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.”