Many American schools usually keep their Black History curriculum on the Civil Rights Movement narrowed to just a handful of people. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks — of course — John Lewis and his heroic act on Bloody Sunday and maybe a brief mention of Malcolm X.
Most students never learn about Fred Hampton, whose story is the subject of the recently released Oscar-nominated film “Judas and the Black Messiah.” Hampton was the chairman of the Black Panther Party in Illinois—a Chicagoland native with Southern roots who built a coalition of Black Chicagoans, white Southerners who had moved up north from Appalachia, Latino immigrants and even Chicago street gang members.
Chairman Hampton worked to successfully form and lead this Rainbow Coalition until he was killed by police in December 1969. Some argue that his success in organizing these groups is why he was killed.
Amanda Furdge, a comrade and sister secretary for Chairman Fred Hampton Jr., explains the story of how Hampton united a city and how the government unraveled it.
Hampton grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, but his parents emigrated north from Louisiana during the Great Migration. So many Black Southerners had settled in Chicago, at one point, that sections of the city were nicknamed the Black Belt. Unfortunately, like many Black people fleeing the South, Hampton’s parents found a North that was still hostile to Black rights.
After college, Hampton became an NAACP organizer in the Chicago suburbs. He helped residents understand their rights in the face of brutality and gain access to education resources.
History primarily shows the Civil Rights Movement as a Southern movement while rarely reflecting how that movement inspired groups around the country. Groups like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and the Black Panthers offered national support, messaging and resources for homegrown movements.
The Black Panther Party, inspired in part by rural Alabamians and founded in Oakland, Calif., established chapters nationwide. Hampton officially joined the Illinois chapter in 1968, just a few months after Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis. Dr. King was planning to bring his Poor People’s Campaign to unite the working class to Chicago, the second largest city in the country and home to violent segregation.
Hampton and the Black Panthers picked up the torch from King.
A captivating speaker, Hampton convinced Chicago gang member to form a non–aggression pact. He reached out to Latino rights groups like the Young Lords for a common purpose. He even found unity with a group of Neo-Confederates.
The Young Patriots were basically the hillbilly version of the Black Panthers. Around the same time Hampton’s family arrived in Chicago, thousands of poor whites also flocked to northern cities for work. They didn’t face the same racial discrimination as Black migrants, but they did confront extreme poverty and regional prejudice. They used the Confederate tool to recruit Southern ex–pats, but then joined them in anti–racist mission with the Black Panthers and the Young Lords.
Hampton brought together the Rainbow Coalition, uniting each of these groups in a campaign again to address poverty and housing, health access, corruption and police brutality.
Hampton became an FBI target as he rose through the ranks of the Black Panther Party. The FBI set up undercover operations, put out misinformation, sowed distrust, and encouraged violence among the Panthers and other members of the Rainbow Coalition. Then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and his operatives published anti-white cartoons under the Black Panthers’ name to anger the Young Patriots.
In late 1969, after a shootout between Panthers and cops, Chairman Hampton returned home to Chicago, where the FBI convinced local police to carry out a raid at the apartment, he shared with his fiancée Deborah Johnson (a.k.a. Akua Njeri), who was pregnant with their child, Fred Hampton Jr.
On Dec. 4, 1969, Chicago police broke into Hampton’s apartment. An undercover agent drugged Hampton so he wouldn’t wake up.
Some eyewitnesses claim they heard police verbally identify Chairman Hampton before shooting him in the head, point blank. Police claimed the next day that they had fired in self–defense. However, an investigation later found that police fired as many as 99 shots. The Panthers fired only one gunshot—from a fallen shotgun.
Chairman Hampton’s killing has been called an assassination. Years later, Cook County reached a settlement with the survivors and Hampton’s mother.
The Rainbow Coalition lived on in various forms, but the FBI had succeeded in creating discord and distrust. The Civil Rights Movement lost another powerful voice.
Fred Hampton was only 21 years old at the time of his death.
His story rarely makes it into our school curriculum because it complicates our narratives of the civil rights movement. But, people should learn about Chairman Fred Hampton Sr.’s efforts to unite people from different races and backgrounds in the 1960s and the hundreds of other stories that make up the Civil Rights Movement.
Because it’s not just Black history.
It’s America’s history.