I remember moving to Chicago in the summer of 2007, a city and moment charged by the excitement of the presidential candidacy of one of its own—a young, intelligent, and handsome African-American man committed to organizing for the improvement of the social conditions facing the Black community. For reasons that many of us within the progressive community may recall, it was an invigorating time and atmosphere. While living in the city, and in what now strikes me as a fortunate coincidence, I spent my time studying another of its native sons—also young, Black, and handsome, and in similar possession of an astute intellectual drive and devotion to his community and his people.
December marks the 40th anniversary of the assassination of the latter of these two profoundly impassioned and inspiring figures: Black Panther Party (BPP) leader Fred Hampton, who was shot in his bed in 1969 by Chicago police, with intelligence assistance provided by the FBI. Within the Chicago community and among those who struggled in efforts to combat the nation’s glaring racial and economic inequalities that remained intact despite the promises of Civil Rights and the Great Society, Hampton was a brilliant and heroic figure: a 21-year old self-described revolutionary who quite literally spoke truth to power and inspired people who had been all but abandoned—or worse, condemned—by a large and powerful section of broader America. His ability to organize and inspire people who were often assumed to be beyond either organization or inspiration was legendary to those around him. As activist and Party leader Elaine Brown recalled, “You could not not be moved by Fred Hampton.”
Contemporary and modern renderings of the Panthers as fundamentally violent, racist, and incoherent dogmatists prove almost uniformly false, and nowhere are these caricatures more glaringly inaccurate than in the character of Fred Hampton. In Chicago, Hampton served as chairperson of a BPP branch that organized some of the most successful of the Party’s Free Breakfast for Children programs in the country. Under his leadership, Panthers there organized a free medical health clinic for the impoverished Black community and forged cross-racial solidarities with members of Chicago’s other underprivileged communities. Hampton was fond of extending the traditional Panther slogan of “Power to the People” to an explicitly inclusive level: “All Power to all people. White Power to White people; Brown Power to Brown people; Yellow Power to Yellow people; Black Power to Black people.” And despite caricatures of Party leaders and members as prone to violent criminality, when Hampton went to prison, it was for allegedly stealing ice cream and distributing it to neighborhood children.
The promise and the hope that Fred Hampton embodied for so many poor people in Chicago and elsewhere, both of color and not, is, I fear, difficult to locate in today’s America; and for that, sadness around the theft of his life must endure. For many of those who would be left behind as the nation continued to abandon Chicago and its other inner cities, the Chicago police literally shot dead one of the last great sources of hope while it slept on that December night. In the forty years since, the residents of those inner cities have been increasingly marginalized, demonized, terrorized by a Reagan-era military approach to crime control, devastated by Clinton-era attacks on social welfare programs, and blamed for the “decline” of the cities that segregation, deindustrialization, underemployment, selective policing, overaggressive incarceration, and non-investment have wrought.
When I had the opportunity to meet Fred Hampton’s brother Bill Hampton during my time in Chicago, one of the things that he offered was a photographed image of a picture of his brother and Jesse Jackson together at a Chicago-area gathering shortly before Hampton’s death. I thought back to this image last November as television camera crews repeatedly turned to Jackson standing in Grant Park with tears streaming down his cheeks as he listened to Barack Obama’s victory speech. I thought of tortured hopes and murdered young men, a list to which the federal government and Chicago police added Fred Hampton forty years ago. And I thought of a chance to begin a restorative process, a chance to make government good again. I believed in changes and hopes promised, and as I watched Jesse Jackson, it looked like he did, too.
Of course, Barack Obama is not Fred Hampton, nor does a narrow paradigm of “young, Black, intelligent, Chicago-area community organizer” capture the social circumstances or personal considerations of either. Late-1960s Chicago is not modern-era Chicago, less so is it modern-era America. Hampton’s Chicago public school education was not Obama’s Ivy League, nor was the Chicago Black Panther Party’s Madison Street office the White House.
And maybe some would say that, in an era of continued imperialism and international warfare, and in a nation with economic, climatic, and health care crises alike, there are bigger concerns than dwelling on the condition of America’s urban poor; there are certainly louder and more powerful voices drawing attention to those other issues. But roots run deep, and Hampton’s and Obama’s cross and intertwine at important places, one of which was a crucial understanding that the nation’s poor had few others who would speak for them.
So, finally and in memoriam, here’s to a hope that, nearly a year into Obama’s presidency and forty years after the killing of Fred Hampton, the President will find strength to excavate those roots, and extend his hand once more to those who haven’t been offered one in so long. It is, admittedly, but a moment of reflective optimism in an era of understandable cynicism—a hope that, in regard to the nation’s poor, everything’s not lost, and that the community organizing beginnings from which Obama came still resonate within his consciousness and political agenda. It is a hope that he will remember those on Chicago’s south and west sides and in similar circumstances across this nation, and revive the spirit and promises of midcentury social progressivism. It is, ultimately, a hope that he will, as Fred Hampton once said, “[go] into the valley knowing that the people are in the valley, knowing that we originally came from the valley….Our friends are in the valley, and even though it’s nice to be on the mountaintop, we’re going back to the valley.”
By Simon Balto
Mr. Balto is a graduate student in History and Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He may be reached for comments at email@example.com).
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