Anywhere there is people, there is power: A Fred Hampton story

By Qur’an Hansford

I remember the day I first turned 21 years old.

I was stressing over the fact that I would be finishing my undergrad online, or upset because my dress was not coming in time for my birthday.

I cannot quite imagine being 21 years old on the FBI’s most wanted list, feeding thousands of children in my neighborhood or trying to free my people from a continuous cycle of oppression, all at the age of 21.

Frederick Allen Hampton was born on Aug. 30, 1948. He was an American activist and revolutionary socialist who became known as the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and deputy chairman of the national Black Panther Party. In this capacity, he founded the rainbow correlation, a prominent multicultural political organization that initially included the Black Panthers, the Young Patriots (American leftist organization of mostly white Southerners from Uptown, Chicago) and the Young Lords (a civil and human rights organization that aimed to fight for neighborhood empowerment and self-determination for Puerto Rico, Latinos, and colonized people.) The Black Panther Party were also in allegiance with Chicago street gangs to help them infight and work toward social change.

The 2021 film “Judas and the Black Messiah” is a film about Fred Hampton’s life and legacy (played by Daniel Kaluuya) from the perspective of an informant, William O’Neal (played by LaKeith Stanfield).

There are many people who may not know the story of Chairman Fred Hampton, there are those who may know his story, but not of the specifics that are directly responsible for his assassination. It was a surprise to many that Hampton was indeed set up by someone on the inside. A common criminal who stole cars and impersonated police officers. A young man with nothing to lose — until he met FBI agent Roy Mitchell. Like many Black Americans, particularly in the 1960s, nothing struck more fear into a man’s heart than the one of the badge. All FBI Mitchell had to do was offer O’Neal immunity for his past crimes, for the price of Fred Hampton’s life.

O’Neal agreed. He would go on to be an active informant for the FBI until the early 1970s, earning today’s equivalent of over $200,000, until taking his own life in 1990. Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party was top priority for then former Director of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI and its non-stop attempts to keep Hampton behind bars failed, which is why they needed a man on the inside.

COINTELPRO (an abbreviation derived from Counter Intelligence Program) was a series of covert and illegal projects conducted by the United States FBI aimed at surveilling, infiltrating, discrediting and disrupting domestic American political organizations. FBI records show COINTELPRO resources targeted groups and individuals the FBI deemed subversive, including feminist organizations, the Communist Party USA, anti–Vietnam War organizers, activists of the civil rights movement (i.e. Martin Luther King Jr., the Nation of Islam, and the Black Panther Party), environmentalist and animal rights organizations, the American Indian Movement (AIM), independence movements (such as Puerto Rican independence groups like the Young Lords) and a variety of organizations that were part of the broader New Left and unrelated groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.

There are not enough words to describe the lengths Hampton and the Black Panther Party would go to liberate, protect and educate their communities. There are also not enough words to describe the lengths the FBI would have gone to stop that from happening.

Fred Hampton was killed on Dec. 4, 1969, by the Chicago Police and the FBI during a police raid just before sunrise, firing 99 shots as he laid next to his pregnant fiancee Akua Njeri, formerly known as Deborah Johnson.

Hampton was 21.

Given his rather short life, the story of Chairman Hampton was far too vast and complex to limit this review to simply about the striking cinematography by Shaka King or the rhythmic soundtrack featuring artists such as Jay-Z, Nas and the late Nipsey Hussle (to name a few).

I wanted to end this review with a sentiment on how the film made me feel. Of course I was overwhelmed with emotion as I thought about young Black boys and girls whose lives were cut short by the hands of hatred. The loss of Fred Hampton over 50 years ago, and at the young age of 21, reminded me of Ahmaud Arbery (25), Breonna Taylor (26), Trayvon Martin (17) or Tamir Rice (12). Lives cut short before they ever really began.

A line from this film that will live with me forever: “Anywhere there’s people, there’s power.”

Judas and the Black Messiah is now playing in theaters and on HBO Max.

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