One of the most important political activists of the 1960s, Fred Hampton’s life was cut tragically short when he was murdered in 1969, aged just 21. An activist, revolutionary and powerful orator, Hampton’s politics were viewed as a threat to the establishment by the FBI. His life – and death – have left a lasting legacy in the American Black Power movement and beyond.
1. He was political from an early age
Born in 1948, in the suburbs of Chicago, Hampton began to call out racism in America from a young age. As a high school student, he protested against the exclusion of black students in the competition for homecoming queen, and petitioned the governors of his school to hire more black staff.
He graduated with honours, and went on to study pre-law: Hampton believed if he was familiar enough with the law, he’d be able to use this to challenge police for illegal actions against the black community.
By the time he turned 18, in 1966, Hampton had become interested in struggles beyond racism in America. He was increasingly anti-capitalist, reading the works of communist revolutionaries and actively hoping for Vietnamese victory in the Vietnam War.
2. He took an active interest in social causes
As a child himself, Hampton had started cooking free breakfasts for disadvantaged children in his neighbourhood.
Aged 18, he became leader of the NAACP’s (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) West Suburban Branch Youth Council, creating a 500 person youth group, improving educational resources for the black community and helping to establish better recreational facilities, including a swimming pool (Hampton had spent several years taking black children on buses to the nearest pool, several miles away).
His movements – and his communist sympathies – caught the attention of the FBI, who placed him on their ‘Key Agitator’ list when he was just 19.
3. He was an excellent public speaker
Years of listening to preachers at church had taught Hampton how to project his voice and keep an audience enthralled, whilst his study of famous revolutionaries and orators, including Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, meant he knew how to craft a memorable, powerful speech.
Contemporaries described him talking extremely fast, but Hampton managed to appeal to a variety of groups and brought the wider community together for a common cause.
4. The rise of the Black Panthers attracted Hampton
The Black Panther Party (BPP) was formed in California in 1966. It was part of the wider Black Power movement, but ultimately the party’s core policies revolved around cop-watching (in an attempt to challenge police brutality) and social activities including free breakfast for children and community health clinics. The party’s founders, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale laid these out in their Ten-Point Program, which covered policies but also philosophical beliefs.
As the Panthers grew their support base across black communities in America, growing into a fully formed revolutionary movement, government officials became increasingly wary of their activities.
5. Hampton helped form the Chicago/Illinois BPP chapter
In November 1968, Hampton joined the newly formed Illinois chapter of the BPP. He was an extremely effective leader, brokering a non-aggression pact between Chicago’s gangs, culminating in an alliance known as the Rainbow Coalition. Hampton encouraged the gangs to think about the bigger picture, saying that conflict would only serve to harm their prospects whilst the real enemy – the white racist government – would continue to grow stronger.
The groups within the coalition would support and defend one another, showing up at protests and finding unity through common action.
6. He was arrested on trumped-up charges
In 1968, Hampton was accused of assaulting an ice cream truck driver, Nelson Suitt, and stealing over $70 worth of ice cream. Hampton denied these accusations, but was found guilty regardless – the BPP claimed that he had been denied a free trial. He served a short period in prison.
Many believe this whole episode was the work of the FBI, who hoped to discredit Hampton and lock him away to prevent him causing further agitation.
7. He became leader of the Chicago branch of the BPP
Hampton assumed the role of chair of the Illinois state BPP, and was on track to join the national BPP committee. In November 1969, he travelled west to California to meet with the national BPP leadership, who formally offered him a role in the national committee.
He returned to Chicago in early December 1969.
8. The FBI saw Hampton as a growing threat
The then head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, was determined to stop a cohesive black liberation movement forming in America. The FBI had been keeping tabs on Hampton since he was a teenager, but his meteoric rise within the BPP marked him out as a more serious threat.
In 1968, they planted a mole in the BPP: William O’Neal worked his way up through the party to become Hampton’s bodyguard. Despite in his first letters claiming all that he saw his chapter doing was feeding hungry children, he was encouraged to add postscripts which implied that the BPP was a serious threat to national security in America.
O’Neal was also encouraged to cause dissent and division within the Rainbow Coalition.
9. He was assassinated in his sleep
On the night of 3 December 1969, the FBI raided the apartment Hampton shared with his pregnant girlfriend on West Monroe Street, supposedly having intelligence from O’Neal that there was a stockpile of weapons there. They shot Mark Clark, a fellow Panther, on arriving at the apartment, before forcibly removing Hampton’s girlfriend, Deborah Johnson, from the bed she shared with Hampton.
Hampton – who many believe was drugged with secobarbitol earlier in the evening, resulting in him not waking up when the FBI stormed the apartment – was shot twice in the shoulder whilst asleep, before being killed by point blank shots to the head.
Other BPP members in the apartment were arrested on charges of attempted murder and aggravated assault, despite the fact no shots were fired by BPP members.
10. Hampton left a powerful legacy which continues today
The inquest declared Hampton’s death to be ‘justifiable’, although subsequently a federal grand jury released a report which heavily criticised the police, and aired frustrations that the Black Panthers had refused to cooperate with investigations.
A civil rights lawsuit later awarded $1.85 million in damages to the families of 9 BPP members, including Hampton’s. Many consider this a tacit admission of guilt on the part of the government and FBI.
Hampton’s death also changed Chicago’s politics more broadly. Shortly afterwards, Chicago elected its first black mayor (as opposed to the previous mayor’s handpicked choice of successor) and the district attorney, Edward Hanrahan, who had given the raid the green light, became something of a political pariah.
Despite being only 21 when he was murdered, Fred Hampton’s legacy is a powerful one: his belief in equality – and the revolution that was necessary to get there – still strike a chord with many black Americans today.