Looking back at the death of a charismatic activist

Fred Hampton was killed a half-century ago

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

Fifty years ago today — Dec. 4, 1969 — Black Panther leader and Maywood native Fred Hampton was assassinated during an early-morning police raid on his apartment, located on the West Side of Chicago at 2337 W. Monroe. He was 21 years old. 

Around 4:30 a.m., a 14-man unit pumped nearly 100 shots into the apartment. The Panthers did not return fire. The evidence gathered in the days, weeks, months and years since Hampton's death would establish that the raid was organized as part of the FBI's secret and illegal counterintelligence program, COINTELPRO, an initiative designed to systematically destroy just about any form of effective black political empowerment not controlled by the government. Martin Luther King Jr., for instance, was one of the program's targets. 

Hampton's death had a seismic effect on Chicago's political scene. Edward V. Hanrahan, the Cook County State's Attorney who authorized the raid and who, afterward, falsely characterized the execution as a "gun battle" and praised the officers for their "restraint," lost his bid for reelection and never held political office again. Hampton's death, according to many political observers, also set the stage for the election of Harold Washington, the city's first African-American mayor. 

But old articles published in the Proviso Herald and Forest Park Review show that Hampton's death also had a powerful impact on Proviso East High School and the wider Proviso Township. 

Hampton had been a controversial student-leader at Proviso East, where, depending on the perspective, he was either a racial agitator and self-righteous thug or a courageous civil rights activist who was willing to take a radical stand on issues few others were willing to stick their necks out for. 

However people saw him, most would argue that the circumstances (and the proven racist conspiracy) of Hampton's death substantially proved the point he'd been making all along — that trenchant, systemic racism in the North was real and, in some cases, just as potent as its Southern cousin. 

In October 1969, Proviso Herald reporter Paul Sassone covered what he said would be Hampton's last public speech in Proviso Township — a speech that was prophetic in more ways than one. 

The meeting took place at First Baptist Church in Melrose Park, where Hampton would be memorialized just two months later. 

"Look, I'm 21," Sassone recalled Hampton saying at the meeting, which was held to discuss racism in the suburbs. "If you think it has all happened in 21 years and that I did it, then you should take me out and shoot me. But you and I know that these situations have been around for a long time." 

Captivated by Hampton's charisma and his intelligence, Sassone was convinced that "the 'power structure' was afraid of him for the wrong reasons. Hampton was no hoodlum or gangster. He was an intelligent and highly articulate revolutionary. That is, he didn't like the way America was being run and wanted a change, using any means necessary." 

Hampton was right. "These situations" had been around a long time, and they would hang around long after the militant activist's death. In the days after the assassination, "the scene of racial turmoil" was such that Proviso East officials suspended classes until after Christmas, Sassone reported in the Dec. 18, 1969 Proviso Herald. 

During a Dec. 10 memorial service for Hampton, fist fights between black and white students broke out and "the first of several walkouts occurred when a large group of white students left in protest, and then the blacks walked out," Thomas Milikin, an assistant superintendent, told Sassone. 

In Hampton's hometown of Maywood, Mayor Leonard Chabala, three trustees and members of the Maywood Commission on Human Relations "issued a statement for murder charges to be filed against the 14 State's Attorney's police involved in the fatal 'shootout' at 2337 W. Monroe, Chicago," according to a Dec. 11, 1969 Herald article that Sassone wrote. 

The village officials had been among the approximately 25,000 people who took a guided tour through the murder scene (police had not bothered to secure it). 

The statement called Hampton's death "'a blatant act of legitimized murder,' and likened the police tactics to Hitler's Nazis," the Herald reported.

After the village officials' statement, Maywood's acting police chief at the time, Wilbert Samuels — likely channeling the anger of many whites in the village at the time that their representatives were siding with black militants against the police — resigned. 

"The chief said he considered the statement we made offensive," Rev. Thomas Strieter, the Maywood trustee, told the Herald. "Apparently he thought we were critical of all police, which is not true."

In Forest Park, the published reactions were much more subdued. Although the Hampton raid was page one news in the Herald, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Tribune and was covered by AP and other news agencies around the country, the Dec. 10, 1969 Forest Park Review made no mention of the raid. 

In a Dec. 17, 1969 Forest Park Review, the paper announces "Proviso East Closed Until January 5th," but barely alludes to the underlying cause, alluding to "conditions prevailing at present in both school and community of Proviso Twp.," the paper notes. In his "Personal Observations" on page 6 of the Dec. 17 issue, the paper's editor and publisher at the time, Claude A. Walker, mentions Hampton's shooting as a cautionary tale and an obstacle to "Peace on Earth and Good Will Toward Man." 

"The aftermath of the shooting of Hampton last week has stirred up a tempest that may lead to a series of riots on the streets of Chicago that may take many lives. What happened to the 'Good Will?'" 

Edgar L. Hiestand Jr., a minister at Neighborhood Methodist Church in Maywood, offered what could be considered a response to Walker in a letter to the Proviso Herald, published Dec. 11.

Hiestand called Hampton's death "a three-fold tragedy," with the greatest tragedy being "that all of us have allowed wrongs to accumulate. 

"We've condoned a snails-pace progress in jobs, housing, education and justice in all facets of America's life," Hiestand wrote. "We've acquiesced in the rationalization of violence and the muffling of dissent, whether in Pinkville or W. Monroe St. The real victim is America's soul."

Contact:
Email: michael@oakpark.com

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Dianne Howard from Vernon, VT (from Forest Park)  

Posted: December 5th, 2019 9:30 PM

I sat next to Fred in Homeroom all 4 years at PEHS...we also were members of the newly formed Cross Section Committee 65-66. I found him to be soft spoken with a marvelous sense of humor. I was shocked when my Mom sent me the devastating news of his murder. May he RIP~

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