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The overlooked story of Mark Clark, the 22-yr-old Black Panther assassinated with Fred Hampton

Mark Clark, who served as a defense captain for the Illinois Black Panther Party, was just 22 years old when he and Fred Hampton, deputy chair of the Illinois Black Panther Party, were assassinated in a raid coordinated by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, Chicago police, and the FBI.

Clark and 21-year-old Hampton were gunned down by 14 police officers as they lie sleeping in Hampton’s apartment in Chicago, Illinois, in the early morning hours of December 4, 1969. About a hundred bullets were fired in what police described as a gun battle with members of the Black Panther Party.

But ballistics experts later found that only one of those bullets came from the side of the Panthers. The raid was also later found to be part of COINTELPRO, a secret FBI program whose purpose, as stated by one FBI document, was to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize the activities of Black nationalist hate type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership and supporters.

The Black Panther Party, a creation of Huey Newton and fellow student Bobby Seale, insisted on a Black nationalist response to racial discrimination. The party’s Illinois chapter was being headed by Hampton when he was killed by authorities thanks to the information provided by FBI informant William O’Neal. Then a petty criminal, O’Neal infiltrated the party and provided the FBI with a floor plan of the Chicago apartment where Hampton and Clark were assassinated in 1969.

Much has been written about Hampton, including his charisma, leadership skills and intelligence but Clark, who died with him during the raid, is rarely talked about. As a matter of fact, when Chicago Police stormed into Hampton’s apartment, Clark was the first to be murdered. A bullet hit him in the heart and he died instantly.

Who was Clark?

He was born in Peoria, Illinois, on June 28, 1947. Clark became a member of the local NAACP chapter when he was 15 and later formed the Peoria chapter of the Black Panther Party. Clark also started the first free breakfast program for Peoria youth.

“He was very active in political things. Really just the fight against racism,” Gloria Clark-Jackson said of her brother when she published a book about him entitled, Mark Clark: Soul of a Black Panther in September 2020.

Clark and his siblings were brought up as Christians. His father, Elder William Clark, was a pastor and the founder of Holy Temple Church of God and Christ that can still be found on Webster and McBean on Peoria’s South Side.

“It was ironic that we were always taught to treat people right, but we weren’t always treated the same way, as people of color,” Clark-Jackson, who is a retired nurse, told WCBU.

Clark, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Washington, D.C. and could call for order when older persons could not, attended Manual High School and then went to Illinois Central Junior College in Peoria. But he could not complete his graduation. Apparently, he liked to learn but didn’t like school. “Most of his knowledge came from his own efforts,” his sister Elner said in an interview.

Described as a “thinker” and a “quiet leader”, Clark suddenly passed away in the early morning hours of December 4, 1969, when Chicago Police stormed Hampton’s apartment where he was. Deborah Johnson, Hampton’s fiancée, later recounted what happened.

“I remember it like it was yesterday. The police knocked on the door (around 4.35 am) and Defense Captain Mark Clark (who headed up the Black Panther’s Peoria chapter) answered the door by saying, ‘Who is it?’ The police said, ‘Tommy.’ And Mark responded, ‘Tommy who?’ Then the police responded back, ‘Tommy gun.’ After that, the police kicked in the front door and started shooting. And Mark was killed instantly.”

Reports said that when Clark was shot in the heart, his shotgun fired as a reflexive convulsion. That was the only shot the Panthers fired as compared to about a hundred bullets from the cops.

“He had a feeling for people and placed them above himself,” a close friend said of Clark after his murder.

Clark-Jackson, who shares her brother’s story in her book, was also a member of the Black Panther Party under Clark’s leadership. She told WCBU that she will never forget the determined, serious look that took over her brother’s face the day he recruited her into the Black Panther Party.

“I will never forget the words he spoke that still reverberate in my mind. His message is as clear today as it was then: ‘There are many who will talk about the injustice in this country, but only a few will do something about it. Which one are you?’”

The city of Chicago, Cook County, and the federal government reached a settlement with Clark’s and Hampton’s survivors in the early 1980s. FBI informant O’Neal was hated by some and commended by others as his role in the 1969 raid that killed Hampton and Clark became known. And many believe that his guilt over his role as an FBI informant led to his death in 1990. O’Neal apparently walked in front of a speeding car which struck and killed him. His death was ruled a suicide.


Fred Hampton remembered as ‘focused, caring’ visionary

Fred Hampton of the Illinois Black Panther Party speaks at a rally at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church.Fred Hampton of the Illinois Black Panther Party speaks at a rally at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church. Sun-Times Library

By Kathy Chaney

An early morning raid on an apartment on the West Side a half-century ago left the Black community in an uproar over the deaths of Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, and a fellow Panther with one question that’s plucked at his nerves for 50 years.

Billy “Che” Brooks, who remembers Hampton as a “focused, caring, full of love and funny visionary,” wants to know, “Who the hell drugged Chairman Fred?”

Hampton, 21, and Clark, 22, were ambushed in the Dec. 4, 1969 raid conducted jointly by the Chicago police and officers assigned to the office of then-State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan.

Brooks, the deputy minister of education for the Black Panther Party of Illinois, said the police raided their offices several times that year, and constantly harassed them.

In November 1969, fellow Panther Spurgeon “Jake” Winters , 19, for whom the party named their medical center in Lawndale, died in a shootout with police. Two officers died too.

After Winters’ death, the Panthers could sense “something was imminent,” Brooks said.

Police entered Hampton’s apartment in the 2300 block of West Monroe Street and unleashed 99 bullets, versus one shot fired by the opposing side. The apparent ambush cost Hampton and Clark their lives.

The Chicago Sun-Times wrote a story that challenged the narrative provided by police and official photos after a Sun-Times reporter took a Panther-led tour of the bullet-riddled apartment. The story detailed what was depicted in official photos, such as nail heads circled as being bullet holes.

  • Bobby Rush (left) and Fred Hampton, pose at Illinois Black Panther Party headquarters at 2350 W. Madison. Rush is the party’s deputy minister of defense and Hampton is deputy chairman. Sun-Times Library
  • Fred Hampton Jr., son of slain chairman, Fred Hampton and Deborah Johnson. Sun-Times Library
  • Fred Hampton and R. Chaka Walls, deputy minister of information for the Black Panther Party, Ill, discuss the fate of Bobby Seale in November 1969. Sun-Times Library
  • FBI model of the Monroe St. apartment in which the December raid by state’s attorney’s police took the lives of two black Panther leaders. Federal grand jury condemned the raiders, who entered through both front door and rear door, firing a total of 82 to 99 shots. Sun-Times Library
  • Black Panther attoneys Francis Andrew Right and Dennis Cunningham with controversial panel of front door of Black Panther apartment. Sun-Times Library
  • Police carry the body of slain black Panther leader Fred Hampton from at 2337 W. Monroe. Sun-Times Library
  • At a rally outside the U.S. Courthouse Oct. 29, 1969, Dr. Benjamin Spock, background, listens to Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Black Panther party at a protest against the trial of eight persons accused of conspiracy to cause a riot during the Democratic National Convention in 1968. AP file photo
  • A technician from the crime laboratory searches for clues during a revisit by state’s attorney’s police to the apartment at 2337 W. Monroe where Fred Hampton and Mark Clark where slain Dec. 4, 1969. The picture was taken through a window from outside the building. Sun-Times Library
  • Mourners pass the body of slain Black Panther leader Fred Hampton at Rayner & Sons Funeral Home, 3654 W. Roosevelt. Sun-Times Library
  • Criminal Court Judge Philip Romiti looks back before entering apartment at 2337 W. Monroe where Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were shot to death in Dec. 4, 1969. Sun-Times Library

The home was dubbed “Ground Zero” by Hampton’s son, Fred Hampton Jr.

Brooks was jailed from November 1969 to January 1970 for a case he caught in 1968.

When he heard the news, he was devastated and couldn’t fathom how it could happen.

Reports said fellow member William O’Neal was an FBI informant and provided the floor plan of the apartment. It was also speculated that he put “Seconal in Fred’s Kool-aid,” making it easier for police to kill Hampton.

While Brooks didn’t comment on whether O’Neal provided the floor plan, he said O’Neal did not drug Hampton.

“O’Neal did not come into that house. I know that for a fact. So, who did it? Nobody wants to talk about it. That’s the real question. Who put the Seconal in Chairman Fred’s Kool-aid? Who drugged Chairman Fred?” Brooks asked.

That question has dogged him most of his life.

While he knows he’ll never get the answer, he thinks things would’ve gone differently if he’d been there.

“I hate the fact I was in jail when that s— happened,” he angrily said.

Brooks said he would’ve been another man in the apartment able to keep a closer eye on things and maybe Hampton would still be alive.

He said not only was Hampton a friend, he was like a brother to him. And while they were the same age, he learned a ton from the “charismatic, full of empathy” leader who was “beyond the times.”

“Fred was considered a threat in the eyes of law enforcement because he could galvanize all types of people. We wanted to end police brutality. We created programs to point out the contradictions that existed in society. Children were going to school hungry and we started a free breakfast program. Shortly thereafter, the government started breakfast programs, and lunch programs in schools,” he said.

Brooks continued, “The government wasn’t thinking about sickle cell anemia so we opened up our medical centers and started testing Black people for sickle cell. Shortly thereafter, it became an issue and the government took it over. We had a way of creating consciousness amongst the people, forcing the government to do what it was supposed to do.”

Comparing that decade to now, Brooks said it’s gotten worse, and it brings him to tears.

“The fascist tactics that police use now are tantamount to murder. They don’t think twice about killing a person of color. A lot of it has to do with the political climate in this country. There’s an analogous situation with 1969 and what’s going on now. Then we had [President Richard] Nixon. Now we have [Donald] Trump as president. Their whole objective was oppression, and it’s the same flavor now,” he stressed.

Hampton, who grew up in Maywood, was honored in September 2007 in the west suburb with an honorary street name and statue in his honor. The former Oak Street is now known as Fred Hampton Way and his statue sits in front of the Fred Hampton Family Aquatic Center.


Black Panther Fred Hampton Created a “Rainbow Coalition” to Support Poor Americans

OG History is a Teen Vogue series where we unearth history not told through a white, cisheteropatriarchal lens.

On December 3, 1969, 21-year-old Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers, led a political education class, had some dinner, and talked to his mom on the phone. He passed out around midnight, still on the phone with her.

At about 4:45 a.m., the Cook County police department burst into the Panther headquarters. They shot 18-year-old Mark Clark, who was on security detail, in the chest, killing him instantly. They sprayed close to 100 rounds as they swept through the apartment, heading for Hampton’s room, where he was sleeping with his pregnant fiancée. His fiancée and another man heard the gunshots and tried to wake Hampton up, but they couldn’t. The police charged into Hampton’s room, dragging his fiancée and the other man out.

“He’s still alive,” they overheard an officer say. They said they heard two shots, and a second officer said, “He’s good and dead now.” They’d shot Hampton point blank in the head.

Years later, it was revealed that Hampton’s bodyguard, William O’Neal secretly worked for the FBI. He’d been coerced into becoming an informant in exchange for getting criminal charges dropped. O’Neal had given the cops a map of the apartment that helped them locate Hampton in the predawn raid. It’s long been suspected, but not confirmed, that O’Neal had also drugged Hampton ahead of the raid. Years later, O’Neal killed himself.

Hampton’s killing was part of the FBI’s secret COINTELPRO program. COINTELPRO targeted members of the Black Panther party and other leftist groups in the 1960s and early 1970s, surveilling and infiltrating them to sow discord. “COINTELPRO was designed to destroy black liberation organizations starting with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X,” Flint Taylor, the civil rights lawyer who fought in court to expose the facts about Hampton’s killing and the existence of COINTELPRO, told Teen Vogue. FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, who started the program, worried that a black “messiah” would electrify the movement for black rights.

In Chicago, at the age of just 21, the charismatic Hampton had realized Hoover’s fear, starting a number of popular programs, including a free breakfast program. He also founded the Rainbow Coalition, an alliance uniting poor blacks, poor whites, and Latinos. The Panthers organized with the Young Lords Organization, a Puerto Rican group, and the Young Patriots Organization (YPO), comprised of poor white migrants from Appalachia.

Hampton and other Panthers, like section leader Bobby Lee, made the case that, as poor people trying to survive in Mayor Richard J. Daley’s racially segregated city, they had more in common with each other than not. They banded together to protect members from the cops, fight against police brutality, run health care clinics, feed the homeless and poor kids, and connect people with legal help if they were dealing with abusive landlords or police.

“We did security for the Panthers along with other Panthers,” 70-year-old Hy Thurman, a member of the YPO, told Teen Vogue from his home in Alabama. “Here’s a bunch of hillbillies doing, you know, security for black people and Black Panthers,” Thurman said. “That was shocking for a lot of people.” Out of respect for the Panthers, the Young Patriots — which grew out of a street gang called the Peace Makers — decided to stop wearing the Confederate flag.

Meanwhile, the Young Lords foregrounded issues impacting immigrants from Latin America and citizens who moved from Puerto Rico, birthplace of cofounder Jose “Cha Cha” Jimenez. The introduced the slogan, “Tengo Puerto Rico en mi corazón,” in the fight for Puerto Rican self-determination.

“By organizing them under that banner, it makes it easy for them to come and recognize the class struggle,” Jimenez told Teen Vogue.

Jimenez, whose dad had worked as an itinerant tomato picker, said his group had plenty of common ground with the Young Patriots Organization: “We were peasants! Our parents were peasants, and now we were in the urban city. So it was easy for us to get together.”

Hampton’s death sent shockwaves through the Rainbow Coalition. Billy “Che” Brooks, deputy minister of education for the Chicago office of the Black Panther Party, learned about Hampton’s murder while he was in jail. “I had the pleasure of getting told by this cat … he was the warden in the Cook County jail,” he told Teen Vogue. “He came up gloating. They had me in the hole. He came up and said, ‘They killed your punk leader.’”

Jimenez sat near the front at the funeral service. When the Rev. Jesse Jackson addressed the crowd, he finally realized the full force of what had happened.

“That’s when it hit me that he was dead,” Jimenez said. “I knew he was dead. But it takes people different words to really hit it home. That’s when it hit home. I was at the front, trying to hold back tears. And I just couldn’t in the end.”

He recalled thinking: “What are we doing that’s bad, that they’re coming to kill us?”

The Chicago Panthers’ interracial outreach is immortalized in a grainy black-and-white film clip. Bobby Lee, a skinny, young black man sporting a black beret and turtleneck, made his case for an interracial alliance at a meeting organized by the Young Patriots Organization.

A member of the YPO introduces him in a twangy Southern accent. “I wanna introduce a man that come over here tonight from another part of town, but he’s fighting for some of the same causes we’re fighting for…. So I’m gonna introduce you to Bobby Lee here,” he says.

Lee takes over. “I’m a Black Panther; I’m a section leader of the Black Panthers.… The Panthers are here,” he tells the assembled group. “You have to tell us what we can do together. We come here with our hearts open; you cats supervise us. Where we can be of help to you.”

He runs through all the problems they share.

“There’s police brutality up here; there’s rats and roaches. There’s poverty up here…. That’s the first thing we can unite on; that’s the common thing we have, man.”

Lee appears to have won the crowd over. At one point, the video cuts to an older Southern white guy who pledges his support to the Panthers: “I want you people to stick together, and I’ll stick by the Black Panthers if they’ll stick with me, and I know they will.”

Thurman, the YPO member, was at that 1968 meeting. He often worked with Lee. “Working with Bobby Lee was great,” Thurman said. “He always had a great way of educating you.”

Thurman grew up in Dayton, Tennessee, a town best known as the staging ground for the Scopes monkey trial, a high-profile legal battle over teaching evolution in public schools.

“It was rough,” he said. “It was poverty. It was real bad.” He estimates he started working in the fields at around age three, and his family, headed by a single mom, was so poor they had to give away a sister with special needs. “Poverty destroys families,” Thurman said.

He said local cops deemed them poor white trash and hassled him and his siblings.

When Thurman was 17, he followed his older brother up to Chicago, hoping for better job opportunities, part of the historic wave of migration from the South to the urban centers of the North. Instead, he was greeted by more hardship and more police abuse.

The city had relatively high rates of poverty and unemployment. And many Southern migrants who’d only ever worked in farms or mines didn’t have the skills to get jobs in the city. Some of the older people had health problems, like black lung from years in the mines, that kept them jobless and suffering without proper health care.

Thurman joined a street gang called the Peace Makers. Eventually, they’d become the Young Patriots Organization and join forces with the Panthers and the Young Lords.

Thurman remembers asking Hampton why he was willing to work with white people from the South. “I asked him, ‘Why in the world would you let someone like me work with you? We enslaved you…. We oppressed your people.”

“He said ‘I put that behind me because the revolution is in front of me, and you can’t have that without everybody,” Thurman said. “So he saw us as brothers.’”

“We were just a bunch of kids trying to survive,” Thurman said.

Jimenez, cofounder of the Young Lords, was born in Puerto Rico, the son of a farm worker who shuttled back and forth between Boston and Puerto Rico to recruit more workers. “They’d pay for the plane ticket, the bed. You were basically a slave until you made back the plane ticket,” he said. His family moved to Chicago in the 1950s, where his dad worked for Armour Meatpacking in the Union stockyards and joined a social club mainly organized around drinking. His mom worked with the local Catholic Church.

His mom hosted catechism at the house, which helped him get in Catholic school. He’s proud of the Puerto Rican community his parents helped build from scratch around Lincoln Park. But he recalls how constricted his family’s movements were in the city. They couldn’t go to certain beaches or walk through parts of town for fear of the cops and gangs.

The original point of the Young Lords gang, he said, was for protection. He says they never dealt drugs; it was just a form of group survival, a way to navigate a city riven by class and race division.

His political evolution stemmed from witnessing Puerto Rican families getting booted from their homes as part of urban renewal projects. “Before I finished the eighth grade, I was moved nine times by these developers and forced to attend four different elementary schools,” he said in 1974, when he ran for alderman of the 46th Ward, the Chicago Tribune reported.

The daily abuses against his people — as well as the historic events of the era — radicalized him. The community his parents helped build was decimated by gentrification and urban renewal projects. After serving a stint in jail, he decided the Young Lords would become a political group.

“That’s when we started trying to form the Puerto Rican progressive movement,” he said. “The Democratic convention was at Lincoln Park and Grant Park. All those things: Vietnam, MLK getting killed … that impacted all of us. Just like today, Donald Trump impacts everybody. That got people to want to join a group like that.”

They accepted women, encouraging them to organize. “We trusted the women that were organizing. We had grown up with them. We all became Young Lords.”

“We had a Rainbow Coalition, and the beauty about that is … Chairman Hampton recognized the fact that we could not talk about class struggle without talking about racism,” he continued.

Billy “Che” Brooks’s family moved from Mississippi to Chicago when he was about three. His dad was a Baptist Minister.

Unlike Jimenez and Thurman, he never joined a gang as a teen. Several gangs tried to recruit him, but he was more scared of his parents. “I’d rather fight the gangs than my parents,” he joked to Teen Vogue. He was an athlete, running cross country and track in high school. He’d planned to be a doctor or a lawyer. It wasn’t until the later part of high school that he got involved in politics.

After Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968, Brooks said, he started reading every political text he could get his hands on.

“I developed a more conscious understanding of imperialism, capitalism, and colonialism,” he said.

Brooks linked up with Hampton, who he admired for his “willingness to lay it all on the line,” and became education minister of the Black Panther Party in Chicago.

“We read the Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon. It was all to ideologically develop consciousness of thought so we could parlay that into social practice,” he explained. “We had to implement our survival programs. Like the free breakfast program. The medical center. These programs were designed to raise the consciousness of the people. So they could see the contradictions and how unfair the government was — and still is — particularly with the tangerine man in office,” Brooks joked about President Trump.

Harassment by police and the city were near constants in their lives. Brooks, who also served as Black Panther cofounder Bobby Seale’s bodyguard, was under constant scrutiny by the Chicago Red Squad and Gang Intelligence Unit.

“They kind of saw Hampton as a focal point … a galvanizer,” Brooks remembered. “Cause he was a hell of an organizer. His commitment was off the charts. People listened to him; they respected him.”

And that was perceived as a major threat.

Once Hampton was killed, everything fell apart.

“That’s when all hell broke loose,” Thurman said. “When Hampton was murdered. We were harassed. All three organizations took some major hits.”

“I’d wake up, and there’d be all these cops in my apartment,” he recalled.

He said police and landlords worked to dismantle the Rainbow Coalition’s social programs. “With the breakfast program … the health clinic … the cops would come in and harass the landlords, and they would evict us. They would take medicine from people, harass people.”

Eventually, Thurman and other YPO members gravitated back South.

For years, Jimenez was hounded by the police and was indicted on charges ranging from mob action to resisting arrest, according to the Chicago Tribune. He went underground until 1972 and ended up spending a year in jail. After that he ran for alderman, getting almost 40 percent of the vote.

All three men abhor President Donald Trump and continue to fight for a revolutionary agenda. Jimenez says he still considers himself a Young Lord, because the group’s mission lives on. For one thing, he can’t believe that Puerto Rico remains a U.S. territory — he would call it a colony. “We should not be talking about a colony in 2019. We have never forgotten our mission to free Puerto Rico and the people from bondage.”

Thurman pledges to keep organizing and fighting for a progressive agenda, which, for him, includes LGBTQ+ rights. “I’m 70, but I’m not gonna quit,” Thurman said. “I’m not gonna stop until the Lord stops me. Then I’m gonna ask Him, how is He gonna organize?”

Same for Brooks, who believes women’s access to abortion and trans rights are an essential part of the revolution.

“The beat goes on,” Brooks said. “What Fred said: We knew going into it that it was a protracted struggle and that we were making the ultimate sacrifice. Tomorrow seemed impossible. But we’re still here. We’re still struggling.”

“The consciousness of young people in this country today, I think it’s soaring,” Brooks said. “People are more aware of what needs to be done. A mass movement against oppression — all levels of oppression.”

“All the social justice issues we have to process every motherfucking day,” Brooks said. “The implementation of concentration camps on the border to the murder of innocent people across the country. The whole fiasco with Eric Garner … It’s fucked up. But I’m an optimist. I believe the spirit of the people is stronger.”

“We can’t give up. What Fred and the Black Panther Party exemplified was a struggle against injustice. It’s a struggle that always needs to go on,” Brooks continued. “You can murder a revolutionary, but you can’t murder a revolution.”


Fred Hampton

Fred Hampton

To members of Chicago’s African American community in the late 1960s, no leader was more inspiring, more articulate, or more effective than Fred Hampton. He organized food pantries, educational programs, and recreational outlets for impoverished children, and he helped bring about a peaceful coexistence among the city’s rival street gangs. To civic leaders in Chicago, the FBI, and many others, however, he was a dangerous revolutionary leader, committed to the violent overthrow of the white-dominated system. Hampton was killed in a 1969 raid on the headquarters of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther party, in what was almost certainly a planned assassination orchestrated by Federal agents and city leaders, who feared that Hampton’s influence could lead to an all-out armed uprising by the city’s most disenfranchised residents.

Hampton was born in 1948 in Chicago, and grew up in Maywood, a suburb just to the west of the city. His parents had moved north from Louisiana, and both held jobs at the Argo Starch Company. As a youth, Hampton was gifted both in the classroom and on the athletic field. To those who knew him, he seemed a likely candidate to escape the ghetto and “make it” in the white-dominated world outside. At Proviso East High School in Maywood, Hampton earned three varsity letters and won a Junior Achievement Award. He graduated with honors in 1966.

Following his graduation, Hampton enrolled at Triton Junior College in nearby River Grove, Illinois, majoring in pre-law. He also became active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), assuming leadership of the Youth Council of the organization’s West Suburban Branch. In his capacity as an NAACP youth organizer, Hampton began to show signs of his natural leadership ability. From a community of 27,000, he was able to muster a youth group 500-members strong, an impressive size even for a constituency twice as large. Hampton considered it his mission to create a better environment for the development of young African Americans. He worked to get more and better recreational facilities established in the neighborhoods, and to improve educational resources for Maywood’s African American community. Through his involvement with the NAACP, Hampton hoped to achieve social change through nonviolent activism and community organizing.

Fred Hampton

At about the same time that Hampton was successfully organizing young African Americans for the NAACP, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense started rising to national prominence. Hampton was quickly attracted to the Black Panther approach, which was based on a ten-point program of African American self-determination. Hampton joined the Black Panther Party and relocated to downtown Chicago, where he launched the party’s Illinois chapter in November of 1968.

Over the next year, Hampton and his associates recorded a number of significant achievements in Chicago. Perhaps his most important accomplishment was his brokering of a nonaggression pact between Chicago’s most powerful street gangs. By emphasizing that racial and ethnic conflict between gangs would only keep its members entrenched in poverty, he was able to forge a class-conscious, multiracial alliance of black, Puerto Rican, and poor white youths. In May of 1969, Hampton called a press conference to announce that a truce had been declared among this “rainbow coalition,” a phrase coined by Hampton and made popular over the years by Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Equally important was Hampton’s work as a developer of community service programs. His leadership helped create a program that provided free breakfasts for schoolchildren, a program the Panters had initiated in several cities. Hampton was also instrumental in the establishment of a free medical clinic, and other programs accessible to poor African Americans. By the tender age of 20, Hampton had become a respected community leader among Chicago’s black population.

Meanwhile, Hampton was growing more militant in his political views. One factor in the increasing intensity of his rhetoric was his 1969 arrest for the strong-arm theft of $71 worth of Good Humor bars, which he then allegedly gave away to neighborhood children. Hampton was initially convicted and sentenced to two to five years in prison before the decision was overturned. He came away from the experience with a reinforced distrust of the American legal system, and a renewed conviction that it must be completely overhauled.

Although he was still more of an organizer than a revolutionary, Hampton’s commitment to non-violence seemed to weaken. He began carrying guns, and, in a 1969 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, openly declared that “I’m not afraid to say I’m at war with the pigs.” Still, his position on violence was that it was necessary for self-defense; African Americans needed to protect themselves against the brutal tactics of the police and other white-dominated institutions. “What this country has done to nonviolent leaders like Martin Luther King–I think that objectively says there’s going to have to be an armed struggle,” he was quoted as saying in the Sun-Times article.

By all accounts, Hampton was one of the most articulate and persuasive African American leaders of his time. His quiet demeanor and restrained speaking style belied the abrasive image most people attached to the Black Panthers. The Rev. Thomas Strieter, a member of the Maywood village board who knew Hampton from his earliest days as an organizer, was quoted in a 1994 Chicago magazine article as saying that Hampton “had charm coming out his ears. My impression of the Black Panthers in Oakland (California) was that they were thugs. Fred was not a thug.” Former Chicago corporation counsel James Montgomery called him “one of the most persuasive speakers I’ve ever heard.” Dr. Quentin Young, a member of Chicago Mayor Harold Washington’s inner circle, went even further. “He (Hampton) was a giant, and this is not some idle white worship of a black man,” he was quoted in Chicago as saying. “This is a terrible way to put it, but the people who made it their business to kill the leaders of the black movement picked the right ones.”

Fred Hampton

Indeed, while Hampton impressed many of the people with whom he came into contact as a great leader and talented communicator, those very qualities marked him as a major threat in the eyes of the FBI and other concerned agencies. The FBI began keeping close tabs on his activities, and subsequent investigations have shown that FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover was determined to prevent the formation of a cohesive Black radical movement in the United States. Hoover saw the Panthers, and gang coalitions like that forged by Hampton in Chicago, as frightening stepping stones toward the creation of just such a revolutionary body.

Urged on by the FBI, the Chicago police launched an all-out assault on the Black Panthers and their allies, characterizing the group as nothing more than a criminal gang. Over the course of the escalating conflict in 1969, eleven black youths from Chicago’s South Side were killed in separate skirmishes with police. During that year alone, shoot-outs killed or wounded a dozen Panther members and almost as many police officers. Over 100 Black Panthers were arrested during the year, and Panther party headquarters at 2337 West Monroe Street on the city’s West Side were raided by police and FBI agents four separate times. The last of these four raids was the one in which Hampton was killed.

One of the individuals who spent a lot of time at Panther headquarters in Chicago was William O’Neal. It turned out that O’Neal, a convicted car thief, had been recruited out of the county jail to be a paid informant for the FBI. One of O’Neal’s chief contributions to the FBI’s infiltration of the Black Panthers was to provide them with a floor plan of the building. O’Neal’s information was key to the December 4, 1969, police raid that killed Hampton and fellow party member Mark Clark. Four other Panthers were seriously injured.

Chicago Police entered the building at 4:45 in the morning. The police version of the raid claimed that the Panthers began firing guns at them the moment they began knocking on the door. According to this version of events, a ten-minute shootout ensued, resulting in the deaths of Hampton and Clark. Subsequent investigations suggest otherwise; it is likely, in fact, that the raid more closely resembled an execution than a legitimate police action. For example, ballistic evidence showed that at most one shot could have been fired by a Panther. The police did virtually all of the shooting that took place. Hampton died in bed. There is strong evidence that he had been drugged that night, probably by O’Neal, and it is likely that he slept through the entire ordeal.

Hampton’s funeral was attended by 5,000 people, and he was eulogized by such black leaders as Jesse Jackson and Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King’s successor as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In his eulogy, Jackson noted that “when Fred was shot in Chicago, black people in particular, and decent people in general, bled everywhere.”

The officers involved in the raid were cleared by a grand jury of any crimes. The families of Hampton and Clark filed a $47.7M civil suit against the city, state, and federal governments. More than a decade later, the suit was finally settled, and the two families each received a large but undisclosed sum. In 1990, the Chicago City Council passed a resolution declaring “Fred Hampton Day” in honor of the slain leader.

Since Hampton’s death, the Black Panthers have faded from the limelight, thanks in large part to the concentrated efforts of the FBI and various other police agencies. Hampton’s memory lives on, however, in part due to a scholarship fund set up in his name by Jackson and Abernathy. Education may be a less dramatic path to social change than armed revolt, but Hampton’s idea of revolution was broad enough to include it. As Hampton often said, according to The Nation, “You can kill a revolutionary, but you cannot kill a revolution. You can jail a liberation fighter, but you cannot jail liberation.”