Law and Disorder Radio

Michael Smith’s Review: The Assassination of Fred Hampton

Murdered a Black Panther /  By Jeffrey Haas, Lawrence Hill Books, $26.95, 376 pages.

This is a remarkable work, a well told tale, a true crime story, a page turning legal political thriller which is as important for us to comprehend now as it was in the sixties.

Forty years ago this December 4th, National Lawyers Guild attorney Jeffrey Haas was in a Chicago jail interviewing Fred Hampton’s fiancee Deborah Johnson.  She was in her nightgown, pregnant, shaking and sobbing, barely having survived  the hail of 80 bullets that came into her apartment and into her bedroom, just four hours before.   She had  been sleeping at 4 in the morning next to Fred Hampton, the extraordinary young leader of the Chicago Black Panthers. She described to Haas how the police pulled her from the room as Fred lay unconscious on their bed. She heard one of the officers say, “He’s still alive.”   Next, two gunshots. A second officer said “He’s good and dead now.” She looked at Jeff and asked, “What can you do?”

Haas tells the story, interwoven beautifully with his own personal and political biography, of a truly amazing piece of movement lawyering. It took thirteen years of grueling litigation and political agitation outside the courtroom.  Finally, after an l8 month trial, which they lost, and an appeal to the Federal Circuit Court (Hampton v. Hanrahan, 600 F. 2d 600), which they won in a famous civil rights decision,  Haas, Flint Taylor, his Peoples Law Office collective, Dennis Cunningham, and Morty Stavis from the Center for Constitutional Rights,  finally nailed the FBI, the Cook County States Attorney Edward Hanrahan, and the Chicago police for their summary execution of the exceptionally promising – he was only 2l at the time – young black leader. “Who knows what he may have become, if they hadn’t killed him,” his mother Iberia Hampton told Jeff.

FBI head J. Edgar Hoover had an idea of what Hampton might become. He was concerned, in his words written in a Cointelpro directive, about “the rise of a new black Messiah.”  King and Malcolm had already been murdered.   Haas and Taylor uncovered the story about how the government killed Hampton and remarkably, at the end of the day, made them all admit guilt by paying his parents a wrongful death settlement.   It took over 37,000 hours of work.  What a truly amazing piece of lawyering, especially since Jeff was barely out of the University of Chicago law school at the time he undertook to represent the family, and Flint was still a law student at Northwestern. And more amazing still, considering that their law collective had no resources to speak of and were up against a mendacious stalling government whose litigation fund was unlimited.

Lenny Bruce used to quip that “Chicago is so corrupt it is thrilling.” It was run by the machine of Mayor Richard Daley, head of the Cook County Democratic Party, his true source of power.  The machine appointed the judges, investigators, “independent panels”, prosecutors, and police.  But Jeff, just out of law school, and Flint, still attending Northwestern, with little financial resources,  took them on, exposing the conspiracy to assassinate Hampton, the raid and the subsequent cover-up.

Fred Hampton, even at 21, was an accomplished person. He worked a factory job and saved money to pay his college tuition.  Like Malcolm, he wanted to be a lawyer.   Fred was by all accounts a master orator.  He studied Malcolm’s speeches.  While in high school he founded a youth chapter of the NAACP.   When he turned l8 in l966 he refused to register for the draft, like Muhammad Ali, who famously said, “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong.  No Vietcong ever called me nigger.”     Hampton was well read, rising at least two hours before facing the day to read Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Mao, Marx, Lenin and DuBois.  Like them, he understood that “a revolution is a class struggle.  It was one class – the oppressed – versus those other classes – the oppressor.  Indeed it was this sort of radicalism – the advocacy of black power and socialism – that made him dangerous.  And Hoover knew it.  Black power for Hampton, as Haas  observes, was “not a tool to attack whites, but … a concept to bring blacks together and build their confidence.”
Hampton was targeted by the police and arrested several times on technical traffic violations.  After being arrested for “mob action” he was put on the FBI’s Key Agitator Index, a group Hoover ordered FBI agents to monitor closely.   The NAACP gave only luke warm support to Hampton.  Meanwhile the Black Panthers in Oakland, California, where they originated under the leadership of Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, had caught Fred’s attention.

He was impressed by their Ten Point Program. The program called for l) freedom to determine the destiny of the black community, 2) full employment for blacks, 3) an end to capitalist exploitation of the black community, 4) decent housing, 5) informed education, 6) exemption for black men from military service, 7) an end to police brutality and murder, 8) freedom for black prisoners, 9) black juries for black criminal defendants, and l0) land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, and peace.  Fred signed on.

Fred’s mother Iberia, a factory worker and union activist, was upset when he became a Panther.  She thought the rhetoric of the Panthers was provocative and that it might get him killed.  She was uncomfortable with their talk about guns because it increased hostility with law enforcement and included expressions like Fred saying “You kill one pig, you get some satisfaction, you kill all the pigs, you get complete satisfaction.”  Haas reflected that “The rhetoric that energized the Panthers was often the same rhetoric that the police used to justify attacks on them.”   The murderous raid on Hampton’s apartment was ostensibly performed to exercise a warrant in search of weapons.  Fred’s body guard was actually a police informer, a provocateur, who urged illegal acts upon the Panthers, got them guns, and actually drew up a floor plan of the apartment and where Fred slept.   It was used by the police, who knew exactly where to find Fred.  The autopsy Haas got performed showed two gun shot wounds to Fred’s head fired at a downward angle at close range.  It also showed he had been drugged with barbiturates, which accounts for the fact that he was unable to rouse himself when the police shooting started.

The majority of black people in Chicago were horrified by the killing.  To them it was a police assassination and they remained active in supporting the exposure of the crime.  The Peoples Law Office worked with the black community and presented the case in a political, not only legal, framework.  They put the state on trial.  This public approach became critical in determining how the PLO would represent the movement and victims of police and official misconduct in the future.    Today, 40 years later, the firm is suing and scandalizing the police for torturing and extracting false confessions from over l00 black men in a south side police station.  The current mayor, Daly’s son, was involved in the cover- up.

Jeff Haas left the firm a few years ago in order to write this book.  He reflects that “Like others who heard Malcolm X, Dr King, and Fred Hampton speak in the l960s, I learned that fighting injustice and inequality is the struggle of our lives, and perseverance in this struggle is what makes our lives valuable.”

By Michael Steven Smith.   Smith, in the sixties, was in the Detroit National Lawyers Guild collective of Lafferty, Reosti, Jabara, Papahkian, James, Stickgold, Smith and Soble.  He practices injury law in New York City, is on the board of the Center for Constitutional Rights and is the author of Notebook of a Sixties Lawyer: An Unrepentant Memoir.
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