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Black Panther Party leader who built black liberation movement at grassroots level

By Harsh Thakor 

Fred Hampton was a manifestation or mascot in the quest for Black emancipation, revolution and socialism or a model for progressive and revolutionary people. Hampton served as the Deputy Chairman from the Illinois branch of the Black Panther Party. He was one of the most impactful and constructive leaders in the Black Panther Party nationally till his death. Few characters more manifested that era or the spirit of black rebellion against tyranny or as much manifested the aspirations of black people to emancipate from the clutches of oppression.
On Dec. 4, 1969 Fred Hampton was murdered in sleep by a tactical unit of the Cook County, Illinois State’s Attorney’s Office, in league with the Chicago Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Fellow Black Panther Mark Clark too was killed that night. The murder of Hampton and Clark formed part of the FBI’s conspiracy to break the backbone or nucleus of Black liberation movement and the Black Panther Party.
Similar to other Black Panthers, American Indian Movement members and Puerto Rican independence fighters that were executed or jailed in fabricated charges; like socialist and anarchist leaders from earlier generations such as Sacco and Vanzetti or the Rosenbergs who were jailed and executed; and like Black liberation fighters from earlier generations like Nat Turner, Denmark Vessey and Gabriel Prosser, Fred Hampton descended from a legacy of revolutionaries in the U.S. who were persecuted for confronting the repressive existing order and resistance for liberation.
We need to commemorate Fred Hampton and salute his contributions toward Black liberation, proletarian revolution and socialism in the U.S. His death was possibly ‘weightier than Mount Tai.’ His contributions were so phenomenal in such a short tenure that like Che Guevara he is still cherished almost 50years after his death. .

Black Panther Party background

The Blacks were marked or labelled as the supposed ‘greatest internal threat to national security’ by FBI head J. Edgar Hoover as the galvanised large numbers of Black people in revolutionary struggle with a socialist vision. It launched programs and campaigns to serve the needs of the masses of poor and working class Black people and knitted thousands of mostly young Black people into a revolutionary organization.
The Black Panthers were committed in toppling white supremacist capitalism in the U.S. and carving a socialist system.. Similar to Malcolm X, it upheld the right to armed self-defence and identified with the national liberation movements and socialist countries in the Third World and they studied the writings of Mao, Fanon, Lenin, Marx, Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevarra, Kim II Sung and other Third World socialist revolutionaries. The Black Panthers’ socialist orientation and support to anti-imperialist liberation movements around the world sent shivers down the spine of the ruling classes.
The Black Panthers were a creature of survival. Impoverishment and capitalism in the United States meant that children went hungry; people were denied medical care or shelter. The BPP comprehended that this was not something the bastion of free-market capitalism, the United States, was going to offer so they constructed alternative anti-poverty and defence programs.
The BPP modelled upon the works and ideology of communist Malcolm X. Like the Panthers, Malcolm X not only waged a battle for militant resistance and revolution in order for the liberation of all oppressed minorities, but also stood for mutual aid and non governmental public services like education in the name of class consciousness. Consolidating international unity of the proletariat, the BPP were able to blend or integrate this with Maoist theory and dialectical materialism to form a Vanguard party. This established a United Front.

Life and Role of Fred Hampton

Fred Hampton was born in 1948 in Chicago, Illinois, being brought up in nearby Maywood. While a teenager he got involved in the NAACP and his leadership abilities quickly became clear as he led campaigns to improve services in the Black community. When the Black Panther Party became established in Illinois, Hampton joined in 1968 and became a Party leader.
In high school, he launched walkouts condemning racism, successfully won rights for the hiring of more black teachers and administrators and was recruited by NAACP for their suburban youth division. He continued his crusade after his graduation into the summer of 1966 where he accompanied black children via bus to an unsegregated neighbourhood where they could swim. The following year, he protested for their having their own swimming pool, closer to the neighbourhood. His efforts raised funds for the aquatic centre but also resulted in his being marked on the FBI’s Key Agitator List. He joined the Black Panther party a year after, in 1968.
Hampton’s work comprising the next year converted Chicago Black Panthers from a bunch of creative individuals, into an army and thus also one of the most hunted by the FBI. Fred Hampton before his assassination weekly rallies, coordinated with the Black Panther Party’s local People’s Clinic, conducted political education classes and designed a project for community supervision of the police and devised Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast for Children Program. He also orchestrated a truce between some of Chicago’s street gangs and established unity with radical and revolutionary organizations of other nationalities, including the Puerto Rican organization Young Lords and the Students for a Democratic Society.
Hampton unflinchingly raised the banner of political consciousness of working and poor Black people toward socialism. He affirmed that people learn through learning and practice, and thus devised Panthers’ programs to demonstrate to people the essence of socialism, and make them tap lessons from their own experiences.. He left no stone unturned in propagating that the objective is to win real power, and not mere reforms that preserve the social order. He defined himself as a revolutionary socialist, and categorised racism as a ‘by-product’ of capitalist oppression.

Working Class Orientation and Massline of Fred Hampton

Hampton stressed on working class leadership within the movement and advocated a working class orientation overall. Other Black organizations were critical of the Panthers for taking white people and people of other nationalities into their fold at all and for paying so much attention to class instead of racial oppression.
Quoting Fred Hampton “You’re gonna have to keep on saying that – I am the proletariat, I am the people. I am not the pig. You’ve got to make a distinction.”
The Black Panthers didn’t mainly give priority on organizing the working class as such, but concentrated on the lower sector of the working class in their communities and on the ‘lumpen proletariat’ (poor people who are basically outside of the formal economic system and get by on the ‘informal economy’, hustles, petty crimes and the like), and they also penetrated areas from petty bourgeois and student backgrounds. However in practice he aimed to organise the working class as a class overall.
In his speech Power Anywhere There’s People, Hampton said:
“We got to face some facts. That the masses are poor, that the masses belong to what you call the lower class, and when I talk about the masses, I’m talking about the white masses, I’m talking about the black masses, and the brown masses, and the yellow masses, too. We’ve got to face the fact that some people say you fight fire best with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water. We say you don’t fight racism with racism. We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity. We say you don’t fight capitalism with no black capitalism; you fight capitalism with socialism.
“We ain’t gonna fight no reactionary pigs who run up and down the street being reactionary; we’re gonna organize and dedicate ourselves to revolutionary political power and teach ourselves the specific needs of resisting the power structure, arm ourselves, and we’re gonna fight reactionary pigs with international proletarian revolution. That’s what it has to be. The people have to have the power: it belongs to the people.”
Hampton also said:
“You know, a lot of people have hang-ups with the Party because the Party talks about a class struggle. We say primarily that the priority of this struggle is class. That Marx and Lenin and Che Guevara and Mao Tse-tung and anybody else that has ever said or knew or practiced anything about revolution always said that a revolution is a class struggle. It was one class – the oppressed, and that other class – the oppressor. And it’s got to be a universal fact. Those that don’t admit to that are those that don’t want to get involved in a revolution, because they know as long as they’re dealing with a race thing, they’ll never be involved in a revolution.”
Hampton thus illustrated the fact that there is a multinational working class and that there are poor people existing of all nationalities. He explained that it was imperative for working class and oppressed people to unite, and advocated unity of radical and revolutionary forces of different nationalities.
As a leader in the Black Panther Party, Hampton constructed the Black liberation movement at the very grassroots. The Black people as a whole suffer national oppression in the U.S., and the fight for Black liberation is vital and is revolutionary. Historically, the Black liberation movement has shaped broader movements to simmer for change in the U.S. The Black Panthers ignited a spark to arouse many other people with revolutionary fervour and paving way for the formation of organizations similar to the Black Panthers among other oppressed nationalities, such as the Brown Berets, I Wor Kuen, Young Lords Organization and the American Indian Movement.
Quoting Hampton “Any program that’s brought into our community should be analyzed by the people of that community. It should be analyzed to see that it meets the relevant needs of that community. That’s what the Breakfast for Children Program is. A lot of people think it’s charity. But what does it do? It takes people from a stage to another stage. Any program that’s revolutionary is an advancing program. Revolution is change. We say that the Breakfast for Children Program is a socialistic program. It teaches the people basically that – by practice. We thought up and let them practice that theory and inspect that theory. What’s more important? And a woman said, “I don’t know if I like communism, and I don’t know if I like socialism. But I know that the Breakfast for Children Program feeds my kids. And if you put your hands on that Breakfast for Children Program.”
Fred Hampton with surgical skill and devising original methods integrated the day to day class struggles (reforms) with the larger revolutionary framework of transforming the whole society. He was able in action to extricate people from the quagmire of reformism to struggle to improve poor and working people’s lives through revolutionary change. Hampton combated the errors of reformism and ‘ultra-left’ revolutionary rhetoric, without action on the other hand. Revolutionaries need to emulate Hampton’s ability practice of what Marxist-Leninists term the ‘mass line’ – organizing on basis of needs of the masses, and from those particular struggles imbibing revolutionary lessons. I admired his non-mechanical or creative approach that transcended regions rarely penetrated in he Black Liberation Movement.

Murder of Hampton

The murder of Fred Hampton manifested the merciless neo-fascist nature of the ruling class in the U.S. and the naked face of the U.S. government in suppressing working and oppressed people – particularly oppressed nationalities. It exposed the sheer hollowness of the bourgeois parliamentary democratic system.
Several black progressive and radical organizations existed in the late 1960s, and they were all conceived as a threat and targeted by the ruling class – whether the pacifist Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the revolutionary nationalist Malcolm X and his Organization for Afro-American Unity or the socialist Black Panthers and their leaders such as Fred Hampton and Huey Newton.
The FBI brutally targeted the Black Panthers nationally, to destroy its nucleus. Panther offices were raided around the country, prominent leaders were fabricated, different people and groups in the movement were pitted against each other by writing fake letters from one group to another.
The FBI endorsed a campaign of the Chicago police to conduct a demolition job on the Panthers in Chicago. The Black Panthers leaders were physically attacked and their offices were raided multiple times, including twice in July 1969 and once in October. During these raids over 100 Panthers were arrested and , in May 1969 Hampton was farmed on ridiculous charges of stealing $72 worth of ice cream in Maywood two years earlier, and sentenced to two to five years in jail, though he managed to win a bond appeal and was released in August 1969.
The government’s neutralization campaign ended in the brutal raid on Hampton’s apartment on Dec. 4, 1969 in which he was killed in his sleep, with his pregnant wife lying in bed next to him. The Chicago Police Department received information on the location of the apartment by an FBI informant who had infiltrated the Panthers.
The FBI focused on Fred Hampton, opening a file on him in 1967 that over the next two years magnified to twelve volumes and over 4000 pages. FBI head J. Edgar was forced to ‘neutralize’ key Black leaders, which morally meant the fate that Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. received in 1965 and 1968 – assassination. National Black Panther leader Huey Newton was also imprisoned on framed murder charges and the Party launched a national campaign to demand his freedom, which ultimately triumphed. By labelling Hampton as a ‘key militant leader’ the FBI clubbed Hampton with those great leaders and he ultimately fell victim to the brutal hands of the FBI and Chicago police.

Movie ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’

Judas and the Black Messiah is the most recent film that wishes to revive the Black Panther Party in the eyes of the public – and one of its most prominent leaders, Fred . Directed and produced by Shaka King, the film projects the politics of Hampton – impressively carried out by British actor Daniel Kaluuya ..

Movie ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’, however, reflects analysing history as only the creation of the efforts and actions of ‘Great’ individuals and their ideas. The film makes it appear as if it was solely Hampton and his charisma that made the party blossom.
The film projects the ascendancy and fall of the party as a mere accident failing to highlight graver problems with the Black Panthers, which bore roots in the contradictory political ideas between the different factions of the party, with members forced to take sides. It also projected wrongly that rather than funding itself through the means of the membership, the party increasingly used immoral methods to raise money, like drug dealing and robbing nightclubs.

Reasons for Disintegration and Setback of Black Panther Party

Black Panthers differentiated and adopted Maoism over just Marxist-Leninism. In their view, Marxism-Leninism concentrates around the working class as the revolutionary class which was not compatible because republicanism (in the American conservative sense) was deeply permeated the American working class. Maoism encompassed non-working-class social layers as well. This integrated with the anti colonial Maoist struggles in the third world (China, Vietnam etc.) provided a much more stable bastion for the BPP. In my view they were mistaken in interpreting that the Eurocentric bias of Marx and to an extent Lenin did not traverse the struggle of the international multi racial working class.
Unfortunately, the BPP practice was vitiated with rhetoric or, inflammatory slogans such as “the only good pig is a dead pig!” which could only isolate the wider population They also called for “community control of the police,” a utopian and eclectic demand similar to pleading with a fish to remove it’s gills.
The BPP failed in imparting into or fusing members with a scientific perspective of the essence of a capitalist state is and how the working class can overthrow it and construct a democratic workers’ state of its own.
Though a sustained effort was made to establish the political education of the membership, it was haphazard and inconsistent Members were indoctrined with a wide spectrum of contradictory ideas: be it Black Nationalism and separatism to socialist internationalism; from Stalinism and Maoism to at least some elements of Trotskyism. Quoting Fred Hampton—“We have to do more acting and less writing, because people learn through example or participation”—ideas were reduced to a secondary position, instead of understanding the dialectical relationship between ideas and action.”
To me what caused the retreat, disintegration or ultimate debacle of the Black Panther Party was not properly grasping the concept of the Leninist party or Leninism, replacing mass line practice with rhetoric, being influenced by Che Guevarist focoist methods which advocates isolated armed actions, blind or mechanical application of Maoism, trying to incorporate method of peoples war inapplicable to a developed country ,eulogising revolutionary personalities and inability to integrate Marxism properly with aspect of black ethnic nationality. Possibly, it was unable to formulate an accurate assessment on the co-relation of the black working class with it’s white counterpart, with regards to class relations, or extent they exploited third world labour.
In my view, the Chinese Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution played an instrumental role in shimmering the flame or giving shape to the Black Panther Movement. However the deviationist trends within it like the Lin Biao phenomena or left sectarian turns left an adverse effect on it.

Conclusion

Today Fred Hampton and Black Panther Party have to be resurrected in accordance with the meteoric transformation in recent years of the socio-economic and political situation nationally and internationally. Consideration has to be taken account of how globalisation and mechanisation has revolutionised production and scattered the local and white proletariat. New methods have to be devised to organise Afro-American workers and path of revolution cannot mechanically emulate the Russian path of insurrection or Chinese path of people’s war. Nor can the concept of Leninist vanguard party mechanically applied, with greater autonomy awarded to the mass organisations. Till today Marxist Leninist parties have been unable to integrate Marxism with the national Question and Black people’s liberation in America, construct a cohesive revolutionary party of Afro-American people or a proper thesis on nature of modern neo-fascism.
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Harsh Thakor is freelance journalist

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