On the anniversary of the Black Panther Party leader’s murder, Hampton family lawyer looks back.
At 4:30 in the morning of December 4, 1969, 14 heavily armed Chicago police officers, acting at the direction of Cook County State’s Attorney Edward V. Hanrahan, raided a tiny apartment on the west side of Chicago where local Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton and eight Party members were sleeping. Minutes later, Hampton and Peoria, Illinois BPP leader Mark Clark lay dead, several of the other Panthers were seriously wounded, and the survivors were hauled off to jail on attempted murder charges.
I was a second year Northwestern law student working at the fledgling People’s Law Office when I received a call that “the Chairman had been murdered” and was directed to come to the apartment. The crime scene was shocking—the plasterboard walls looked like swiss cheese, ripped by scores of bullets from police weapons that included a machine gun, a semi automatic rifle, and several shotguns. A large pool of blood stained the floor at the doorway where Hampton’s body had been dragged after he was shot in the head, and there were fresh blood stains on all the beds in the apartment.
I had met Chairman Fred only months before when I escorted him to the Law School to speak to the student body in venerable Lincoln Hall. He was only 21 years old, but he captivated the audience, as he always did, with his dynamic and analytical speaking skill, a mixture of Malcolm X, Dr. King, and Lupe Fiasco. It was his unique leadership, together with the revolutionary politics he so convincingly espoused, that made him a primary target of law enforcement.
Directly after the raid, State’s Attorney Hanrahan and his police loudly proclaimed that the “vicious Black Panthers” had instigated a “shootout” during which they fired a fuselage of shots at the raiders. The cold and bloody crime scene made lie of this official story, and Panther members led thousands of people on tours of the apartment for the next ten days while People’s Law Office lawyers and staff documented the evidence that would later establish that the police fired 99 bullets while the Panthers fired but one. A elderly African American lady best captured this reality when she said, while sadly shaking her head during the tour, that the raid was “nothing but a Northern lynching.”
Confronted with the ballistics evidence, Hanrahan was forced to drop the attempted murder charges against the surviving Panthers. The Richard Nixon Justice Department investigated, but refused to indict. In response to community outrage, a specially appointed Cook County Prosecutor subsequently indicted Hanrahan, his first assistant, and a number of the raiding officers, not for murder or attempted murder, but rather only for obstruction of justice. A Democratic machine judge acquitted Hanrahan and his co-conspirators on the eve of the 1972 election, but an inflamed African American electorate voted Hanrahan out of office, spawning a movement that paved the way for the election of Mayor Harold Washington a decade later.
All the while, the People’s Law Office continued to litigate a civil rights lawsuit in federal court on behalf of the Hampton and Clark families and the survivors of the raid. Through the discovery process, we unearthed FBI documents showing that the FBI’s secret COINTELPRO program was behind the raid. The documents, which were suppressed by the FBI for years, together with independent toxicological tests, further revealed that an FBI COINTELPRO agent supplied a floor plan of the Panther apartment, complete with markings where Hampton slept, to Hanrahan’s raiders; that William O’Neal, the COINTELPRO informant who drew the floor plan, most likely drugged Hampton so that he could not defend himself; and that after the raid FBI director J. Edgar Hoover rewarded O’Neal with a $300 bonus for making the raid a “success.”
In 1983, after an 18 month trial and 13 years of litigation, the City of Chicago, Cook County and the Federal Government all finally settled with the Hampton and Clark families and the survivors of the raid. While this financial settlement brought some modicum of justice, no one, except the Panther survivors, ever spent a day in jail. But the murderous raid, once falsely depicted as a shootout, is now rightly considered not only to be a northern lynching, but also an official assassination that was instigated by the FBI. And while we will never know what heights Fred Hampton would have reached as a leader had he lived, we do know, in the words first spoken in eulogy by People’s Law Office attorney Francis Andrew nearly forty three years ago, that the spirit of Fred Hampton continues to live on.
By G. Flint Taylor
Taylor is one of the lawyers for the family of slain Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. For more information on the Hampton/Clark case, the history of Black Panther Party, and the FBI’s program to destroy it, visit peopleslawoffice.com