“You can kill the revolutionary, but you cannot kill the revolution.” These were the words my late comrade and friend, Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, spoke and lived by. 52 years after his killing, Chairman Fred’s life and legacy remain just as vital to our understanding of justice today as they were on Dec. 4, 1969.
I recruited and worked alongside Chairman Fred in the Illinois Black Panther Party in the late 1960s, where we fought for the liberation of people across Chicago who had long been ignored by those in power. We set up community health clinics and an expansive free breakfast program for children. We helped broker a peace agreement between Chicago’s street gangs, reducing violence in the city’s most marginalized neighborhoods. And we joined forces with the Latino Young Lords and the Young Patriots, an organization of poor whites, to form the original Rainbow Coalition. Despite living in one of the most segregated cities in the United States, our working-class coalition fought together against economic oppression and many other issues that still plague our communities to this day — police brutality, substandard housing, mediocre education, and low-quality health care.
Then, in the early hours of Dec. 4, 1969, the Chicago Police Department — working in conjunction with the FBI and the Cook County State’s Attorney — entered an apartment that seven members of the Black Panther Party were staying in, with the premeditated aim of killing Fred Hampton. The police immediately opened fire, killing Fred as he lay in his bed next to his pregnant girlfriend. Our fellow Black Panther Party Member Mark Clark was also killed in the raid. My own apartment was raided in the early hours of the very next morning.
Through meticulous work, we were able to prove that the official narrative of that night — that Hampton and Clark were killed in a firefight — was a complete falsehood. In fact, investigators determined that the police fired 99 bullets while the Panthers only fired one. William O’Neil, an FBI informant embedded the Black Panther Party, had provided floor plans of the apartment to law enforcement in advance, and an autopsy found a massive dose of Seconal in Chairman Fred’s bloodstream, powerful enough to sedate an elephant.
52 years ago today, the American government carried out a planned political assassination of one of our nation’s brightest young leaders. It is a powerful reminder that Black lives have never been valued by many in our nation’s power structures.
When Ida B. Wells published her seminal investigative journalism on lynching in America, she found that many lynchings occurred because the victims posed a threat to the white supremacist status quo. One of her friends was killed merely for operating a successful grocery store that competed with white businesses. While the killings Wells examined were not political assassinations, many share a common thread with Hampton’s killing — they were committed against individuals who challenged the racist status quo in their communities.
Sadly, all too often for Black Americans, merely existing can be seen as a challenge to the racist power structure. Ahmaud Arbery was only 25 when he was gunned down for merely jogging in what his killers deemed to be the wrong neighborhood. His death was a modern-day lynching. While the recent guilty verdict in the trial of his killers was a relief, it cannot bring Arbery back. It does not stop the vicious racism and vigilante gun violence that led to his murder. And it is no guarantee that other perpetrators of modern-day lynching will be brought to justice.
Congress must act promptly to ensure that no one who participates in such acts of terror and hatred can escape justice. That starts by passing my Emmett Till Antilynching Act, which would finally designate lynching as federal hate crime. The bill honors the legacy of Emmett Till, who was brutally murdered in 1955. His death helped spark the civil rights movement, but his murderers never faced justice — they were acquitted days later by an all-white jury in a sham trial in Tallahatchie County, Miss.
Passing the Emmett Till Antilynching Act would ensure that the full force of the United States federal government is always brought to prosecute those who commit the monstrous act of lynching. It would show that our nation understands the heinous legacy of lynching and begin the process of closing this shameful chapter of our history.
Although his own life was ended by our own government at the age of 21, Chairman Fred’s legacy lives on. As we reckon with the fact of his assassination on this somber anniversary, we can demonstrate that we have finally begun to value Black lives by ensuring that the Emmett Till Antilyching Act is signed into law.