Who Was Fred Hampton?
Fred Hampton joined the Black Panther Party in 1968. He quickly rose in its ranks, both in Chicago and on a national level. However, the Black Panther became a law enforcement target. In the early hours of December 4, 1969, police raided Hampton's apartment and shot the 21-year-old to death. A later investigation revealed that police had fired nearly 100 times, while only one bullet came from inside the apartment, and that prior to his death Hampton had been surveilled and tracked by the FBI.
Early Life and Education
Frederick Allen Hampton was born on August 30, 1948, to Francis and Iberia Hampton. His birthplace varies between sources. It has been listed as Chicago, as well as the Chicago suburbs of Summit, Maywood, or Blue Island, Illinois. A book about the Black Panther Party states that Hampton was born in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Hampton grew up with an older brother and sister. His family was friendly with the family of Emmett Till before Till's 1955 murder. Hampton's family moved to Maywood, another Chicago suburb when Hampton was 10.
Hampton attended Irving Elementary School and Proviso East High School. In high school, he led the school's Interracial Committee. He also protested the school only nominating white girls to run for homecoming queen, which resulted in the inclusion of Black girls.
After graduating with honors from Proviso East High School, Hampton studied pre-law at Triton Junior College. He also attended Crane Junior College (later Malcolm X College) and the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle.
Hampton led the Youth Council of the NAACP's West Suburban chapter, growing membership to more than 500. He advocated for a community pool in his hometown of Maywood, which led to an arrest for "mob action" following a demonstration in 1967.
Involvement in Black Panther Party
In November 1968, Hampton helped found the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. From his base in Chicago, he served as chairman of this local chapter. Though Hampton was just 20, he became a respected leader in the Party, aided by his talent for public speaking and experience in community organizing that included work with the NAACP.
As a Black Panther, Hampton arranged for community services such as free breakfasts and health clinics. He also oversaw the formation of a "Rainbow Coalition" between the Panthers and local gangs like the Puerto Rican Young Lords and the white Young Patriots, whose families had migrated from Appalachia. Unfortunately, Hampton's successes and rising profile resulted in negative attention from law enforcement.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover once declared that the Black Panther Party was "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country"; he also feared the "rise of a messiah that would unify and electrify the militant nationalist movement." To counter these perceived threats, the Bureau's Counter Intelligence Program, known as COINTELPRO, sought to discredit and undermine Black groups and leaders. Two weeks before his death, Hampton was added to the FBI's Agitator Index, a list of people Hoover considered potential threats to national security.
Local law enforcement also pursued Hampton. While he was appearing on television in January 1969, Chicago police arrested him on an old traffic warrant. Later that year Hampton went on trial for stealing ice cream bars in the Chicago suburb of Maywood in 1968 (a charge he denied). Hampton was convicted and sentenced to two to five years in prison. Tensions between the Panthers and police also rose when two officers and a Black Panther were killed during a November 1969 shootout. Authorities felt Hampton's role in the Party linked him to the police deaths, though he was out of town when the confrontation took place.
Hampton wasn't the only Panther who was under pressure. Other party members had been killed, were behind bars, or had left the United States. With leaders like Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale out of commission while facing criminal charges, Hampton was elevated to national spokesman for the party shortly before his death.
Death and Aftermath
On December 4, 1969, Hampton was at his apartment on Chicago's West Side. Other Panthers, including Hampton's pregnant fiancée, were also in the residence. At approximately 4:45 a.m., a dozen police officers executed a search warrant for illegal weapons and raided the apartment. Almost immediately after they kicked open the door, Hampton's fellow Black Panther Mark Clark was killed by a bullet that struck his heart.
A layout of Hampton's apartment, provided by William O'Neal, an FBI informant who'd joined the Panthers, had been given to police prior to the raid. The night of the raid O'Neal had also allegedly dosed Hampton with a sleep-inducing barbiturate. Police officers headed to Hampton's bedroom and fired at the bed, striking Hampton but missing his fiancée, Akua Njeri (then known as Debra Johnson). Njeri later stated that after police removed her from the room they said Hampton was "barely alive." She then heard two shots, followed by the words, "He's good and dead now."
No illegal weapons were found during the raid, but the seven Panthers who survived, four of whom were injured, were arrested for aggravated assault and attempted murder. As the apartment was not sealed off, the Black Panther Party subsequently offered tours of the scene. Though the police account was that they had been responding to gunfire, this story was debunked when what had been described by law enforcement as holes created by Panther bullets were shown to actually be nail heads.
Charges against the Panthers who'd survived the raid were dismissed in 1970. That same year a federal grand jury investigation also found that police had fired 82 to 99 times, with only one shot coming from those in the apartment. Cook County state's attorney Edward Hanrahan, who had directed the raid, was indicted for obstruction of justice in 1971, along with an assistant and 12 officers from the raid. However, no convictions resulted from these charges.
Hanrahan was voted out of office in 1972. This was a harbinger of shifting Chicago politics, leading to the election of the first Black mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington, in 1983. That same year a settlement was reached for the city of Chicago, Cook County and the federal government to pay $1.85 million to survivors of the raid and to Hampton's and Clark's families, with a ruling that stated the government had conspired against the Black Panther Party and violated the civil rights of the plaintiffs.
Hampton's funeral was held at First Baptist Church of Melrose Park on December 9, 1969. There were more than 5,000 people in attendance. One of the eulogies was delivered by the Reverend Jesse Jackson.
Legacy and Movies
Hampton's story has been told in the 1971 documentary The Murder of Fred Hampton and in the 2021 movie Judas and the Black Messiah directed by Shaka King and starring Daniel Kaluuya as Hampton.
Hampton was also portrayed by Kelvin Harrison Jr. in the 2020 movie The Trial of the Chicago 7.
The Maywood community pool that Hampton had advocated for was named after him in 1970.
In 1990 and 2004 the Chicago City Council passed resolutions designating December 4 as Fred Hampton Day.
Hampton's son, Fred Hampton Jr. was born just a few weeks after his father's death.
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