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What if Fred Hampton had not been killed?

Black Panther leader Fred Hampton

I drove down Fred Hampton’s old block the other morning on the city’s West Side and I pondered where “we” might be had Fred not died.

I sat in my car, staring at the site where his apartment was riddled with police bullets. He was asleep, at age 21, during a raid that early morning in December 1969.


I thought about the charismatic leader of the Black Panthers that started a free breakfast program for poor kids in the hood, about Hampton’s passion for self-help, black empowerment and self-actualization.

I was only 9 when they murdered Fred Hampton.

I lived farther west in a three-flat apartment my grandfather owned — where I watched the West Side burn the previous year, one night in 1968 after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, flames flickering in the pale sky.

I wonder where we would be if Dr. King had not died.

I wonder whether 1969 and 1968 were the years that so much of the hope of our neighborhoods died.

For as I open my eyes to the realities of poverty, blight and hopelessness that flow like a cresting river through our communities today; to that weapon of mass destruction called Chicago Public Schools; to do-nothing, finger-pointing politicians and so-called community leaders, I realize that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Except the “enemy” of the people these days now seems to play a game of charades. It is a masquerading enemy that contributes to the continued demise of poor black and brown neighborhoods, inhibiting their migration from the socioeconomically drained stream to the American mainstream. It is an insidious and elusive, fast-talking enemy of progress for all.

During this mayoral campaign, some have suggested that Mayor Rahm Emanuel is more foe than friend to poor black and brown communities. That Rahm is somehow to blame for all the shootings and homicide, the poverty and profound systemic devices that have existed since I was a little boy. Frankly speaking, that’s a bunch of bull.

Frankly speaking, what ails black communities in Chicago doesn’t end or begin with the mayor’s office. That doesn’t mean that whoever is mayor is off the hook. But what about lifer politicians under whose watch poor Chicago neighborhoods for decades have festered like a sore? The politicians who have taken the money and run?

What about so-called “progressives” who are MIA? They come around when television cameras turn on but are absent for the roll-up-your-sleeves work. What about so-called community leaders who aren’t any more for poor or working class folk than the man on the moon? Politicking pastors and preachers who tell their members who to vote for while they secure political appointments and favor? (Turn to your neighbor and say, “Pastors . . . Don’t pimp. Preach.”)

Across the country, hundreds of millions of dollars have been wasted in the black community on churches built on the backs of the poor with one preacher recently asking for $65 million for a new jet. In the Chicago area alone, just in recent years, well over a half billion dollars has been spent on building these monstrosities called worship centers. Some storefront pastors are just as lacking in stewardship.

Imagine if that money had been spent on community-based social programs, on housing or programs aimed at creating homeownership, small business startups and corporate/community partnerships as part of a vision for holistic sustainable communities.

I imagine the possibilities and dreams of Fred Hampton and Dr. King. I imagine leaders with a true heart for community.

I imagine a people willing finally to hold our “leaders” accountable — every single one.