Posted December 4, 2009
Forty years ago, Chicago police murdered Fred Hampton as he slept in his bedroom with his girlfriend, Deborah Johnson, 8 months pregnant. He was only 21 years old.
Despite his young age, Hampton’s energetic organizing and oratorical skills had earned him a position the leadership of the Panthers – and a target on his back from the government. The federal government, faced with a political crisis fueled by the Black freedom struggle and opposition to the Vietnam war, launched COINTELPRO, a massive program that practiced surveillance and disruption on the radical movement – and in Hampton’s case, murder.
A documentary about Hampton was being filmed when he was unexpectedly killed and released in 1971 as The Murder of Fred Hampton. You can watch it online:
Why were the Panthers so feared? Fred Hampton’s best known political victory had forged unity among the city’s racially-based street gangs, which became the original Rainbow Coalition. One of the gangs, the Puerto Rican group the Young Lords, later became an important socialist organization in its own right. He pointed to the political oppression and economic exploitation shared by each group – African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, and poor whites:
We got to face some facts. That the masses are poor, that the masses belong to what you call the lower class, and 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 do’nt fight racism with racism. We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity. We say you don’t fight capitalism with no black capitalism; you fight capitalism with socialism.
Other Panther activity at the time was a rotation of political education, agitation in the streets at rallies and newspaper sales, and “Serve the People” programs that provided meals and medical care – and pointing out the hypocrisy of the system at the same time. The routine of Panther members was rigorous and dedicated, running morning till night.
When I think about Fred Hampton, it’s always amazing to realize how much experience he had at such an early age; people listened when he spoke because his words mixed intellect with an authority of practice. His formative years in a Chicago suburb were not so different from millions of other rebellious young people. He was part of a generation of African-Americans who moved from the rural south to the industrial cities of the Midwest, experienced the injustice of American capitalism, saw the brutality and heroism of the Civil Rights movement on television, and joined the struggle themselves. Many became socialists and communists.
Some of Hampton’s earliest political organizing was in the social microcosm of high school where he successfully campaigned against whites-only Homecoming Queen pageants. With radical ferment in the air, a prominent Black political organization to join, three years later he was a nationally known revolutionary, and a year after, a target of the state.
[In other news, it’s inspiring that even without visible and militant social movements, youth rebelliousness never dies. A couple of weeks ago, a group of Black, Latino, and Vietnamese kids in the working-class suburbs of Atlanta organized 1,500 students to violate the school uniform policy – seen as an example of the “tyranny and oppression of adults” by students and an unaffordable burden by their parents. It might seem a stretch to connect this with a remembrance of Fred Hampton, but I’m of the “once a troublemaker, always a troublemaker” camp.]