The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Pantherby Jeffrey Haas
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Uncovering a cold-blooded execution at the hands of a conspiring police force, this engaging account relentlessly pursues the murderers of Black Panther Fred Hampton. Documenting the entire 14-year process of bringing the killers to justice, this chronicle also depicts the 18-month court trial in detail. Revealing Hampton himself in a new light, this examination presents him as a dynamic community leader whose dedication to his people and to the truth inspired the young lawyers of the People's Law Office, solidifying their lifelong commitment to fighting corruption. Contending with FBI stonewalling and unlimited government resources bent on hiding a darker plot, this reconstruction relates an inspiring narrative of upholding morality in one man's memory.
"A riveting account of the assassination, the plot behind it, the attempted cover-up, the denouement, and the lessons that we should draw from this shocking tale of government iniquity." Noam Chomsky, author and political activist
"A remarkable work." Studs Terkel
"People should not forget that State's Attorney Hanrahan, the Chicago Police, and the FBI murdered my son. This book tells the story, not only of Fred’s death, but also of his life. At twenty-one Fred was already a great leader. Who knows what he may have become, if they hadn’t killed him?" Iberia Hampton, mother of Fred Hampton
"A true crime story and legal thriller, this powerful account puts together all the pieces, step by step, giving us the anatomy of a despicable episode in recent American history. The writing is clear and straightforward; the overall impact devastating." Phillip Lopate, author, Getting Personal
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The Assassination of Fred Hampton
How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther
By Jeffrey Haas
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2010 Jeffrey Haas
All rights reserved.
Meeting a Revolutionary
The first time I heard Fred Hampton speak was in August 1969. He was the chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, and I was at the "People's Church" on Ashland Avenue in the heart of Chicago's black West Side. I was two years out of law school, and it was two days after my law partners had obtained Fred's release from Menard Prison. The sanctuary of the church was filled to capacity with rows of wooden pews going back into dimly lit corners, and it was warm inside.
My colleague Flint Taylor and I found an opening in a row about halfway back. After a few minutes, things quieted down. There was a hush. A moment later Fred emerged from the side and strode to the pulpit. Everyone stood up and clapped. The walls shook with the thunder of three hundred voices chanting "Free Fred Hampton." Unlike at other Panther events, Fred was not surrounded by Panthers in leather jackets and black berets. He stood alone, dressed in a button-down shirt with a pullover sweater. He was twenty years old, with smooth, youthful skin and a boyish smile. He had grown a little goatee in prison and wore a medium-length Afro.
Fred Hampton held the microphone in his right hand and looked out at the crowd.
"I'm free," he began in a loud voice. Then repeated it.
People shouted their approval.
His voice got softer. "I went down to the prison in Menard, thinking we were the vanguard, but down there I got down on my knees and listened and learned from the people. I went down to the valley and picked up the beat of the people." A drumbeat started, and everyone clapped to the rhythm. Fred chanted, a cross between a Baptist preacher and Sly and the Family Stone. "I'm high." Making each high into a two-syllable word, he sang, "I'm high — ee, I'm high — ee off the people," and then chanted the words again. It was impossible for me not to join in, and soon I clapped and stomped with everyone else.
When the refrain was over, Fred repeated the most common Panther slogan, "Power to the people," but added his own variation: "White Power to white people, Brown Power to brown people, Yellow Power to yellow people, Black Power to black people, X power to those we left out, and Panther Power to the Vanguard Party." After a volley of "right ons," Fred said:
If you ever think about me and you ain't gonna do no revolutionary act, forget about me. I don't want myself on your mind if you're not going to work for the people. If you're asked to make a commitment at the age of twenty, and you say I don't want to make a commitment at the age of twenty, only because of the reason that I'm too young to die, I want to live a little longer, then you're dead already. You have to understand that people have to pay a price for peace. If you dare to struggle, you dare to win. If you dare not struggle then damn it, you don't deserve to win. Let me say peace to you if you're willing to fight for it.
Later, Fred asked the audience to stand up. We did. He then told everyone to raise his or her right hand and repeat "I am," and we responded, "I am." He then said "a revolutionary" and some in the audience repeated "a revolutionary." I considered myself a lawyer for the movement but not necessarily of the movement. The word revolutionary stuck in my throat. Again Fred repeated "I am," and the audience responded in kind. This time when he said "a revolutionary," the response was louder. By the third or fourth time, I hesitantly joined in, and by the seventh or eighth time I was shouting as loudly and enthusiastically as everyone else, "I am ... a revolutionary!" It was a threshold to which Fred took me and countless others. I felt my level of commitment palpably rising.
Fred was speaking in a quieter voice:
I believe I was born not to die in a car wreck or slipping on a piece of ice, or of a bad heart, but I'm going to be able to die doing the things I was born for. I believe I'm going to die high off the people. I believe that I'm going to be able to die as a revolutionary in the international proletarian struggle. And I hope that each of you will be able to die in the international revolutionary proletarian struggle or you'll be able to live in it. And I think that struggle's going to come. Why don't you live for the people? Why don't you struggle for the people? Why don't you die for the people?
Fred finished. Everyone stood and applauded again, unaware of the truth of his prophecy. We chanted "Free Fred Hampton," and the church reverberated with the clapping and stamping of feet.
It was cold in the tiny, windowless interview room at the Wood Street police station. I looked across the wooden table at the large-boned woman with a short Afro who was shaking and sobbing. Deborah Johnson's patterned nightgown outlined her protruding belly, revealing her pregnancy.
"Fred never really woke up," she said. "He was lying there when they pulled me out of the bedroom." She paused.
"And then?" I asked.
"Two pigs went back into the bedroom. One of them said, 'He's barely alive, he'll barely make it.' I heard two shots. Then I heard, 'He's good and dead now!'" Fred's fiancée looked at me with sad, swollen eyes. "What can you do?" I couldn't think of any reply. I couldn't bring Fred back to life.CHAPTER 2
Born and Bred in Atlanta
A group of young lawyers opened the People's Law Office (PLO) the same week Fred spoke at the People's Church. We wanted to become lawyers for the movement. Who were we and how did we get there? I begin with me, not because I was the most important; I wasn't. But it's my story. I knew Fred Hampton only briefly, but as with so many others who knew him, he changed my life.
It's difficult to separate the parts of my life that led me to become a Panther lawyer. Who knows for certain how or why we become who we are? I don't. But there were people and events that influenced the course I took.
I was born in Crawford Long Hospital on September 18, 1942. My sister Sue, four years older, and I are from a German Jewish family that settled in Atlanta in the 1850s. My grandfather, Herbert Haas, was one of the lawyers who defended Leo Frank, the Jewish manager of the Atlanta Pencil Factory. In 1913, Frank was falsely accused of murdering a thirteen-year-old, white, Protestant girl named Mary Phagan, whose body was found at the factory on a Saturday morning.
Defending him was so unpopular my grandfather hired a detective to protect his family. The anti-Semitic Hearst newspapers and local press portrayed the murder as a Jewish ritual killing, and with southern resentment against northern carpetbaggers fanned by populist Tom Watson, Frank was convicted and sentenced to death. Governor Frank Slaton, convinced of Frank's innocence, commuted his sentence to life, further angering the riled-up public, and a fellow inmate stabbed Frank in the neck. While he was recuperating, a lynch mob, organized by some of the most prominent families in Atlanta, kidnapped him from the infirmary at nearby Milledgeville, and hanged him outside Atlanta.
My grandfather had been the first person Frank called when he was arrested, and they wrote to each other frequently. The last letter from Frank arrived the day before the lynching. My grandfather refused to discuss the case for the rest of his life, and my father said the Jewish community was traumatized for a generation. Yet as far as I know, and despite the fact that the Anti-Defamation League was born out of this case, the Jewish community failed or refused to make the connection between Frank's death and the lynching of fourteen black people in Georgia alone that year without any trials at all.
My father, Joseph Haas, while primarily a business lawyer, was also the attorney for the Southern Regional Council, a civic organization concerned with racial inequalities in the South. He worked with civil rights organizers including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's chairman John Lewis to implement the 1965 Voting Rights Act. My dad came up with the name the Voter Education Project to make the group eligible for grants from charitable foundations. The IRS would not have allowed them to fund a voter registration drive. When Dad died in 2000, John Lewis, today a U.S. congressman, wrote the eulogy that I proudly read at the memorial service.
His work made a major and lasting contribution to the civil rights movement and to liberating white and black Southerners. The Voter Education Project registered more than four million new voters; black voters in the eleven Southern states where it operated. We relied on his legal advice and counsel and "can do" spirit. Without him, those of us on the Freedom Rides and elsewhere on the so-called front lines could not have done what we did.
My mother, Betty Geismer, grew up in middle-class, integrated Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland, where she was a classmate of the track star Jesse Owens. When Mom attended Wellesley College in the early 1930s, the school was swarming with would-be Bolsheviks, socialists, and New Dealers. She fit right in, and became an ardent admirer of Eleanor Roosevelt. She had a shock when she married my father in 1936 and moved to Atlanta, a city still in the long-entrenched throes of segregation. The racial attitudes of most white Atlantans at the time she moved to the South were reflected in the big social event the next year: the grand opening of the movie Gone with the Wind, a story of nostalgic longing for a romanticized antebellum South that, of course, included slavery.
In the late 1950s my mother organized the Atlanta Committee for International Visitors (ACIV). Its function was to host persons brought to the United States by the State Department and other governmental agencies. Atlanta was becoming the government's showcase for Southern cities because it had not fought integration with the violence of Birmingham, Alabama, or Little Rock, Arkansas. Rather, a majority of Atlanta's white business leaders united with leaders of the black community to implement slow but peaceful integration. A notable exception was segregationist Lester Maddox. At his Pickrick Cafeteria he sold ax handles to use against blacks who might try to integrate segregated facilities, including his own. This stance got him elected governor of Georgia.
My mother's work for ACIV included hosting African delegations, which put her in touch with Coretta Scott King, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the deans of the Atlanta University colleges. One problem the newly formed ACIV faced was that most Atlanta hotels were still segregated. A few, including the Biltmore, were willing to house all-black delegations from other countries, but they would not allow mixed delegations to stay at their hotels or eat in their restaurants. One day I heard my mother on the phone. "That is unacceptable and simply won't work," she said. "If you want our business you have to accommodate integrated delegations and that includes their black and white hosts." The Biltmore acceded, and soon other hotels became integrated as well.
Like many Southern white kids from upper-middle-class families, I was raised in part by blacks. When I was five, we moved to a farm just north of Atlanta. By the time I was eight, my parents hired Walter McCurry to work the farm. Walter was six feet tall, barrel chested, and muscular, with light brown skin, a small mustache, a round face, and a shaved head. A World War II navy veteran, he returned to Georgia after the war to take up farming, which his family had done for generations. Walter wore overalls and drank sweetened iced tea out of mason jars. He was forty years old when he started working for us.
Our farm consisted of twenty-six hilly acres containing a small lake, a two-acre vegetable and berry garden, several hay fields, a barn with a pasture behind it, and thirty-three pecan trees. With Walter's help we raised chickens, turkeys, and pigs, and kept a horse and a mule.
Walter taught me how to plow behind our mule, Boley — not only how to handle the reins but how to address her with the commands "gee" and "haw" to get her to turn right or left. He chuckled when the plow got stuck or I would get off course.
"Boy, I hope you learn how to plow while we still got some rows left," he would say, adding with a smile, "I spec you ain't done too much damage."
My favorite activity was when Walter put a bridle on Boley and brought her around to the haystack where my two friends and I could get on. Off we'd ride into the woods, where we built forts and kept our stash of sardines and saltines.
I emulated Walter, and he took great pride in showing me what he knew. He was my Jim, and I was his Huck. But unlike our predecessors, the traveling Walter and I did together was to baseball games. My friend Henry lived near Ponce de Leon Ballpark, where the Atlanta Crackers, our local all-white minor league team, played. Only forty years later did I learn that the Black Crackers shared the same ballpark.
The first time Walter took us to a game we were ten. It was a warm, humid evening, and Henry and I went to buy tickets. I looked around and saw Walter was walking off toward the hill in right field, where the black spectators were sitting. I wanted to call out to him, Come back and sit with us. But I said nothing.
"Why should he have to sit out there?" I asked Henry.
"Yeah," he replied. "There're plenty of seats here."
There was silence as we each waited for the next thing to be said, but neither of us would take the next step of inviting Walter back to sit with us.
"I hope Country Brown is in the lineup tonight," I finally chipped in. "You got money for lemonade?"
After the game we met Walter outside. We all knew it was wrong and mean that he and other black people were banished to the worst seats. But I never talked about it with him. Nor did he mention it to me. I'm not sure why. I think Walter didn't want to embarrass me.
As for why I didn't say anything, it was probably my fear and timidity, issues that I would confront years later. I was ashamed of the status quo but not willing to take it on. As Alan Paton wrote in Cry, the Beloved Country about white South Africans' fear of challenging apartheid, "It was not a thing lightly done."
Lily May Glenn also played a large role in raising me. She worked for us as a maid five and a half days per week, from the time I was six or seven until after I went away to college. Lily had her own small bedroom and bathroom in our house. She was tall and statuesque, with high cheekbones, suggesting some Cherokee roots. She was one of twelve children whose family had been sharecroppers on the remains of a cotton plantation in Georgia.
I loved to hear Lily's stories about growing up in the country, in particular her animated accounts of the horrors of picking cotton. "It was hot and sweaty with long days, dirty work, and boring to beat," she said. "Seemed like the sun would never go down. I'd be sick or hide, anything. If I was forced to pick, I'd put rocks and green cotton boles in my sack to make it weigh more so I could make my quota earlier."
Nearly three decades later, in 1975, one of the main presenters at a radical women's gathering made the mistake of speaking nostalgically about being raised by her parents' black employees. Servants was the postslavery word. Her listeners took her presentation to imply that she believed her upbringing was acceptable because it was such a fertile source of memories and support. My friends who attended were appalled at her seeming acceptance of the exploitation of the black people who worked for her family. She was tarred and feathered politically.
As I write about my memories of Walter and Lily, I realize the contrast between the benefits that flowed to me and my family from these relationships and the extreme cost to Walter and Lily. Both worked long hours for low wages with no social security, health, or retirement benefits. They were not equals in our house. They never ate dinner with us, and they addressed my parents as "Mr. Haas" and "Mrs. Haas," while we addressed them by their first names.
I was the first Jew to attend Liberty Gwinn, the county elementary school near our house. My classmates were country white kids, and before they knew I was Jewish, they told me, "Jews have horns."
One day I decided to be bold. "I'm Jewish," I told a group of classmates after school. They looked for my horns and found none. That was the end of the anti-Semitic comments. I liked the kids, they liked me, and I achieved the highest honor, being voted captain of Safety Patrol.
While my classmates withheld name-calling of Jews, they showed no similar restraint with respect to blacks. Like all the other schools in Fulton County, students at Liberty Gwinn went downtown to hear the Atlanta Symphony at least one time each year. Atlanta was totally segregated in the early 1950s. Black kids not only went to different schools but were assigned different times to go to the symphony.
One morning, as my mother was driving my classmates and me back from the concert, we saw three black kids walking on the sidewalks toward the auditorium.
Excerpted from The Assassination of Fred Hampton by Jeffrey Haas. Copyright © 2010 Jeffrey Haas. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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What People are Saying About This
A riveting account of the assassination, the plot behind it, the attempted cover-up, the denouement, and the lessons that we should draw from this shocking tale of government iniquity.
A remarkable work.
Meet the Author
Jeffrey Haas is an attorney and cofounder of the People's Law Office, whose clients included the Black Panthers, Students for a Democratic Society, community activists, and a large number of those opposed to the Vietnam War. He has handled cases involving prisoners' rights, Puerto Rican nationalists, protestors opposed to human rights violations in Central America, police torture, and the wrongfully accused.
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