1969: Fred Hampton, “good and dead now”

Add comment December 4th, 2019 Headsman

Today is the 50th anniversary of the December 4, 1969 extrajudicial execution of American revolutionary Fred Hampton.

This charismatic — nearly every bio uses this word — 21-year-old star of the Illinois Black Panther Party had in his brief life shown himself a visionary exponent of radicalism; he would end as one of the signal martyrs to his movement’s violent suppression.

Well did he know it.

“If you’re asked to make a commitment at the age of 20 and you say, I don’t want to make a commitment only because of the simple reason that I’m too young to die, I want to live a little bit longer. What you did is, you’re dead already,” Hampton once mused. “You have to understand that people have to pay the price for peace. If you dare to struggle, you dare to win. If you dare not struggle then damnit, you don’t deserve to win … And I think that struggle’s going to come. Why don’t you live for the people? Why don’t you struggle for the people? Why don’t you die for the people?”

Emerging late in 1966 out of Oakland, Calif., the Black Panthers were a revolutionary and pointedly armed movement that fused black power demands with critique of the entire edifice — war, imperialism, capitalism and the rest of it. Although the organization was dissolved in 1982, the Panthers’ actions and legacy are still quite controversial and their mere specter remains a potent bogeyman for much of contemporary white America.

One thing is for sure: in their moment, they scared the shit out of the powers that be. Within months of its founding, the Federal Bureau of Investigation turned upon the Panthers its COINTELPRO program of domestic surveillance, suppression, and assassination. One particularly notorious FBI memo drew a bead on “Black Nationalist-Hate Groups” with an avowed intention to “prevent the rise of a ‘messiah’ who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement” — and to “pinpoint potential troublemakers and neutralize them”.

Fred Hampton isn’t mentioned by name in this memo from early 1968; he was just then beginning to emerge onto the FBI’s index of rabble-rousers. (Literally, they had a list called the “Rabble Rouser Index”.) He was fresh out of high school in 1966, and subsequently a wildly successful NAACP chapter leader, but gravitated to the new Illinois Panthers organ by 1968 where he quickly became its most outstanding organizer and spokesman, the prospective future face of a stirring cross-racial, class-conscious justice movement that Hampton perceived with a wisdom well beyond his years. Under his leadership the BPP spun out health care programs, legal aid programs, and free breakfast programs; he forged the original Rainbow Coalition* that brought rival street gangs and activist groups from different racial communities into a shared political ambition.

“We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity,” Hampton said. “We’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism.”

Just as energetically did the FBI work — and succeed, in the end — to break up such alliances, using informers and agents provocateur and false flags to encourage schisms and discredit leaders. Chicago’s police department was a ready collaborator in these operations; its relationship was the Panthers was hostile and often violent. Just three weeks before Hampton’s murder, two Chicago cops and a 19-year-old Black Panther were killed in a shootout. (Hampton was in California at the time.)

We don’t have the full documentary paper trail with deliberations and countersigned orders, but the known facts (and the smug grins of the cops) admit no reasonable dispute this side of performative naivete that Hampton was assassinated by a state death squad — “executed”, if you like, to fit an admittedly expansive read of this here site‘s mandate.

A compromised Hampton bodyguard named William O’Neal gave his FBI handler — who also happened to be running the Chicago COINTELPRO operation targeting the Panthers — a detailed floor plan of Hampton’s apartment, which the FBI shared with the Chicago police for a raid putatively hunting illegal weaponry. On the night of December 3, O’Neal slipped Hampton a barbituate to dull his reactions for what was to come; surviving comrades would describe Hampton being roused amid the early-morning fusillade only with difficulty, responding barely and in “slow motion” even as Chicago police stormed front and rear entrances and poured nearly 100 rounds into the place. Another Hampton aide named Mark Clark, sitting watch, was blasted dead in the initial barrage, convulsively discharging his shotgun once into the ceiling as he fell. It was the only shot fired that night by any of the Black Panthers.

By the account of Hampton’s eight-months pregnant partner Deborah Johnson, corroborated by other Panthers in the apartment, Fred Hampton was injured by the volley, but alive — and cold-bloodedly finished off with a coup de grace.

First thing that I remember after Fred and I had went to sleep was being awakened by somebody shaking Fred while we were laying in the bed. Saying, “Chairman, Chairman, wake up, the pigs are vamping, the pigs are vamping!” And, um, this person who was in the room with me, kept shouting out “we have a pregnant sister in here, stop shooting”. Eventually the shooting stopped and they said we could come out. I remember crossing over Fred, and telling myself over and over, “be real careful, don’t stumble, they’ll try to shoot you, just be real calm, watch how you walk, keep your hands up, don’t reach for anything, don’t even try to close your robe”. I’m walking out of the bedroom, there are two lines of policemen that I have to walk through on my right and my left. I remember focusing on their badge numbers and their faces. Saying them over and over on my head, so I wouldn’t forget. Um, as I walked through these two lines of policemen, one of them grabbed my robe and opened it and said, “Well, what do you know, we have a broad here.” Another policeman grabbed me by the hair and pretty much just shoved me — I had more hair then — pretty much just shoved me into the kitchen area. It was very cold that night. I guess that it snowed. And, ah, the back door was open. Some people were on the floor in the kitchen area. I think it was Harold Bell was standing next to me in the kitchen area. They, ah, it was a police, ah, plainclothes policeman there, and I asked him for a pin, so I could pin my robe, because it was just open. And he said, “Ask the other guy.” And, ah, then somebody came back and handcuffed me, and Harold Bell behind the back. I heard a voice come from the area, I guess from the dining room area, which was, the kitchen was off from that area. And someone said, “He’s barely alive, he’ll barely make it.” The shooting, I heard some shooting start again. Not much. Just a little shooting, and, um, and someone said, “He’s good and dead now.” I’m standing at the, um, kitchen wall, and I’m trying to remember details of these policemen’s face, say it over and over in my head, and, and badge numbers, so, you gotta remember, gotta remember. And then when I felt like I was just going to really just pass out, I started saying the ten-point program over and over in my head. Um, at one point I turned around, the shooting had continued again, and I saw the police drag Verlina Brewer and throw her into the refrigerator. And it looked like blood was all over her. And she fell to the floor and they picked her up and threw her again. I saw Ronald Satchel bleeding. I kept trying to focus on the ten-point program platform, because I, again, I wanted to take myself out of that place. And I knew I just couldn’t break down there. Because I didn’t know if I would be killed, or what would happen.

Incidentally, Hampton’s killing was also a key catalyst for the terroristic turn of the Weather Underground — whose decisive “war council” meeting occurred later that same month of December 1969, with Hampton’s blood heavy in the air (and his picture prominently displayed on the wall) as an emblem of the futility of pacific resistance within the belly of the beast. “It was the murder of Fred Hampton more than any other factor that compelled us to feel we had to take up armed sturggle,” said David Gilbert, who’s now serving a prison sentence for a deadly bank robbery. “We wanted to create some pressure, to overextend the police so they couldn’t concentrate all their forces on the Panthers. We wanted to create a political cost for what they were doing. And we also felt that to build a movement among whites that was a revolutionary movement, a radical movement … it had to respond when our government in our name was destroying the most promising, exciting, and charismatic leadership to come out of the Black movement in a long time.” (Source) It was a paradoxical inspiration, since Hampton himself had criticized the emerging Weathermen after their “Days of Rage” riot in Chicago as “anarchistic, opportunistic, individualistic,” and even “Custeristic” — as in Indian Wars cavalryman George Armstrong Custer, famous for his defeat — “in that its leaders take the people into situations where they can be massacred. And they call that revolution.”

* The name and concept of the Rainbow Coalition were later revived by Jesse Jackson in his left-wing presidential challenges in 1984 and 1988, but there is not a continuous institutional thread from Hampton’s coalition to Jackson’s. Jackson did, however, deliver a eulogy at Hampton’s funeral on December 6, 1969.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,History,Illinois,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries,Shot,Summary Executions,U.S. Federal,USA

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1887: Parsons, Spies, Fischer and Engel, the Haymarket Martyrs

10 comments November 11th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1887, the Chicago political machine hanged four at Cook County Jail to defend civilization from the eight-hour day.

The Haymarket martyrs, as they would be remembered ere the hysterical atmosphere of their sentencing had passed, were four from a group of eight anarchist agitators rounded up when a never-identified person threw a bomb at Chicago police breaking up a peaceful rally. The bomb killed one cop; the indiscriminate police shooting that followed killed several more in friendly fire, plus an uncertain number of civilians.

The incident occurred just days after nationwide strikes began on May 1, 1886, in support of the eight-hour day. Nowhere were the tensions greater than Chicago, an epicenter of militant organizing. When tens of thousands poured into the streets on May 1, the Chicago Mail darkly said of high-profile radicals Albert Parsons and August Spies,

Mark them for today. Hold them responsible for any trouble that occurs. Make an example of them if trouble does occur.

Sure enough …

Most of the eight hadn’t even been present at the time the bomb was thrown, but the state put anarchism itself on trial under the capacious umbrella of “conspiracy,” in a proceeding so absurdly rigged that a relative of a slain cop was on the jury. Quoth the prosecutor,

Law is upon trial. Anarchy is on trial. These men have been selected, picked out by the grand jury and indicted because they were leaders. They are no more guilty than the thousand who follow them. Gentlemen of the jury; convict these men, make examples of them, hang them and save our institutions, our society.

That was the argument for hanging them. And right-thinking burghers applauded it.

Seven of the eight were condemned to die; two had their sentences commuted, but the other five refused to ask for clemency on the grounds that, innocent, they would “demand either liberty or death.” One of those five, Louis Lingg, painfully cheated the hangman by setting off a blasting cap in his mouth the night before his execution. (Lingg might have made, though seemingly not thrown, the mysterious bomb.)

The others — Parsons and Spies, along with Adolph Fischer and George Engel — hanged together, with their epitaphs upon their lips — literally so for Parsons, whose parting remark is at the base of the Haymarket Martyrs Monument*

“The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today.”

“Throttle” was right, as the Chicago Tribune reported the next day, taking up when the trap was sprung:

Then begins a scene of horror that freezes the blood. The loosely-adjusted nooses remain behind the left ear and do not slip to the back of the neck. Not a single neck is broken, and the horrors of a death by strangulation begin.

Six years later, Illinois Gov. John Altgeld granted the free pardon the hanged men had demanded to the three surviving Haymarket anarchists. There is no institutional mechanism to determine erroneous executions in American jurisprudence — a fact that occasionally leads to smugly circular avowals that nobody recently executed has ever been “proven” innocent — and death penalty researchers Michael Radelet and Hugo Bedau believed as of this 1998 paper (pdf) that Altgeld’s executive statement flatly asserting the injustice of the Haymarket convictions was the most recent official acknowledgment of a wrongful execution in U.S. history. If true, its uniqueness would be understandable: the gesture cost Altgeld his political career.

Long gone as all these principals are, the legacy of Haymarket remains very much with us, and not just as a magnet for digital archives like this, this and this (don’t miss the brass gallows pin).

May 1, now rich with the symbolism of the Haymarket Passion, was soon selected by the international labor movement as the date to resume the eight-hour-day push — thus becoming the global workers’ holiday it remains to this day.

* Opposing interpretations of the Haymarket affair — which can be the “Haymarket riot” or the “Haymarket massacre,” depending on where you line up — were marked by opposing memorials. The police memorial was itself eventually bombed by the Weather Underground, and subsequently squirreled away from easy public view. Paradoxically, the Haymarket Martyrs Monument has been federally dignified as a National Historic Landmark.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Activists,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Cheated the Hangman,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Freethinkers,Hanged,History,Illinois,Infamous,Innocent Bystanders,Martyrs,Murder,Not Executed,Notable Jurisprudence,Popular Culture,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries,Terrorists,USA,Wrongful Executions

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