Black History Month: Day 24 – The Death of a Revolutionary

The city of Chicago is a very interesting city with respect to American History. The third largest city, it experienced significant growth in the early 1900s due to an industrial boom, railroad expansion, and the 1893 World’s Fair. When the economy boomed during World War I and after, the increase in jobs brought in a substantial migration of African-Americans from Southern America. For this reason, it is also a very diverse city, and notable Americans of color such as John H. Johnson, Oprah Winfrey and Kanye West were inspired there to change the course of history.

Due in part to Chicago’s unique history, it’s youth have historically made major impacts.  In recent history, 23 year old Chicago native Chance the Rapper has revolutionized the music industry while actively protesting against gun violence. He started his career at 18. He follows in the footsteps of another charismatic Chicago youth: Fred Hampton.

Fred Hampton

Frederick Allen Hampton was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. As early as elementary school, Fred Hampton was a leader and an activist: he led a group of boys whose responsibility it was to control traffic as fellow students crossed the street. At Proviso East High School he was elected to the Interracial Cross Section Committee and as president of the Junior Achievement program, where he exposed and led campaigns against racist conditions at the school as well as the unfair treatment of black students and athletes. In addition, his activism was instrumental in increasing the number of African-American teachers on the high school staff from five to sixteen.

Fred Hampton

After high school and while enrolled at Crane Junior College, Fred Became president of his local NAACP Youth Branch. As a community organizer and leader, he mobilized a racially integrated group of five hundred young people who successfully lobbied city officials to create better academic services and recreational facilities for African American children. Hampton also worked with several key civil rights leaders of the 1960s: he assisted the Reverend Jesse Jackson and the political activist Dick Gregory with various organizing campaigns and boycotts. He also invited Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture), one of the leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), to speak to his NAACP Youth Branch and to coordinate on ongoing organizing operations. Hampton himself was chosen in 1967 to be one of the main speakers at an NAACP function due to his impressive speech talent.

In 1968 Hampton and future congressman Bobby Rush (at the time a member of the SNCC) founded the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party (ILBPP). The ILBPP set up numerous community service programs that it called “survival programs” throughout poor communities in Chicago and the state of Illinois. These programs were vital to the youth and working poor of Chicago, providing services the city would not. In Chicago alone, the free breakfast for children and free medical research health clinics served hundreds of residents daily. The ILBPP also offered a number of additional free services, including busing to prisons, day-care centers, clothing banks, and free ambulance services. It also acted on behalf of tenants to hold landlords accountable during the cold Chicago winters, ensuring they would keep furnaces and boilers repaired and working.

Hampton and the ILBPP used these community service programs to establish racial coalitions with other communities throughout Chicago. Appalachian and southern white migrants (Young Patriots), Puerto Ricans (Young Lords), and middle-class white ethnics (Rising Up Angry) aligned with the ILBPP to form the original Rainbow Coalition in 1968. Hampton served as de facto leader of the alliance, and all the groups adopted the ILBPP’s community service programs. Together the coalition served more than two thousand residents daily from 1968 to 1974. Later, the Rainbow Coalition was joined nationwide by the Students for a Democratic Society (“SDS”), the Brown Berets, and the Red Guard Party. The goal of the group was to end crime and gang violence, believing that poor youths’ fighting each other in gang wars achieved little benefit for them. Hampton and his colleagues believed that Chicago’s Mayor Daley and other members of the American ruling class (aka the 1%) used gang wars to consolidate their own political positions by gaining funding for law enforcement and dramatizing crime rather than underlying social issues.

Fred Hampton & Deborah Johnson

Fred Hampton & Deborah Johnson (Akua Njeri)

For all intents and purposes, Fred Hampton was poised to lead a revolution that addressed the concerns of America’s youth and working class. However, his revolutionary ideology, and the socialist agenda of the coalition made Hampton a target for assassination by the FBI via its illegal counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO) and by the Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley’s Democratic machine. In 1969, the FBI and the Chicago Police Department conducted a campaign to silence, arrest and kill members of the ILBPP.  During an early morning police raid of the BPP headquarters on December 4, 1969, twelve officers opened fire on a sleeping Hampton and Mark Clark, a Panther leader from Peoria, Illinois.  Police also seriously wounded four other Panther members.  Fred was sleeping next to his pregnant girlfriend when he was shot in the shoulder.  As he lay bleeding and defenseless, two officers advanced on him and shot him point blank twice in the head.


Photograph of the apartment of Fred Hampton, after the raid where he was killed by members of the Chicago Police Department. Photo shows large amount of blood on the bed that he was lying in when he was initially shot, and numerous bullet holes in the walls of the room.

After Fred Hampton’s assassination, the Hampton family also sued the FBI, Cook County, and the city of Chicago. The case was settled before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1983 when all three aforementioned parties admitted guilt and provided the Hampton family and other plaintiffs with a $1.85 million settlement.  Hampton’s death galvanized the Rainbow Coalition’s efforts to establish racial coalition politics as a viable political challenger to the Democratic machine.

Hampton’s legacy helped elect Harold Washington in 1983. Washington became Chicago’s first African-American mayor by running on a Rainbow Coalition platform.  Future president Barack Obama also began his career as an outgrowth of the political consulting and community organizing surrounding Washington’s election. In 1990 and later in 2004 the Chicago City Council passed resolutions commemorating December 4 as Fred Hampton Day.

Fred Hampton did not live to see his 22nd birthday, but he did unite the youth and disenfranchised in Chicago in a way that few have done. His efforts proved toxic to politicians and institutions that wanted to control the people rather than empower them. His spirit lives on through Chance the Rapper, through Barack Obama, and through every youth that sees something wrong in their community and acts to make a difference.

For more Travelbox History Corner, stay tuned.

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