Biography of Fred Hampton, Black Panther Party Leader

The activist died at age 21 in a law enforcement raid

Chicago Police killed Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton when he was just 21 years old.
Slain Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton.

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Fred Hampton (August 30, 1948–December 4, 1969) was an activist for the NAACP and the Black Panther Party. At age 21, Hampton was fatally shot alongside a fellow activist during a law enforcement raid.

Activists and the broader black community considered the deaths of these men unjust, and their families ultimately received a settlement stemming from a civil lawsuit. Today, Hampton is widely remembered as a martyr for the cause of black liberation.

Fast Facts: Fred Hampton

  • Known For: Black Panther Party activist who was in a law enforcement raid
  • Born: August 30, 1948 in Summit, Illinois.
  • Parents: Francis Allen Hampton and Iberia Hampton
  • Died: December 4, 1969 in Chicago, Illinois
  • Education: YMCA Community College, Triton College
  • Children: Fred Hampton Jr.
  • Notable Quote: “We always say in the Black Panther Party they can do anything they want to to us. We might not be back. I might be in jail. I might be anywhere. But when I leave, you’ll remember I said, with the last words on my lips, that I am a revolutionary."

Early Years

Fred Hampton was born on August 30, 1948 in Summit, Illinois. His parents, Francis Allen Hampton and Iberia Hampton, were Louisiana natives who relocated to Chicago. As a youth, Fred excelled in sports and dreamed of playing baseball for the New York Yankees. However, he also excelled in the classroom. Hampton ultimately attended Triton College, where he studied pre-law in hopes of helping people of color fight back against police brutality. As a teen, Hampton became involved in civil rights by leading a local NAACP youth council. He helped to grow the council's membership to more than 500 members.

Activism in the Black Panther Party

Hampton had success with the NAACP, but the radicalism of the Black Panther Party resonated with him even more. The BPP had successfully launched a free breakfast program to feed children in a number of cities. The group also advocated for self-defense rather than nonviolence and took a global perspective on the black freedom struggle, finding inspiration in Maoism.

A skilled speaker and organizer, Hampton quickly moved through the ranks of the BPP. He became the leader of Chicago’s BPP branch, then the chairmain of the Illinois BPP, and finally the deputy chair of the national BPP. He engaged in grassroots activism, working as an organizer, a peacemaker, and taking part in the BPP’s free breakfast program and people’s medical clinic.

A COINTELPRO Target

From the 1950s until the 1970s, the FBI’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO) targeted leaders of activist organizations like Fred Hampton. The program served to undermine, infiltrate, and spread misinformation (often through extrajudicial means) about political groups and the activists who belonged to them. COINTELPRO targeted civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as well as radical groups like the Black Panther Party, the American Indian Movement, and the Young Lords. As Hampton’s influence in the Black Panthers grew, the FBI began to focus on his activities, opening a file on him in 1967.

The FBI enlisted a man named William O'Neal to infiltrate and sabotage the Black Panthers Party. O'Neal, who had been previously arrested for car theft and impersonating a federal officer, agreed to the task because the federal agency promised to drop the felony charges against him. O’Neal quickly gained access to Hampton by becoming both his bodyguard and a security director in Hampton’s Black Panther Party chapter.

As a Black Panther Party leader, Hampton persuaded Chicago’s black and Puerto Rican street gangs to call a truce. He also worked with white-dominated groups like Students for a Democratic Society and the Weather Underground. He called the multiracial groups he collaborated with his "Rainbow Coalition." Following FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s orders, O’Neal undid much of Hampton’s work to foster peace in the community, leading community members to lose confidence in the BPP.

Fred Hampton's Killing

Sowing discord in the community wasn’t the only way O’Neal attempt to undermine Hampton. He also played a direct role in his killing.

On December 3, 1969, O’Neal secretly drugged Hampton by putting a sleeping pill into his drink. Shortly afterward, law enforcement agents initiated an early morning raid on Hampton’s apartment. Despite not having a warrant for weapons charges, they entered the apartment with guns firing. They mortally wounded Mark Clark, who was guarding Hampton. Hampton and his fiancee, Deborah Johnson (also called Akua Njeri), were asleep in their bedroom. They had been wounded but survived the gunfire. When an officer realized that Hampton hadn’t been killed, he proceeded to shoot the activist twice in the head. Johnson, who was expecting a child with Hampton, was not killed.

The other seven Black Panthers present in the apartment were charged with several serious crimes, including attempted murder, armed violence, and multiple weapons charges. However, when a Department of Justice investigation revealed that Chicago Police had fired up to 99 shots, and the Panthers had only fired once, the charges were dropped.

Activists considered the killing of Hampton to be an assassination. When the FBI’s Pennsylvania field office was broken into not long after, the COINTELPRO files found included a floor plan of Hampton’s apartment and documents that mentioned covering up the FBI’s part in Hampton’s killing.

Lawsuit and Settlement

The family members of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark sued the Chicago Police, Cook County, and the FBI for $47.7 million in 1970 for wrongfully killing the men. That case was thrown out, but a new case took place in 1979 after officials concluded that the law enforcement agencies involved had obstructed justice and refused to hand over relevant paperwork related to the killings. Three years later, the families of Hampton and Clark learned that they would receive a $1.85 million settlement from the local and federal agencies responsible for the men’s deaths. Although that sum was far less than what they’d sought, the settlement was an acknowledgement, to a degree, of wrongdoing.

Had the Chicago Police not killed Fred Hampton, he would have been named chief of staff of the Black Panther Party's central committee, making him a key spokesman for the group. Hampton never got that opportunity, but he has not been forgotten. Soon after his death, the BPP filmed an investigation of his apartment, which police did not close off. The footage captured is seen in the 1971 documentary “The Murder of Fred Hampton.”

An estimated 5,000 mourners turned up to Hampton’s funeral, during which the activist was remembered by civil rights leaders such the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Ralph Abernathy. Although activists Roy Wilkins and Ramsey Clark characterized Hampton’s killing as unjustified, none of the officers or officials involved in the raid were convicted of wrongdoing.

Legacy

A number of writers, rappers, and musicians have referred to Fred Hampton in their writings or lyrics. The group Rage Against the Machine famously mentions the activist in its 1996 hit “Down Rodeo,” in which frontman Zack de la Rocha declares, “They ain’t gonna send us campin’ like they did my man Fred Hampton.”

In the city of Chicago, December 4 is “Fred Hampton Day.” A public pool in Maywood, Illinois, where Hampton grew up, bears his name. A bust of Hampton sits outside the Fred Hampton Family Aquatic Center.

Hampton, like other political activists, seemed keenly aware that his work would put his life in jeopardy. However, while he was alive, he expressed confidence in his own legacy:

“We always say in the Black Panther Party that they can do anything they want to us. We might not be back. I might be in jail. I might be anywhere. But when I leave, you’ll remember I said, with the last words on my lips, that I am a revolutionary. And you’re going to have to keep on saying that. You’re going to have to say that I am a proletariat, I am the people.”

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