot return to our former path. For many political activists, that dividing line occurred in the late 1960s. We were fed up with a system that thrived on war, racism, and patriarchy. We were young people who at first hadn’t understood why the United States was waging war in Vietnam but who by 1969 believed that it was endemic to an unjust system we felt compelled to stop or overthrow.

I was part of a small group of lawyers who wanted to get involved. Fred Hampton was the young chairman of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party. In the spring of 1969, after Hampton recruited some of our members to help with the party’s legal problems, we made the decision to form the People’s Law Office, an independent practice that would represent Hampton and the movement as a whole.

In the early morning hours of December 4, 1969, Hampton and Mark Clark were assassinated in a raid conducted by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office in conjunction with the Chicago police and the FBI. Our fledgling practice sued the government on behalf of the victims’ families and the survivors of the raid. It was 13 years before the case was settled, for $1.85 million, coming in equal parts from the city, county, and federal governments. I’ve now left the PLO, but for the last 40 years it has continued to represent victims of abuse and misconduct by police and other government officials.

The Hampton and Clark families and the survivors of the raid are being honored at an event on November 5 at the law school at Northwestern University, where Fred spoke to the students and faculty exactly 40 years ago. It includes a reading, a discussion by a panel of scholars and writers moderated by Bernardine Dohrn, and a public reception.

What follows is an edited excerpt of my new book, The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther, about the murder, the government’s cover-up, and the survivors’ pursuit of justice. —Jeffrey Haas

In 1966 Fred Hampton was a high school senior working on his own version of black empowerment. He was campaigning for more black teachers and administrators at his school, Proviso East, and he set up a black cultural center in Maywood with a black history section. During this period two young Californians were similarly engaged. They demanded more black administrators and black history courses at Merritt College in Oakland, California. One was 24-year-old Huey Newton; the other was 30-year-old Bobby Seale.

Newton and Seale worked at the North Oakland Poverty Center. They went door-to-door asking residents what they needed and wanted. The information gleaned became the basis of the “Ten Point Program” when they formed the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense later that year. . . .

The party urged members to arm themselves, which was legal in California as long as the weapons were not concealed. Panthers followed Oakland police cars around the ghetto to monitor their treatment of black citizens. This outraged the Oakland Police Department and gave the Panthers immediate visibility. Incidents of police brutality decreased substantially during their patrols, increasing acceptance of the Panthers by the black community.

In Chicago Fred Hampton also spoke out against police brutality. As the leader of the NAACP Youth Chapter, he originally marched for raises of police salaries to get more professional police in Maywood. Later he pushed to make the police more accountable and to give Maywood citizens the power to fire brutal cops. . . .

In May 1967, 30 Oakland Panthers, 24 men and six women, went to the California legislature in Sacramento carrying rifles to dramatize their right of self-defense and to protest pending legislation that would overturn the law allowing people to carry unconcealed weapons. The photos and TV images of the armed Panthers in leather jackets and black berets at the capitol steps was a shot heard round the world. Seale and many of the other Panthers ended up with six-month sentences for “conspiracy to disturb the peace,” and Panther chapters started up in Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York, and Detroit.

Hampton (right) and Bobby Rush in 1969
Hampton (right) and Bobby Rush in 1969Credit: Paul Sequeira

Black militancy was on the rise in Chicago as well. In the fall of 1967, Hampton and Bill Ivory, a respected dentist and NAACP member, addressed a Maywood rally of more than a hundred young people. Fred urged his listeners to come to the Maywood Village Board meeting the next night to press their demands for a public swimming pool and recreational center.

A large crowd, mostly young blacks, went to the meeting, but not all were allowed inside. Fred urged the board to find a larger space or let those outside come in, even if they had to stand. The Maywood police panicked, tear-gassing those outside. Angered by the police reaction, the young people left the village hall and ran down Fifth Avenue, Maywood’s main street, breaking store windows and threatening passersby.

Though they were inside the village hall when the violence took place, Hampton and Bill Ivory were arrested and charged with mob action because of their speeches the night before. Fred was in jail for three days before he could post the $500 bail. . . .

After the board meeting, Fred was targeted by the Maywood police and arrested on several occasions for technical traffic violations. He eventually stopped driving to avoid the harassment. The local police weren’t the only ones watching Fred Hampton. After his arrest for mob action, he was put on the FBI’s Key Agitator Index, a list of activists that FBI director J. Edgar Hoover ordered agents to monitor closely. . . .

[Documents I’ve obtained since I finished the book show that Hoover reported to the White House, the CIA, the secretary of state, and the U.S. Army that Fred had led the Maywood protesters through the streets breaking windows and attacking bystanders.]

Later that year Bobby Rush, then a leader in the Chicago chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and now an Illinois congressman, went to Oakland, where he met with the Panther Central Committee. Rush returned with a mandate to form a Panther chapter in Chicago. The first person he recruited was Hampton, and they opened the Chicago office in November 1968. In four years Fred had evolved from organizing for black homecoming queens to becoming chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers.

Following the Oakland Panthers’ lead, Fred set up a local Breakfast for Children Program, providing free hot breakfasts for kids before school, and then expanded it beyond its first site, the Better Boys Foundation, to several other locations. Securing the food from merchants, getting it prepared and delivered to the kitchens, supervising the kids eating before school, and cleaning up afterward was major work for many of the Panther cadre. The rest of the day was often spent selling Panther newspapers, interviewing people and filling out questionnaires on their needs and priorities, getting petitions for community control of police signed, attending political education classes, and maintaining the office. . . .

Fred went from site to site working at the breakfast programs and talking to the kids and their parents about what the Black Panther Party was trying to do for the community. Kids were taught revolutionary songs. Parents were asked to participate in the programs, although it was not a requirement for their kids to get fed. In one of his later speeches, Fred said:

“The pigs say, ‘Well the Breakfast for Children Program is a socialistic program, it’s a communistic program.’ And the women say, ‘I don’t know if I like communism. I don’t know if I like socialism. But I know that the Breakfast for Children Program feeds my kids.’ A lot of people think the Breakfast for Children Program is charity. But what does it do? It takes the people from a stage to another stage. Any program that’s revolutionary is an advancing program. Revolution is change. Honey, if you just keep on changing, before you know it—in fact, you don’t have to know what it is—they’re endorsing it, they’re participating in it, and supporting socialism.”

Doc Satchel, who started Chicago’s Panther health clinic, put it another way:

“The Panthers were an armed propaganda unit that raised the contradictions, set the example, and provided the vehicle that the people could ride to revolution. We do not say the Black Panther Party will be overthrowing the government; we heighten the contradictions so the people can decide if they want to change the government.” . . .

Fred frequently spoke about how nationalism could not replace education: “You can’t build a revolution with no education. Jomo Kenyatta did this in Africa and because the people were not educated he became as much an oppressor as the people he overthrew. Look at Papa Doc Duvalier in Haiti. He got everyone to hate whites and he turned into the dictator himself. How will people end up without education?” . . .

While the Panthers’ vision of how the revolutionary struggle would actually come about was not always clearly articulated or understood, at least by me, the work of the programs and organizing was always present. They provided a reality check and a complement to the revolutionary rhetoric. . . .

Panther members in Chicago went door-to-door in many black communities to find out what peoples’ complaints and priorities were and to get signatures on petitions for community control of the police. These neighborhood activities sometimes put them in conflict with Chicago street gangs, who considered many areas their exclusive territories. The gangs were armed and organized. Sometimes they exercised their power to benefit the community. The Black P. Stone Nation, successor to the Blackstone Rangers, carried out a “no-vote” campaign on the south side to take votes away from the Democratic machine in favor of more progressive and community-oriented candidates. In 1969 members of the Black Disciples, the city’s second-largest street gang, made up the majority of demonstrators who picketed and actually halted Chicago construction projects in the Loop until they won positions for African-Americans in the building trades unions, which had been a bastion of discrimination. Fred met and worked out a treaty with Black Disciples leader David Barksdale that allowed the Panthers to organize and recruit in areas controlled by the gang.

Fred had been less successful when he’d met with the leadership of the Blackstone Rangers. One face-to-face meeting took place at the Rangers’ headquarters in Woodlawn. Fred and several other armed Panthers went to the meeting but were quickly surrounded by many better-armed Rangers, including Jeff Fort, their leader, and other representatives of the Main 21, the Rangers’ governing body. Fort told Fred he could be rich if he and the Panthers joined the Rangers’ drug operation. Fred refused: he didn’t use drugs and he and Panther policy did not allow other Panthers to use them.

The meeting ended with Fort acknowledging that the Panthers were not a rival gang but still refusing to permit them to operate in Ranger territory. The meeting lessened tensions only slightly. Nevertheless, Fred’s efforts to work with and organize gang members caused fear throughout the police and FBI. After the meeting at the Rangers’ headquarters, Chicago police, following an FBI tip, arrested a carload of armed Panthers driving away. This resulted in criminal charges against the Panthers and set off speculation that the Rangers had snitched on them. Years later we would learn that an FBI informant in the Panthers had tipped off his FBI control, who then notified the police. . . .

In October 1969, Fred was still spending some nights at his parents’ home in Maywood and some in other Panther apartments. Deborah Johnson was seven months pregnant with Fred’s baby; she and Fred wanted to live together. Despite warnings from their friends to stay in the suburbs, farther from the Chicago police, Fred and Deborah rented a small five-room apartment on the first floor of a two-flat at 2337 W. Monroe, one street over from the Panther office. It quickly became a Panther hangout. . . .

Fred and the Panthers knew that J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI as well as the local police were out to get them. Fred understood he was a marked man, but the security at the new Panther crib was irregular and haphazard. . . .

I’d worked an all-nighter and had just fallen asleep on the morning of December 4 when I heard a loud knock at the front door. Dazed, I got up and opened it. My partner Skip Andrew was standing there dressed in suit and tie. “Chairman Fred is dead,” he said. “I just got a call from Rush. The pigs vamped on the chairman’s crib this morning.”

I remained stuck on the words Chairman Fred is dead.

“Someone else was killed and a lot of people were shot. Deborah Johnson and some others are at the Wood Street police station; the people wounded are at Cook County Hospital.”

“What should I do?” I asked.

“I’m meeting Rush at the morgue, and then we’re going to the chairman’s crib,” Skip replied. “Why don’t you go to Wood Street and try to talk to some of the survivors?”

Fred Hampton dead. I had just seen him at the Panther office looking larger than life. I couldn’t imagine him motionless. On my way to the police station, I heard the news flash: “Fred Hampton and another Panther member were killed this morning in a predawn raid by police officers assigned to state’s attorney Edward Hanrahan. Hanrahan’s office indicated the officers were serving a search warrant for weapons when they were fired upon by the occupants and returned the fire.”

Why was Hanrahan the prosecutor in charge of a police raid? . . .

At Wood Street a patrolman came out from behind the counter and led me to the back of the station. He unlocked the door to a tiny, windowless interview room with a small wooden table and two wooden chairs on either side. There was a knock at the door. The patrolman unlocked it and Deborah Johnson was brought into the cramped room. This was our first meeting. She leaned over, crying and shaking, supporting herself with one hand on the table. Slowly she sat down. She looked at me guardedly, not quite fathoming who I was or why I was there.

“I’m Jeff Haas with the People’s Law Office. How are you and your baby?” I asked.

There was a pause as if she didn’t hear me, then she responded, “I wasn’t shot like a lot of the others. The pigs pushed me around, but I think my baby is OK.” She paused again. “Fred never really woke up. We were sleeping. I woke up hearing shots from the front and back. I shook Fred but he didn’t open his eyes.”

Hampton’s blood-soaked mattress at 2337 W. Monroe
Hampton’s blood-soaked mattress at 2337 W. MonroeCredit: Paul Sequeira

Deborah demonstrated how she had pushed against Fred several times trying to wake him. “At one point he sort of raised up and then lay back down again.” She repeated that he never opened his eyes. “I got on top of him to try to protect him from the gunshots. The bed was shaking from the bullets.”

She said the shooting stopped only after someone in the bedroom with her yelled, “We got a pregnant sister in here.” She told me two “pigs” came into the bedroom. One of them pulled up her nightgown and called out, “Look, we got a broad here.” Then they pulled her out into the kitchen.

Deborah stopped talking as she wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her nightgown. “Fred never really woke up,” she repeated. “He was lying there when they pulled me out of the bedroom.” She paused. Then she described two police officers going into their bedroom and hearing one of them fire two shots, followed by, “He’s good and dead now.” Deborah put her head down. A moment later she raised it suddenly and looked at me. “What can you do?” she asked.

What could I do about the horrible murder she had just described? Not knowing what to say, I asked her, “Did it look like Fred had been shot already when you were pulled out of the bedroom?”

“He didn’t have any blood on him that I could see,” she replied. “I crawled on top of him during the shooting to try to protect him.” She showed me her patterned blue- and-white nightgown. There was no blood. Deborah’s description of Fred rising up but not opening his eyes, then lying back down, seemed strange. I couldn’t understand why he appeared dazed and semiconscious when he had not been shot. “Were the men who raided the apartment in uniform?”

“No,” she said, “but they were definitely the pigs.”   

©2009 Jeffrey Haas