*I recall chills going through my body as I left my job at Harris Bank in Chicago that cold snow-covered day in December of 1969 after getting the news of the death of Fred Hampton, the Chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party.
But the chills were not from the weather itself. They were from the cold-blooded nature and reality of a brutal murder. At the time the Black Panther Party was under intense scrutiny and surveillance by the FBI in conjunction with other law enforcement agencies.
Two years earlier Hampton’s attention – like so many other young blacks during the time – was drawn to an event on the West Coast. In May 1967, thirty Oakland Panthers, twenty-four men and six women, went to the California legislature in Sacramento carrying rifles to dramatize their right of self-defense, as well as to protest pending legislation that would overturn the law allowing them to legally carry unconcealed weapons. This event would sound a death knell for young Hampton, for a year later the now Congressman Bobby Rush, would recruit him as the first member of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party.
Attorney Jeffrey Haas, one of the founders of the People’s Law Office (PLO) in Chicago, has written a riveting and spell-binding book of a turbulent time of unrest and clandestine activity by our government and law enforcement agencies, The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther. Haas’ activism and involvement with the People’s law Office positioned him to tell the untold story of complicity on the part of many in the conspiracy and cover-up of a government-sanctioned murder.
This book, with a cast of characters, many of which are also written about in my own published book on Chicago politics, The City That Works: Power, Politics and Corruption in Chicago, such as Mayor Daley, Mayor Harold Washington, Cook County State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan and Rev. Jesse Jackson, pulls back the covers on a gritty city to reveal a callousness seldom seen or read about. The author points out in his book that Jackson praised Hampton as a courageous and inspiring young leader who had been taken away from the people he served by Hanrahan’s murderous raid, despite the fact that Hampton had earlier accused Jackson and Operation Breadbasket of developing programs focused primarily on helping black businessmen rather than poor and working-class people.
Haas strips bare the veneer of this city that prides itself in being called “The City That Works,” and reveals an ugly hateful core. The author does a masterful job of telling a story of a city that seems to personify crime and corruption. Haas goes into graphic detail, buttressed by a photo of the blood-soaked mattress in which Hampton’s body was found, to describe this dastardly deed.
It started with a “Knock on the Door,” as the author so eloquently describes in this poignant book of urban upheaval and tragedy, The Assassination of Fred Hampton. At 4:00AM on December 4, 1969, 14 Chicago police officers assigned to Cook County State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan, armed with shotguns, handguns and a .45-caliber machine gun, raided Hampton’s apartment at 2337 W. Monroe, within walking distance of the home of the NBA Chicago Bulls basket ball team. When they left, 21-year-old Hampton lay dead in his bed, fellow Panther Mark Clark was also dead and four others had multiple gunshot wounds.
Perhaps the most chilling and poignant passage in the entire book, is a description told by one of the survivors of the raid, Deborah Johnson, who was several months pregnant with Hampton’s child. Johnson states in Haas’ book:
“I wasn’t shot like a lot of the others. The pigs pushed me around, but I think the baby is OK. Fred never really woke up. We were sleeping. I woke up hearing shots from the front and back. I shook Fred but he didn’t open his eyes. I got on top of him to try to protect him from the bullets.”
If it is true that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” one need only look at the blood-soaked mattress that Hampton’s body was removed from, to fully comprehend what occurred at 2337 W. Monroe in Chicago, at 4:00AM in the morning on December 4, 1969.
Many have weighed in on this artistic masterpiece of urban history. Noted author and historian Studs Terkel, states:
“This book of the assassination of a sleeping Fred Hampton by Chicago police working for a mad state’s attorney is more important NOW than it was THEN. It is a revelation of how the powerful of our city use power to keep truth distant … This is a remarkable work.” Noam Chomsky, author and political activist, states: “A riveting account of the assassination, the plot behind it, the attempted cover-up, the denouement and the lessons that we should draw from this shocking tale of government.”
For more than 35 years I have been driving by that address in Chicago at 2337 W. Monroe where Fred Hampton was murdered in his own bed, and I still give pause and reflect for a moment on what could have been. He had so much to give, so much that we as a society could have learned from. It is ironic that one of his co-leaders of the Black Panther Party, Bobby Rush, is a fourth-term U.S. Congressman. This is a must read book that I highly recommend.
Dennis Moore is a member of the San Diego Writers/Editors Guild and the author of The City That Works: Power, Politics and Corruption in Chicago. He has also been a freelance contributor to the San Diego Union-Tribune Newspaper.