What it meant to lose Fred Hampton

I was in high school at the time.  I was already “political”, as we used to say, that is, a young activist.  I was stunned when i heard the news.

Anyone close to the Black Panther Party knew of the growing legend of Fred Hampton, leader of the Black Panther Party in  Chicago.  He was a remarkable leader.  He inspired not only Panthers, but countless other activists.  And he had a sense of the sort of strategy that needed to be put into place to build a winning mass movement:  it was the first “rainbow coalition.”  Hampton was the key player in building an alliance  of radical forces who had emerged from different social movements and different races/nationalities.

Fred Hampton and fellow Panther Mark Clark were murdered on December 4, 1969.  The Chicago Panthers had been infiltrated by government agents.  Hampton and Clark were drugged so that they were in no position to escape the attack on their headquarters by the Chicago Police.

The murder of Hampton and Clark was part of a larger decapitation process underway aimed at the leaders of various radical and progressive social movements.  The principal instrument for this decapitation was the Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), constructed by the FBI originally to destroy the Communist Party, but later used more broadly against many left-leaning forces.  As the outstanding documentary COINTELPRO 101 details, COINTELPRO was used not only against African Americans, but was part of a process of infiltrating the Movement and its organizations; encouraging splits; spreading rumors; and creating so-called “Black propaganda” as a means of discrediting the Left.  Many great leaders of the emerging New Left and progressive movements were jailed, killed, driven insane or forced into exile.

Hampton’s charisma, leadership style and coalition-building approach were all much too much of a threat to the powers at be.  He had to be removed from the scene.  The forces of evil were quite aware that by removing credible leaders, such as Hampton, there would be an enlarging void in the Panthers and other such groups leading, ultimately, to some form of implosion.

Hampton had a certainty that the oppressed would ultimately win.  It was a certainty that is critical for all those who hold true to the need for fundamental social transformation.  But it is a certainty that must be matched, to borrow from Gramsci, with a soberness as to the challenges that face us as we march down this dangerous path.

In the midst of the upsurges over the last several years, whether the Madison uprising; Occupy; the Chicago Teacher’s strike;  or the current protests against police brutality and lynching, it is especially important to remember the stance of those, like Fred Hampton, who not only remained firm, but recognized that a movement cannot win in the absence of organization; and it cannot win in the absence of the correct sort of political alignment of the population.  Real politics, in other words, is not about flying the perfect flag, or giving the most radical speech,  but instead concerns the process of giving a critical mass of people a sense of hope driven by a vision and strategy that suggests that not only must we win, but that we actually can win.

Let us bring forward many, many more Fred Hamptons.

7 thoughts on “What it meant to lose Fred Hampton

  1. Bill, you wrote “Hampton had a certainty that the oppressed would ultimately win. It was a certainty that is critical for all those who hold true to the need for fundamental social transformation. ”

    Is that what so many of us have lost? Why I’m surrounded by so many activists who are not fully flat-out engaging? Perhaps why I haven’t?

    Is that the missing piece that we have to take on teaching and learning again?

    How do you teach it?

    • I think that part of it was a reflection of the times. The progressive masses were on the move. Part of it is a reading of history, something that many of us have given up. Part of it was a defiance or audacity that i think needs to be continuously nourished among freedom fighters. And, finally, part of it is connected with taking a long view of change. With regard to the long view, we have to recognize that things can get bad; they can get quite bad. But there is also something in the struggles of the oppressed and the almost miraculous actions of people under the most difficult conditions, that we need to draw upon to inspire us forward.
      I am not sure that i possess the certainty that we will win. I do, however, possess the certainty that we MUST.

  2. A belief in evolution helps me. And the idea of being on an evolutionary path seems to give people a positive emotion when I talk about it

  3. I also remember when Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were murdered. I was 19, a junior at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and intensely involved in the anti-war movement. The Panthers were our heroes—-lots of us read, and even sold, their newspaper. We were more optimistic then, and being a student, and mainly white, had shielded us from police repression. We were stunned by such a clear murder and openly cried in the Wisconsin Union.

  4. Bill, this was truly an amazing and necessary read. I am the nephew to this slain activist. As I learn more of him through posts as this and his son Fred Hampton jr, I more and more realize my purpose here. I’m currently reading penial e joseph’s book on stokely carmichael and it also gave me insight on the necessity of organization. Often times we get emotional and forget organization but without it we can’t move past the true issue. Sending peace to you bill.

    • It is a real honor to receive this note. Thank you so much! I agree with you about the central importance of organization. To that i would add the question of strategy.

      • Strategy has been something i’ve been tussling back and forth with over the past few months. I believe all things are connected, therefore i say we start small. Learning to speak to one another with respect, creating that sense of awareness as to our worth. Also, Marcus Garvey started something great with “The Black Star Line” so i think we should cripple their system by starting our own. No longer riding their busses, carpool instead, no longer shopping at their grocery stores, grow our own harvest instead, no longer using their banking systems, learn that system and build that for our own community. There’s a debate of Malcolm X and Bayard Rustin at Howard University, Malcolm touched on a few points that i briefly explained here. Have a look when you get the time, but those are my suggestions as to some sort of strategy.

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