Fred Hampton led Illinois’s Black Panther Party from 1968 until his death the following year. His killing remains the subject of much scrutiny, as Hampton died after Chicago Police officers raided his West Side apartment on the morning of December 4, 1969. The police fired 99 shots, killing the 21-year-old Hampton and his fellow Panther, 22-year-old Mark Clark. The Panthers fired just once.
Shaka King's new biopic, Judas and the Black Messiah, focuses on Hampton and the events leading up to his death, as well as the role paid informant William O’Neal—a Black man who served as chief of security for the Black Panther Party—played in helping the FBI infiltrate the Party and obtain information on Hampton, including the layout of his apartment. Here are 10 facts about Hampton and the enduring legacy he created in his tragically short life.
1. Fred Hampton was convicted of robbery less than one year before the raid on his apartment.
In the spring of 1969, the Supreme Court of Illinois found Hampton guilty of robbery and sentenced him to two to five years in the Menard Correctional Center (known then as Southern Illinois Penitentiary). His crime? A Good Humor ice cream driver claimed that, in July 1968, Hampton stole $71 worth of ice cream from his van while he was parked at the Irvin School playground in Maywood, Illinois. Hampton was convicted despite testifying that he had not been present at the playground when the ice cream was allegedly stolen.
2. Fred Hampton met his fiancée, Akua Njeri, when she was a college student.
Akua Njeri, then known as Deborah Johnson, had been studying at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago and was a member of the Black Student Union when she met Hampton. They first bonded over poetry, which she wrote at the time; Njeri recalled that Hampton preferred poems about “the struggles of the people and the people fighting back” and “the conditions of the Black community.” Njeri was asleep next to Hampton when police raided his apartment and shot him. Twenty-five days after the raid, Njeri gave birth to their son, Fred Hampton Jr.
3. Fred Hampton graduated high school with honors and went on to study law.
In 1966, Hampton graduated from Proviso East High School in Maywood, Illinois, with academic honors, three varsity letters, and a Junior Achievement Award. While in school, Hampton headed the school’s Inter-racial Council and spearheaded a boycott of homecoming, advocating for the school to permit Black girls to compete for homecoming queen. He went on to study pre-law at Triton Junior College and hoped to defend his community against police brutality.
4. As a teenager, Fred Hampton was active in the NAACP.
When he was 18 years old, Hampton served as an NAACP Youth Council President and led approximately 500 members in the fight for stronger education resources and better community facilities. During his time with the organization, Hampton spearheaded a campaign to have a non-segregated pool built in his hometown of Maywood, Illinois. The closest public pool at the time was a couple miles away in Melrose Park, but it only served white people. Hampton organized rallies and butted heads with authorities over the matter and eventually locked in funds from local businesses to get the pool built. After Hampton’s death, while the pool was still under construction, the village board decided it would bear his name.
5. Fred Hampton formed the Rainbow Coalition.
During his time as chairman of Illinois’s Black Panther Party, Hampton worked with the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican gang-turned-civil rights organization, to encourage activism and community organization. Hampton formed an alliance between the Panthers, the Lords, and the white, working class Young Patriots so that they could fight poverty and a lack of resources in their communities. The alliance became known as the Rainbow Coalition and helped establish a progressive, fundamentally socialist movement that laid the groundwork for radical ideals and civil disobedience in Chicago.
6. The FBI targeted Fred Hampton and the Illinois Chapter Of The Black Panthers as part of its COINTELPRO program.
According to FBI documents, COINTELPRO—short for counterintelligence program—intended to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of Black nationalist hate type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership, and supporters, and to counter their propensity for violence and civil disorder." Then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover deemed the Black Panther Party "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country." COINTELPRO agents were encouraged to use "aggressive and imaginative tactics" to prevent "the rise of a 'messiah' who could unify and electrify the militant Black nationalist movement." They saw Hampton as one of these "messiahs."
7. Drugs were found in Fred Hampton’s system after he died.
Because of his nonstop, tireless work for the Party (Hampton had been teaching a political education course at a local church the night before he was killed), his fiancée didn’t find it suspicious that he fell asleep so quickly the evening prior to the pre-dawn raid. But Hampton’s autopsy showed he had consumed a heavy dose of the barbiturate Seconal, which is typically used to sedate patients before surgery [PDF]. How the drug got into Hampton’s system has never been confirmed, though the Black Panther Party believed informant William O’Neal, who the FBI enlisted to infiltrate the Party, slipped it into Hampton’s drink on the evening of December 3, 1969.
8. Fred Hampton’s son claimed to be a police target, too.
Fred Hampton Jr. went to prison in 1990, after being sentenced to nine years for firebombing a Korean-owned store in Chicago. He denied committing the crime and claimed authorities cared more about him being the son of Chairman Fred than they did about evidence of the bombing. While behind bars, Hampton Jr. founded the Prisoners of Conscience Committee, which had similar goals to his father’s group.
9. In 1982, Fred Hampton’s relatives received part of a $1.85 million settlement.
In 1970, raid survivors and relatives of Clark and Hampton filed a $47.7 million civil suit against 29 defendants, alleging that the men's civil rights had been violated by the raid. Twelve years later, the city of Chicago, Cook County, and federal authorities finally agreed to a settlement, awarding $1.85 million to nine plaintiffs, including the survivors of the police raid and the relatives of the two slain leaders.
In 1977, following an 18-month trial, federal district court judge Joseph Sam Perry dismissed the charges against 21 of the defendants. He then sent the case to jury, where the panel couldn’t agree on the remaining defendants' liability. Judge Perry guided them toward not guilty verdicts, but two years later, the United States Court of Appeals deemed that the government obstructed the judicial process by withholding information and reinstated the case against 24 defendants. Federal, Chicago and Cook County officials eventually agreed on the settlement.
10. Chicago law enforcement opposed naming a street after Fred Hampton.
Though the apartment building where Hampton was killed at 2337 West Monroe Street had been razed and replaced with new homes by 2006, when Fred Hampton’s son proposed renaming the street after his dad, City Council received “outrage and hurt from law enforcement,” Mark Donahue, president of the Fraternal Order of Police in Chicago, told The New York Times at the time. The attempt to rename the street failed, but a mural of Hampton featuring his quote “I Am A Revolutionary—Free Em All” now sits down the road on Monroe Street, less than a mile from where Hampton died. Chicago also celebrates Hampton on December 4 thanks to a successful 1990 proposal that declared it Fred Hampton Day.