The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and Chicago Police Murdered A Black Panther

By Jeffrey Haas
Lawrence Hill Books (2009)

Reviewed by Ernesto Aguilar




Among some circles, Fred Hampton is a luminary without peers. Though new generations may only catch his reference in a song, his legacy in Chicago and to the Black liberation movement is without question. The charismatic Black Panther Party chapter leader demonstrated a natural gift for reaching people, and marshaled young people into political action for the first time. His brutal murder — in which Chicago police, after wounding him as he slept, delivered two rounds to the head, killing him — horrified the world. He was just 21 years old.

The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and Chicago Police Murdered A Black Panther is the account of attorney Jeff Haas’ fight to ensure justice for the families of Hampton and Mark Clark, killed in the police raid spun by authorities at the time as repelling a Panther attack. It is also a chilling chronicle of the depths authorities will sink to silence dissent and to cover it up.

Haas and three other lawyers set up the People’s Law Office in 1969, and he defended many social justice activists since then. The Hampton case, however, drove Haas. It dragged on for years, facing defeats along the way, until a settlement. The book is as much about the commitment of scores of people, who poured in their time and energies to see that justice was done, as it is the quest to hold the police officers and establishment involved accountable.

Subsequent investigations of Fred Hampton’s murder would reveal involvement by a Federal Bureau of Investigation informant and collaboration with local police that resulted in the organizer’s assassination. Few knew it at the time, but what occurred would be shown to be part of a sophisticated federal effort, labeled COINTELPRO, aimed at disrupting, demoralizing, dividing and exterminating Black activism primarily among social justice tendencies. It wasn’t until activists burglarized a Pennsylvania FBI office and released documents in 1971 that COINTELPRO was exposed. Operative William O’Neal, working through the bureau’s Racial Matters unit, provided key information just hours before the murder. His work, and the war the FBI waged on Black revolutionaries, figures prominently in the book.

Those familiar with writings that trace legal trajectories will find The Assassination of Fred Hampton cuts a familiar path, yet one that takes on a particular heft given the case. The final days of Hampton’s life is imparted, but it is the excruciating detail with which the murder is told that is where Haas’ legal background brings the story out. Culled from volumes of testimony, research, released documents and other sources, Haas compares what happened with conflicting police testimony and justifications. His writing presents a penetrating image of law enforcement bent on protecting its own, even if some recognized the fault in their actions. Indirectly, the book shows the determination of the Hampton and Clark families as well as the legal team to counter the coverup in court and in the community.

Though contemporary political movements in the United States have few comparisons quite like the Fred Hampton case in terms of severity today, Haas’ book is a primer on how a movement can challenge official misconduct through a diversity of efforts. The Assassination of Fred Hampton stands out, just as Hampton himself did all those years ago.