Why Fred Hampton Needs to Be on Your Kids’ American History Syllabus
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Inc

Why Fred Hampton Needs to Be on Your Kids’ American History Syllabus

Hampton’s story, even in the…

My Blackness came to me while I was a student at Ohio State University.

To be clear, I always knew I was Black. My mother, who grew up silt-poor in the mud hills of Nelsonville, Ohio, made sure all of her sons knew we were Black. Not knowing was akin to signing your name to a suicide note. But I did not know its properties, the alchemy of its historical bonds in reaction to my daily life. I only knew its consequences. I was aware of the American problems that pursued my Blackness but could not see the joy that welled from it for what it was. I did not fully learn to wield my Blackness until I was skipping architecture classes, instead sitting in on showings of Black documentaries and heavy discussions in the newly minted Frank W. Hale Black Cultural Center that imbued me with self-awareness.

The early 1990s was a beautiful time to become aware of one’s Blackness. It was the height of the Afrocentric movement, the covers of magazines like Newsweek musing aloud if Cleopatra had been Black, the widening reach of Black studies departments and Spike Lee films. Because I would only attend OSU for two scant quarters before being expelled for failing grades, the whole period felt as if the only reason I had gone to college was to uncover a deeper Blackness, that a destiny had somehow been fulfilled behind the artifice of my architectural pursuits.

I could never tell if the Black man running the screenings in the Hale Center was another student or a local street scholar who snuck onto campus for the express purpose of showing the films, but his weekly inoculations unwound the helix of my political DNA, replacing the white cells with Malcolm X and Kwame Ture speeches. And on the evening that he slid in a bootleg VHS of the 1971 documentary The Murder of Fred Hampton, my life was changed on a primordial level.

All of the theory I had been consuming was suddenly and brutally replaced with a new understanding: It didn’t matter how innocent or sensible the work you did for Black people might be; all work on behalf of Black people was a threat. Not perceived as a threat but judged an actual threat to the status quo. That meant children’s breakfast programs and free clinics as well. Opting to step out of the system was as punishable as standing in its face.

Naturally, prior to viewing Judas and the Black Messiah — Shaka King’s new movie about Hampton and the COINTELPRO plot to assassinate him — I was sure I was going to walk away mad. I was going to take issue with the decision to focus more on FBI plant William O’Neal (played by LaKeith Stanfield) than Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). I was going to be underwhelmed by the film’s ability to unpack the breadth of Hampton‘s politics. Ultimately, I was going to be mad because Fred Hampton is my day-one dude and he deserved the most astute treatment that cinema could deliver. In short, the movie didn’t stand a chance.

I am happy to report that my fears were largely overblown. The movie was both good and important, and I officially welcome it into the canon of Black History Month standards, somewhere between your 12th viewing of Lee’s Malcolm X and Ava DuVernay’s Selma. It is a crime that it took this long to produce such a film. Hampton’s story, even in the abbreviated form that Judas provides, is too important not to tell.

Fred Hampton was on track to do a great many things before being gunned down in his sleep at the age of 21 by the Chicago Police Department: found the Rainbow Coalition, expand free breakfast programs across Chicago, open a free health clinic, and perhaps save the Black Panther Party from the obvious targets of its iconic trinity (and a few inner demons) in Newton, Seale, and Cleaver. Hampton was the kind of recruit the Black Panthers were starving for, and despite his young age he quickly took to the work with the steady hand of an experienced activist. A shining example of the possibilities of the ideology and agenda of the Black Panther Party, Hampton was widely viewed as the person most likely to move the party most productively into the future.

Hampton straddled the ideologies of many leaders at the same time, picking and choosing the aspects of their platforms that worked for the people he wanted to save. He drew on Jomo Kenyatta when he needed to build coalitions, Malcolm X when he needed to build self-reliance, Karl Marx when he needed to refocus on the people rather than the organization. His vision is almost unparalleled in Black struggle — if not before, certainly since. He had not only a sense of what needed to happen in the neighborhoods of Chicago, but in bridging race, class, and agenda. His impact on the city’s activist machine tilled fresh ground for community-focused work. It is wholly possible that Barack Obama’s presidency wouldn’t have happened without the inspiration of Hampton’s community organizing. Chicago activism hits different, and Hampton is a big part of why that’s true.

We don’t have the fuel of history in our engines of change and so end up recreating the same wheels again and again. Fred Hampton is a wheel we can no longer afford to recreate from scratch.

All of these are things that activists continue to struggle with on a basic level 50 years later, due in large part to the murder of Hampton by the very police force he railed against on a daily basis. Losing Hampton derailed a truly progressive and blended movement before it could expand under his guidance, work that would have extended well beyond mission statements and meal programs. His drive to unite masses of people for the purposes of controlling social order — in essence driving government to exist and serve at the will of the people — sounds a lot like what many progressive activists squeeze into their platforms today but can’t sell.

Hampton did not predict the future; he was the future.

It is impossible to overstate the gravity of Hampton’s assassination and what it says about this country. The U.S. government and a local police department conspired to drug a U.S. citizen who had committed no crime, then entered his home without warning, and killed him while he lay unarmed and unconscious in bed. Every word of that sentence is a proven fact. Hampton’s murder is one of the most egregious acts America has committed upon a citizen. His death is an incontestable and damning testimony of what America is capable of when it doesn’t like what you have to say. All of the Congressmen who defended Donald Trump during his second impeachment trial on the basis of free speech should have to sit down across from the son of Fred Hampton for 10 minutes and see if we can’t put some context to their rebuttals. Everyone shouting and spitting in a Walmart about having to wear masks during a pandemic on the grounds of free speech should have to look at the pictures of Fred Hampton’s bloodied mattress and an FBI sketch of his house’s floor plan to get a sense of what this country is truly capable of when it comes to shutting down personal freedoms.

When you see the range of things that we continue to struggle with after the civil rights era, it often feels as if nothing has changed. One of the reasons that’s true is because history is not a priority in this country. Conversely, we don’t have the fuel of history in our engines of change and so end up recreating the same wheels again and again. Fred Hampton is a wheel we can no longer afford to recreate from scratch. He should be the first Black person we talk about every February, should inspire as many book lists as it takes to recreate his intellectual journey, and should be the first person any activist is made aware of. At 21 years of age, Hampton died around the age I was when I discovered him. I wish I had more time with him, meaning I wish I had learned of him when I was younger. Hampton’s life, and death, is a curriculum that anyone who cares about change should be required to take.