Monday, March 6, was a cold, wet and light snowy day, a day very similar to Dec. 4, 1969, when Chicago police gunned down Black Panther leader Fred Hampton during a raid at his West Side apartment on west Monroe Street.
On Monday, community activists, educators, politicians and religious leaders gathered in front of where the Hampton house stood in support of renaming 2300 West Monroe after Hampton.
“On a day similar to this, Dec. 5, 1969, we were gathered here in the early morning,” said Cong. Bobby Rush, who was a member of the Chicago Chapter of the Black Panther Party at the time of the killings.
“[At] about 4 o’clock, I got a call that there was a shootout on West Monroe. We gathered because this area was cornered off; we gathered in a basement less then a block away and listened to the radio to get the word that Fred Hampton had been killed by police officers.”
Rush joined other black leaders, including Austin’s Rev. Marshall Hatch, National Black United Front chairman Dr. Conrad Worrill and Hampton’s brother Bill, to support the Hampton Street renaming.
The move to rename the street after the slain Black Panther has stirred controversy among the Chicago Police Union, contending that Hampton should not be honored, and that the Black Panther Party was more of a crime outfit than a political organization.
Supporters of the move said Hampton, who was deputy chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Panthers, deserves the honor and that his 1969 killing was unjustified.
“Fred Hampton gave his life – he didn’t commit a crime,” said Rush. “He gave his life because he fed hungry children. He gave his life because he advocated free medical attention for people who had no medical care. He gave his life so that the homeless would have a home. He gave his life because he stood up against a police department and mentality that had been created and encouraged by an order from the Mayor of the city of Chicago to ‘shoot to kill, and to maim.'”
The Black Panther Party locally and nationally also provided free lunch programs to youth, one of their more notable outreach efforts, supporters said.
Bill Hampton, who is president of a scholarship fund in his brother’s name, echoed Rush’s sentiments.
“The people know that Fred Hampton and the Panthers fed the hungry, clothed the naked, operated free medical centers [and] talked against oppression that was happening about police brutality,” he said.
Hampton also questioned those critical of the street renaming.
“Certainly, this is a righteous thing that we’re doing,” he said. “And certainly we don’t need other people telling us who to name our heroes after. We can think for ourselves.”
Other comments were made by Pat Hill of the Afro American Police League, Minister Ismael Muhammad of the Nation of Islam, Rev. Al Sampson, activist Eddie Read and Wallace Davis of Wallace’s Catfish Corner.
Hampton and Black Panther Party member Mark Clark were killed during a pre-dawn raid Dec. 4, 1969 by Chicago Police, and included the FBI and members of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office’s special tactical unit, according to news accounts. The law enforcement officials were armed with guns and a warrant to search for illegal weapons.
At the Monday press conference, Cong. Jesse Jackson Jr.(2nd District) recalled the day of Hampton’s killing.
“I was almost two years old and obviously not old enough to remember the events that occurred on this night,” he said. “But I stand here in full support in renaming 2300 W. Monroe after Chairmen Fred Hampton, for the extraordinary contribution not only to Chicago, to all Illinoisans, but indeed to all Americans. The process that he was gunned down along with Mark Clark led not only to local reforms, but national reforms for searches and seizures. And so thousands of Americans owe their lives to the events of what occurred here.”
According to accounts from members of the Black Panthers, when police stormed into apartment, both Clark and Hampton were asleep. Clark, asleep in the front room, was the first man killed. Hampton was later shot by police. Police, however, at the time, said Hampton and Clark shot first as officers were attempting to serve the warrant.
The events, however, further raised questions about police brutality and simmering tensions between the mostly white police force and black communities it supposedly served.
Rush, who was not at the scene of the shooting, recalled at Monday’s press conference what happened after the incident.
“Around six o’clock that morning policemen left this area and they left the apartment open. That was their biggest mistake and that was our biggest blessing,” he said. “That they left the apartment open and people began to stream through that apartment, in a few days between that Wednesday morning and that Sunday, over 25,000 people came through that apartment. And they all left with their mind made up: they all left saying ‘Fred Hampton had been murdered while he slept – murdered in his sleep.'”
Rush said Panther members later found that Hampton had been drugged, though others dispute that claim.
“That same mentality that Mayor (Richard J.) Daley espoused in 1968, was the same mentality that murdered Fred Hampton while he slept. This is more then just about Fred Hampton. It’s about the dignity that we have as a people. Can’t we as a people define for ourselves who our heroes are and who our she-roes are? That’s the issue right now.”
Cong. Danny Davis, who attended the press conference, said he knew Hampton and his family.
“I’ve always been told that if there is righteousness in the heart, there is beauty in the character,” he said. “Fred was indeed a righteous man and his character was indeed beautiful…and so, on behalf of thousands of my constituents, thousand of the residents of this community, thousand of the people that I represent and serve, we are all in support of renaming of this street Fred Hampton Way.”
When asked what would happen in the black community if the City Council denies the name change originally set for March 29, Dr. Worrill replied, “Continue to mobilize, [and] organize. We got all kinds of elections coming up. This city does not belong to just a few people who have been running the town for a long time. Perhaps some changes need to be made in the town. We need to keep coming together and will figure out what to do.”