Forty years since Fred Hampton's murder

December 5, 2009

"I'm gon' die for the People. 'Cause I live for the people. 'Cause I love the People. Power to the People!" — Fred Hampton.

40 years ago on December 4, 21-year-old Black Panther Party (BPP) leader Fred Hampton was murdered in his bed by the Chicago Police Department in an FBI-orchestrated raid.

Apparently drugged by a police agent who had been acting as his bodyguard, Hampton never woke up during the raid, despite police claims of a shoot-out.

This was at the height of the FBI's campaign of violent repression against the BPP.

The BPP were founded in Oakland in 1966 as a response from radical Black youth to police violence — and to fight for Black liberation and socialism. The Panthers grew in popularity among Black youth and were targeted by an FBI campaign of infiltration, sabotage and violence. Dozens of Panthers were killed, or framed and jailed.

A brilliant orator and organiser, Hampton was one of the Panthers' most effective young leaders.

Before his death, he had created alliance of groups called the "rainbow coalition". This included Chicago's largest street gang, the Blackstone Rangers (now known as Black P. Stone Nation), minority community groups, like the Puerto Rican Young Lords and the left-wing Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

The Panthers captured the imagination of Black youth by standing up to the racist police that brutalised Black communities. BPP activists carried weapons openly as they "patrolled" the police to observe and prevent police brutality.

The popular image of a BPP activist remains one of a militant with a gun-in-hand, symbolising armed revolution. Yet, Hampton's example shows the reality was different.

Hampton was a strong supporter of the rounded political approach the Panthers were developing. Not long before his murder, he denounced a rampage of vandalism in Chicago organised by the ultraleft Weathermen group in SDS, which wasfollowed by brutal police raids in the Black community.

White leftist Steve Tappis said that Hampton "told them to go off and organise breakfast programs or something".

When BPP members patrolled the police, they did so with a gun in one hand (as they were legally entitled to do) and the law book in the other. Such audaciousness caught people's imagination.

But their real support base developed in tandem with their programs of political struggle — mass rallies and electoral campaigns — and their Survival Programs, such as breakfasts for school children, buses for the elderly, and sickle-cell anaemia testing.

The Panthers also ran programs providing free food, clothing and shoes, legal aid, employment, and many more. BPP founder Huey P. Newton wrote that the programs were "not revolutionary nor reformist but a tactic and strategy by which we organised the people".

Hundreds of thousands benefited from the Survival Programs.

Hampton explained Panther strategy in a 1969 speech: "A lot of people think [the Breakfast for Children program] is charity, but what does it do? It takes the people from a stage to another stage. Any program that's revolutionary is an advancing program. Revolution is change.

"Honey, if you just keep on changing, before you know it, in fact, not even knowing what socialism is, you don't have to know what it is, they're endorsing it, they're participating in it, and they're supporting socialism …

"And a lot of people will tell you … the people don't have any theory, they need some theory. They need some theory even if they don't have any practice …

"We say that the Breakfast For Children program is a socialistic program. It teaches the people basically that by practice, we thought up and let them practice that theory and inspect that theory.

"What's more important? You learn something just like everybody else."

At their height, the Panthers were a force to be reckoned with. They had chapters in 47 cities around the US and their weekly newspaper reached a circulation of over 200,000 copies.

Despite FBI's intense campaign of repression, the Panthers lasted through to the end of the 1970s.

In recent years, much of the often forgotten history of the Panthers has been published. In memory of Hampton, and all the other Panthers killed, exiled or jailed for decades (some are still there), it is a good time to re-read their history.

One recent book is The Black Panther Party Service to the People Programs, edited by David Hilliard (a founding BPP member) and Cornel West, published in 2008 by University of New Mexico Press.

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