The divergent paths my classmate from Fenwick (1958) and I took was triggered recently by watching the critically acclaimed film, Judas and the Black Messiah. It is the story of the betrayal of Fred Hampton, chairperson the Illinois Black Panther Party, by William O’Neil in 1969, which resulted in Hampton’s murder. While watching the film, I had to keep reminding myself that it is fiction, not documentary. Many scenes in the film are not true, at least as I remember the events they recount, and I was there when they happened. 

The movie has a great cast: Martin Sheen as J. Edgar Hoover, La Keith Stanford as William O’Neil, and Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton. Whether true or fictional, it was astounding to me to watch the FBI agent in the film describe the Panthers as the Black counterpart to the Ku Klux Klan.

The movie tells us that the FBI led the raid on Fred Hampton’s apartment, resulting in his death. Having personal knowledge of the event, I know the raid wasn’t led by the FBI. It was carried out by members of the Chicago Police Department, under the direction of the State’s Attorney’s Office. It was Richard Jalovec, an assistant to Edward Hanrahan, the head of the office, who oversaw it. I had graduated from Fenwick High School with Jalovec 11 years before. The irony is that at the same time that Jalovec authorized the raid, I was helping the Panthers set up a free medical clinic on the West Side, a complement to their free breakfast programs setup in various community locations. What divergent paths we had taken by 1969.

Although members of the party, especially in California, were seen as violent revolutionaries, my recollection is that in Chicago the Panthers only used revolutionary rhetoric, not violent action against the establishment. I assume that State’s Attorneys Hanrahan and Jalovec believed they were violent revolutionaries, hell bent on waging war on the Chicago establishment.

On the contrary, I felt that the young men and women from the party I worked with in setting up the clinic were the “crème of the crop” of the youth on the West Side of Chicago. For example, Ronald “Doc” Satchel, the head of the clinic, was a nurse at Cook County Hospital. What a contrast between the members of the party and the Vice Lords gang with whom we had to negotiate for a clinic site on its turf. When the Vice Lords asked, “What’s in in it for us?” Doc replied, “We are funding this ourselves to provide free health care to the neighborhood.” After they realized there was no profit in it for them, the Vice Lords completely lost interest.

It is a cruel irony that the momentum for opening the clinic was stifled by the authorities’ incessant harassment of Fred Hampton. It was only after his murder that the momentum quickened, and the clinic opened.

One more thing that is not true in the movie is that it describes a gun battle between the Panthers in their West Side office and the FBI. To my knowledge, it never happened. 

I kept forgetting that the movie was fictional not a documentary. When it showed the location of the Panthers’ office, I said to myself, “That isn’t the office where I met with Fred Hampton.” The real office was on the second floor of A.A. Raynor’s Funeral Home on West Madison Street. In reality, I don’t know if the building even still exists. 

One thing that is not fictional is that, at the moment of the raid in 1969, Richard Jalovec and I had taken very divergent paths.

Joe McDonald is a longtime Oak Park resident and a member of the Fenwick class of 1958.

Updated on April 15

Join the discussion on social media!