December 4

This Day in History

Crime

Dec 4, 1969:

Police kill two members of the Black Panther Party

Black Panthers Fred Hampton, 21, and Mark Clark, 22, are gunned down by 14 police officers as they lie sleeping in their Chicago, Illinois, apartment. About a hundred bullets had been fired in what police described as a fierce gun battle with members of the Black Panther Party. However, ballistics experts later determined that only one of those bullets came from the Panthers' side. In addition, the "bullet holes" in the front door of the apartment, which police pointed to as evidence that the Panthers had been shooting from within the apartment, were actually nail holes created by police in an attempt to cover up the attack. Four other Black Panthers were wounded in the raid, as well as two police officers.

The raid, which had been led by Cook County State's Attorney Edward Hanrahan, was only one of many attempts by the government to weaken the Black Power movement. Under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI had been battling civil rights activists and other minority leaders for years with their Cointelpro program, whose purpose, according to one FBI document, was to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist hate type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership and supporters." Although the FBI was not responsible for leading this particular raid, a federal grand jury indicated that the bureau played a significant role in the events leading up to the raid; Hanrahan had utilized information provided by FBI informant William O'Neal, who was third in command of the Chicago Panthers, to plan his attack.

There was also a conscious effort by the FBI to use "aggressive and imaginary tactics" to prevent the "rise of a 'messiah' who could unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement." They apparently considered Fred Hampton, an outspoken, charismatic activist who was chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party, to be such a potential leader. Hampton became involved in the civil rights struggle at a very early age: At 15, he organized a chapter of the NAACP at his high school, and he became chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party when he was 20. Many other leaders of the Panthers, such as Huey Newton, Assata Shakur, and Bobby Seale, spent time in jail on charges based on little or no evidence.

Although most media coverage of the Black Panthers focused on their violent rhetoric and the fact that they carried arms, the Panthers were involved in many nonviolent community-organizing activities. They provided food and medical care to the needy, preached political empowerment, crusaded against police brutality, and started a school. As Fred Hampton himself said shortly before his death, "There have been many attacks made upon the Black Panther Party, so we feel it's best to be an armed propaganda unit. But the basic thing is to educate." Unfortunately for Hampton and the other Panthers targeted by the FBI, being armed did not help to protect against governmental repression. In fact, it may have even made matters worse by aiding the FBI in legitimizing their aggressive tactics.

Despite the evidence provided by ballistics experts showing that police had fired 99 percent of the bullets and had falsified the report on the incident, the first federal grand jury did not indict anyone involved in the raid. Furthermore, even though a subsequent grand jury did indict all the police officers involved, the charges were dismissed.

Survivors of the attack and relatives of Hampton and Clark filed a lawsuit against Hampton and other officials, which was finally settled in 1983.

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