Free as in Fred

The afterlife of a Chicagoland Revolutionary

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Fred said, “If I were free, what would I spend my life doing?”
— Inscription on Fred Hampton’s headstone in Haynesville, Louisiana

Fred Hampton showed up in the streets of my city last summer.

The windows were boarded up throughout downtown Madison, Wisconsin. Most of the businesses had been closed for months by this early June morning, as the coronavirus pandemic had swept into the normally bustling college town. Three months into the Covid-19 lockdown, the facades of those businesses, usually a bright assemblage of colors and signage and windows from which diners and drinkers looked out from and into which window-shoppers peered, suddenly turned into an almost endless sea of browns. Almost literally overnight, the city’s famous State Street turned into a corridor of plywood, as shop owners sought to protect against window breakage—real and potential—during the weeks (and, eventually, the months) of protests over the murder of George Floyd, 270 miles up the interstate in Minneapolis.

It didn’t take long before downtown turned yet again. In a matter of days of the plywood going up, local artists transformed it. The blocks of brownish wood became murals: testaments to more beautiful things and people; assertions that “ACAB” (All Cops Are Bastards) and to “Fuck 12” (Fuck the Police); demands to defund or abolish the police; and assertions that, yes, Black Lives Matter even in this nation that continues to operationally insist otherwise. Paintings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor went up. So did memorials to many other victims of police murder, including paintings of and for young Tony Robinson—an unarmed Black nineteen-year-old who was shot dead in the stairwell to his home by a Madison police officer six years ago, about a mile from where I live now.

And here on the boarded-up window of a clothing store was one of Fred Hampton, as if bearing witness to an ongoing rebellion that would’ve been familiar to him—an uprising against racist state violence both here and across the country.

I shouldn’t have been caught off guard to find this. There were plenty of other Black radicals, revolutionaries, and visionaries whose likeness and words went up around town in those days and weeks. Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Malcolm X., Martin Luther King Jr., Maya Angelou—they all showed up, invoked by a new generation.

I shouldn’t have been caught off guard, but I was. As I walked that downtown street, looking at the artwork, thinking about my wildly segregated and unequal city and my wildly segregated and unequal country, reflecting on my decade-plus of research about the racist policing that led us here, thinking about my work documenting the life and legacies of Fred Hampton, I couldn’t help but stop. I couldn’t help but stare. I couldn’t help but think about what Fred Hampton being here meant. I couldn’t help but think about why he still matters so much now.

Chicago Crucible

From 1968 to 1969, Fred Hampton was the deputy chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party (ILBPP)—the “deputy” qualifier an elision of the fact that he was the chapter’s unquestioned leader, both officially and not. Hampton was the son of Iberia and Francis Hampton—native Louisianans and the descendants of enslaved people, who left for Chicagoland in the 1940s to pursue a better future for themselves and the family they would soon start.

Jim Crow’s scars would never fully leave the land.

Born in August of 1948, Fred was the youngest of three children, following an older brother William and sister Dolores. The family taught Hampton political lessons at a young age. On regular trips back South to visit family, Hampton and his siblings witnessed Jim Crow’s racist marks on the landscape—the signs delineating what places were off-limits to them. Later, after the civil rights insurgency forced the United States government to outlaw formalized Jim Crow, demonstrating the ways that protest worked, he saw those signs come down. Jim Crow’s scars would never, of course, fully leave the land; when Fred was as young as ten years old, on walks through the woods, his grandfather would sometimes point out the lynching trees from which white terrorists had hung Black Louisianans.

Meanwhile, a civil rights movement in the Chicago area was shaping the contours of the world of Hampton’s youth. Across the 1950s and 1960s, local organizers battled for educational equity, against police violence, in pursuit of open housing, for something approaching the promise this country had supposedly made to all citizens. Hampton was seventeen years old when Martin Luther King Jr. came to town at the beginning of 1966 to announce that he was joining the struggle there. Hampton was three weeks shy of his eighteenth birthday when King was brought to his knees by a rock to the head, hurled by a racist in the city’s Marquette Park neighborhood, after which King would remark that he’d never seen racial hatred in Mississippi or Alabama as strong as what he saw in Chicago.

Iberia and Francis were themselves involved in local grassroots politics, primarily through work in their labor union, of which Iberia served as a steward, and by having their home in suburban Maywood serve as a place for community-
building and discussion. And they encouraged their kids to pay attention to what was happening. More generally, as Fred’s brother recalled, their mother especially taught the children to be conscious of “the rights and wrongs of life” and “to be concerned about our community and our race.”

The politics of the man who would endearingly and forever in memory be known as “Chairman Fred” were forged in these crucibles. He was not immediately what admirers and antagonists alike would deem “militant,” but he was unquestionably a freedom fighter from a young age. His road to the ILBPP chairmanship saw him travel into and back out of more mainstream civil rights organizations: he was president of the West Suburban NAACP’s Youth Council, where he headed a tremendous organizing effort that saw that branch’s membership swell well into the hundreds. He marched for open housing, organized in his high school over the treatment of Black students and to try to foster better relationships between Black and white kids there, and fought for a swimming pool in his community that Black children could enjoy. By the time he was nineteen, he’d organized numerous nonviolent demonstrations in Chicago’s western suburbs, pushing for civil rights and integration in a place firmly dedicated to resisting both.

But Chicago, like the nation of which it was a part, was a place primed to show a young organizer the limitations of such activism. By the late 1960s, it was a city of growing and grinding poverty for Black families, defined by chasms of inequality, entrenched segregation, a brutally violent and repressive police force, and an autocratic city government firmly in the grip of Mayor Richard J. Daley’s Democratic machine. Meanwhile the United States was, as King reportedly told Harry Belafonte in 1968, two years after leaving Chicago having been largely defeated by Daley’s machine, “a burning house”—a nation that had abandoned any semblance of a “moral vision” and that robbed “the poor and disenfranchised” of “justice and opportunity.” Shortly after uttering those words, King was murdered while in Memphis to fight on the behalf of striking sanitation workers, while in a nation whose majority population generally hated him for daring to be so overtly critical of their cherished attachments to capitalism, racism, empire, and war.

Later that year, Fred Hampton, an inheritor primarily of Malcolm X’s militancy but also an admirer of King, joined the nascent Illinois branch of the Black Panther Party, all too aware that the United States was indeed the burning house King had described. Hampton was drawn by the party’s revolutionary prescriptions for the layered sicknesses in the nation’s body: a socialist politics led by the poor as the antidote to capitalism’s social and economic violence; multiracial solidarity as the cure for racism; armed self-defense in rejection of the state’s illegitimate claim to a monopoly on violence.

Quickly assuming leadership of the Chicago-based chapter, the ILBPP that he oversaw was soon viewed by others around the country as a model for what the Panthers could accomplish. Fiercely committed to Chicago’s Black community, he and his comrades organized survival programs for Black Chicagoans: free breakfast for children, a free community clinic, a bus system for family to visit incarcerated loved ones. They worked alongside the Puerto Rican Young Lords, the Young Patriots (an organization comprised of poor white migrants from Appalachia), and other groups in the “Rainbow Coalition,” fostering radical, multiracial solidarity in the face of shared problems in Chicago of poverty, divestment, and police brutality. Hampton worked to temper sexism within the sometimes infamously masculinist Panthers, argued passionately on behalf of Vietnamese victims of the U.S. war and against American empire, and brilliantly articulated the plain fact that the rot at the core of America was capitalism and its primary beneficiaries. By late 1969, Panther leaders at the party’s central office in Oakland were so impressed with Hampton that he was routinely brought up as the logical next candidate for national party leadership.

His comrades in and beyond the party were not, however, the only ones taking note of his promise and rise. Even before he joined the party, the Federal Bureau of Investigation had placed Hampton under intensive surveillance because of his work with the NAACP, which FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had long loathed and suspected of being home to a Communist Party cabal. In 1967, at the age of nineteen and still working almost exclusively in the west Chicago suburbs, Hampton was added to the bureau’s “Rabble Rouser Index” alongside household names like Martin Luther King Jr. and Stokely Carmichael.

The intensity of Hoover’s and the bureau’s fear of Hampton escalated exponentially when he joined the Panthers. In July 1969, Hoover declared that the BPP “without question, represents the greatest threat to the internal security of the country,” and the weight of the bureau’s counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO), which had been used to surveil, disrupt, and neutralize the civil rights movement for years, was brought down upon the party. Using misinformation, agents provocateurs, intensive surveillance, and violence, the bureau sought nothing less than to literally destroy the Panthers.

The federal mobilization against the BPP, often carried out with the happy assistance of local politicians and police, was partly the product of the paranoias of men like Hoover and then-president Richard Nixon. But it also reflected a generalized fear and loathing for racial justice struggles, especially among white Americans, that had congealed in much of the country by that point. When Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, 31 percent of Americans polled said that he’d brought his murder on himself; Gallup polls from earlier in the decade had showed wide opposition to nonviolent civil rights demonstrations.

And the Panthers, of course, were decidedly not nonviolent. (It should be noted that rejecting nonviolence does not mean that they were actively violent, but rather that they refused to commit to nonviolence in the face of overwhelming violence from state actors, white supremacists, and the large number of people who were both.) Started in the Bay Area in 1966 and then splashing across TV screens and newspaper front pages in May of 1967, donned in black leather and bandoliers at the California state capitol, the Panthers served as a fever dream for the many Americans who resented the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the poor people’s movement, the anti-war movement, the generalized challenges to U.S. racism, imperialism, capitalism, and heteropatriarchy that were attempting to recalibrate the nation’s values and commitments. If nearly a third of Americans had thought that King was to blame for his own murder in 1968, very few were bothered by police across the country killing nearly thirty members of the BPP across 1968 and 1969, as Panther attorney Charles Garry said they had. [1]

King was murdered while in Memphis to fight on behalf of striking sanitation workers.

As a result of all of this repression and rage against the Panthers, Fred Hampton would become, by Garry’s measure, the twenty-eighth Panther killed by police before the close of 1969. On December 4, 1969, in a coordinated effort by Hoover’s FBI, the Chicago Police Department (CPD), and the Cook County (Illinois) State’s Attorney’s office, a cadre of CPD officers stormed Hampton’s apartment in a pre-dawn raid and emptied nearly one hundred bullets into it. They shot dead Mark Clark, a member of the Panthers from Peoria, Illinois, who was staying in the apartment. They injured other party members who were also sleeping there. And, finally, they shot Fred Hampton execution-style in his head while he lay beside his almost nine-months-pregnant partner, Deborah Johnson (now Akua Njeri). He was twenty-one years old when the United States government and the Chicago police murdered him; three and a half weeks more and he would have been able to meet his only child—a son, Fred Hampton, Jr., who continues the work of making Chicagoland a more just place.

Anti-

Maybe it’s only natural that organizers, activists, and artists like the ones here in Madison would be turning to Hampton half a century after his murder: that the Movement for Black Lives would namecheck him on their website; that director Shaka King and producers Ryan Coogler and Charles D. King would make him a subject of the Oscar-nominated film Judas and the Black Messiah; that Etsy shopkeepers would find buyers for shirts declaring that the “FBI Killed Fred Hampton”; that the activist and artist Noname would put Hampton-family attorney Jeffrey Haas’s The Assassination of Fred Hampton on her book club list.

I mean, he never really left—at least not his spirit, which has stuck around since his murder, at least in certain circles, both politically and artistically. Dozens of community organizations in Chicago were organized or recalibrated to demand justice for him and Mark Clark in the wake of their murders, and to insist that seeking justice in their memory meant reining in the city’s out-of-control, racist, and violent police force. Revolutionary organizations like the Black Liberation Army, the May 19th Communist Organization, the Revolutionary Communist Party, and the New Afrikan Freedom Fighters all claimed him as a revolutionary model, and his assassination as evidence of the state’s crimes. He lived on in art pieces still housed or on tour through venerable institutions like the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery and the Brooklyn Museum, and in songs by a diverse range of musicians that included the soul poet Gil Scott-Heron, folk artist Bob Gibson, and country singer Ronee Blakley.

So maybe I should’ve expected last summer’s mural. Maybe it was just one more note in a half-century praise song to him. Maybe it isn’t that remarkable after all.

But I don’t think that’s right. Or, rather, what I mean to say is that if visions and celebrations of Hampton never truly faded, ours is an especially important moment to consider him anew—and by “our moment” I mean not just the months since May of last year, but rather the years since the first invocation of #BlackLivesMatter in July 2013 and the August 2014 Ferguson uprising after the murder of Michael Brown, Jr.

So many of the oppressive structures that govern modern American society are extensions or exacerbations of ones that Hampton and his comrades in the late-1960s liberation struggles were battling against. That alone makes his life worth considering now. A few weeks before his murder, Hampton succinctly identified what he considered the primary trio of oppressors in the United States: “The only thing that’s gonna change our set of arrangements is what’s gotten us into this set of arrangements. And that’s the oppressor. And it’s on three stages, we call it the three-in-one: avaricious, greedy businessmen; demagogic, lyin’ politicians; and racist, pig fascist, reactionary cops.” In this framing, shaped by a Marxist reading of the world and the revolutionary struggle to remake it, the most important oppressive forces at work were the drivers of the capitalist system, the political class that supported it at all costs, and the police who were its frontline enforcers.

Hampton pushed people to dream, live, and fight for a world lived beyond capitalism.

If this all sounds familiar, it should. Hampton was not a “class-reductionist” thinker, as the community-organizing, -building, -supporting, and -life-affirming he did specifically within Black Chicago demonstrate. He was acutely, personally aware of the ways that anti-Blackness visited unique harm upon his community, and he dedicated much of his time to confronting and eradicating that harm. All the same, he was profoundly attuned to the fact that it would be hard for most of us to truly be free under capitalism. And so in a nation stricken by expressions of white supremacy, new ones and old ones alike, there is much to learn from Hampton’s insistences on multiracial solidarity and assertions that the struggle was, first and foremost, a class one. In an era of evermore aggressive neoliberal austerity, it’s worth reflecting upon the Panthers’ survival programs and understanding them as forerunners for mutual aid efforts of our own time. Living in a country that boasts of being the global leader in incarcerating its own citizens—a disastrous punishment regime irretrievably shaped by racism and downward-directed class warfare—urges us to better reckon with the Panthers’ arguments about the interconnections between poverty, politics, and punishment from fifty years ago.

In other words, there might be precious few times better suited than now to reflect on the anti-fascist, anti-capitalist, anti-racist, and abolitionist politics of Fred Hampton, who presented us with a vision of a better world and demanded that people fight for it.

Fear of a Black Marxist

Whereas King had warned of the perilous and quite possibly fruitless goal of “integrating into [the] burning house” that was the United States, Hampton analogized the nation not to a house aflame but to an infected body. Using the language of contagion, he described the United States as a “sick society,” and once said that anybody who endorsed “integrating into this sick society before it’s cleaned up is a man who’s committing a crime against the people.”

The maladies were multiple, but perhaps none struck Hampton more than the toxin of capitalism. By 1969 an avowed Marxist-Leninist like his colleagues elsewhere in the Panthers, he emerged as one of the party’s most adept articulators of the fact that capitalism did not happen alongside widespread poverty in America but was the force that caused it. At a time in which the gospel of “Black capitalism” was ascendant—including from within the Nixon White House, which preached Black capitalism as a mechanism for elevating African Americans into the middle classes, even if in shamefully small numbers—Hampton discarded the very logic thereof. “We have to understand very clearly,” he told one audience, “that there’s a man in our community called a capitalist. Sometimes he’s Black and sometimes he’s white.” Describing said capitalists as “anybody who comes into the community to make profit off the people by exploiting them,” he called for their expulsion from the community.

Assailing its practitioners as proxies for capitalism itself, Hampton proposed that a new world would be ushered into being not by the capitalists or the middle classes, but by what he alternatively called “the lower class” and the “proletariat,” in keeping with Marxism dictums. In this vision, it was the people who were the most exploited by capitalism, racism, and oppression who held the keys to leading the revolution that would challenge and topple all three.

Meanwhile, he promulgated alternative models of living that would simultaneously offer people the things they needed, while offering them a political education on the efficacies of socialism. The most famous was the Panthers’ Free Breakfast for Children Program, which at its height provided free breakfast to tens of thousands of children every week across the country. Driven by an understanding that a full belly was both a physical and mental necessity for kids, the wildly popular program also served to show community members what socialism looked like in practice. In a speech at Chicago’s Olivet Baptist Church, Hampton described how community members who might not know what socialism was damn sure knew what the Free Breakfast for Children Program was. Through such recognition, he argued, people would learn the benefits of a revolutionary agenda. “A lot of people think the Breakfast for Children Program is charity,” he said, “but what does it do? It takes the people from a stage to another stage. Any program that’s revolutionary is an advancing program. Revolution is change.”

What Hampton angled toward with both the advancement of such programs and the ways he talked about them was to push people to dream, live, and fight for a world lived beyond capitalism. His was a vision propelled by mutuality, growth, and rebellion against not just that system’s exploitations, but the system itself.

The examples of how his socialism specifically, but also his anti-capitalism more generally, manifested in thought and practice are countless, but I think what’s most useful for us to consider right now is how relevant they remain. In the fifty-years-and-change since Hampton leveled his condemnations of capitalism and modeled alternatives to it, capitalism’s social and economic violence has only grown more acute. This country today is home to wealth that’s grotesquely more concentrated, not less, than it was a half century ago. The divide between the one percent and the rest of us, and especially between the one percent and the bottom half of earners, is a chasm. And it’s all been further worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic, from which the “avaricious, greedy businessmen” that Hampton condemned long ago have gleefully profited while more than half a million of their fellow citizens—disproportionately Black and brown Americans—have died.

Hampton’s particular insistence on helping his people was central to his political imaginary and struggle. Indeed, his understanding that racism and capitalism, always inseparable, hit Black communities the worst, was the foundation for the survival programs like the breakfast program and the medical clinic.

But—and this, too, is important for us now—he also labored under the knowledge that while anti-Blackness shapes this country indelibly, there were so many other individuals and communities who also faced various forms of oppression within it. This knowledge was what informed the construction of Chicago’s famous and first Rainbow Coalition (a phrase later used to describe Harold Washington’s 1983 Chicago mayoral campaign, and Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988), which revolved most heavily (though not exclusively) around the Panthers’ hard-forged solidarities with the Young Lords and Young Patriots. The former was a Puerto Rican street gang that would evolve into a revolutionary organization in its own right, one shaped by the Panthers’ political philosophies and work. The latter was a group comprised primarily of white migrants from Appalachia to Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, many of whom were overtly racist toward Black people, making them unlikely allies with the city’s most militant and influential Black Power organization.

But the argument and pitch that Hampton and his Panther comrades made in uniting these disparate groups was that what they shared in common was more important than their differences, at least when it came to building a movement. The point was not to diminish or deny the specificity of anti-Black racism and the burdens it placed upon the masses of Black Chicagoans. Rather, it was to point out that there were crucial nodes around which solidarity could be built across racial lines. Police violence that was endemic on Chicago’s Black West Side was also a severe problem in Puerto Rican neighborhoods on the Near North Side, as well as in the poorest pockets of Chicago’s Appalachian communities in Uptown. Deep poverty and food insecurity afflicted many different communities in Chicago, across racial and ethnic lines. The machine structure of the city’s political system robbed all such communities of a particularly potent voice in the realm of electoral politics, stunting hope for meaningfully changing the system through mainstream lines.

A guiding logic behind the Rainbow Coalition held that it served the oppressors—the politicians and the wealthy—to keep people divided by race, ethnicity, and class. It thus became a guiding goal to build a people’s movement in the city that would unite the poor, the disenfranchised, and all those living beneath the burdens of oppression. And such a movement was precisely what Hampton and his colleagues in the coalition began to build over the course of 1969: a body of comrades coming together not to demand some abstract colorblind future in which a select few would find new opportunities to ascend the social and economic hierarchy, but rather to struggle for a world in which the material, spiritual, and political needs of the masses would be met.

This led city and federal officials alike to identify Hampton as a threat worthy, in horrifically short order, of their murderous focus. It was because what he was trying to do was working—because he had found and begun to effectively use a skeleton key that might free all oppressed people: revolutionary solidarity.

Triple Threat

The capitalists, the politicians, and “the pigs”—that unholy trinity of oppressors. Fred Hampton spent the last years of his life laboring on behalf of those whom they oppressed. It was the last of these, the police, that did the official dirty work, murdering him and Mark Clark in that horrific raid. But even though the police stole his life, it would be a disservice to Hampton to simply leave the matter there. Doing so would suggest that the violent power of the state always wins, and as Hampton often said, “you can kill a revolutionary, but you can’t kill the revolution.”

Hampton spent much of his young life being harassed by police, dating back to his civil rights activism as a Maywood teenager. He was stopped countless times, arrested on multiple occasions, and spent months in prison on bogus charges of robbing an ice cream truck that threw his 1969 community organizing efforts into some disarray.

The police targeted him like this for many reasons, none of them legitimate. After his assassination, many Chicago Police Department officers actively celebrated, led by the head of the local Fraternal Order of Police, who framed Hampton’s murder as a comeuppance for years of preaching racial hatred. Fomenting racial hatred was not, of course, something Hampton was at all interested in. But he had spent a great deal of time and energy railing against the police, demanding the freedom of political prisoners, and arguing, generally, that police and their monopoly on the use of force were fundamentally illegitimate. He never specifically called to abolish police and prisons, but that was really a matter of semantics; abolition was the logical endgame of what he was driving at, because if an institution of coercion and punishment has no legitimacy, as he argued of police and prisons, then that institution has no right to exist.

After his assassination, many Chicago Police Department officers actively celebrated.

The most famous expression of this sentiment—one not unique to Hampton but widely held by Panthers in Chicago and across the nation—was the claiming of a right to self-defense against police, a rejection of the state’s claim to be the only legitimate administrator of violence. Some people forget that the full name of the Black Panther Party was the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, but the final three words were crucial. Within them lay an argument and an assertion: the police do not get to commit acts of violence, invasion, and harassment with impunity, and that it was the right of the people to defend themselves against such acts.

Police relentlessly weaponized this claim against the Panthers, using it as the justification for search warrants, stop-and-frisks, raid after raid, and assault after assault. Police had to have known that the party was primarily in the business of protecting themselves and their community from police violence, more so than in the one of initiating violence against so heavily armed an opponent. In Chicago, Hampton was vocal among his colleagues across the Left in deploring violence if it was thoughtless and nonstrategic, which meant that overwhelmingly, incidents of violence between the police and the Panthers there were initiated by the CPD.

In other words, the police’s murder of Hampton—committed in self-defense, they claimed—was not a response to a clear and present threat of violence from the Panthers. It was instead an obviously reactionary assault upon the organization. It quite literally is not a story that’s remotely about Panther violence; it’s a horrible but necessary reminder of just how violent the police were and are. In 1969 and 1970 alone, the Chicago Police Department killed at least fifty-six Black men and three Black women, most of whom were unarmed. This included Fred Hampton. But it bears remembering that while they killed him because he was a revolutionary, they more generally killed Black people with impunity and without consequence.

People over Pigs

The reason it would be a mistake to let the police have the last word on this, however, is because despite their best efforts, they killed the revolutionary but didn’t kill his revolutionary ideas. He has lived on in the immediate and the long term. Ponder the precedent for modern calls to defund the police: a political effort to seize community control of the police and defund the CPD launched by what remained of the Illinois Panthers in 1972 in collaboration with other community partners. They called for the people to determine what policing would look like in their communities: who should get to police, what powers they would be vested with, what resources they would have. They demanded an end to police violence and terrorism. They called for a divestment in the Chicago Police Department and a reinvestment of part of its budget into social goods for the community. In other words, they called for us, forty-nine years ago, to defund the police.

Their effort didn’t succeed for a host of reasons, foremost the fact that achieving the vision for community control required working through the electoral process—turning it into a ballot initiative and collecting the massive numbers of signatures thus needed to put it to a vote. Activists on the campaign were dedicated, but the city of Chicago and the FBI had literally conspired to murder the city’s best organizer that night in December 1969. Perhaps it wouldn’t have worked out anyway, but the fact that they had assassinated Fred Hampton—the consummate activist, organizer, and justice worker, and the city’s most forceful and talented articulator of the evils of police abuse—made the task all the harder. So it didn’t come to pass. That doesn’t mean it didn’t matter.

Working in the name of Chairman Fred, those who fought in his honor argued to the entire city of Chicago that it needed to invest in the people. That it needed to listen to and care for its Black and brown communities. That it needed to strip away money from the racist, abusive police force that ran that city. That it needed to reinvest that money into meaningful and life-affirming social goods.

In the wake of his murder, the Illinois Panthers held a memorial rally for Fred Hampton at the Church of the Epiphany on Chicago’s Near West Side. They passed out pamphlets to advertise it, headlined with the simple declarative, “Chairman Fred Lives.”

Celebrate his life. Listen to the songs. See Judas and the Black Messiah and appreciate the beauty of its artistic vision, knowing that it can’t capture the half of Chairman Fred’s political vision. View the artwork. Pass a mural in your city and stop in your tracks. But most important, I am sure he would say, do the work. Study up. Learn. Change. Grow. Be in community and solidarity with one another. Be out in the streets when you can be, and when you’re not, support those who are.

Part of the inscription on Hampton’s headstone, at his burial site outside of Haynesville, Louisiana, says simply this: “Fred said, ‘If I were free, what would I spend my life doing?’” It’s the second half of the question that haunts us today. What would I spend my life doing? We will never know what he could have done—what so many others who were gunned down could have accomplished. We can know this: the revolutionary life he lived still speaks to us today.

 

[1] The actual number of Panthers killed by police remains in dispute. Some claimed it lower than this figure; Garry told a skeptical New Yorker journalist that it was probably even higher.

Simon Balto teaches, researches, and writes about African American history in the United States. His first book is Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power.

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