Murder or “Justifiable Homicide”?: The Death of the Revolutionary Fred Hampton

Fred Hampton with Quote | Courtesy of Pinterest

Winner of the Spring 2019 StMU History Media Award for

Best Use of Images

On the morning of December 4, 1969, just before 5 am, a small team of officers stormed the home of the chairman of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party and opened fire. By the time it was over, almost one hundred rounds, ninety-nine of which had come from the officers, had been fired, and Mark Clack and Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers, lay dead.

Born August 30, 1948, Fred Hampton seemed to be destined to be a revolutionary from a young age. At just sixteen, Fred took over his local youth chapter of the NAACP and grew numbers from roughly 100 to close to 700.1 Around the same time, he set up a protest of the policy of black girls being excluded from being elected homecoming queen, and successfully changed it.2

After high school, Fred’s work for social justice continued, championing a neighborhood pool and recreation center that would allow the youth of the community to have a place to spend the days during the summer. By nineteen years old, Fred Hampton became the deputy chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party. Unlike the violent and militant picture that has been painted of the Black Panther Party, BPP, local chapters worked incredibly hard to better their communities, much like Fred did before he joined. Chapters implemented school lunch programs, opened health clinics, protested for street light installation when people continued to die at intersections, held political education classes to educate people within the community on their rights, and much more. The BPP had a 10 point program that laid out their missions:

1. We want freedom. We want the power to determine the destiny of our black community.
2. We want full employment for our people.
3. We want the end to the robbery by the capitalist of our black community.
4. We want decent housing, fit for the shelter of human beings.
5. We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in present day society.
6. We want all black men exempt from military service.
7. We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people.
8. We want freedom for all black men held in federal, state, county, and city prisons and jails.
9. We want all black people when brought to trial to be tried in a court by a jury of their peer group or people from their black communities, as defined by the constitution of the United States.
10. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace.3

Shortly after taking the role he did, Fred promptly became the target of the FBI’s COINTELPRO, whose purpose, among other things, was to “prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement.”4 This easily could have been Fred, as “he stood next in line for national leadership of the BPP” and did in fact electrify the people.5 Fred was paramount in the implementation of the school breakfast programs and health clinics for people in his community. Not only were social programs flourishing under Fred; he “had an uncanny ability to relay his message” and unite all members of the community, from “urbanized youth” to “church going members of the black community,” while also, like other BPP chapters around the US, giving political education class every day.6

Fred Hampton at a rally September 1969 | Courtesy Chicago Tribune

Along with unifying the black community, under the Rainbow Coalition, Fred was able to unite all disenfranchised members of society, no matter their skin color. On top of all of this, Fred worked to broker a nonaggression pact between “some of the most notorious gangs in Chicago,” and was in the middle of brokering another deal that would move people off the streets and out of gangs, and into the BPP, to fight “the true enemy–the government and the police.”7 Fred’s ability to bring people together and bring true change impacted many lives, but unfortunately, as he predicted, it also cost him his life.

The stated purpose of the December 4 raid was to seize illegal weapons that the Panthers were suspected of possessing, but, the illegal weapons they were in search of were never produced. Furthermore, during a federal grand jury investigation, it was noted, “the whole concept of going on a raid in a high crime density area to obtain weapons from known militants—led by a convicted felon believed to be dangerous—with only fourteen men in plainclothes, in the dead of night, with no sound equipment, no lighting equipment, no tear gas, and no plan for dealing with potential resistance—seems ill-conceived.”8 With this idea, it seems unlikely that the purpose was to obtain any weapons, as Austin Curtis states in his book Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party, “if [those in charge] had wanted to avoid violence and to confiscate the weapons they claimed to be searching for, they would have conducted the operation in the early evening,” but “as indicated by the heavy arsenal [including shotguns, submachine guns, carbines, and pistols] they carried,” it is clear that avoidance of violence was not what had been planned, especially with the knowledge that an 8 pm raid was rejected, even though it was known that the apartment would have been empty.9

Prior to the raid, there had been many attempts by COINTELPRO to discredit, disrupt, and disband BPP chapters, through, what seems like, any means necessary, including instigation of gang violence, seizure of assets, destruction of headquarters, and infiltration of the party, among other things. When the first three of those proved unsuccessful, infiltration of the party ultimately led to its downfall and the death of Fred when William O’Neal, an FBI informant, joined the party and “quickly moved up the ranks.”10 During his time as an informant, O’Neal, under orders from the FBI, sabotaged the breakfast program, stole documents financial and otherwise, and encouraged violence against police and the community with FBI supplied weapons and bombs, among many other tasks.11 O’Neal is also, for all intents and purposes, the person who brought about Fred’s death. Not only did he supply a hand drawn layout of Fred’s apartment, which even noted the rough height of the bed, he also supplied a list of who would most likely be there at a given time, and even drugged Fred, so that he would be unable to react at the time of the raid.12

Shortly before 5 am on the morning of December 4, fourteen officers stormed the home of Fred Hampton, where he, his pregnant girlfriend, and several others were sleeping. At the end, two men, Mark Clack and Fred, lay dead, while several others were wounded, critically or otherwise. The surviving members were then arrested and all “charged with attempted murder, aggravated assault, and assault with a deadly weapon, with bail set at at least $100,000 each.”13 Immediately, the police, and state’s attorney in charge of the raid, touted the raid as a success and put forth a narrative in which the Panther members were the aggressors, even stating that when they, the police, shouted for a cease fire, they were met with shouts to “shoot it out.”14 The members of the force were praised for their “bravery” and “professional discipline in not killing all the Panthers present,” and even did a CBS special reenactment of the raid, to “show” the public what had happened, along with supplying photo “evidence” of the Panther’s aggression in the form of bullet holes.15

Fred Hampton Bed after Death | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This story quickly unraveled as independent investigations by many parties, Panthers, media, and more, in conjunction with the stories of the survivors, painted a very different picture. The “bullet holes” that were touted as proof of Panther aggression turned out to be no more than nail heads in the wall.16 With this information, it was discovered that the Panther’s had only fired one shot, which came from the gun of Mark Clack after he had been shot in the heart outside the door, with the other ninety-nine rounds from the officers of the raid. Furthermore, after evaluation of the scene, which against protocol had not be secured or sealed, it showed that the brunt of the bullets were aimed in the direction of the bedroom, where Fred and his girlfriend slept.17 The stories of the survivors further threw into question the story given by the police, especially that of Fred’s girlfriend. When she was unable to wake Fred, even though she was eight months pregnant with their child, she climbed on top of him to attempt to shield him from the hail of bullets, which only stopped when someone shouted “we got a pregnant sister in here.”18 After being dragged out of the room, she, and other survivors, reported hearing a conversation between three people that went as follows:

First Voice: “That’s Fred Hampton.”

Second Voice: “Is he dead? Bring him out [of his bedroom].

First Voice: “He’s barely alive; he’ll make it.”

Two gun shots, followed by a third voice: “He’s good and dead now.”19

An autopsy report confirmed this account, as the fatal bullet wounds “entered directly in front of the right ear and exited from the left side of the throat, and the other entered the right forehead and probed to a point behind the left eye…[all] consistent with two shots to the head at point blank range.”20 All of this, in culmination with none of the weapons within the home actually having been illegally obtained, and that the search warrant itself had been illegally obtained, made the raid itself illegal and orchestrated under false pretense, which led to the creation of a federal grand jury to investigate the raid and Fred’s death.21 Unfortunately, even with the acknowledgement of excessive force, the entirely illegal search warrant, the obvious discrepancies between the stories of the officers and the evidence, acknowledgement that “officers fired ninety-nine shots through the walls of an apartment where they knew people were sleeping” and the conclusion “unquestionably the raid was not professionally planned or properly executed and the result of the raid was two deaths, four injuries and seven improper criminal charges,” the report stated “the physical evidence and the discrepancies in the officers’ accounts are insufficient to establish probable cause to charge the officers with a willful violation of the occupants’ civil rights,” instead labeling the deaths “justifiable homicide.”22

Small part of the Large Attendance at Fred Hampton’s Funeral | Courtesy of William Kelley, Chicago Tribune
After Fred’s death, thousands went to view his body at the funeral home, and the following Monday at the funeral, another five thousand viewed the open casket, all of which showcased the incredible impact that Fred left on his community. The obituary, read at the funeral, ended with something Fred strongly believed: “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.”23

  1. Kathryn Herr and Gary L. Anderson, Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Justice (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc. 2007) 669; William Hampton, The Essence of Fred Hampton: An Attempt to Capture the Spirit of a Young Man Who Influenced So Many and to Pass It On to Those Who Didn’t Have the Opportunity to Meet Him (Chicago: Salsedo Press, 1989), 12; Flint Taylor and Dennis Cunningham, “Fred Hampton 20th Commemoration,” The December 4th Committee, http://peopleslawoffice.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Hampton.-20th-Anniversary-Booklet-1989.pdf , accessed March 15, 2019, 1.
  2. William Hampton, The Essence of Fred Hampton: An Attempt to Capture the Spirit of a Young Man Who Influenced So Many and to Pass It On to Those Who Didn’t Have the Opportunity to Meet Him (Chicago: Salsedo Press, 1989), 46.
  3. Dwayne Newton, Black Panther Party Ten Point Program, 2016, Oakland Museum of California, Oakland, California.
  4. “COINTELPRO Black Extremist Part 01 of 23,” FBI, May 05, 2011, (Accessed April 05, 2019) https://vault.fbi.gov/cointel-pro/cointel-pro-black-extremists/cointelpro-black-extremists-part-01-of/view, 69.
  5. Curtis J Austin, Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2006), 189.
  6. Kathryn Herr and Gary L. Anderson, Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Justice (Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2007), 669.
  7. Flint Taylor and Dennis Cunningham, “Fred Hampton 20th Commemoration,” The December 4th Committee, http://peopleslawoffice.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Hampton.-20th-Anniversary-Booklet-1989.pdf , accessed March 15, 2019, 2.
  8. Curtis J Austin, Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2006), 191.
  9. Curtis J Austin, Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2006), 217.
  10. Curtis J Austin, Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2006), 207.
  11. Curtis J Austin, Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press 2006), 208.
  12. Jakobi Williams, From the Bullet to the Ballot: The Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party and Racial Coalition Politics in Chicago, The John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 183.
  13. Jakobi Williams, From the Bullet to the Ballot: The Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party and Racial Coalition Politics in Chicago, The John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 185.
  14. Curtis J Austin, Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press 2006), 221.
  15. Curtis J Austin, Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press 2006), 221.
  16. Jeffrey Haas, The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther (Chicago, Ill: Lawrence Hill Books 2010), 106.
  17. Jeffrey Haas, The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther (Chicago, Ill: Lawrence Hill Books, 2010), 99.
  18. Jeffrey Haas, The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther (Chicago, Ill: Lawrence Hill Books 2010), 77.
  19. Jakobi Williams, From the Bullet to the Ballot: The Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party and Racial Coalition Politics in Chicago, The John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 185.
  20. Jakobi Williams, From the Bullet to the Ballot: The Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party and Racial Coalition Politics in Chicago, The John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 185.
  21. Curtis J Austin, Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press 2006), 213.
  22. Jakobi Williams, From the Bullet to the Ballot: The Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party and Racial Coalition Politics in Chicago, The John Hope Franklin Series in African American History and Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013), 189; Curtis J Austin, Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2006), 222.
  23.   Jeffrey Haas, The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther (Chicago, Ill: Lawrence Hill Books 2010), 108.
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39 Comments

  • This is a great article the pictures selected have been amazing and tie up to the article. I had never heard of Fred Hampton before till today. Its not great to see how horrible the justice system was in this country. It’s such a tragedy specially when you are expecting justice from the ones who should see justice and they turn the back on you. What in all honestly grabbed my attention from the beginning was the title. Something that really impressed me was the ability he had to gather crowds.

  • Congrats on your nomination! This article was especially intriguing to me because I have never heard of Fred Hampton, which surprises me since he had such an impact on the Black Panther Party. His story is so powerful but also proof that police can get away with so much. Deaths and tragedies like this still occur today where corrupt policeman can get away with their crimes.

  • I think it is amazing that the author chose this topic, the story of Fred Hampton is one that I had never heard about and i’m so glad I did. It is tragic that his life was taken for wanting equality for poc, and that there was no real justice served. It really speaks volumes about how much justice the oppressed in america receive when even after all of the evidence presented was not enough to bring justice, and it was considered a justifiable homicide. It is even crazier that poc today are STILL fighting for the rights mentioned in the BPP’s 10 point program mission.

  • This article was particularly interesting because of the title itself. The fact that he was able to bring education to the readers is what impacted me the most. I love listening this article is particularly interesting because of the title itself. The fact that he was able to bring education to the readers is what impacted me the most. I love Reading about people who do necessary things for our world and pave the way towards making a better tomorrow. I did not know anything about the black panther party or Fred Hampton before reading this but I’m really glad that I got the opportunity to read so. I think the author for providing such an amazing story. It is not the first time that I read about a government trying to suppress a rebellion that is trying to make a country more successful and that is one aspect the chili still saddens me. I love the use of images and appreciate the way that this article was written.

  • This is a great article!!! It surprises me how I have never learned about Fred Hampton and what all he has done so I am glad you wrote this article. It is unfortunate that I have never heard of him because he was truly a remarkable person. What strikes me is how the Back Panthers are given a negative connotation but in truth they are fighting for equal rights. Congratulations on your nomination!!!

  • Fred Hampton was a great man and he had his whole life and future ripped away by the FBI and police department. I liked that the article focused on the impact he had on the black community especially the youth. Its sad that his story isn’t told to us more. He used his voice to fight for what he cared about and that makes him remarkable.

  • I do not think that there is anything wrong in demanding equal treatment in a country that claims that all men are created equal. From what I have read in this article, Fred Hampton felt the same way. The Ten Point Plan by the Black Panther Party, in reality, is not rash nor radical. One could say at one point in time, the Declaration of Independence was radical and the Bill of Rights as well. I think his death is tragic and gross injustice because his voice deserved to be heard, not silenced. Congratulations on your nomination!

  • This was another great article to read and well deserving of the nomination. While I did not know much about what had happened in this article before reading it once I did begin to read it I felt as if I was already informed prior to the reading of this article which is a good job on the authors part. The events in this article are very tragic and should honestly not have happened.

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