For a new generation of activists involved around the Black Lives Matter (BLM) mass protests of recent months, there has been an exposure to the historic and deep-rooted institutional racism that exists in the US, highlighted by the police murder of George Floyd.
It has also introduced to this young layer of anti-racists a glimpse of some of the heroic black fighters who have been prepared to stand up and confront the white supremacists, bigots, police, corporate politicians, and government agencies, who continue to brutally oppress the black working class of the US and internationally.
Socialists are of course familiar with black leaders such as the assassinated civil rights campaigner Martin Luther King and radical black activist Malcolm X, as well as socialist Black Panther leaders, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton.
However, probably because he was murdered by police at the early age of 21, Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, deserves wider recognition as a leader for black liberation. But more importantly, as an advocate of revolutionary socialist change to achieve that objective.
The publication last year of an updated paperback edition of the Jeffrey Hass book, ‘The Assassination of Fred Hampton’, is well-timed for understanding the present BLM movement. It is a riveting and disturbing account of Hampton’s murder in 1969 by the Chicago Police Department, in collaboration with the FBI, and the ensuing lengthy legal fight to prove that it was effectively a state-sponsored assassination.
Hampton’s short adult life was naturally influenced by the momentous social and political upheavals of the 1960s.
When he turned 18, in 1966, he refused to register for the Vietnam War draft – undoubtedly influenced by world heavyweight champion boxer Muhammad Ali’s own draft refusal when he defiantly proclaimed: “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong. No Vietcong ever called me a N*****”!
At the same time as the anti-war protests, riots were breaking out across US cities in response to growing police harassment and inequality. The pacifist civil rights leaders were coming under increasing pressure from an emerging Black Power movement to more directly confront the poverty and discrimination facing urban blacks.
The message of Black Power resonated with Fred Hampton. However, unlike some black nationalists, he saw it not as a tool to attack whites, but as an attempt to bring black people together and build their confidence.
After moving to Chicago, Hampton rapidly evolved from black rights activist to Panther leader and advocate of revolutionary socialist change.
His organisational skills and political clarity were not only recognised by the Panther Central Committee, but also became increasingly visible on the radar of the Chicago Police Department, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Under the bold and inspiring leadership of 20-year-old Hampton, the Chicago Chapter of the Black Panther Party flourished to such an extent that it temporarily stopped taking new members so that it could integrate all those who had joined!
Hampton’s rallying call of class struggle and socialist revolution was echoing around the city of Chicago, the state of Illinois, and across the US. It was a dangerous and unacceptable threat to the US capitalist class which had to be dealt with.
In today’s BLM movement, Fred Hampton’s most recognisable and popular quote has inspired numerous potential revolutionary socialists, with his demand that in order to finally eradicate racism, poverty and inequality, socialist change is needed: “We’re going to fight racism not with racism but we’re going to fight with solidarity. We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism but we’re going to fight it with socialism.”
To those black nationalists who refused to participate with the Panthers, and who accused them of being ‘engrossed with oppressor country radicals, or white people, or honkies’, Hampton replied with an unequivocal class response: “First of all we say primarily that the priority of this struggle is class… It was one class, the oppressed class, versus those other classes, the oppressor. And it’s a universal fact. Those who don’t admit to that are those who don’t want to get involved in a revolution, because they know as long as they’re dealing with a race thing, they’ll never be involved in a revolution”.
Little wonder that Hampton’s principled class approach, of uniting the working class of all colours and races to overthrow the capitalist class and their system, led to the full might of the US state apparatus – the police, judiciary, governmental departments – turning their telescopic gunsights towards this dangerous Panther revolutionary.
Edgar Hoover, FBI director and witch-hunter general of ‘communist’ agitators, trade union militants, black activists, and any other ‘enemies’ of the US capitalist state, had already compiled a ‘Key Agitator Index’. Hampton, after his arrest for “mob action” (at a peaceful picket), was placed on the list for FBI agents to monitor closely.
Hoover had also initiated a secret, illegal, Counterintelligence Programme (COINTELPRO) ordering FBI agents in all cities with Panther Chapters to develop “hard-hitting programmes designed to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralise” the Panthers.
Another stated objective of Hoover was to “prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify and electrify the militant Black Nationalist movement”.
With Martin Luther King and Malcolm X already murderously dealt with, and Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in jail, the charismatic 21-year-old Hampton rose to the top of Hoover’s most-wanted list!
At 4.30 am on 4 December 1969, while asleep in his apartment, Fred Hampton’s life was extinguished by two police bullets to the head.
In secret collaboration with the FBI, the Chicago Police Department’s officers claimed that while they were trying to serve a search warrant, looking for weapons, they were fired upon from inside the apartment, and returned fire in self-defence.
This so-called ‘act of self-defence’ was met with anger and incredulity by Chicago’s black community, when it was revealed that the police had shot almost 100 bullets into the apartment, whereas only one bullet hole could be found exiting!
After this one-sided shootout, Hampton’s pregnant girlfriend was dragged out of their bedroom. She then described two police officers going into the bedroom, hearing one of them fire two shots, followed by “He’s good an’ dead now”.
One elderly woman paying her respect, alongside the thousands of others who toured the apartment in the days following, commented: “This was nothing but a Northern lynching”.
Hampton’s state execution was followed by years of court trials and legal disputes in which the author of this book, Jeffrey Haas, led his team of lawyers in a strenuous attempt to prove that the assassination of Hampton was planned, organised, and literally executed by the US capitalist state, to prevent a potential socialist ‘messiah’ from spreading the gospel of socialism.
The determination and tenacity of Hass, attorney Flint Taylor, and others in the People’s Law Office team, ultimately exposed the ruthless role of the state in defending their system, and is a stark warning and lesson to be learnt for today’s activists.
From corrupt judges, racist police, smug and lying prosecutors, black police informers, Democrat and Republican political lackeys, and ‘untouchable’ FBI agents, this book is not a good read if you suffer from high blood pressure!
It makes you really angry but it also inspires. Inspiring to read how a young revolutionary like Fred Hampton recognised that racism, poverty and inequality could only be eradicated by uniting the working class around a socialist programme.
At his funeral, Father Clemens, known for his advocacy for black youth, ended his eulogy with these words: “You can kill the revolutionary but you can’t kill the revolution. You can jail the liberator but you can’t jail the liberation. You can run the freedom fighter all around the country but you can’t stop freedom fighting. So believed Fred – so said Fred – so say we all.”
The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and Chicago Police murdered a Black Panther
By Jeffrey Haas – Lawrence Hill Books, Chicago