The life and legacy of slain Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, who was assassinated while sleeping inside his West Side apartment on Dec. 4, 1969, has garnered renewed interest from the public since the release of the movie Judas and the Black Messiah.
The film stars Daniel Kaluuya, who plays Hampton, and LaKeith Stanfield, who plays William O’Neal, the FBI informant who betrays Hampton in many ways, not least by sharing the floor plan of Hampton’s apartment with the law enforcement officials who would murder him in an unauthorized raid. (Years later, O’Neal committed suicide in Maywood.)
I’ve been thinking about this film, and about Fred and the Panthers, quite a bit lately. Here are some interesting findings from my stray musings, based on books, primary government documents and interviews I conducted in the past with those who knew Fred.
The FBI believed a Black ‘messiah’ threatened domestic security and was determined to take him out before he could do so.
In August 1967, the FBI launched a covert program, called COINTELPRO, designed to “disrupt and ‘neutralize’ organizations that the bureau characterized as ‘Black Nationalist Hate Groups,’” according to a 1976 report released by the Church Senate Committee.
The nearly 1,000-page document was released by a committee of the U.S. Senate that “dealt with the illegal and unconstitutional transgressions of the FBI, CIA, NSA, IRS, and the US military,” recalled Fred Hampton’s lawyer, Flint Taylor, in his 2019 book, The Torture Machine.
“More than half the report covered FBI ‘black bag’ jobs, wiretaps, use of informants/agents provocateur, and COINTELPRO,” Taylor wrote. “One chapter studied the FBI’s plan to ‘neutralize’ Martin Luther King Jr. In the very next chapter came ‘The FBI’s Covert Action Program to Destroy the Black Panther Party.’”
The Church report summarizes the FBI memorandum that explained COINTELPRO’s purpose in even more detail, which was mainly to “prevent a coalition of militant black nationalist groups” and to “prevent the rise of a messiah who could unify and electrify the militant nationalist movement … Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael and Elijah Muhammad all aspire to this position.”
In the summer of 1967, the Black Panthers weren’t yet on the FBI’s list of threats, but in September 1968, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover described the party as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”
By July 1969, the Church report explains, the Panthers “had become the primary focus of the program, and was ultimately the target of 233 of the total authorized ‘Black Nationalist’ COINTELPRO actions” that Taylor described in his book.
Which may well have made Fred Hampton the FBI’s highest priority ‘would-be’ Black messiah and a main target of the agency’s illegal and unethical COINTELPRO efforts.
A River Forest resident’s role in Hampton’s murder indirectly sparked the movement leading to Harold Washington’s election.
In the summer of 1972, Cook County State’s Attorney Ed Hanrahan was named a defendant in a civil rights case that Taylor and his colleagues filed against Hanrahan and other government actors for their role in orchestrating Fred Hampton’s assassination.
Hanrahan, a longtime and well-respected River Forest resident before his death in 2009, was Mayor Richard J. Daley’s “heir apparent” before the raid, Taylor writes. Hanrahan was running for re-election against “reform-minded Republican, Bernard Carey, and desperately needed to be acquitted before Election Day.
“Daley, at least publicly, continued to strongly back Hanrahan,” so it was “clear from the start” that, despite a strong case presented by the special prosecutor, “the political fix, Chicago-style, was in.” Hanrahan and the other defendants were acquitted “of conspiracy to obstruct justice,” a ruling Taylor said “was indefensible from a factual and legal point of view, but totally explicable politically.”
Mayor Daley said the great lesson of the case is “not to be too willing to believe charges before the evidence is in. I think the black people of Chicago feel the same way,” Taylor recalled.
But a week later, Black Chicago “showed how they actually felt, as they crossed party lines en masse and voted Hanrahan out of office. This marked the start of a movement that, a decade later, would result in the election of Harold Washington as Chicago’s first Black mayor.”
William O’Neal died by suicide in Maywood in 1990, and so did another man he’d been visiting before his death.
There’s a scene in the film in which Fred Hampton jokes about O’Neal’s prowess with a pool stick after a confrontation with the Blackstone Rangers inside a pool hall nearly turns violent.
Fred Hampton invents a nickname for O’Neal, calling him “Wild Bill.” Hampton then asks O’Neal if he’d ever been called that in Maywood, one of the film’s few explicit references to the village where Hampton was raised.
In fact, O’Neal had a very strong connection to Maywood. On a Sunday night in January 1990, O’Neal, 40, went to the Maywood apartment of his uncle, Ben Heard, who told Chicago Tribune reporters at the time that O’Neal “kept going to the washroom. … He stayed there for a long time. The last time he came out he tried to go out the window. I pulled him back, but he broke loose and ran toward the expressway.”
O’Neal “ran down the embankment near 5th Avenue, crossed the eastbound lanes, and was struck by a car in the westbound lanes.” The Tribune reported that, according to Heard, this “was the second time his nephew had run onto the highway. … In September, O’Neal was struck by a car but not injured, Heard said.”
In an eerie twist of fate, the Tribune reported, the day after O’Neal’s death, “a second man, who lived in the same apartment complex where O’Neal had been visiting before his death, apparently committed suicide by running onto the Eisenhower and was struck by a truck in virtually the same place as O’Neal.”
Fred Hampton Jr. alleged the FBI tapped his father’s phone when Hampton Sr. was just a kid.
I remember attending the funeral of Fred’s older brother, Bill, in 2018, and during his remembrance of his uncle, Fred Hampton Jr. said “the FBI placed a tap on my grandma’s phone when Fred was 14 years old.”
Although the claim is hard to substantiate, it’s not too hard to believe, given what we now know about the FBI from government records and about Fred’s early life of activism in his hometown of Maywood.
Delores Robinson, who attended Proviso East High School in Maywood with Hampton in the mid-1960s, recalled in 2017 how Fred would lead her and her fellow African-American classmates out of the school’s clock tower entrance down Warren Avenue after classes let out.
“There weren’t many blacks at Proviso back then,” Robinson recalled. “When we would leave school at the end of the day, the blacks would walk out of that door and Fred would always have this song that went, ‘The more you give, the more God gives to you; you can’t beat God giving.’ We’d all walk down the street singing that.”
The late Don Williams, who served as the second Black mayor of Maywood in the 1990s and led the local NAACP at the time of Hampton’s ascendancy, recalled in 2017 how he helped recruit Hampton to become the leader of the West Suburban NAACP’s Youth Council — a position that would become a launching pad for the young leader’s rise in the world of social activism.
“There was some turbulence at Proviso East and it seemed that the African American students were being short-changed,” Williams recalled. “We didn’t have anyone in the NAACP at that time we could offer who was young. There was a basketball player, Al Nuness, who was very well-known in the community and we thought we would solicit him.”
Williams said that Nuness was too busy with other commitments. The popular basketball player, however, recommended that the NAACP recruit Hampton.
“Nuness said, ‘You want Fred Hampton,’” Williams recalled. “He said he’s very active in the school and very well-known among the young people. You want Fred. So [we] recruited Fred Hampton. The rest is history.”