Who was Fred Hampton? – Biography, Black Panther Party, Major Facts, & Death
Known for his unrelenting commitment to the elevation of impoverished communities in Chicago, Illinois, Fred Hampton (born – August 30, 1948) started his political activism at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). His biggest impact came when he served as the chairman of the Black Panther Party (BPP) in Chicago, Illinois. He used his position in the community to push for so many noble programs, including feeding the poor, giving political lectures, and mediating among opposing groups and gangs.
Sadly, his life and activism were cut short after an FBI-led team infiltrated his group and laced his drink with doses of barbiturates. The authorities later broke into his apartment and opened fire on an unconscious Hampton and his men. Fred Hampton, the founder of the multicultural organization known as the Rainbow Coalition, died from bullet wounds to the head on December 4, 1969.
The article below explores the life, political activism, and other accomplishments of Fred Hampton.
Childhood and Upbringing
Frederick Allen Hampton was born on August 30, 1948 to parents Francis Allen Hampton and Iberia Hampton. He grew up in the suburbs of Chicago – Summit and Maywood to be specific. Prior to his birth, his family lived in Louisiana before moving to Summit, Chicago during the Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance era.
Fred Hampton was described by many as a very good student academically. He graduated from Proviso East High School with flying colors in 1966. He also took part in many athletic events in school. It has been stated that the young Fred Hampton harbored aspirations of playing for the New York Yankees. After high school, Fred gained admission to Triton Junior College (located at River Grove, Illinois) to study pre-law.
Early Activism and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
Owing to the sheer scale of violence, deprivation and suffering in the community, Hampton signed up to a number of political activism groups. The most famous of these groups was the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Committed to the cause of the NAACP, he quickly rose up the ranks and became a leader of the Youth Council. Right from an early age, his leadership quality was quite evident; he displayed a knack for event organizing and community mobilization. He helped increase membership of the youth wing to around 600.
His time at the NAACP saw him get involved in many projects that included expanding recreational facilities and educational initiatives across the community. Hampton was devoted to becoming a potent force of social change using community organizing and nonviolent means. Some scholars have opined that Fred Hampton actually preferred self-defense to nonviolence in his pursuit of black freedom.
Black Panther Party
Driven by the need to instill a sense of Black pride and self-determination, Hampton joined the California-born group known as the Black Panther Party (BPP). He relocated to downtown Chicago so as to be closer to the Illinois chapter of the BPP. The chapter was founded by Bob Brown (former organizer of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee – SNCC).
Accomplishments of Fred Hampton
As the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, Fred Hampton chalked the following accomplishments:
- Hampton’s meteoric rise in the BPP was buoyed on by his devotion to ending gang-on-gang violence in African-American communities. In fact, scholars to this day heap enormous praises on him for establishing a nonaggression pact among the most lethal gangs in Illinois.
- Another significant accomplishment of Fred Hampton came in the form of fighting poverty. The young political activists worked very hard to provide free meals to poor school children in the community.
- Hampton was skilled at bringing various minorities together to strive for a common purpose. His Rainbow Coalition is famed for including whites as well. His multiracial political group was a loose coalition that included the likes of the Brown Berets, Neo-confederate Young Patriots Organization, the Young Lords, and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
- He gained fame throughout the state for not just his good organizing ability but also his oratory skills, and sheer charisma. Often times, he organized weekly rallies to raise state-wide awareness to the economic and social problems bedeviling the communities.
- Chairman Fred Hampton found creative ways of raising nonviolent coalition to supervise the activities of the police in the community. He put his pre-law studies to good use by organizing political education classes in many community centers, where participants were taught how to stand their grounds against unconstitutional practices and brutality of rogue police officers.
Infiltration and Persecution from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
Starting around 1968, the activism of the Black Panther Party had become a worrisome issue for FBI legendary chief J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972). Paranoid about the group’s intent (allegedly to overthrow the government), the veteran security chief committed considerable amount of men and resources to halt the BPP in their tracks. Hoover also dreaded the possibility of a unified Black movement that received solidarity from whites. Hence, he tasked his men to monitor, infiltrate and sabotage the activities of the BPP.
Scholars estimate that as at 1967 the FBI had a file for Hampton and his Illinois chapter of the BPP. The security officers even listened in to his mother’s phone conversations throughout 1968. Hampton was also placed on the FBI’s Agitator Index with the tag of “Key militant leader”.
The FBI’s Racial Matters Squad deployed African American William O’Neal to work for them as an informant. O’Neal, a petty criminal with a history of car theft and impersonating a federal officer, agreed to infiltrate Hampton’s group. As part of the deal, the FBI would drop all charges against O’Neal.
Gradually O’Neal won the trust of Hampton and his fellow activists. He rose through the ranks and became the director of security and bodyguard of Hampton. Amidst all that, O’Neal relayed intel to the FBI.
In spite of claims made by field agents vindicating the group’s motive, Hoover insisted that the FBI dig further to find dirt and incriminating information about the BPP. To fasten this process, FBI agents and Chicago Police used the likes of O’Neal to sow distrust and animosity in the group. Violent clashes and fractions started to appear in Hampton’s Rainbow Coalition.
The FBI also worked very hard to separate white activists (for example activists from the Students for a Democratic Society and the Weather Underground) from the group by portraying the BPP as a black supremacist group.
On July 16, 1969, a violent clash erupted between the BPP and the Chicago Police Department. The clash resulted in several injuries and arrests.
How was Fred Hampton murdered?
Armed with adequate intel (provided by O’Neal) about Fred Hampton and the internal workings of the BPP, an armed group of security officers (from the FBI, the Cook County office, and the Chicago Police) stormed into Hampton’s apartment in the early hours of December 4, 1969.
In addition to giving information about the apartment, O’Neal was asked by the FBI to knock Hampton unconscious using barbiturates (sleeping pills) in his drink. After O’Neal left the apartment, a 14-man team of security officers (from the Cook County office, Chicago Police and the FBI) raided the apartment. The police claimed that they had a search warrant for illegal firearms.
By 4:00 a.m., the heavily armed policemen had split into two teams – eight in front and six behind the apartment. The team entered into the apartment around 4:45 a.m. The first Panther they dispatched was Mark Clark – a security official of the group. Clark was shot in the chest and died on the spot. Shortly after, the police proceeded to Hampton’s bedroom. They removed Hampton’s pregnant partner – Deborah Johnson (now Akua Njeri)– from the bedroom. They then summarily executed Hampton, 21, who was knocked out by the barbiturates he unknowingly injected, by firing two lethal shots into his head. All in all, the police fired a barrage of shots into the apartment, causing several members of the BPP to sustain severe injuries.
Investigations later revealed that the police fired close to 100 shots into the apartment; and that the only shot from the Panthers came from Mark Clark’s gun, which investigators believed that it mistakenly went off in the heat of the moment.
Aftermath and Fred Hampton’s Legacy
The scenes at murdered activist’s apartment enraged many people across the nation. Hampton’s death pushed a number of political organizations (for example the Weather Underground) in Chicago to take up arms and fight against what they seemed as police brutality and needless shootings.
To add insult to injury, the authorities charged the BPP survivors from the apartment with aggravated assault and attempted murder of police officers. Their bail was set at $100,000 each. Following immense backlash from the public, the charges against those BPP members were later dropped.
The police insisted that it was the Panthers that fired first. However, subsequent investigations and court trials showed that the authorities were bent on eliminating the group using whatever means possible. Authorities were accused of using disinformation to tarnish the image of Fred Hampton and the Rainbow Coalition. The FBI even tried to cover its track by distancing itself from the raid.
Other Major Facts about Fred Hampton
- Coroners’ report stated that the two shots fired into Hampton’s head were at point blank range. Cook County Coroner Andrew Toman described Hampton’s death as a homicide.
- According to BPP members who were in the house that day, Hampton fell asleep while talking to his mother on the phone. This was due to the barbiturates that O’Neal placed into Hampton’s drink.
- At the time of the raid, Hampton’s partner, Deborah, was nine months pregnant with Hampton’s son, Fred Hampton Jr., who was born about four weeks after the raid.
- Fred Hampton’s funeral was attended by over 5,000 people. Numerous civil rights activists, including Jesse Jackson and Ralph Abernathy, wrote moving eulogies about Hampton.
- O’Neal received a lot sticks for his alleged involvement in the death of Fred Hampton. On January 25, 1990, he committed suicide.
- In 1970, the families of Hampton and Mark Clark began a civil rights lawsuit against the authorities. They sued for $47.4 million in damages. After more than a decade of dismissals and appeals, justice was perhaps served when in 1982, the survivors and families were awarded a $1.85 million settlement. The money was coughed up by the City of Chicago, Cook County, and the federal government.