It was a wonderful moment for me and others who worked closely with “Chairman Fred” when Mayor Brandon Johnson declared Aug. 30 as Fred Hampton Day — a long-overdue recognition of a young, brilliant leader cut down in his prime.
Yet only two weeks later, when I read that the weekend of Sept. 16 was just the second weekend this year in which no homicides had occurred, I was struck by the reality that the mayor’s well-intentioned actions are likely to be meaningless if the day becomes just another moment for a parade or a breakfast or talks about how Hampton was slain.
What was most important about Fred was not how he died, but how he lived.
Contrary to the mythology around the “gun-toting Panthers,” Hampton and the Black Panther Party members spent most of their time not in gunfights or gun-toting, but in creating, enacting, and defending programs to be offered by the society they fought to bring about.
Hampton and Bobby Seale in Chicago, like Huey Newton and Elaine Brown in Oakland, California, understood that addressing systemic issues required more than just protests and demonstrations. It required concrete examples of what could, and should, be. Panther-led programs not only provided much-needed assistance to underserved communities, but also highlighted the potential for positive change through grassroots efforts.
Ever wonder where federally mandated and funded health clinics arose from? Or school breakfasts? Or adult education? Or government-subsidized day care? Or free legal services, food banks, and many other programs providing crucial lifelines to historically underserved communities? When you talk about day care, think Hampton and the free day care centers they modeled and ran in Chicago.
When your kids get breakfast and lunch for free at school and camp, think the Black Panthers and the Breakfast for Children program.
When you go to a federally funded health clinic, you’ll find it was the Black Panther Party that modeled and introduced sickle cell testing.
You’ll find that in Chicago the Black Panther Party provided free legal services, free adult education classes, free food pantries. Yes, they asserted their Second Amendment right to carry firearms, but it was in defense of the programs and communities they served.
A curriculum based on Hampton’s life
Hampton was unique, using his leadership and members to create a “rainbow coalition” of disparate groups: Blacks, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Appalachian whites and Students for a Democratic Society members living in Chicago.
This coalition, the bones of which remain today, was crucial to the election of Harold Washington as the city’s first Black mayor. Its greater ambition remained to challenge the other Black forces of the day — the Blackstone Rangers, Gangster Disciples, the Vice Lords and others. The differing ideology was between people who created social programs to benefit communities — and were willing to take up arms to defend them — versus those who took up arms to prey on those same communities.
Hampton was making headway. But the FBI, Chicago police, the Cook County state’s attorney killed Hampton and Mark Clark; 28 other Black Panthers across the nation were also killed. The gangs remained intact.
Speaking at a maximum-security prison a few years ago to a group of lifers, most of whom were Black, I asked how many had heard of Harold Washington: about half had; of the Blackstone Rangers, many; of Jon Burge, many more. Few had heard of Hampton.
What they said to me was “You talk about changing the world but the world I know (and killed for) was my corner, my wheels, my threads, my woman.” That was sobering.
With that in mind, let’s not waste this moment. Let’s take the life story of Hampton — not the story of his death — and forge it into a curriculum, just like the curriculum that was created about Burge, the disgraced former Chicago police commander whose legacy is one of torture and imprisonment of Black men for crimes they did not commit.
The curriculum could start with the lunch counter sit-ins and marches of students in the south that inspired us, both Black and white; continue through Chicago, the Panthers and the Rainbow Coalition, to the election of Harold Washington; and then that of Barack Obama as president.
Perhaps, with a sense that our lives can make a positive difference, we can help this and future generations of youth be confident that their world and impact can go far beyond the corner.
Marilyn Katz, a long-time Chicago-based writer, consultant and political activist, is president of MK Communications.
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