Black History Month starts tomorrow and we had a significant figure in Black history living among us until he was gunned down on the morning of Dec. 4, 1969. I believe the death of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton contributed to the disconnect between Forest Park and Proviso East.
Hampton remains a controversial figure to this day. Efforts to have an honorary Chicago street sign in his name were defeated. In his hometown of Maywood, though, he remains a favorite son.
On a chilly Sunday in December, a statue of Hampton was dedicated in front of the Fred Hampton Pool. It seemed a peculiar time to hold a ceremony at a swimming pool but the organizers wanted to memorialize the date that Hampton and fellow Panther leader Mark Clark were shot in their beds on the West Side of Chicago.
Chicago Police claimed that the Panthers fired first during the pre-dawn raid. If so, it was the only shot the Panthers fired into the hail of police bullets.
Hampton, who was only 21 at the time, is more than a martyr to the people of Maywood. He is a hero. While still attending Proviso East, the honor student had formed a multi-ethnic group and coined the phrase “Rainbow Coalition.”
After graduation, he became chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers. He organized free breakfasts, clothing drives and health fairs. He gave rousing speeches all over the U.S. and Canada. Authorities saw the community organizer as a dangerous militant. The FBI described Hampton as the “greatest threat to the security of the United States.”
Hampton, though, was dedicated to helping the disenfranchised. For instance, Maywood kids like himself didn’t have a public swimming pool and weren’t welcome at other community pools. In the summer, he’d organize caravans to Cermak Pool just so kids could cool off.
That is why Maywood’s pool is named for him and why a statue preserves his image in bronze. There were brief speeches at the unveiling by Hampton’s mother and his old friend Congressman Danny Davis. Mayor Henderson Yarbrough said he didn’t think there would be much opposition to re-naming a portion of Oak Street “Fred Hampton Way.” State Representative Karen Yarbrough led the crowd in singing “We Shall Overcome.”
As I said at the beginning, there was student unrest at Proviso East following Hampton’s death, with some students clamoring to re-name it “Hampton High.” The disturbances were not reported in the Review and the wounds from this unrest have never fully healed. If you were attending Proviso East at the time Hampton was shot, I’d love to hear what really happened.