I had long thought the shooting death of Fred Hampton, by the Chicago Police, on Dec. 4, 1969, triggered the separation of white Forest Park students from Proviso East High School. However, classmates of Hampton say there were racial disturbances at the high school long before and after Fred’s death.
Fred’s career at Proviso East is described in the new book The Assassination of Fred Hampton, by Jeffrey Haas. It reports that Fred was “infuriated” by the all-white administration and mostly white staff because they weren’t adequately educating black students. He saw that (non-athletic) black students who did poorly were quitting school or flunking out. There were no remedial programs for them.
Hampton, who was black, also thought it unfair that white girls dominated the cheerleading squad and only white girls were nominated for homecoming queen. Hampton organized a student walkout that resulted in the school having its first black homecoming queen. Though blacks and whites remained segregated socially, Hampton was popular with both. He headed the Interracial Council to defuse racial tensions.
In 1967, Fred became the chief of the Maywood NAACP Youth Chapter leading protest marches demanding recreational facilities for black youths. A year later, Hampton became chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party.
Fred had always been very sensitive to people in need, his big brother, Bill, told me. As a child, he rounded up neighborhood kids to cook big breakfasts at his house because he knew some weren’t getting much food at home. He also hosted pool games in the basement.
Seeking more recreational outlets, Fred wanted a swimming pool in Maywood. Though he was a non-swimmer, Fred organized caravans to Cermak Pool, the only local pool where blacks were welcome.
In addition to his activism, Fred excelled at sports and studies, learned to play the saxophone and worked part-time jobs. He took classes at Malcolm X College, UIC and Triton. He planned to become a lawyer.
As Chairman of the Black Panthers, Fred started a free breakfast program for poor kids in Chicago. He promoted free health clinics, free bus service for families to visit prisoners and free educational programs. He disavowed violence but acknowledged that Panthers had a right to defend themselves with legally registered weapons.
In 1969, Fred made the fateful decision to move from Maywood to an apartment at 2337 West Monroe in Chicago. He couldn’t know that in Washington D.C., FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had drafted a memo to his agents about preventing the rise of a black “messiah.”
Like messiahs before him, Fred was ahead of his time in giving hope to the disadvantaged. And like messiahs of old, Fred would become a martyr.
In a future column, I’ll detail the struggle to bring Fred’s killers to justice and how his life and death has impacted every American.