Remembering Fred Hampton

Hands down, the historical figure I find most inspiring is Fred Hampton.

As a black rights activist and chairman of the Chicago Black Panthers, he deserves a place in Black History as prominent as Malcom X and Martin Luther King. Unfortunately, he was prevented from fulfilling his full potential when he was assassinated by the police at just 21. The story of Fred Hampton can be distressing, but it highlights the violent oppression that makes Black History Month so important.

Fred Hampton was born in 1948, and fought oppression and racism for the whole of his life. In high school, he organised protests against teachers using racial slurs and the rule that only white girls could be homecoming queen, and fought for more black people to be hired at the school. He challenged his white peers on their views and made a tangible impact on the diversity of the school. At just 14, he helped to organise a youth branch on the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People).

One of my favourites of Hampton’s early projects is that he would take local black children to the nearest pool, as they weren’t allowed to use the one in their town. The fact Hampton had to go so far out of his way to do this is a stark reminder of how POC have been stripped of basic rights throughout history. It should not be celebrated that he had to go so far, sometimes taking several 10 mile journeys a day, just for children to be able to swim. However, it does show Hampton’s dedication to helping others and fighting inequality. After joining the Black Panther Party, Hampton quickly became a key figure in the organisation and began making history. His knowledge of socialism and class consciousness allowed him to fight racial tensions in Chicago in radical new ways. Notably, Hampton negotiated a non-aggression pact between Chicago’s largest gangs. 

Perhaps Fred Hampton’s most significant contribution to history was the creation of the Rainbow Coalition. Highlighting their joint class oppression, and how racial conflict was preventing them from fighting it, Hampton united rival Chicago groups, the Black Panthers (black), Young Patriots (white) and Young Lords (Latinx). This faced legitimate criticism from the wider movement, due to historic distrust of white groups (for obvious reasons) but had a significant positive impact on the group members and wider community.

Sadly, Fred is not normally remembered for his activism, his work with children (swimming pool trips and free breakfast programs) or his efforts in uniting underprivileged groups. Fred Hampton is more often remembered for his death. In 1969, as Fred was on the verge of even bigger success in his activism and promotion within the Black Panther Party, the FBI concluded Fred’s leadership was too threatening, and organised a violent raid. During the night, Hampton (deeply asleep after being drugged by an infiltrator) was shot dead, lying next to his heavily pregnant girlfriend. He was 21 years old. 

The police squad involved were hailed as justified, brave and restrained. They claimed they shot in self defence and had not arrived with plans to kill. The Police fired between 90 and 99 shots, the Panthers only 1, fired from the falling gun of Mark Clark as he too was shot dead.

As much as I wish Fred Hampton would be remembered for his actions, and not his death, it needs to be discussed, especially considering recent events. Fred Hampton was intentionally killed by authorities for being black and for uniting the oppressed. Those who killed him were never charged with any crime.

The murder of black people in America (and across the world) by authorities is not a phenomenon of the past. Just last week, Atatiana Jefferson, a 28 year old black woman, was shot dead by a police officer. She was in her own home, unarmed and playing video games. Due to growing public visibility of racial police brutality, largely due to movements like Black Lives Matter, the officer who killed Jefferson has been charged with murder. However, many officers escape punishment after similar crimes, receiving much the same soft treatment Hampton's killers did. 

Black History Month is about a lot of things: pride, enabling people to discover their personal histories and uncovering stories hidden by a history often written by white institutions still plagued by racism and ashamed of their past. Remembering Fred Hampton’s life story does this, and more.  He is a historical figure who should be celebrated, an icon of the Chicago black community, but his story also brings attention to the historic and continued oppression of people of colour.

 

If you want to know more about this topic, I got a lot of information from the great article Fred Ain’t Dead: The Impact of the Life and Legacy Fred Hampton.