By Dr. Barbara K. Iverson
This story needs to open with a flashback. It is about my favorite radical Fred Hampton, who was murdered by the Chicago Police on Dec. 4, 1969. This happened only a few blocks from where I was going to college at University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, now called UIC.
A series of events that took place between April 1968 and Dec. 1969 set that time apart from any other time in American history. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April, and the West Side exploded in riots. Bobby Kennedy was on track to be nominated for president, but he was shot and killed in June, and as the weather heated up in Aug. 1968, the Democratic National Convention came to town.
Conventioneers, demonstrators, police clashed near Congress and Balbo and the first Mayor Daley called out the National Guard. There was a taxi strike. The Chicago Police rioted, beating demonstrators and journalists bloody while “the Whole World was watching.” The civil authorities conspired to put the blame on “outside agitators” and indicted the “Chicago Eight,” then bound and gagged defendant Bobby Seale and tried him alone, leaving the Chicago Seven.
As the trial stretched into the spring of 1969, the lawyers and defendants took advantage of the proximity of UIC to hold rallies and speak to large crowds of students for the Seven, and others. Fred Hampton, head of the Chicago Black Panthers and his deputy, Mark Clark, spoke at the rallies, too.
What was happening on the local scene, was unique for the time period in America. Gang members, blacks from the West Side and whites, from Uptown, stopped shooting each other, as Fred Hampton, leading the Chicago Black Panthers and Mike James, leading “Rising Up Angry,” a coalition of working class whites from Uptown, began to meet, talk, and engage in social and political action instead of head-banging.
These groups were not part of the “student movement” of the that era. While UIC students protested the war, and then commuted back home to middle class neighborhoods, Fred Hampton and the Panthers talked and lived revolution and social change.
Hampton and the Chicago Panthers Party set up the first free breakfast programs for school children which became models for public schools programs around the U.S. They set up free health clinics in poor neighborhoods.
Fred Hampton was the best political speaker I’ve ever heard. He rejected violence and made a case for unity of people of all races in the face of the common enemy of authoritarian, racist officials. He was young, about 19, and he could deconstruct institutional causes of racism, poverty, and discrimination that were the root causes of violence. He coined the phrase, “the rainbow coalition” to include all the people who were working for social change.
He wasn’t a pacifist. Hampton said people needed to stand up to police and institutional repression and defend themselves as necessary. But as a revolutionary, he believed change would come through self-empowerment and “people power”, not “killing the pigs.”
Fred framed issues from the point of view of class and economic justice, and asked you to see how people in power used race to divide people with common interests. Instead of seeing other working class people as a problem because of their race, he urged working class people to unite and fight corrupt politicians and a system that fostered discrimination and economic inequalities.
He spoke softly but with passion. He was so young, and yet spoke with conviction, compassion, and intelligence. People were listening to Fred Hampton — all kinds of people.
But it was an evil time. On Dec. 4, 1969, Fred Hampton was murdered while he slept, executed, actually, by a contingent of Chicago Police led by Sheriff Richard Elrod.
I use the word executed literally. Early in 1970, I was in a suburban police station to report an incident with a flasher. As I waited to talk to an officer, I looked around the police station. On the wall was a poster that had a picture of Fred Hampton and over his face was a red rubber-stamped imprint that said “Killed in Action.”
That was America circa 1970. When Obama spoke in Grant Park on Election Night, I thought about Fred Hampton and I was sorry he wasn’t there.
See a trailer for The Murder of Fred Hampton.
Dr. Iverson is an associate professor at Columbia College Chicago