Copyright by Rhonda Sherrod
“I was born in a bourgeois community and had some of the better things in life, but I found that there were more people starving than there were people eating, more people that didn’t have clothes than did have clothes, and I just happened to be one of the few. So I decided that I wouldn’t stop doing what I’m doing until all those people are free.” Fred Hampton
“Because revolutionary theories are based on historical analysis, one must study. One must understand one’s history and one must make the correct historical analysis. At the correct moment, you make your historical leap and carry the struggle forward.” Stokely Carmichael
“…[What the Black Panther Party did] was to show how the Black man’s territory has never outlived the frontier state and is still the land of undefined laws; and that arbitrary violence in this territory often comes not from roving outlaws but from those charged with the enforcement of the law. Inclined to disregard the rights of Black citizens, they break the law under the guise of defending it. The [Black Panther Party] made of the police, then, the symbol of uniformed and armed lawlessness…”
And in arming [themselves] and their brothers against the world, [the Black Panther Party] emphasized a disciplined adherence to existing law. In fact, [the BPP] patrol member traveled equipped not only with a gun, but also with a law book.”
Erik Erikson, psychoanalyst and developmental psychologist
“Moreover, a recent poll indicates that approximately 25 per cent of the Black population has a great respect for the BPP including 43 per cent of Blacks under twenty-one years of age.”
J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI (1968)
What does it mean to be a revolutionary in America when one is born Black? What does it mean to be a revolutionary when one looks around and finds that the life choices for Black people are truncated by racism, discrimination, hatred, ignorance, ugliness, blight, and sterile options that fail to satisfy a race of people so brilliantly made, so stunningly talented, and so infinitely complex that it manages to produce magic in the midst of misery? What does it mean to be a revolutionary when one lives in a land that is still sick with the brainless belief that Black lives are easily, and even eagerly, dispensable because they are inherently inferior? What does it mean to be a revolutionary when one recognizes that Black people have to make meaning out of life even as that life is drenched and mired in pain caused by conditions Black people did not create? What does it mean to look around and see everyone enjoying the fruits of your people’s labor, creativity and perspicacity while you are simultaneously locked out of the land of plenty that you created? What does it mean to apprehend the truth even when lies abound — corrosive, virulent lies that stultify your life’s chances? Audacious lies… that threaten your life? Inventive lies… that serve to contain you in spaces that dim your spirit? Baffling lies… that communicate to you that in order for you to survive, you have to dance when there is no music and laugh at things that are not funny? What does it mean to fight for the true liberation of a people when the educational systems throughout the world are really set up to promote action and thought that supports white supremacy?
That describes the crackling atmosphere — dense with danger, anger, sorrow and death – out of which the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was formed.
Fred Hampton’s life and death are instructive. He lived life to make every minute count, as he quested for justice, peace, equality and understanding among the races — equality for Black people on every level, not just socially, but economically, too. He was the first one to dream of, and popularize the idea of, a “Rainbow Coalition” where justice for all meant… well, justice for ALL. And because he perceived the truth and stood in the light, his death was perceived by your government as a necessity — a planned atrocity that should be studied by all who say they meditate on freedom, fairness and democracy. How can we, the people, let a government that supposedly represents us commit a calculated, cold-blooded crime of spectacular proportions like they did with Fred Hampton? He was a brilliant kid with a lot to offer, but “they” saw him as a potential “messiah” who could command and mobilize people; and “they” found it frightening because that army of people would be in the focused pursuit of justice. Justice. Why does the thought of justice scare so many White people? It is a very simple question about a rather simple concept.
What happened to Fred Hampton must never happen again, and the only way we can keep it from happening again is by keeping our eyes on the actions and activities of all government officials — federal, state, county, and municipal. We must never allow something like what happened to Fred to happen again. His life and death present a textbook example of why the people who framed the Constitution insisted on a free press, thereby enabling it to be a watchdog over government. When we fail to hold government accountable, anything might happen: Walter Scott. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Rekia Boyd. Aiyana Stanley-Jones. Kathyn Johnston. James Chaney. Michael Schwerner. Andrew Goodman. Iraq. Grenada. Vietnam. Kent State. Jackson State… Fred Hampton
Fred was taken away from us. In a harrowing manner. Much too soon. He was my hometown hero. This was a young man who did more to help others in his short 21-year lifespan than most people will do, even if allowed their three score and ten, or more. He was murdered in the prime of his life, he was just beginning; and we will never know what he, and the people who followed him and believed in his vision, could have accomplished had the federal, county, and city “law enforcement” apparatus not killed him.
It seems that I have been aware of Fred Hampton all of my life. In Maywood, Illinois where I grew up, Fred is legendary. Among many people in the legal profession that I entered, Fred is an icon and a symbol for constitutional scholars and legal practitioners — a symbol for how right-minded citizens must stand sentry and monitor the behavior of government agents, including the police.
When I was in law school, I learned that Fred’s memory is seared into the minds of freedom loving people all over the country, and even the world. But I also know, that, thanks to a smear propaganda campaign, there are two competing images of Fred in the culture. The honest assessment is positive, and the negative portrayal is designed to cast him in a disapproving light.
Two experiences I had with Fred’s memory illustrate my point. When I was 18-years-old, and home from college for Christmas break, I finally went out on a date with a guy who had been trying to date me since high school. As we traveled in his car to a movie theatre, I was talking about Fred — lauding him for his brilliance and decrying his brutal assassination. All of a sudden, my date interjected, “Fred Hampton! That gang-banger. I can’t believe you think he is a hero. Are you kidding me? I…”
“Take me home,” I hissed, outraged.
“What?” My date suddenly sobered up. “Wha… What do you mean — take you home?” he said, his voice cracking.
“I said, Take. Me. Home.” I was incensed.
“But, I…I…I don’t understand,” my date sputtered. “Why? Why do I have to take you home?”
“If you don’t have sense enough to be able to tell the difference between a revolutionary freedom fighter, an international icon who died so that we might live freely… well.. I don’t know what to tell you,” I lamented, shaking my head for emphasis. “I just want you to take me home right now.”
“But, I don’t understand,” he wailed again.
“Just take me home,” I uttered between clenched teeth. “I am not in the mood to go to the movies now, especially with you.”
I swiveled my head toward the side window, as I sat in the passenger’s seat, refusing to look at or even talk to my “date” as he pleaded for me to continue on this long awaited outing. Finally, acknowledging my annoyance, he turned the car around and proceeded back to my home.
Fast forward a few years and I am a first year law student at a perennial top twenty law school that admits students from all over the country — really smart, well read, well-educated students.
It is a Saturday night during my freshlaw year and I am throwing a little get together. It is my first. Feeling quite grown up, I bustled about the apartment trying to set just the right tone and the perfect ambiance for an evening with some of the most righteous Black scholars at the law school. Music: Jazz — Coltrane, Miles, Duke, and Ella to be specific; food: finger sandwiches, cheese and a variety of tasty crackers and chips; and since I was and am a teetotaler, I let one of my friends select the wine for the evening.
The doorbell rang and a crush of students tumbled into my nicely arranged apartment.
“Where did you get that poster!” exclaimed my new friend from California, a UCLA grad. I turned and realized he was staring at a poster of my hometown hero. It was a beautiful picture of Fred Hampton with his famous words, “You can kill the revolutionary, but you can’t kill the revolution.” The other quote on the poster said something like, “You can run the freedom fighter around the world, but you can’t stop the fight for freedom.”
“Wow,” another student chimed in. “That’s an incredible poster.” By now, the rest of the students had spotted the poster and were equally enthralled.
Sensing the Zeitgeist of the evening, regally, I held forth.
“Oh, Fred?” I asked, slyly, with a toss of the head. “He’s from my hometown. Yup! He’s my hometown hero. We were very close.”
Now, truth be told, I was a very young girl when Fred was assassinated. My few interactions with Fred were brief and minor, but no matter!
“We used to walk down the street together,” I embellished, “5th Avenue — it’s one of the main corridors in the town we grew up in. There is a swimming pool named after him…
“You really knew Fred Hampton?” another student ventured, in awe.
“Pay attention!” I snapped. “I didn’t say I knew Fred. I said we were close.”
Swiveling my head, imperially now, I duly noted that the rest of the students were looking at the interrupter, aghast at his gaffe.
So, I continued…
“Yes, there is a pool named after Fred in Maywood. As I was saying, We used to walk down the street together hand in hand,” I added. “He was schooling me on how to make sure that the power stays in the hands of the people, you understand? I was an acolyte learning that power belongs to the people in a democratic society.”
And so, it went. The students, mouths agape, listened to me carry on about Fred and his life as a revolutionary, a Panther, a freedom-fighter. I preened about the living room as I orated about this “natural born leader” who loved the people so much that he died for them. In fact, he was, as he put it, high on the people…
Later that evening, as I was cleaning up and delightedly reflecting on a swell evening, I looked up at the wall to smile at Fred only to discover that he was gone. Stunned, I blinked to be sure, he was not there. I rushed over to the spot where my poster had been hanging, looked around the area, thinking he had fallen, and realized that he was really gone. Someone had lifted my poster!
The next week in school, I figured since I was in law school learning great courtroom tactics and techniques, I would dope out who had been the culprit. So, I proceeded to interrogate everyone and came up empty. No one would confess. I never got my poster back; apparently, somebody in the group loved Fred as much as I do.
So, there are two competing narratives about Fred. The distorted one, foisted on the public by the powers that be in an attempt to justify the brutality of his death, casts him as a gang-banger, an incorrigible up to no good. The accurate narrative portrays Fred as the sensitive, brilliant, innovative, justice-loving, hard-working community organizer that he was.
We are more than 45 years removed from Fred’s senseless death, a horrific, mind- boggling moment in time that should have destroyed any innocent view that anyone had about “law enforcement.” His death revealed a sickening plot wherein the federal, county, and city government participated in a deliberate political hit. They killed this charismatic leader because he had the audacity to declare, and act on, his intention to protect the Black community from all unjust intrusions, including those enacted by the police. In an era wherein police brutality was rampant in the Black community, the Black Panthers’ rhetoric was strong and clear. Police brutality would not be tolerated. It is a sad fact that we are still struggling with the same problem today because, throughout history, no one has listened.
Fred, like his fellow Panthers, understood that the Black community was under siege. Black people’s tax dollars were being used to pay for people dressed in uniforms, and carrying awesome power to routinely beat, “trump up” charges on, and sometimes even kill Black people for the flimsiest of reasons… or for no reason at all. More to the point, Fred recognized that, in far too many instances, the police were simply serving as occupying forces that were there to protect White folks’ property and not to serve and protect Black people. (Many tenements were owned by White “slum lords,” and many stores were owned by Whites, too.) The Panthers had read people like Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X and W.E.B. Du Bois. As young as he was, Fred “got it;” he understood. Because the police are clothed in respectability, many of them were, and still are, getting away with mayhem in the Black community, and Fred knew it.
Fred Hampton was born in Chicago on August 30,1948. His family had lived in Argo and Blue Island, before moving to Maywood where he attended Irving Elementary School. His mom, Iberia Hampton, had known Emmett Till’s babysitter, so she had helped babysit Emmett from time to time. Chicagoan Emmett Till’s name exploded onto the cultural landscape when, at 14 in 1955, he was viciously tortured, shot, and cast into the Tallahatchie River by southern racists when he was visiting relatives in or near Money, Mississippi. His corpse, once recovered, was hideously mutilated, and his mother, Mamie Till, decided on an open casket viewing and funeral, in defiance of the State of Mississippi, that shocked the world as it bore witness to the raw savagery of state sanctioned racism.
Many people say that Till’s death provided the spark that ignited the engine for the Civil Rights revolution of the 1960s. What Iberia did not know was that her beloved youngest son would die a very public death at the hands of the state apparatus, and that his death would spark a revolution in politics in Chicago that would culminate with the election of the city’s first Black mayor.
The above writing is excerpted from an essay about Illinois Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton from the upcoming book entitled, Surviving, Healing and Evolving: Essays of Love, Compassion, Healing and Affirmation for Black People.