Editor’s note: Portions of this story were taken from a March 9, 2006 Austin Weekly News article.
South Side congressman Bobby Rush remembers the death of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton, who was killed nearly 40 years ago today. So do other community leaders in Chicago concerning what took place at Hampton’s West Side home, 2337 W. Monroe, just before daybreak. In a pre-dawn raid of the West Side apartment, Chicago police gunned down Hampton and fellow panther Mark Clark. The shooting took place Dec. 4, 1969 at about 4 a.m.
Austin Weekly News in March 2006 reported on the effort by Hampton’s family, friends and supporters to have 2300 W. Monroe Street named after him. At a morning ceremony on March 6, of that year, and standing in front of where Hampton’s house stood, Rush, a former Black Panther member, recalled the faithful day.
“On a day similar to this, Dec. 5, 1969, we were gathered here in the early morning,” said Rush, 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.”
The move to rename the street after Hampton stirred controversy. The Chicago Police Union contended that Hampton should not be honored, and that the Black Panther Party was more of a criminal outfit than a political organization. Supporters of the Party disagree, citing the group’s work in civil rights and community activism. The city eventually did not rename the street.
Supporters, though, argued that Hampton, who was deputy chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Panthers, deserved the honor and insisted his 1969 killing was unjustified.
“Fred Hampton gave his life-he didn’t commit a crime,” said Rush in 2006. “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.”
The pre-dawn raid was executed by Chicago Police, and included the FBI and members of the Cook County States Attorney Office’s special tactical unit, according to news accounts. Law enforcement officials were armed with guns and a warrant to search for illegal weapons.
According to accounts from Black Panther Party members, when police stormed the apartment, both Clark and Hampton were asleep. Clark, asleep in the front room, was the first man killed. Hampton was later shot by police. Officers at the time, however, said Hampton and Clark shot first as officers were attempting to serve the warrant.
But the events 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 what happened after the incident.
“Around 6 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.'”