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Who was Fred Hampton?

The new biopic, “Judas and the Black Messiah,” centers on the assassination of Fred Hampton. Here’s what you should know about the charismatic Black Panther leader.

Fred Hampton and R. Chaka Walls, deputy minister of information for the Black Panther Party, Ill, discuss the fate of Bobby Seale in November 1969.
Fred Hampton and R. Chaka Walls, deputy minister of information for the Black Panther Party, Ill, discuss the fate of Bobby Seale in November 1969.
Sun-Times Library

A new biopic, “Judas and the Black Messiah,” has sparked renewed interest in the life and legacy of Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton and the circumstances surrounding his death.

For those who want to know more before or after seeing the movie (spoilers ahead, this is history), here’s a helpful guide on Hampton, his life, the party and the lasting influence of his work.

The information presented here mainly comes from “The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther” by Jeffrey Haas.

Who was Fred Hampton?

Fred Hampton was the chairman of the Black Panther Party’s Illinois chapter.

A young, gifted leader with a talent for organizing, Hampton was born in Argo, Illinois, a southwest suburb of Chicago, on Aug. 30, 1948. His neighbor in Argo was Mamie Till, the mother of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Black boy murdered in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman.

Hampton grew up mainly in Maywood, a west suburb. He attended Irving Elementary School and Proviso East High School. While in school, Hampton led a boycott of homecoming, forcing the school to allow Black girls to compete for homecoming queen, and became head of the school’s Inter-racial Council, which met when there was racial friction in school.

While in high school, Hampton held several jobs and eventually earned enough to pay his college tuition. During those high school years, he noticed how few Black teenagers had jobs and pushed Maywood to fund a summer jobs program. He also organized community members to push Maywood leaders for an integrated pool and recreational center.

How did Fred Hampton become the chairman of the Black Panther’s IL chapter?

Hampton’s organizing in Maywood caught the attention of Don Williams, the head of the West Suburban Chapter of the NAACP. He liked what Hampton had done, and since there was no youth section of the association in the area, he asked Hampton to start one.

After finishing high school in 1966, Hampton continued his activism, marching several times with Martin Luther King Jr. when he came to Chicago to fight for equal treatment of Black residents in housing, jobs and schools. Many white people, some dressed as Nazis, came to spit and throw rocks at marchers during that time. Seeing the violence directed towards them left Hampton feeling disenchanted with King’s nonviolent approach. He began to turn away from the NAACP and towards Malcolm X’s message of self-defense, and the growing movement of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California.

In November 1968, Bobby Rush, current-U.S. Representative and then-Black Panther, received a mandate from the national party to start a chapter in Chicago. Having met Hampton and heard him speak at marches and protests, Rush recruited him right away, and they opened the office together.

Hampton became chairman and Rush deputy minister.

What did the Black Panther Party of Illinois represent?

One of 45 chapters in the county, the Black Panther Party chapter of Illinois militantly stood against “racism, capitalism and police brutality,” according to the Chicago History Museum’s “Encyclopedia of Chicago.” The chapter formed in the fall of 1968 and disbanded in 1973.

The group formed partnerships with Latino and white Chicagoans to create the Rainbow Coalition, which went after structural inequalities in neighborhoods around the city. They organized free breakfasts and offered free legal consultations to help disadvantaged populations.

The Panthers took a militant stance in the party’s imagery, rhetoric and sometimes action, but the “Encyclopedia of Chicago” says that cost the party some support. Many white people, along with some conservative-leaning Black residents, and the mass media all criticized the Panthers, and law enforcement became especially keen on watching party members.

In Chicago, some Panthers did clash with police, sometimes violently, and Hampton, even before he became a Panther, personally faced harassment and multiple arrests for otherwise harmless or overblown crimes, such as traffic violations.

Why was the FBI investigating Hampton?

In 1968, FBI leader J. Edgar Hoover declared the Black Panthers “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country,” according to Curt Gentry's “J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and His Secrets.” He ordered agents to employ a range of tactics, many illegal, including mail openings, phone taps and bugs, burglaries and paid informants to bring the Panthers down. The bureau also used anonymous mailings, sent to Panther headquarters to try and stir up trouble and paranoia among the party members.

Hampton caught the bureau’s attention Nov. 9, 1969, Gentry wrote. The Chicago field office received a tip from a paid informant that Hampton would be named chief of staff to replace David Hillard in the Panthers national party if he went to prison, a move that would have put Hampton in the national party leadership. Hoover and the bureau feared that Hampton, with all his talents of organizing, speaking and leadership, might become the new black “messiah.”

That paid informant turned out to be William O’Neal, who was the chief of security for the Black Panther Party.

After a shootout between the Panthers and Chicago police, which left two officers and one Panther dead, local law enforcement began to focus more intensely on the Panthers, Gentry noted. The bureau then approached Chicago and state attorney’s police with information from their paid informant, and together, they plotted to bring Hampton down.

In addition to tipping off the FBI about Hampton’s upcoming promotion to the national party, O’Neal also provided the feds with a treasure trove of information about Hampton and the layout of his apartment. His information eventually led to Hampton’s murder.

How was Fred Hampton killed?

At 5 a.m. on Dec. 4, 1969, Chicago and state’s attorney police raided the headquarters of the Black Panther Party at 2337 W. Monroe St. on the West Side of the city.

They entered the apartment and fatally shot Hampton, who may have been drugged the night before, as he slept in his bed. Mark Clark, a downstate party leader, was also killed.

Following the shooting, State’s Attorney Edward V. Hanrahan held a press conference where he told Chicago Daily News reporters that a “gun battle broke out as state’s attorney’s policemen tried to enter the apartment to search for illegal weapons.”

Hanrahan said the officers leading the raid allegedly announced themselves, only to be met with gunfire from the first-floor apartment, according to a Daily News article that ran the day of the raid. Three times, the state’s attorney claimed, officers ceased fire and demanded the occupants “come out with their hands up,” only to be met with more gunfire.

“The immediate, violent criminal reaction of the occupants in shooting at announced police officers emphasizes the extreme viciousness of the Black Panther Party,” Hanrahan said.

Police insisted that a gun was found next to Hampton’s hand and that he had shot at them, pointing to a number of “bullet holes” in the wall, the Daily News report said.

Bobby Rush, current U.S. Representative and then-deputy minister of the Panthers, asserted that Hampton had been sleeping during the raid, the paper said. He then led reporters on a tour of the apartment, showing them bullet holes from police firing into the apartment but no shots fired out.

Days after the shooting, Chicago Sun-Times reporter Joe Reilly received a tip that those were nail holes, not bullet holes. The story, which ran Dec. 12, 1969, started unraveling the narrative that police tried to spin.

All the while, the FBI remained quiet about its role in Hampton and Clark’s murder. It would be years before the truth of the bureau’s involvement would come out.

How can I learn more about Fred Hampton?

If you loved “Judas and the Black Messiah” and want to know more about Hampton, O’Neal, the Panthers or the FBI, here are a few books to check out: