For a brief period, Chairman Fred was the paragon of class consciousness in the movement and in the streets, without giving an inch to racism.
It’s a struggle, 51 years on, to place Fred Hampton in historical context. I read that when Fred and Bobby Rush first teamed up to start a Chicago Black Panther Party branch, they held the view common to black nationalists in the mid-60s — the white man was the enemy. When they talked to the Panther leadership in Oakland they got an earful — we need a revolution, but it’s about class, not race. Of course the party was nationalist — in Huey Newton’s terminology, revolutionary nationalism, as opposed to cultural nationalism (Kwanzaa, dashikis, new value system etc).
Chairman Fred took it to heart. He forged alliances with revolutionaries of all shades in Chicago. He reached out to street gangs and started the Rainbow Coalition which included the Panthers, the Young Lords Organization and the White Patriots whose members had migrated from Appalachia to the big city. For a brief period, he was the paragon of class consciousness in the movement and in the streets, without giving an inch to racism, always accountable to Black Chicago, which is what gave the message its liberating quality. Then State’s Attorney Ed Hanrahan sent his cops in, with FBI assistance (guidance?), and the cowards shot the 21-year-old leader in his sleep on December 4, 1969, also killing his comrade Mark Clark.
The Panthers were a historic convergence of the legacies of the nonviolent civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and the human rights ‘by any means necessary’ left of the movement, Malcolm X, Robert F. Williams, Mae Mallory. While King was a pacifist and Malcolm advocated racial separation most of his time as a mass leader, they both came to the position that liberation was imperative, and it would take more than prayers or witness bearing. It required political action. That meant setting clear demands, like the Panther 10 Point Program. It means building coalitions, seeking co-thinkers and potential partners. It means looking beyond present day power relations, to King’s ‘promised land.’
I was finishing high school at the time. What I learned from those few brief months made me a Hamptonite. I also learned, don’t give the pigs an excuse to off you. Fight for respect by respecting the people!
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