NEAR WEST SIDE — Fifty years ago today, Fred Hampton was killed by Chicago police as he slept in his home.
Each year, supporters of the late chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party memorialize the anniversary of his death, dubbed International Revolutionary Day, with a vigil at the site of the police raid, 2337 W. Monroe St.
The apartment is not the same building where police killed Hampton, but those who came to pay their respects described the site as a “ground zero” for the struggle for black liberation.
“They tore down the actual building that was right there. So this should be a historical landmark, but they won’t do that because they don’t respect people who fight back,” said Randy Evans, who has known Hampton’s family for more than 30 years. “They’re going to gentrify and going to do urban renewal and clear this area out, which is a form of ethnic cleansing.”
At the memorial, dozens of supporters clad in black, leather, and the colors of the pan-African flag participated in a five-minute moment of silence and raised their fists in tribute to Hampton’s contributions to the Black Power Movement.
Akua Njeri, Hampton’s fiancee who was asleep next to him when police raided the apartment, also spoke at the vigil.
Njeri first met Hampton when she was a student at Wilber Wright College and a member of the Black Student Union, she said. Their first conversation was about poetry, which she enjoyed writing at the time, though she recalled that Hampton was only interested in poetry about “the struggles of the people and the people fighting back… the conditions of the black community,” she said.
Njeri also described one of the darkest moments of her life, the night of the Massacre On Monroe, as the raid is called by allies of Hampton and the Panthers.
The arms raid was part of an illegal FBI COINTELPRO operation aimed at disrupting the growing political power of the Black Panther Party and other leftist political groups.
Njeri said Hampton had been working around the clock and late into the night to support the party. So on the night of Dec. 4, 1969, when Hampton drifted off to sleep while talking on the phone in bed, she said it didn’t strike her as unusual. It was later revealed that Hampton had been drugged with enough barbiturates to sedate a horse by an FBI informant who had infiltrated the Panthers.
When the raid began in the early morning hours, Njeri said a fellow Panther rushed in to try to wake the Hampton, but he could not be roused. She could smell the gunpowder in the air as the bed vibrated from the rounds of bullets being fired and plaster crumbled from the walls.
“If you’ve ever been under gunfire, five minutes is five hours. Shooting went on for what seemed like hours,” she remembered.
The police stopped shooting momentarily after a Panther announced that Njeri was nine months pregnant.
“I’m coming out the bed, put my hands up, thinking, don’t stumble, don’t fall. They will kill you and your baby,” Njeri said.
She was then thrown into the kitchen as officers entered the bedroom where Hampton’s unconscious body was. Then the shooting began again.
“When it stopped another voice unfamiliar to me said, ‘He’s good and dead now,'” she recalled.
By the end of the raid, police fired 100 rounds, and Hampton and fellow Panther Mark Clark had been killed. Clark was on security duty at the front door of the apartment and was shot and killed instantly when the raid began. As his body fell, he fired once from the shotgun on his lap, the only bullet fired from the Panthers.
Police said the killings were in self-defense, and that the Panthers fired the first shots. The deaths of Hampton and Clark were ruled justifiable homicides.
Njeri and other survivors of the raid were then charged with attempted murder and aggravated assault and held on $100,000 bond.
“This legacy is under attack every single day. They’re trying to rewrite history and give a whole different scenario,” Njeri said. “They still call it shoot out.”
The memorial also served as a tribute to the community-building work that Hampton led in Chicago, and the nationwide advances that the Black Panther Party made in providing social services to black people in an era where institutional racism deprived many communities from accessing public resources.
One of the programs the party launched was the People’s Medical Care Center in North Lawndale that provided free health care to the community. At this clinic and others around the country, the Panthers screened thousands for sickle cell anemia, a genetic disease particularly prevalent among black people.
“This was the first time any testing for sickle cell anemia was done. Black people was dying in droves. When the Black Panther Party brought attention to this disease, people began to institute it,” Njeri said.
And long before Chicago began offering breakfast and lunch to all students in the city so kids could concentrate on learning instead of rumbling bellies, the Panthers instituted Free Breakfast for Children as one of their social services known as “Survival Programs.”
“He was committed to the liberation struggle,” Njeri said. “He was a revolutionary committed to the freedom of black and oppressed people.”
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
Do stories like this matter to you? Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.