The wave of repression unleashed on the Black liberation movement in the 1960s and 1970s by the FBI’s “Operation COINTELPRO” reached its height with a series of murderous attacks on the Black Panther Party. One of the most horrendous episodes of this onslaught took place 40 years ago. On Dec. 4, 1969, Black Panther Party leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were assassinated by police.
A powerful speaker and brilliant leader,
Fred Hampton dedicated his brief life to
In a coordinated effort between the Illinois State Attorney’s Office, Cook County Police Department, the Chicago Police Department and the FBI, a heavily armed assault was launched in the early morning hours on Fred Hampton’s residence. With a vicious sense of racist hatred and no regard for human life, the police fired their weapons at will at the wall separating the hallway from the apartment. The two revolutionaries were killed.
In the days that followed, law enforcement officials were quick to reinvent the facts. They claimed that the occupants of the apartment fired guns at police. Their story never held water. Evidence gathered from the forensic investigation and other inquiries pointed exclusively to police savagery in the attack.
The shaping of a leader
Hampton’s life was brief, but was rich in struggle.
Hampton was born in Chicago on Aug. 30, 1948. His parents originated from Hayneville, La., where sharecropping and racial injustice were common. His great-grandparents had worked on a plantation in that region under the horrors of slavery.
Like millions of African Americans, Hampton’s parents left the South during the Great Migration of the 1930s to look for a better life and flee the constant threat of racist terror. They settled in Maywood, Ill., a suburb of Chicago where they worked at the Argo Starch Company.
An event that likely affected the young Fred Hampton, much as it affected most of Chicago’s Black community, was the 1955 gruesome lynching of Emmett Till. The 14-year-old Till was visiting family in Mississippi when he was abducted and killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Till was the son of family friends and neighbors of the Hamptons.
Hampton was attracted to books, and took it upon himself to read the speeches and writings of Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Dubois, Joan Elbert, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and others. He gained a reputation for his knowledge of Black history and began to sense the need for struggle.
As a student at Proviso East High School, he noticed that most of the students who failed were Black. Hampton began to speak out against the school administration for not providing tutoring and remedial programs for students. He was also critical of the fact that the faculty and administration were all white when one-fourth of the student body was Black.
Hampton challenged the school’s exclusive racist practice of nominating only white girls to compete for “Miss Homecoming Queen.” He organized a protest, walk-out and school boycott. As a result, the following year Black female students were included in this contest.
Fred Hampton was respected by white and Black students alike. The year after he graduated from Proviso East, a school administrator requested his help to calm racial tensions among students.
At Triton Junior College, he studied law as a defense against police brutality aimed at the Black community. He joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and became the leader of its youth council at the West Suburban branch, galvanizing a membership of 500.
While Hampton was in the NAACP, the Black Panther Party was opening chapters across the country and becoming a prominent force in the Black liberation struggle. Hampton began to absorb and understand the revolutionary content of the Panthers’ political perspective, and joined. He soon demonstrated his leadership abilities and became deputy chairman of the party’s Illinois chapter.
His disposition and skills as a speaker earned Hampton a moral authority. His political achievements included brokering peace with the supposed “street gangs” of Chicago, amongst them the Puerto Rican group the Young Lords. Hampton was instrumental in transforming the Young Lords into a revolutionary political organization.
Hampton valued the need for a multinational revolutionary struggle, and organized the original Rainbow Coalition comprised of the I Wor Kuen of the Asian community, the Brown Berets of the Mexican community, the poor white workers of the Young Patriots, the Young Lords and the Black Panthers. The Black Panther Party set standards for waging struggle. Their enthusiastic projection of socialism allowed many to envision its relevance to African Americans and other oppressed nationalities.
The white, racist U.S. ruling class was appalled. How dare the descendents of African slaves call themselves socialists and aim to achieve Black people’s right to reparations! Even more daring was the Black Panther Party’s call for the overthrow of capitalism—a demand the ruling class could never tolerate. Their ability to forge unity in struggle was a threat in itself.
All this was happening while resentment for the war in Vietnam was on the rise. The men of privilege and wealth, with a stake in preserving the imperialist system, grew apprehensive the more it became apparent that a mass revolutionary movement was arising.
These circumstances compelled the government to destroy the Black Panther Party.
‘The greatest threat to national security’
Operation COINTELPRO, an acronym for Counter Intelligence Program, was established in the mid-1950s to deter the development of any movement deemed a threat to the existing social, economic and political order. It remained secret until 1971, when anti-repression activists broke into an FBI field office in Media, Pa., and confiscated files revealing the hidden operation.
As the Civil Rights movement advanced—galvanizing strength from all sectors of the population, breaking the despicable Jim Crow laws and compelling the U.S. Congress to pass other progressive legislation—the FBI increasingly turned its attention to the Black liberation struggle.
The Black Panther Party openly advocated for socialist revolution, and openly supported the Chinese and Cuban revolutions. The Panthers’ breakfast program for children, among other social programs, underlined their commitment to meet the needs of communities that received nothing but oppression and neglect from the government.
The staunch anti-capitalist stance of these young revolutionaries who declared themselves Marxist-Leninists made them the target of the most ruthless, racist elements in power. On numerous occasions, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover expressed a special disdain for the Black struggle, particularly towards Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Many were not surprised when Hoover declared the Black Panther Party “the greatest threat to national security.”
The slanderous editorials against the Panthers in the capitalist-owned mass media, combined with Hoover’s frequent verbal attacks, reflected the wishes of the ruling class who sought the complete destruction of the Black Panther Party and the ideals it embodied. Internal FBI memos show that the government had a special interest in Hampton’s political activities and his associations; Chicago police were encouraged by the FBI to find a way to lock up Hampton.
Prior to Hampton’s death, police raided the Panthers’ Chicago office on three separate occasions. William O’Neal, Fred Hampton’s bodyguard, was a police informant who was instructed to draw up a floor plan of the targeted apartment weeks earlier. Law enforcement used the information gathered by O’Neal to murder Hampton.
Hampton’s murder was part of a pattern of police raids, false imprisonment and executions of Black Panthers. COINTELPRO documents proved that assassination of Black leaders was among its aims. Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party had to be eliminated simply because they had touched upon capitalism’s greatest weakness—the decisiveness and strength that a multi-national movement has in a battle against this system.
The Black Panther Party arose from the struggles of the African American people, historically the most oppressed and exploited group in the United States. They symbolized hope and received the greatest affection. They attributed Black oppression to the capitalist system, and dared to pick up arms against the state. The militancy and defiance of these young revolutionaries deeply impacted the Civil Rights and socialist movements.
Hampton and the Black Panthers believed all would benefit if the banner of the struggle against racism and national oppression was taken up by the white masses as their own. Hampton knew that it was possible to smash the racial barriers created by capitalism to divide and conquer the working class. His confidence was based on the strong belief that this system provides a motive for all to unite and engage in revolutionary struggle.
Long live the memory of Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party!