Early in the predawn hours of December 4, 1969, a Peoples Gas truck pulled up in front of an apartment building at 2337 W. Monroe St. in the West Side of Chicago. Fourteen plainclothes Chicago Police officers quietly filed out of the undercover truck, armed with pistols, a shotgun, a machine gun, and a detailed map of their target, an apartment occupied by leaders of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party.
The map clearly identified the bedroom of Fred Hampton, the 21-year-old “chairman” of the Chicago Black Panthers, who was asleep beside his eight-month-pregnant fiancée. At 4:30 a.m., the police kicked down the front door and started shooting. Ballistics reports later showed that they fired more than 90 times, including machine gun rounds through exterior walls and windows.
When the volley of bullets finally stopped, four of the young Black Panthers inside the apartment lay shot and critically wounded, and two had been killed. The first was Mark Clark, who reached for his own shotgun before taking a bullet through the heart. The second was Fred Hampton, gunned down in his bed.
The police were acting under the orders of Edward Hanrahan, the Cook County state’s attorney, who held a press conference claiming that his officers were surprise-attacked by the Black Panthers as the police tried to execute a search warrant for illegal weapons in the apartment.
“The immediate, violent, criminal reaction of the occupants in shooting at announced police officers emphasizes the extreme viciousness of the Black Panther Party,” said Hanrahan.
While it didn’t take long for Hanrahan’s account to fall apart, it took more than a decade for the whole disturbing truth to come to light.
Not only was the killing of Hampton and Clark a cold-blooded assassination of two militant Black activists, but documents later revealed it was coordinated by the FBI as part of a secret program to neutralize and destroy the Black Panther Party, which FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover privately called “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”
Hampton, a Rising Star in Chicago, Became a Target
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was formed in 1966 by a pair of Black college students in Oakland, California. With their military-style berets and raised-fist salute, the Black Panthers preached Black empowerment and armed resistance to racist violence, including at the hands of police. The Black Panther party also started a wealth of social initiatives, including a free breakfast program that helped feed thousands of hungry kids before school.
Hampton was an honors student from the Chicago suburbs who, as a youth leader with the NAACP, successfully campaigned to have a non-segregated swimming pool built in his hometown. When he joined the Illinois Black Panther Party in 1968, he quickly gained a reputation as a powerful speaker and a coalition builder across racial lines to fight police brutality and address poverty in Chicago’s most neglected neighborhoods.
“Hampton was this incredibly charismatic, young, dynamic leader who formed this ‘rainbow coalition’ with Puerto Ricans and poor whites from Appalachia,” says Jeffrey Haas, one of the founders of the People’s Law Office in Chicago and a member of the legal team that sued the Chicago Police and the FBI over Hampton’s killing. “He started a health clinic and a free breakfast program.”
READ MORE: How the Black Panthers’ Breakfast Program Both Inspired and Threatened the Government
That’s not to say that Black Panthers in Chicago shied away from confrontation and armed provocation.
“They very much had a militant, anti-police position of community control of police,” says Haas, who is also the author of The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther. “‘Off the pig!’ was one of their very provocative slogans, which to Panthers meant getting abusive police out of the community, but I’m not sure the police necessarily saw it that way.”
Chicago at the time was a hotbed of political protest and violent clashes with the police. When crowds took to the streets after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the Chicago mayor ordered police to shoot suspected arsonists. Later that year, police and National Guard troops pummeled antiwar protestors outside of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
If the FBI wanted to squelch the Black Panther “extremists” operating in Chicago, it saw a clear threat in the meteoric rise of Fred Hampton.
The Covert COINTELPRO Program Behind the Killings
When Haas and his legal partner Flint Taylor at the People’s Law Office first took on Hampton and Clark’s case, it quickly became clear that the state’s attorney’s version of the story was bunk. Ballistics experts found that all but one of the bullets fired in the apartment came from police weapons in contradiction to a false report from the Chicago Police’s own crime lab.
It was obvious that Hanrahan, the state’s attorney, was hiding the real reason for the violent raid, but no one at the time could have imagined how high up the conspiracy went to target Hampton and cover up his murder.
Then, in 1971, a group of antiwar activists broke into an FBI office in the suburbs of Philadelphia looking for evidence that the FBI was spying on leaders of the antiwar movement. What they accidentally uncovered was documented proof of the existence of a secret FBI scheme called COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program) with orders to “disrupt, misdirect and otherwise neutralize” Black power movements.
It was under the auspices of COINTELPRO that the FBI spied on and harassed civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X. It was all part of Hoover’s efforts to prevent, in his words, the “rise of a messiah that would unify and electrify the militant nationalist movement.”
To the FBI, Hampton was another potential “messiah” rising up through the ranks of the Black Panther Party and being groomed for national leadership.
READ MORE: How the Black Power Movement Influenced the Civil Rights Movement
Some Justice for Fred Hampton
Over years of litigation on behalf of Hampton and Clark’s families and the survivors of the raid, Haas and Taylor got their hands on more incriminating FBI documents linking Hampton’s killing to COINTELPRO. One of the most damning was an FBI memo authorizing the payment of a “bonus” to an informant named William O’Neal, a security guard for the Black Panthers who supplied the FBI with the map of the apartment.
By connecting the dots, Haas and his colleagues were able to show that a Chicago FBI agent, Roy Martin Mitchell, was the one who provided the map to Hanrahan.
“Hanrahan was this very ambitious heir to [Chicago Mayor] Daley at the time,” says Haas. “His people were more than willing to do this raid on the Panthers, thinking that it would build their careers.”
FBI agent M. Wesley Swearingen became a whistleblower in the case in 1977, telling government lawyers that the FBI had set up Chicago police to kill the Panthers by warning them ahead of the raid that they'd be met with armed resistance. Swearingen later wrote a book about the shooting and other incidents.
The first judge who heard the case threw it out after a grueling 18-month trial. But Haas and Taylor continued, writing a 200-page brief to the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, linking the FBI to a conspiracy “to subvert and eliminate the Black Panther Party and its members, thereby suppressing … a vital, radical black political organization.”
The government finally agreed to a settlement in 1982, paying $1.85 million to the families of Hampton and Clark, and the other survivors of the 1969 raid, some of whom never fully recovered from their injuries. A Justice Department attorney said the settlement did not concede wrongdoing. However, G. Flint Taylor, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told reporters, ''The settlement is an admission of the conspiracy that existed between the F.B.I. and Hanrahan's men to murder Fred Hampton."
More Evidence Appears—Decades Later
In January 2021, more than 50 years after the police killing of Hampton, hundreds of suppressed FBI documents related to the COINTELPRO program were released through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Among those documents was yet another “bonus” letter, this one from the desk of Hoover himself. In the letter, dated six days after Hampton’s murder, the FBI director thanked Roy Martin Mitchell, the Chicago FBI agent who orchestrated the raid, for his “exemplary efforts.”
“I am certainly pleased to commend you and to advise you that I have approved an incentive award in the amount of $200 for your outstanding services in a matter of considerable interest to the FBI in the racial field,” wrote Hoover.