The life and legacy of slain Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, who was assassinated while sleeping inside of his West Side apartment on Dec. 4, 1969, has garnered renewed interest from the public since the release of the movie “Judas and the Black Messiah.”
The film stars Daniel Kaluuya, who plays Hampton, and LaKeith Stanfield, who plays William O’Neal, the FBI informant who betrays Hampton in many ways, not least by sharing the floor plan of Hampton’s apartment with the law enforcement officials who would murder him in an unauthorized raid.
Here are five facts that may help you understand the historical and social context of the world in which Hampton lived and illuminate some aspects of the film, which is currently streaming on HBO and HBO Max. The information is based on books, primary government documents and interviews Austin Weekly News has conducted in the past with those who knew Fred.
The FBI believed a Black ‘messiah’ threatened domestic security and was determined to take him out before he could do so.
In August 1967, the FBI launched a covert program called COINTELPRO designed to “disrupt and ‘neutralize’ organizations which the Bureau characterized as ‘Black Nationalist Hate Groups,’” according to a 1976 report released by the Church Senate Committee.
The nearly 1,000-page document was released by a committee of the U.S. Senate that “dealt with the illegal and unconstitutional transgressions of the FBI, CIA, NSA, IRS, and the US military,” recalled Fred Hampton’s lawyer, Flint Taylor, in his 2019 book, “The Torture Machine.”
“More than half the report covered FBI ‘black bag’ jobs, wiretaps, use of informants/agents provocateur, and COINTELPRO,” Taylor wrote. “One chapter studied the FBI’s plan to ‘neutralize’ Martin Luther King Jr. In the very next chapter came ‘The FBI’s Covert Action Program to Destroy the Black Panther Party.’”
The Church report summarizes FBI memorandum that explained COINTELPRO’s purpose in even more detail, which was mainly to “prevent a coalition of militant black nationalist groups” and to “prevent the rise of a messiah who could unify and electrify the militant nationalist movement … Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael and Elijah Muhammad all aspire to this position.”
In the summer of 1967, the Black Panthers weren’t yet on the FBI’s list of threats, although in September 1968, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover described the party as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”
By July 1969, the Church report explains, the Panthers “had become the primary focus of the program, and was ultimately the target of 233 of the total authorized ‘Black Nationalist’ COINTELPRO actions” that Taylor described in his book.
Which may well have made Fred Hampton the FBI’s highest priority ‘would-be’ Black messiah and a main target of the agency’s illegal and unethical COINTELPRO efforts.
Fred Hampton Jr. insisted Daniel Kaluuya, who plays Fred Hampton in the film, visit the West Side as a ‘test’ of character.
During an interview on HBO Max, Fred Hampton Jr., the chairman of the Black Panther Party Cubs, a successor organization to the Black Panther Party, said that he insisted Kaluuya visit an area of North Lawndale while Kaluuya was studying to play Hampton Jr.’s father.
“There happened to be like 11 people, literally, who were just shot that night and we said, ‘Let’s go, we’ll meet right there.’
“It wasn’t simplistic and about bravado … A lot of people see the leather jacket and the beret, but there’s an underbelly of what a revolutionary is. How do you deal with this climate? … Those in the valley … We went to the valley. The ground was literally still hot. The community was out there. And we had our dialogue.
“That respect among each other … These are some things you can’t read in books. This is grit you got to feel and they came. They came.”
Kaluuya described what he saw and felt during the visit to Chicago, which according to photos obtained by Austin Weekly News, also included a trip to the iconic Fred Hampton mural at 2746 W. Madison St.
“I saw the memorial site of the shootings had been destroyed,” Kaluuya said. “I remember that. And Chairman Fred Jr. was explaining to me about how the police come and kind of wreck those places. For me it was a microcosm of what’s been done for centuries. It’s the destruction of necessary healing from the powers that be. And I saw that there.”
William O’Neal died by suicide in Maywood in 1990, and so did another man he’d been visiting before his death.
There’s a scene in the film in which Fred Hampton jokes about O’Neal’s prowess with a pool stick after a confrontation with the Blackstone Rangers inside of a pool hall nearly turns violent.
Fred Hampton invents a nickname for O’Neal, calling him “Wild Bill.” Hampton then asks O’Neal if he’d ever been called that in Maywood, one of the film’s few explicit\ references to the village where Hampton was raised.
In fact, O’Neal had a very strong connection to Maywood. On a Sunday night in January 1990, O’Neal, 40, went to the Maywood apartment of his uncle, Ben Heard, who told Chicago Tribune reporters at the time that O’Neal “kept going to the washroom … He stayed there for a long time. The last time he came out he tried to go out the window. I pulled him back, but he broke loose and ran toward the expressway.”
O’Neal “ran down the embankment near 5th Avenue, crossed the eastbound lanes, and was struck by a car in the westbound lanes.” The Tribune reported that, according to Heard, that “was the second time his nephew had run onto the highway … In September, O’Neal was struck by a car but not injured, Heard said.”
In an eery twist of fate, the Tribune reported, the day after O’Neal’s death, “a second man who lived in the same apartment complex where O’Neal had been visiting before his death, apparently committed suicide by running onto the Eisenhower and was struck by a truck in virtually the same place as O’Neal.”
After his death, Fred Hampton’s family established a memorial scholarship fund for aspiring lawyers.
According to his relatives, Fred Hampton wanted to be a lawyer and even took pre-law classes at Triton College in River Grove, which helped hone in his considerable rhetorical skills.
Rev. Albert Sampson — the influential clergyman, activist and organizer who worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and was an assistant to Rev. Ralph Abernathy — recalled the genesis of the Fred Hampton Scholarship Fund at the 2018 funeral of Fred’s older brother Bill Hampton.
Bill had organized and administered the fund from 1971 until his death.
“In my discussions with the Hampton family, I found out that Fred wanted to be a lawyer,” Sampson said, adding that those conversations prompted Abernathy to commit $1,000 to a nascent foundation for young people with the same ambitions. Under Bill’s guidance, roughly 200 scholarships had been given out since then.
Quincy Johnson, a close friend of Bill’s, lauded the Hampton family’s efforts, led by Bill, to burnish Fred’s memory, particularly by keeping up the scholarship fund.
Fred Hampton Jr. alleged the FBI tapped his father’s phone when Hampton Sr. was just a kid.
During Bill’s funeral in 2018, Hampton Jr. said “the FBI placed a tap on my grandma’s phone when Fred was 14 years old.”
Although the claim is hard to substantiate, it’s not too hard to believe, given what we now know about the FBI from government records and about Fred’s early life of activism in his hometown of Maywood.
Delores Robinson, who attended Proviso East High School in Maywood with Hampton in the mid-1960s, recalled in 2017 how Fred 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 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.”
The late Don Williams, who served as the second Black mayor of Maywood in the 1990s and led the local NAACP at the time of Hampton’s ascendancy, recalled in 2017 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.”