G. Flint Taylor, Fred Hampton’s attorney who has also represented the slain Black Panther leader’s family for the half-century that’s elapsed since Hampton’s death in 1969, was recently cleaning out the basement of his Chicago law office when he stumbled on boxes full of familiar files.
“I found box after box of FBI documents,” Taylor said during remarks delivered during a meeting of the Maywood-Proviso Rotary Club, held in suburban Maywood, Fred’s hometown, on Feb. 23.
“In the middle of our trial, the government admitted that they had been hiding all of the FBI files on the Black Panther Party and on Fred,” Taylor recalled. “There were 200 volumes in our basement that they had to turn over — 15 volumes of surveillance and COINTELPRO documents of Fred Hampton alone.”
COINTELPRO is a clumsy portmanteau that’s jumbled from the words Counter Intelligence Program. The Federal Bureau of Investigations utilized the program heavily during the 1950s and 1960s as a covert, largely unconstitutional, method of spying on, discrediting and destroying political organizations considered threats to the United States.
Some of those ‘threats,’ like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, are now considered icons today. After King’s 1963 speech delivered at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Hoover dropped the hammer, telling William C. Sullivan, the federal agent at the helm of COINTELPRO, to intensify efforts to discredit King and disarm the potency of his message.
In the wake of King’s “powerful demagogic speech,” Sullivan wrote, “We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.”
If being a charismatic, articulate African American male willing to speak out about constitutional ideals marked one as an enemy of the state, Fred Hampton might as well as have been marked since childhood, said many who reminisced on the Maywood native during last Thursday’s meeting.
Rotarian Delores Robinson, who attended Proviso East High School with Hampton in the mid-1960s, remembers how he would lead her and her fellow African American classmates out of the school’s clock tower entrance down Warren Avenue after classes let out.
“There weren’t many blacks at Proviso back then,” Robinson recalled. “When we would leave out of school at the end of the day, the blacks would walk out of that door and Fred would always have this song that went, ‘The more you give, the more God gives to you; you can’t beat God giving.’ We’d all walk down the street singing that.”
Don Williams, another member of Rotary who served as Mayor of Maywood in the 1990s and led the local NAACP at the time of Hampton’s ascendancy, recalled how he helped recruit Hampton to become the leader of the West Suburban NAACP’s Youth Council — a position that would become a launching pad for the young leader’s rise in the world of social activism.
“There was some turbulence at Proviso East and it seemed that the African American students were being short-changed,” Williams recalled. “We didn’t have anyone in the NAACP at that time we could offer who was young. There was a basketball player, Al Nuness, who was very well-known in the community and we thought we would solicit him.”
Williams said that Nuness was too busy with other commitments. The popular basketball player, however, recommended that the NAACP recruit Hampton.
“Nuness said, ‘You want Fred Hampton,'” Williams recalled. “He said he’s very active in the school and very well-known among the young people. You want Fred. So [we] recruited Fred Hampton. The rest is history.”
By the time Billy Dunbar joined the Black Panthers in 1968, the young Hampton’s reputation had circulated across Chicago several times over.
“I didn’t meet Fred until I got to headquarters at 2350 W. Madison St. [in Chicago], but people were telling me that this guy really had charisma and that he was talking about poor people and about how black people got mistreated by Mayor Daley’s regime,” Sullivan said. “He articulated the goals, needs and aspirations of black people at the time.”
When Dunbar and Hampton eventually met, Hampton had ascended to the position of chairman of the Black Panther’s Illinois chapter. Both men were in their early 20s — if they were that old.
“I found out later, through my experiences in the party, about the type of organizer Fred was,” Dunbar said. “He had the ability to analyze and initiate the programs that were told to employ by our leadership on the West Coast. He would identify members he thought had the qualifications or the ability to get the job done and he’d assign the tasks. We then got busy applying many of these things.”
Many times, Dunbar said, Hampton made great personnel choices. In the case of William O’Neal, Dunbar recalled, “he chose poorly.”
The ‘most dangerous group in the U.S.’
On the night of Dec. 3, 1969, Bill Hampton spoke to his younger brother on the phone, mostly “about family things.”
“The next morning, after I got off work, I saw his picture on the front page of the paper that said, ‘Cops kill Panther leader,'” Bill said, recalling how he learned about the death of his brother the following day.
Fred had been murdered by a 14-man Special Prosecutions Unit, made up of Chicago police officers who entered the Black Panther chairman’s West Side apartment building at around 4 a.m., with a warrant for illegal weapons.
Fred had fallen asleep hours earlier while talking on the phone with his mother, Iberia. On the night of Dec. 3, he had taught a course in political education at a local church. By his side in the would-be deathbed was his fiancee, pregnant with Fred’s unborn son.
The tactical unit sprayed the apartment with automatic gunfire, unleashing a barrage of between 90 to 100 bullets. Another Black Panther, Mark Clark, was fatally shot in the chest. Fred was wounded when Black Panther Harold Bell claimed to have heard officers verbally identify Fred, before noting that he was “barely alive.”
“He’ll make it,” Bell recalled an officer saying. Then, two shots later: “He’s good and dead now.”
An autopsy would reveal that Fred sustained two point-blank bullets to the very head that had made him an Enemy of the State.
Taylor and his colleague, Jeffrey Haas, filed a civil suit in 1970 on behalf of the relatives of Fred and Clark. The young attorneys wanted to prove what many Illinois Black Panthers, namely Bobby Rush, were saying all along — that the FBI helped orchestrate the raid that killed Fred through its COINTELPRO operation.
When the civil case began in federal court, Taylor recalled in an article he wrote last December about Fred’s assassination for truth-out.org, the judge “reluctantly ordered” the FBI to hand over all of the files it had relating to Hampton and the Illinois Black Panthers.
The contents of those boxes that are located in the basement of the People’s Law Office, which Haas and Taylor founded together, reveal that O’Neal had infiltrated the Black Panther Party as an FBI informant.
“Memos to and from FBI headquarters and the Chicago office,” Taylor wrote, show that O’Neal was paid $300 for his part in the raid, which included slipping a sleeping agent, secobarbital, into the drink Fred had along with his dinner the night before he was killed. The barbiturate was to ensure that Fred would not wake up while officers riddled the apartment with bullets. O’Neal also gave the FBI a detailed layout of Fred’s apartment.
In 1979, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a trial judge’s initial ruling against the plaintiffs, “finding that the FBI and their government lawyers ‘obstructed justice’ by suppressing documents,” Taylor writes.
Those documents, the appeals court added, showed “that there was ‘serious evidence’ to support the conclusion that the FBI, [Cook County State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan, who ordered the raid] and his police unit had participated in a ‘conspiracy designed to subvert and eliminate the Black Panther Party and its members.'”
Those suppressed files also provide evidence that the FBI deliberately incited violence and dissension between the Panthers and other black political organizations and street gangs. O’Neal, specifically, was ordered to create conflict among the Panthers and other organizations.
In 1968, Iberia’s phone was tapped and in 1969, “Fred was sent to [prison] for an armed robbery he didn’t do,” Taylor said at the Rotary meeting. Hampton was alleged to have stolen $71 worth of Good Humor Bars during a 1967 theft in Maywood. That’s how Taylor, a young Northwestern law student, first met Fred.
“They sent me and another law student out to Maywood to get affidavits about how great a person Fred was and to raise some bond money,” Taylor recalled. “So, I came out to Maywood and met a lot of people who were in awe of the Panthers.”
All levels of government, however, would work to upset that positive perception of Fred and the Black Panther Party — lest it spread and morph into real political empowerment among a larger segment of the black population. Hoover was deeply terrified that the Panthers might muster the political and physical power to overthrow the government.
According to an FBI document relating to Fred’s assassination uploaded to the bureau’s digital records ‘vault,’ Hoover is said to have called the Black Panthers “the most dangerous group in the U.S.”
At the time of his death, Fred was in the process of attempting to increase the Black Panther Party’s membership and reach by joining forces with an array of black, white and Latino organizations. According to Stanley Nelson, Jr.’s documentary film, “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” Hoover ordered the FBI to stop the Panthers by “any means necessary.”
The demonization of Fred and Black Panthers went on even after Fred’s assassination, with Hanrahan praising his officer’s “restraint” and “professionalism” against the violent black men.
Rotarian Henderson Yarbrough, a sitting Maywood trustee and the village’s former mayor, said that he never met Fred personally, but he saw him speak at an event on the West Side in the early 1960s.
“I don’t remember what the event was all about, but it was about five Panthers that came through and, at the time, I feared some of them because of what the FBI and Hoover had done to destroy their reputation and to paint them as bad people,” he said at the Rotary meeting. “The [federal government] did a good job at dividing and destroying that group in the end.”
Connie Harvey, a former Black Panther who Fred recruited to help out with the organization’s famous breakfast program, still struggles to dispel the mythology that’s been propagated against the Panthers.
“Fred and I go way back to Argo, Illinois,” Harvey said at the last week’s Rotary meeting. “Our parents were friends with Mamie Till [Emmett Till’s mother]. They were staunch NAACP back in the day. I felt honored when Fred asked me to help cook for children on the West Side.”
Harvey said that when she would tell people that she was a Panther, she’d often be met with responses rooted in fear and misunderstanding.
“They thought we were some gun-toting hoodlums,” she said. “My sister and I cooked and helped feed those children before they went to school. That was the first breakfast program. I was a teenager when we did that. I didn’t tote a gun.”
Dunbar and Bill characterized Panthers as Black America’s best and brightest — not hoodlums; but, rather, young men and women who put their lives on hold to struggle for justice. Today, Dunbar said, many former Panthers are lawyers, Ph.D.’s, educators and administrators.
“Fred encouraged all of us to get an education,” Harvey said. “I just finished my bachelor’s degree in educational development. We teach our children to get educated. We’re not bad people and anybody who thought we were was deceived.”
Bill said that he often confronts people who believe that the Panthers were wholesale against the police. That wasn’t the case, he explained.
“Nobody ever said that the whole police force was all bad,” Bill said. “For example, the Afro-American Patrolmen’s League worked very closely with the Panthers. The [patrolmen] caught slack. They were harassed because they wanted to be decent policemen.”
But the conspiracy to demonize isn’t particular to the Panthers, Bill added.
“That’s the conception of black people in general,” he said. “We’ve been conceived in a lot of ways. That’s not by accident.”
The future ‘may well be upon us’
Nowadays, Taylor has been speaking against what he considers to be the resurgence of COINTELPRO-like methods and actions by the Donald Trump administration, particularly Trump’s executive order that gives Attorney General Jeff Sessions — the man whose checkered history on race prompted Coretta Scott King to write a letter opposing his nomination to a federal judgeship in 1986 — a broad set of directives.
Among them is the call to “develop a strategy for the Department’s use of existing Federal laws to prosecute individuals who commit or attempt to commit crimes of violence against Federal, State, tribal, and local law enforcement officers.”
Taylor stated on truth-out.org earlier this month that the president’s executive order gives Sessions “a carte blanche to bring down the wrath of the federal government on anyone who is unfortunate enough to have a confrontation with a cop, a prison guard, a border patrol officer or who knows who else outfitted with a badge and carrying a gun.”
“At first blush, the order could be seen simply as a wildly unpopular president playing macho man to our nation’s police departments and their reactionary police unions,” Taylor wrote. “The unions have been chafing over being curbed by the previous administration’s Department of Justice […] which, by means of pattern-or-practice investigations and consent decrees, started to put the brakes on racist police violence.”
But on deeper analysis, Taylor added, “the order can be read as an official authorization, from one white supremacist — Steve Bannon — to another — Jeff Sessions — to pursue the most racist and reactionary criminal legal policies in recent memory.”
“Within the rubric of that declaration,” Taylor writes, is a sinister plot that the attorney is all too familiar with. That executive order essentially “takes aim at protesters,” Taylor states — Fred’s ideological descendants if you will.
They include Black Lives Matter protestors, the protestors at Standing Rock, “people protesting against the Muslim ban and many others who practice acts of civil disobedience that bring them into conflict with law enforcement.”
In his article written last year on Fred’s death, Taylor urges readers “not to relegate the Hampton assassination and COINTELPRO to the annals of history,” before referencing a 1964 FBI directive.
“Over the years,” the directive states, “our approach to investigative problems in the intelligence field has given rise to a number of new programs, some of which have been most revolutionary, and it can be presumed that with a continued aggressive approach to these programs, new and product ideas will be forthcoming.
“These ideas will not be increased in number or improved upon from the standpoint of accomplishments merely through the institution of a program such as COINTELPRO which is given another name and in fact, only encompasses everything that has been done in the past or will be done in the future.”
For those who would resist — in the vein of Fred Hampton and other black radicals and even non-violent dissenters like King — that future “may well be upon us again,” Taylor writes. “The only answer now, as it was then, is to organize, educate and resist.”