Thinking of Fred Hampton

December 9, 2009 Leave a comment

Fred Hampton, a charismatic African American activist and leader in the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, was killed in his sleep 40 years ago December 4th by the combined forces of the FBI, Chicago Police Department and Cook County, IL State’s Attorney’s Office. There have been some great articles written about him over the past week in Racewire and the Huffington Post.

In the days before he was killed, my dad met with Hampton and others from the Party to talk about the Free Breakfast Program the Black Panther Party had started to feed children going to school with empty stomachs. My dad was hoping to connect the food company he worked for with the Chicago program to get donations of breakfast cereal for the program. I was with my dad on the anniversary of Hampton’s death this year – and asked him to retell the story, hoping Alzheimer’s hadn’t taken this memory, though I’ve heard the story many times.

I was reflecting on the importance of remembering and telling our stories. And as I remembered my Dad’s story, I also read about Fred Hampton. Hampton was an amazing youth organizer with the local NAACP, believing in community organizing as a route to social change. In 1967, at 19, he joined the Black Panther Party, becoming the Chairman of the Chicago Chapter a year later. Hampton created a movement, bringing together coalitions of people of color and poor whites – brokering non-aggression pacts between rival street gangs in Chicago and bringing in anti-racist white Appalachian kids to form the “Rainbow Coalition,” a term later adopted by Jesse Jackson and Mel King. Hampton called for bringing together oppressed people across identity groups to collaborate and organize a movement for change.

Said Hampton in 1969, “We got to face some facts. That the masses are poor, that the masses belong to what you call the lower class, and when I talk about the masses, I’m talking about the white masses, I’m talking about the black masses, and the brown masses, and the yellow masses, too. We’ve got to face the fact that some people say you fight fire best with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water! We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity.”

So today, I’m reflecting on words spoken 40 years ago by an amazing 21 year old leader – reflecting on the ways those words speak, as well, to what is still needed. Wondering what would happen if this kind of collaboration happened today and who is still raising this call. And how we can be sure to bring people in across groups to create a movement for real change.

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