Fifty years ago today — Dec. 4, 1969 — Black Panther leader Fred Hampton was assassinated during an early-morning police raid on his apartment, located on the West Side of Chicago at 2337 W. Monroe. He was 21 years old.
Around 4:30 a.m., a 14-man unit pumped nearly 100 shots into the apartment. The Panthers did not return fire. The evidence gathered in the days, weeks, months and years since Hampton's death would establish that the raid was organized as part of the FBI's secret and illegal counterintelligence program, COINTELPRO, an initiative designed to systematically destroy just about any form of effective black political empowerment not controlled by the government. Martin Luther King Jr., for instance, was one of the program's targets.
Hampton's death had a seismic effect on Chicago's political scene. Edward V. Hanrahan, the Cook County State's Attorney who authorized the raid and who, afterward, falsely characterized the execution as a "gun battle" and praised the officers for their "restraint," lost his bid for reelection and never held political office again (Hanrahan, a longtime River Forest resident, died in 2009).
Hampton's death, according to many political observers, also set the stage for the election of Harold Washington, the city's first African-American mayor.
But if Hampton's death is a lesson in the power of political mobilization, it's also a testament to the power of local journalism.
Paul Sassone, the late newspaper columnist and Oak Park resident who died last year, was a reporter for the Proviso Herald, the local paper for Maywood, Hampton's hometown, at the time of the assassination. And his reporting helped humanize a man who was, and still is, stereotyped as an irrational thug.
In the Dec. 11, 1969 Proviso Herald, Sassone recalled his only time meeting Hampton in the flesh ("my first, and last, look at the man whose name had become synonymous with black radicalism in the Chicago area"). The meeting, Hampton's "last speaking engagement in Proviso," was held in October 1969, at First Baptist Church in Melrose Park, where Hampton would be memorialized just two months later.
"Look, I'm 21," Sassone recalled Hampton saying at the meeting, which was held to discuss racism in the suburbs. "If you think it has all happened in 21 years and that I did it, then you should take me out and shoot me. But you and I know that these situations have been around for a long time."
Captivated by Hampton's charisma and his intelligence, Sassone was convinced that "the 'power structure' was afraid of him for the wrong reasons. Hampton was no hoodlum or gangster. He was an intelligent and highly articulate revolutionary. That is, he didn't like the way America was being run and wanted a change, using any means necessary."
That more empathetic, understanding and realistic portrait of Hampton ages much better than a Nov. 15, 1969, editorial by the Chicago Tribune called "No Quarter for Wild Beasts," which lambasted the Black Panthers' role in a shootout with law enforcement that left a policeman and a Panther dead, and seven other policemen wounded.
"The Black Panthers, who were waiting for the police to come after them, fired from concealed positions, gunning down the first policemen on the scene before they could draw their weapons," the Tribune editorial board stated in a piece published Nov. 15, 1969.
The paper called the Panthers "murderous fanatics, who have been persuaded that they have a right to shoot and kill policemen" before making the reckless argument that the Panthers weren't even worthy of due process.
The Black Panthers "should be kept under constant surveillance," the paper wrote. "They have declared war on society. They therefore have forfeited the right to considerations ordinary violators of the law might claim."
Without Sassone's shoe leather, boots on the ground, local reporting, we would not have this line that Hampton delivered at that October 1969 meeting, which might be considered his retort to the Tribune's editorial:
"We have a right to live," Hampton said.
Answer Book 2019
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