During the civil rights era, the FBI conspired to destroy Black activists and the Black Panther Party. Part of this plan was the assassination of Panther leader Fred Hampton.
While the story of Hampton’s assassination is not as well-known as that of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, President John F. Kennedy or Robert Kennedy, it illustrates just how much the government worked to demolish the push for the rights of Black people.
Here are 10 things to know about the U.S. government’s attack on Hampton and the Black Panthers.
It was Dec. 4, 1969. Fourteen Chicago police officers executed a predawn raid on an apartment that left Illinois Black Panther Party leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark dead, several other young Panthers wounded, and seven raid survivors arrested on trumped-up attempted murder charges.
The police claimed there had been a shootout that morning but the physical evidence ultimately proved that in reality, the Panthers fired a single shot in response to approximately 90 shots from the police.
Hampton started his activism at the age of 21 when he was an honor student from suburban Chicago. He got his start as an organizer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He later came to prominence as a leader of the Black Panther Party.
“A self-described ‘revolutionary,’ Hampton envisioned the future of the civil rights movement as a ‘rainbow coalition’ of white, Black, brown, yellow, and red people. Jesse Jackson would later adopt the term as the name of his organization and the theme of his ground-breaking presidential campaigns of 1984 and 1988. In short, Hampton was a charismatic leader with a vision of marrying the social gospel of King to the militant nationalism of Malcolm X,” Counterpunch reported.
The FBI orchestrated the assassinations and massive cover-up. From the beginning, though there was little proof at the time, other Panthers knew the government was involved. “In the wake of the raid, Illinois BPP Minister of Defense Bobby Rush stood on the steps of the bullet-riddled BPP apartment and declared that J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were responsible for the raid,” In These Times reported.
In March 1971, the first evidence to support Rush’s allegation was revealed when a group of anonymous activists who called themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI broke into a small FBI office in Media, Pa. They found more than 1,000 documents regarding the Panther raid. The Commission exposed the FBI’s “COINTELPRO” program. This was a secret counterintelligence program created to, as the L.A. Times reported in 2006, “investigate and disrupt dissident political groups in the United States.“
COINTELPRO was carried out under J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. According to the Commission’s confiscated documents, Hoover had directed all of the bureau’s offices to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit and otherwise neutralize” African-American organizations and leaders, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Nation of Islam, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, In These Times reported.
Hampton’s bodyguard was a government informant. Chicago Black Panther Party Chief of Security William O’Neal was being paid by the FBI. A memo from the Chicago office to FBI Headquarters was later discovered in which there was a request for a $300 bonus to reward O’Neal for his information. A responding memo from headquarters approved he request.
According to the 2009 book, “The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther” by Jeffrey Haas, “Hampton’s bodyguard drew up a floor plan of the apartment, including where Hampton slept, so the police knew exactly where to find him,” International Socialist Review reported.
The government files contained directives to destroy the Panther’s Breakfast for Children Program and disrupt the distribution of the Black Panther Party newspaper,” In These Times reported.
The goals of COINTELPRO were to disrupt and “neutralize” organizations which the Bureau characterized as “Black Nationalist Hate Groups,” according to the “Supplementary Detailed Staff Reports on Intelligence Activities and The Rights of Americans.”
Targets of COINTELPRO’s plans to disrupt “militant Black nationalist organizations” included groups such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), and the Nation of Islam (NOI).
This was expressly directed against such leaders as Martin Luther King, Jr., Stokley Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Maxwell Stanford, and Elijah Muhammad. The BPP was not among the original “Black Nationalist” targets, according to Jeffrey Haas’s book “The Assassination of Fred Hampton.”
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In September 1968, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover described the Panthers as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”
Hoover saidthe Panthers were schooled in the Marxist-Leninist ideology and the teaching of Chinese Communist leader Mao Tse-tung.
“Its members have perpetrated numerous assaults on police officers and have engaged in violent confrontations with police throughout the country,” Hoover said. “Leaders and representatives of the Black Panther Party travel extensively all over the U.S. preaching their gospel of hate and violence not only to ghetto residents but to students in colleges, universities, and high schools is well,” he said, according to the Supplementary Detailed Staff Reports on Intelligence Activities and The Rights of Americans.
Hoover started to include the BPP in the FBI’s list of targets as the organization grew. He sent a memo ordering FBI field offices to submit “imaginative and hard-hitting counterintelligence measures aimed at crippling the BPP.”
The Blackstone Rangers were a heavily armed and powerful Chicago street gang. When the FBI learned that the gang’s leader, Jeff Fort, was resisting Black Panther overtures to enlist the support of the group, the FBI took the opportunity to create friction between the two groups.
There had already been trouble between the two camps. On Dec. 18, 1968, Fort and other Blackstone Rangers were involved in a serious confrontation with members of the BPP. A Panther was shot by a Ranger. Later that day 30 Panthers went to the Blackstone Rangers’ headquarters.
Fort invited Hampton and the other Black Panther members to meet with him and the Ranger leadership. Fort then gave orders, via walkie-talkie and 100 Rangers armed with shotguns and machine guns barged into the meeting. Fort wanted to show Hampton the “power” of the Rangers. But there was something else Fort wanted.
Fort “talked about the two groups joining forces. Nothing was decided at the meeting, however, a decision was made to meet again…News of this meeting caught the attention of the FBI and they began sending letters to both groups creating animosity amongst the groups. So the union between the Black Panthers and the Black P Stone Rangers never happened,” Roots Radio reported.
The FBI’s Chicago office proposed sending an anonymous letter to Fort, telling him that two prominent leaders of the Chicago BPP had been making disparaging remarks about his “lack of commitment to Black people generally,” according to the “Supplementary Detailed Staff Reports on Intelligence Activities and The Rights of Americans.”
The FBI was successful in creating so much tension between the two organizations, that a union never happened.