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The killing of two Black Panthers, the secrets of the FBI — and our nation’s long fight for police reform

Newly released documents shed disturbing light on the FBI’s involvement in a 1969 police raid that resulted in the deaths of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.

Fred Hampton of the Illinois Black Panther Party speaks at a rally at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Chicago in an undated photo.
Sun-Times Library

Is America listening this time?

Newly uncovered FBI records are a poignant reminder of just how long African Americans and others have been demanding fair treatment from the law. Together with the marches across the nation last year after the killing of George Floyd, the records serve as a stark reminder why lasting police reform can no longer be delayed.

The FBI documents shed new light on a scandalous raid on a Black Panthers apartment on Chicago’s West Side on Dec. 4, 1969. In the pre-dawn raid, officers under the command of then-Cook County State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan shot and killed Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.

The new records reveal that complicity in the raid ran higher up the ladder at the FBI than previously confirmed, though even now the full truth remains a secret. The released records are full of blacked-out redactions.

The police raid on the Black Panthers is an indelible episode of Chicago’s history that continues to be retold, including now in a Shaka King-directed biopic scheduled to be released in February, “Judas and the Black Messiah.”

The police on that winter morning in 1969, arriving with a search warrant after a gun battle between police and the Panthers the month before, fired a barrage of more than 90 bullets into the apartment. They claimed they had been fired on themselves, pointing to what they said were numerous bullet holes in doors and walls. But, as reporters for the Chicago Daily News quickly discovered, police photos of the supposed bullet holes showed nothing more than nail heads.

Four other Panthers were wounded. Seven Panthers were charged with attempted murder, but the charges later were dropped. And the public outrage was bitter, deep and lasting, much like the public fury after the 2014 police shooting of Laquan McDonald.

An investigation into the raid revealed that it was an FBI-coordinated assassination as part of an illegal covert program called COINTELPRO. But the public was not told who among those at the top at the FBI were in on the raid. Nor was the public told who at the very top had led the attempt to cover up the agency’s involvement.

Panthers in the FBI’s sights

The Black Panther Party had been in the FBI’s sights largely for the offense of actively pushing back against mistreatment of Blacks.

“They had breakfast feeding and other programs,” Dick Simpson, a University of Illinois at Chicago political science professor and onetime alderman, recalled for us. “They were saying Blacks were discriminated against in jobs and housing.”

That didn’t sit well with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

According to documents recovered in 1971, Hoover wanted to “disrupt, misdirect and otherwise neutralize” African American organizations and prevent the rise of charismatic and powerful Black leaders. In 1976, a Senate select committee concluded that the FBI had set out to destroy the Black Panther Party.

The recently released file of FBI memos and reports, obtained by historian and writer Aaron Leonard through a Freedom of Information Act request, provides the first direct documentation that William C. Sullivan, director of the FBI’s Domestic Intelligence Division, and George Moore, head of the Extremist Section of the Domestic Intelligence Division, played key roles in planning the raid, as well as in covering it up.

“All we had was the Chicago FBI office’s involvement and unnamed faces in Washington, rather than the actual participants — highest-level guys,” said Chicago lawyer Flint Taylor, one of the lawyers, along with Jeff Haas and members of the People’s Law Office, who led a 13-year federal civil rights lawsuit after the raid. “It is a remarkable difference.”

We now know that Sullivan and Moore knew the informant, William O’Neal, who provided a diagram of the Black Panther apartment, and O’Neal’s FBI control agent, Roy Martin Mitchell. Sullivan and Moore were involved in the entire lethal debacle.

What do we still not know?

But what about those redactions? Running all through the hundreds of pages of newly released records, they tell us that more information is still being withheld.

If Hoover himself — who personally wrote at least one of the documents — was in on the planning of the raid or the coverup, the public has a right to know. A half-century after the assassination of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, it is time for full disclosure.

The FBI in Hoover’s day perceived the Black Panthers, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other Black organizations and leaders, across the ideological spectrum, as simply dangerous. We got a whiff of that mindset again as recently as 2019 in the FBI’s descriptions of Black Lives Matter activists as “Black identity extremists.”

We are reminded again that true police and criminal justice reform in the United States can no longer be denied or delayed.

As the young poet Amanda Gorman said at President Joe Biden’s inauguration:

“Being American is more than a pride we inherit. It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.”

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