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Fred Hampton’s murder

Friday is the 40th anniversary of the killing of Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party.  A Panther alumni site features a page of  photos of Hampton and Chicago Panthers by Paul Sequeira. Hampton is recalled as incredibly charisimatic, and as a highly effective organizer.

“Under Hampton, within months of its founding the Chicago chapter had five daily breakfast programs serving thousands of children; a free medical clinic, and a door-to-door health program including testing for sickle-cell anemia and blood drives for Cook County Hospital; an emergency heating program pressuring landlords to maintain heat during the winter; free buses to prisons for relatives of prisoners; and a project promoting community control of the police.”  (Remembering Fred Hampton, the Guardian, November 29, 1989)

Twenty years ago, I interviewed then-Alderman Bobby Rush and Hampton’s fiance, Akua Njeri.  One of the things they recalled – which resonates strongly today – was his role deterring gang warfare.

“He felt the gang element was uneducated, but they were not the enemy; they were victims,” said Njeri. “Fred believed he should sit down with them and explain how they were being used by the system to kill their own people.”

“He felt the gangs could be stimulated and organized and persuaded to go in a direction that was less counterproductive,” said Rush.  “He would try to talk to various gang leaders and establish a rapport.  And they respected Fred.  They respected his leadership ability, they respected his commitment, they respected his courage.

“He could speak the language of the gang-banger, and had Fred lived he would have had a major influence on curtailing gang activity in the city of Chicago and transforming those gangs into more of a constructive political force,” Rush said.  (Hampton was 21 when he was killed.)

It was a long and tortuous court battle to expose the conspiracies behind his murder and the coverup which followed, detailed in Jeffrey Haas’s new book, The Assassination of Fred Hampton.  There were highly fortuitous elements – an unrelated criminal case in which Hampton’s bodyguard was revealed to be an FBI informer; Senate hearings on the FBI’s COINTELPRO program which revealed that documents released by the FBI in a civil case were highly incomplete.

At In These Times, Salim Muwakkil, himself a former Panther, reviews the book.  In an older piece, Black Agenda Report editor Bruce Dixon, a former Chicago Panther, offers a personal reminiscence of Hampton.

On Wednesday, the Center on Race, Politics and Culture at the University of Chicago marks the anniversary with a retrospective on the Black Panther Party at International House, 1414 E. 59th Street (pdf).  At 3 p.m. there’s a screening of “The Murder of Fred Hampton”; at 4:30 a panel with Haas and Njeri joined by two former Chicago Panthers, Willie Calvin and Lynn French, as well as Tracye Matthws of CRPC, who is working on a book on gender politics in the Panthers.

At 6:15 a second panel features two scholars joined by Emory Douglas, the Panther Minister of Culture and the artist whose graphics – incredibly bold, in content as well as style – gave much of the character to the party’s newspaper, which at its height had a weekly circulation of nearly 140,000.

An exhibit of Emory Douglas’s work opens Sunday, December 6 (reception from 2 to 6 p.m.) at DOVA gallery, 5228 S. Harper.  Examples are featured on a webpage for a similar exhibit last year at LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

“They are dangerous pictures, meant to change the world,” wrote curator Sam Durant for a recent exhibition at New York’s New Museum.  Columbia College Professor Collette Gaiter offers an overview of Douglas’s career at AIGA.

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Category: arts, authors, criminal justice, history, violence, youth

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