“If you’re not prepared to die, you’re not prepared to live.” That was the arresting last line of Fred Hampton’s talk to me and all in the circle. The others were younger wives and mothers, members of a women’s group at St. John Lutheran in Wheaton, hosted one evening in the living room of a member.
After some thought, leaders of the group had agreed when I proposed inviting the charismatic, courageous, eloquent, and very youthful chairman of Maywood’s Black Panther Party to a monthly meeting. As the (quite youthful) co-pastor, I believed they, as disciples seeking to follow Jesus, needed to face honestly the bad as well as the good in our society.
So there they were, about a dozen in the circle, transfixed. Though only about 15 miles separated the communities, they were given a brief glimpse of how their life experience in Wheaton was worlds apart from his. He was a young Black man on the rise who soon afterward, on Dec. 4, 1969, was killed with a fusillade of bullets in a lawless nighttime raid by men who did not deserve to be called “lawmen.”
The way his presence filled that room is etched in my memory. I can still feel his eyes boring into mine as he locked eyes with each of us, slowly, one by one, after he said that last word. He had spoken about his total, unconditional love and his willingness even to die for his people. He and his group were providing free breakfasts and medical care for deprived people, and promoting none of the violence and anarchy that those in authority — including especially J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI — accused them of as Black Panthers.
In the cadences of a gifted Black preacher, he proclaimed his core commitment. They are still haunting, deeply challenging words — words we all would do well to take to heart.
Fred Reklau, Retired pastor, Oak Park