50 years later, it's easier to see how the Black Panther raid changed racial politics
A lot has changed in the 50 years since the predawn Chicago police raid that left two Illinois Black Panther Party leaders dead and four other members wounded.
For one, I'm a lot older now. Illinois chairman Fred Hampton, who was 21, and member Mark Clark, 22, were about the same age as I was then and were robbed of that opportunity.
I used to think that the Panthers leaders had been too paranoid when they complained that "the government" was not only tapping their phones but working actively to turn the Panthers and Chicago street gangs against each other.
After the raid and, even more, after the exposure in 1976 of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's secret COINTELPRO, counterintelligence program, I realized that the Panthers' paranoia might not have been paranoid enough.
What I saw in the Panthers, as in the Little Rock Nine, the Freedom Riders or the anti-war movement, was a bold assertion of resistance and empowerment by members of my baby boomer generation. Hoover saw something far more sinister.
We now know that Hoover sent an urgent directive in 1967 to all FBI field offices under the file name "COINTELPRO -- Black Nationalist Hate Groups" instructing "Racial Matters" agents to take aggressive and, by the way, highly illegal actions to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize the activities of black-nationalist, hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership and supporters."
Illinois Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in October 1969. Two months later he was dead after a violent police raid at a West Side apartment that was a stronghold of the Illinois Black Panther Party. The seven minutes of gunfire that took place became one of the most hotly disputed incidents of the turbulent 1960s.
Illinois Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in October 1969. Two months later he was dead after a violent police raid at a West Side apartment that was a stronghold of the Illinois Black Panther Party. The seven minutes of gunfire that took place became one of the most hotly disputed incidents of the turbulent 1960s. (Chicago Today)
In March 4, 1968, a month before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, another Hoover directive instructed "Racial Matters" agents to take COINTELPRO actions to "prevent the rise of a 'messiah' who could unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement."
If Hampton didn't fit that "messiah" description, he was on his way up. He was an eloquent speaker and an NAACP organizer in his suburban Maywood area since his early teens. Known as a unifier, he negotiated peace between gangs and built a cross-racial alliance with the Latino Young Lords Organization and the white Young Patriots.