40 years ago on December 4, 21-year-old Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton was murdered in his bed by the Chicago Police Department in an FBI-orchestrated raid.
Apparently drugged by a police agent who had been acting as his bodyguard, Hampton never even woke up during the raid, despite police claims of a shoot-out. It was at the height of the FBI’s campaign of violent repression against the Panthers.
Hampton was one of the Panthers’ most effective young leaders. At his death he had brought together an alliance of groups called the “rainbow coalition” – including the largest street gang in Chicago, the Blackstone Rangers (now known as Black P.Stone Nation) as well as other political and minority community groups like the Puerto Rican Young Lords, and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
The Panthers are famous for standing up against the police, carrying weapons openly as they “patrolled” the police to observe and prevent police brutality, mirroring the police’ own intimidating display of their shotguns while on patrol. Their popular image that remains to this day is with guns in hand, a symbol of armed revolution. Yet Hampton showed that reality was quite different.
In contrast to the ultraleft image of the Panthers, Hampton was outspoken against ultraleftism and a strong supporter of the rounded political approach that the Panthers were developing. Not long before his murder, he had denounced a rampage of vandalism in Chicago organised by the ultraleft Weathermen group in SDS, which had been followed by brutal police raids in the black community. In the words of white leftist Steve Tappis, Hampton “told them to go off and organise breakfast programs or something.”
Panthers carried guns in one hand, but lawbooks under the other arm when they patrolled the police. The guns were an audacious symbol of defiance which won them notoriety and support for standing up against the pigs. But their real support base developed in tandem with their programs of political struggle – mass rallies and electoral campaigns – and their Survival Programs such as breakfasts for school children, buses for the elderly, and sickle-cell anaemia testing.
A 2008 book, The Black Panther Party Service to the People Programs details the many Survival Programs that the Panthers ran across the country. In addition to those already mentioned, there were free food programs, free clothing and shoes programs, legal aid, employment services, and many more. BPP founder Huey P. Newton wrote that the programs were “not revolutionary nor reformist but a tactic and strategy by which we organised the people.” Hundreds of thousands benefited from the Survival Programs.
Hampton understood the importance of this, explaining Panther strategy in a 1969 speech:
“And that's what the Breakfast For Children program is. A lot of people think it is charity, but what does it do? It takes the people from a stage to another stage. Any program that's revolutionary is an advancing program. Revolution is change. Honey, if you just keep on changing, before you know it, in fact, not even knowing what socialism is, you dont have to know what it is, they're endorsing it, they're participating in it, and they're supporting socialism…
“And a lot of people will tell you, way, Well, the people dont have any theory, they need some theory. They need some theory even if they don't have any practice. And the Black Panther Party tells you that if a man tells you that he's the type of man who has you buying candy bars and eating the wrapping and throwing the candy away, he'd have you walking East when you're supposed to be walking West…
“We say that the Breakfast For Children program is a socialistic program. It teaches the people basically that by practice, we thought up and let them practice that theory and inspect that theory. What's more important? You learn something just like everybody else.”
At their height, the Panthers were a force to be reckoned with. They had chapters in 47 cities around the US and their weekly newspaper reached a circulation of over 200,000 copies. Despite the campaign of disinformation, imprisonment and murder by the FBI, that continued after Hampton’s death, the Panthers lasted through to the end of the 1970s.
In recent years much of the often forgotten history of the Panthers has been published by key players such as founding member and chief-of-staff David Hilliard. In memory of Hampton, and all the other Panthers who were killed, exiled or spent decades in gaol (some are still inside) it is a good time to re-read their history, including as the DIY-style Service to the People Programs.
The Black Panther Party Service to the People Programs, edited by David Hilliard and Cornel West, is published by University of New Mexico Press, 2008.