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 at 2337 W. Monroe. He was 21 years old.
Articles published in the Proviso Herald at the time give some indication of how Hampton’s hometown, west suburban Maywood, reacted to the death of its most controversial resident.
In a testament to the power of local journalism, Herald reporters Paul Sassone and Carol Swatos wrote about how getting to know the fiery young man (in Swatos’ case, even driving him home from a meeting once) tempered their perspective on Hampton personally and on the issues that he was so passionate about — no easy feat for white people at the time, considering the power of propaganda leveraged in service to the myth that the racism blacks were complaining about was not real, or at least not so bad that black people should be up in arms about it.
That myth was held up by both the government and the press. For instance, less than a month before Hampton’s death, the Chicago Tribune penned an editorial, “No Quarter for Wild Beasts,” which lambasted the Black Panthers’ role in a shootout with law enforcement that left a policeman and a Panther dead, and seven other policemen wounded.
“The Black Panthers, who were waiting for the police to come after them, fired from concealed positions, gunning down the first policemen on the scene before they could draw their weapons,” the Tribune editorial board stated in a piece published Nov. 15, 1969.
The paper called the Panthers “murderous fanatics, who have been persuaded that they have a right to shoot and kill policemen” before making the reckless argument that the Panthers weren’t even worthy of due process.
The Black Panthers “should be kept under constant surveillance,” the paper wrote. “They have declared war on society. They therefore have forfeited the right to considerations ordinary violators of the law might claim.”
In the Dec. 11, 1969 Proviso Herald, Sassone recalled his only time meeting Hampton in the flesh (“my first, and last, look at the man whose name had become synonymous with black radicalism in the Chicago area”). The meeting, Hampton’s “last speaking engagement in Proviso,” was held in October 1969, 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.”
During that last public meeting, Hampton seemed to preempt the claims made in the incendiary editorial the Tribune would publish the next month.
“We have a right to live,” Hampton said. “If you shoot at me, I shoot at you. If I have to be non-violent in a situation, I’m not going to be in that situation. Why should only one side have guns? If the pigs don’t like guns, let’s throw all the guns in the country away.”
Sassone wrote that Hampton also spoke out against systemic injustice at that October meeting.
“As long as one person is poor, we all are,” Hampton said. “We’ve had too many wars on poverty, let’s have some more wars on the rich!”
Nixon’s gravest crime
In Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky explain the hidden bias of corporate media outlets like the Tribune and the propaganda model that governs their coverage of events like Hampton’s assassination, which Chomsky has called “the gravest domestic crime of the Nixon administration.”
In their book, Herman and Chomsky explain that “the major scandal of Watergate as portrayed in the mainstream press was that the Nixon administration sent a collection of petty criminals to break into the Democratic party headquarters, for reasons that remain obscure,” the authors write. “The Democratic party represents powerful domestic interests, solidly based in the business community.”
The very same considerations the authors give the Socialist Workers Party can be extended to the Black Panther Party, which had been subject since its inception to government-sanctioned surveillance, police intimidation, unlawful break-ins of its offices across the country and other violations that are worse by degrees of magnitude than any crimes uncovered during the Watergate hearings.
The Panthers represented “no powerful interests,” so the scandal that was the FBI’s complicity in Hampton’s assassination did not receive the robust national coverage given to “Nixon’s ‘enemies list,’ which identified powerful people who were denigrated in private but suffered no consequences.”
Herman and Chomsky wrote that “powerful groups are capable of defending themselves, not surprisingly; and by media standards, it is a scandal when their position and rights are threatened. By contrast, as long as illegalities and violations of democratic substance are confined to marginal groups or distant victims of U.S. military attack, or result in a diffused cost imposed on the general population, media opposition is muted or absent altogether.
“This is why Nixon could go so far, lulled into a false sense of security precisely because the watchdog only barked when he began to threaten the privileged,” they wrote.
In her article published in the Dec. 11, 1969 Herald, Swatos admitted her own ignorance of the scandal of systemic racism at Proviso East — a scandal that she slowly understood could be real only after meeting Hampton and another student, Ethlyn Giddons, at a meeting of the Maywood Human Relations Commissions in the fall of 1967.
“I knew their names,” Swatos wrote. “They both figured in recent youth outbreaks in Maywood — rock-throwing, window smashing protests, because Maywood had no pool. They were angry. I guess because our paper covered the protests, they wanted to make pretty sure we knew the pool wasn’t their only gripe.
“Aided by Ethlyn, Fred talked fast. Maybe he figured I wouldn’t listen to what at that time sounded like a preposterous story,” Swatos recalled. “‘There’s something rotten in Proviso East,’ they were telling me, and I shuddered.”
Swatos said if she had not “heard an earlier suspicion about East, I might have nicely excused myself from the discussion and left,” particularly considering that the source of these claims was Fred Hampton, someone who had a reputation among some as being “wild and irrational.”
By the end of her article, Swatos — shocked by Hampton’s death — was still wondering about the veracity of Hampton’s and other black radicals’ accounts of racism and injustice and black suffering.
“Was he right or was I wrong?”
An outcry and a resignation
On Dec. 4, around 4:30 a.m., Hampton and Panther Mark Clark were both shot dead, and four other Panthers injured, in a raid that was organized as part of the FBI’s secret and illegal counterintelligence program, COINTELPRO, which was designed to systematically destroy just about any form of effective black political empowerment not controlled by the government.
The 14-man raiding unit pumped nearly 100 shots into the apartment. The Panthers did not return fire. Despite this fact, Cook County State’s Attorney Edward V. Hanrahan, whose office authorized the raid, said in a press conference held after the assassination that his officers acted “reasonably” and with “restraint” during the “shootout.”
News outlets uncritically reported Hanrahan’s lie as an authoritative account of the event. A 1969 Associated Press article about Hampton’s death, printed in newspapers across the country, described a “gun fight between police and members of the militant black group.”
The Dec. 5, 1969 Chicago Tribune announced that “indictments charging attempted murder will be sought within a week by the state’s attorney’s office against seven alleged members of the Black Panther party who staged a wild gun battle with police early yesterday in a west side apartment.”
Fortunately, the police made the mistake of leaving the crime scene unsecured and between Dec. 4 and 11, an estimated 25,000 people walked through Hampton’s apartment to see the truth for themselves.
Among those visitors were Maywood trustees and the village’s then-mayor Leonard Chabala. After the visit, 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 article that Sassone wrote.
The statement called Hampton’s death “‘a blatant act of legitimized murder,’ and likened the police tactics to Hitler’s Nazis,” the Herald reported.
Maywood Trustee Tom Strieter, a white man, even went on TV to condemn the murder, saying that it “strips all credibility from law enforcement. In the context of other acts against militant blacks in recent months, it suggests an official policy of systematic repression.”
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.”
Strieter said he and his colleagues on the village board toured the Hampton apartment for more than an hour.
“I’m not a ballistics expert, but we could not find any evidence that the apartment’s occupants were shooting,” he said. “We could not find any shotgun traces, and it appears that all shots came from the police. All this raises reasonable doubts that call for an investigation.”
Those demands for an investigation by Strieter and many others would culminate in the May 1973 report by the Commission of Inquiry Into the Black Panthers and Police, which described the raid as a criminal and unconstitutional “search and destroy” mission and that there was sufficient evidence to believe that Hampton was murdered and that he was drugged before the raid by an FBI informant.
Arnold M. Hilpert, a pastor, also visited the apartment and wrote a letter to the Proviso Herald praising the Maywood board for demanding a probe into Hampton’s death. In the letter, published in the Dec. 25, 1969 Herald, the pastor wrote that, “as one who was immediately impressed by the public contradictions in this case, I personally visited the bloody death scene on the same day as these officials. I went with the prejudice that the Panthers probably overstated their case. I left, after four studies of the apartment, with the wonderment that not all the Panthers were killed.
“The most stunning fact to me is the most obvious to all: why the officials responsible allowed exhibit A evidence, the bullet-riddled apartment, to become a public open house with guided tours by the Panthers?” the pastor wrote, adding that he hoped “the Panther Party is wrong about their analysis of our law enforcement agencies, but what my own eyes saw can only make their call for revolution more credible to other American youth.”
Some Maywood residents, including members of the Maywood Human Relations Commission and the village board, were prompted to write a joint letter to the editor published in the Dec. 11 Herald, in which they alluded to Nazi Germany again.
“The fearful response of the ‘silent majority,’ whose reaction that this brutality was good and beneficial since Fred Hampton had radical political beliefs is a frightening reincarnation of the response of citizens in early Nazi Germany to Hitler’s Jewish genocide,” they wrote.
Edgar L. Hiestand Jr., a minister at Neighborhood Methodist Church in Maywood, also wrote 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.”