The life of Black Panthers leader Hampton is the subject of a new movie starring Daniel Kaluuya. Bonnie Greer remembers the Hampton she knew briefly
You never really go back to your youth.
You move on, things happen to you. But your youth is still there, on the edges, and as you get older it moves quietly to the centre again and roots itself.
Once, my late father looked up from a movie about World War Two, a war that he fought in, and told me that one day they will make movies about my youth. I could never imagine that, but one has arrived: Judas And the Black Messiah.
And so, my youth announces itself once more. It is impossible for me to forget that cold morning in early December 1969 and the news, which as Curtis Mayfield sang in his great Freddie’s Dead, that Fred Hampton, the 21-year-old chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party had been killed. I knew him, briefly.
The other thing about youth is that, unless you are wise through a natural gift, or made wise through experience, it is impossible to know that you are in the presence of a great person. Because that person is the same age as you. You might have a feeling that the person is powerful. But greatness is not something usually bestowed on a 21-year-old.
I won’t wallow in nostalgia because the Panthers was largely a boys club. It took me a few years and a few life experiences to realise that the pyramid structure of the Illinois Black Panther Party put men on top and women on the bottom.
Fred was ‘Chairman Fred’ – that is how he was addressed and we were proud to do so because someone our own age could command that sort of gravitas.
I worked briefly for the Panthers’ breakfast for children programme. What we did was cook and serve breakfast to poor children, especially the ones living on the housing estates, known as ‘the projects’.
Chicago summers can be like living in a grill and the winters, with the cold air storming down from Canada with no mountains to stop it, just flat earth, could kill if the heating was not good enough.
In those days, a poor African American family was penalised if a father or any man of working age lived in the household. This would deny a family assistance from the city, county and state.
Men were peripheral and continuously fighting for centrality, so a strong, outspoken African American man was seen as a fight against the system itself. We were too young and naive to know this.
But The System did. That is why it killed Fred Hampton.
The breakfasts were down-home; rural Southern because we were all the grandchildren of people who had migrated from the Deep South after World War One looking for work. We all had a bit of their Southern accents, too, a bit of their will to change.
That is essentially what Fred was about.
I have not seen Judas And The Black Messiah but I know the work of its star Daniel Kaluuya, so it has to be seen.
But not by me. I don’t really want to remember. Not just yet.
When our Black Students Union at my university, DePaul, in Chicago, decided to have a day of teaching and instruction-by us-of African American history and culture, Fred brought a few of the Panthers around to be our bodyguards. The ROTC, the pre-Army training programme at the university, made threatening noises. But nothing happened.
We took over the central area of the university and lectured, and our professors sat down and listened. Looking back now, that was an incredibly audacious thing to do that could have cost us plenty, but we did it, and the day passed peacefully.
What I recall that day was Fred’s dimples. They covered half his face and you could always see them. That day he was smiling a lot. Maybe he was proud of us. He was a great orator and had organised a few of the street gangs, so coming to help us dainty uni students must have been a day off for him.
He did not speak, or if he did, it was brief. This was our day.
We knew about the FBI’s counter-intelligence programme, known as COINTELPRO. It was meant to be secret, but people were making poems about it, so we knew.
We were told about it by the group known in shorthand as ‘Weather’ or The Weather Underground, which name from Bob Dylan’s line “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” in Subterranean Homesick Blues.
The Weather were much more confrontational with the notorious Chicago Police Department than we were. We, African Americans, risked summary execution. Weather, many of them white suburban kids, some from Michigan, considered farm country by us hardy ghetto Chicagoans, were heard by us but largely ignored.
My family lived on the Southside, quite genteel in those days, and the activities of the Panthers were on the West Side, where my cousins lived on a notorious estate where you took your life in your hands just by taking the lift.
Although Fred was born on the Southside, he chose the West Side where deep poverty and racism existed. That was where he organised. He really organised. He set up truce meetings between the powerful street gangs, making them cross hostile territory to sit with him and engage. He fed kids, many of them, their only decent meal of the day.
He was a revolutionary socialist who did not engage in party wars or squabbles. He was too busy in the street to deal with centrist versus progressive. If you were willing to dish out a plate of food for a little kid, this was what mattered. Not the nuance of your theories.
We all knew that he had been assassinated by the CPD – the Chicago Police Department. Pictures from the scene of the killing somehow got out and were circulating in the community at lightning speed. Some of the Chicago newspapers showed his body being taken away by cops who could not hide their glee.
That was on a cold December morning before dawn.
Fred cannot really be compared to anyone today, the times have changed. He was a street orator, and people still do that now, but they don’t have to. So the skills, by and large, are not really there. Rap is not the same because rap’s power is largely rhythm and beat. If that is not there, you can be rapping the greatest stuff on earth. But you won’t have the flow, the real conveyor of the message.
Fred spoke, I realise now, like an old man full of years. Maybe he knew that he did not have much time.
He had been born a few months before me and so, as I say, it was difficult to realise how great and brave he was. He was only 21 when he was assassinated and now it seems impossible that he could have existed. But he did.
When the late, great Curtis Mayfield sang Freddie’s Dead, referring to a character in the movie Superfly, we all knew, in Chi-Town, to whom he was really referring.
Curtis Mayfield was from Chicago, too.
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