Civil rights leader Fred Hampton, the deputy chairman of the Black Panther Party’s Illinois chapter, is remembered for his political genius and activism. His life was tragically cut short on Dec. 4, 1969, during a police raid on his residence in Chicago. Hampton’s legacy endures as a symbol of the struggle for racial justice and the fight against systemic oppression.
Hampton was born on Aug. 30, 1948, in Chicago, to Francis and Iberia Hampton. Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, he had a personal connection to the brutal racial injustice that plagued the U.S. The Hampton family was acquainted with Emmett Till, a young Black child whom Iberia had babysat. In 1955, Till was lynched by white men in Mississippi, according to Britannica.
While attending high school, Hampton began to combat injustice. He organized a student section of the NAACP, participated in his school’s Interracial Cross Section Committee, and protested the unjust arrest of a classmate, Eugene Moore, who would later become the area’s first Black state representative.
After graduating from high school with honors, Hampton enrolled in a pre-law program at Triton College, a community college near Maywood.
In the summer of 1967, Hampton led a series of rallies advocating for the construction of a racially integrated public swimming pool in Maywood. The nearest public pool, located in Melrose Park, was only accessible to white swimmers. Hampton’s activism led to clashes with the police during these rallies, with some incidents turning violent. However, the protests ultimately succeeded in achieving their goal: the approval of an integrated pool for Maywood, which would later be named the Fred Hampton Family Aquatic Center, Britannica reported.
Fred Hampton is remembered for his charismatic leadership and coalition-building efforts across racial lines and because of these talents he posed a challenge to the status quo. Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI viewed him as a potential “messiah” who could unify and energize the Black nationalist movement, a role previously associated with figures like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Stokely Carmichael, and Elijah Muhammad.
The FBI began closely monitoring the activities of the Black Panther Party, with informant William O’Neal infiltrating the organization. O’Neal, an African American teenager who had faced legal trouble, provided the FBI with information about Panther meetings, members’ access to weapons, and floor plans of their homes, with a particular focus on Fred Hampton.
On Dec. 4, 1969, in the early morning hours, a group of 14 plainclothes Chicago police officers, armed with pistols, a shotgun, and a machine gun, arrived at an apartment building on W. Monroe St. in Chicago. Armed with a detailed map of their target—an apartment occupied by Black Panther Party leaders—they conducted a raid. The map clearly marked Fred Hampton’s bedroom, where he lay asleep beside his eight-month-pregnant fiancée. The police fired more than 90 rounds, including machine gun fire through walls and windows. When the shooting ceased, two Black Panthers were dead, including Fred Hampton.
Initially, the police claimed that they were met with armed resistance while executing a search warrant for illegal weapons. Subsequent investigations revealed a different story.
The truth behind the raid and Hampton’s assassination took years to emerge. In 1971, a group of antiwar activists broke into an FBI office near Philadelphia, uncovering evidence of COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program), a secret FBI program aimed at disrupting and neutralizing Black power movements. COINTELPRO had targeted civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Hampton was seen as another potential charismatic leader on the rise.
In 1982, a settlement was reached, with the government paying $1.85 million to the families of Hampton and Mark Clark, the other Black Panther killed in the raid, as well as the survivors who had been wounded. Although the settlement did not explicitly admit wrongdoing, it was widely regarded as an acknowledgment of the conspiracy to murder Fred Hampton, History.com reported.
Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, Dirksen Federal Building, 1969 Photo by Paul Sequeira, Fair use image