On December 4, 1969, Fred Hampton was gunned down in his apartment at the age of 21 as part of a joint operation between the FBI and the Chicago Police Department.
There were more than 90 rounds fired during the assassination, which was carried out by 14 Chicago police officers ostensibly carrying out a search warrant for weapons. While police initially said there was a lengthy shootout between the Black Panthers and law enforcement, a federal investigation found that the police were responsible for firing all but one of the rounds.
Fred Hampton himself was shot twice in the head at close range. Hampton appears to have been lying on his bed when an officer stood over him and shot him, according to his family’s attorney. A photo of the aftermath of the shooting shows Hampton’s blood-soaked mattress, with dozens of bullet holes in both the bed and the wall behind the mattress. Hampton’s associate, Mark Clark, was also killed in the raid at the age of 22.
The Black Panther Party members who survived the raid were all indicted on attempted murder charges, which were eventually dropped due to lack of evidence.
Fred Hampton was the charismatic leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, after several years as a successful organizer with the NAACP. As a youth organizer, Hampton was able to form a group of more than 500 youth in a community of just 27,000 people in order to successfully lobby the Chicago city council for more educational and recreational resources.
Hampton was perhaps one of the most influential community organizers in American history. In addition to negotiating a truce among Chicago’s street gangs, Hampton also formed a “rainbow coalition” between the Black Panther Party and groups dubbed the Young Lords and the Young Patriots. The Young Lords organization was made up of working-class Puerto Ricans in Chicago, and the Young Patriots was a group of white immigrants in the city advocating for working-class concerns.
However, just months before his death, Hampton was slated to unite working-class Chicagoans of all races in an explicitly anti-capitalist campaign in conjunction with the Farm Workers Union, Students for a Democratic Society, and the Communist Party. Around this time, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover created the secretive COINTELPRO program intended to disrupt and ultimately bring an end to black-led social justice movements in the United States.
As Jonathan David Farley wrote in The Guardian, one focus of Hoover’s program was to “prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement.”
COINTELPRO infiltrated the Illinois Black Panther Party with the help of FBI informant William O’Neal, who earned Hampton’s trust and eventually became his bodyguard. As HuffPost reported in 2017, O’Neal drew a blueprint of Hampton’s apartment for the FBI for the purposes of the raid, with Hampton’s bed clearly marked. The blueprint was given to Chicago police for the raid, and O’Neal was heading security the night the raid took place, allowing the police easy access to Hampton’s bedroom to assassinate him.
Jeffrey Haas, who represented the families of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, led a 13-year legal battle with a team of largely unpaid attorneys and eventually won a discovery motion in which the FBI was forced to turn over documents confirming the conspiracy to kill Hampton with the Chicago Police Department. A $1.85 million wrongful death settlement was equally paid by local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies in 1982.
Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.