By Michael G. Glab
— Forty-one —
As far as Anthony Pontone is concerned, there’s one last glimmer of hope that this whole Changing The World business just might be worth all the killings and clubbings of the last year and a half. There’s a guy on the West Side — a kid, really — who has the magic. He’s getting people excited and he’s getting things done. He’s serious and he has energy to burn. His name is Fred Hampton.
Anthony has done a few stories in The Seed about the Black Panther Party’s Breakfast for Children Program that’s filling the empty bellies of a lot of poor black West Side kids. That’s how he met Hampton.
Here’s what Anthony has learned about Fred Hampton: He began making noise in the mid-60s at Proviso East High School out in Maywood, just a couple of miles west of the city limits. He earned varsity letters in football, baseball, and basketball. He won a Junior Achievement Award in 1966. He was tall and handsome — he even had dimples — and the sound of his voice could make a girl or a crowd swoon. He could have been “one of the good ones.”
But in addition to his physical prowess and magnetic personality, he had a keen eye for injustice. He looked around the slums of suburban Maywood and saw hunger and idleness, poverty and police brutality. As a high school junior, he came to the conclusion that nobody was going to help his black brothers and sisters climb out of the shithole. LBJ’s War on Poverty and Great Society were sops thrown out to keep The People quiet. The federal government wasn’t going to be our savior, Hampton told Anthony in an interview. They talk to us about pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps. Bootstraps — bullshit.
Hampton had learned early on that the only straps The Man had in mind would be used to lash the backs of those who couldn’t keep their mouths shut. Try as he might, Fred Hampton couldn’t keep his mouth shut.
He began organizing fellow Proviso East students. They demanded at first that more black teachers be hired. Then he expanded their range. There should be more black members of the town school board. Oh, and none of this Negro or Afro-American shit. We are black.
Black is beautiful. That was Hampton’s message as he criss-crossed Maywood. He led the effort to set up a Black Cultural Center in the town complete with a black history gallery. Black, baby. Black is the word.
As Anthony took his notes and did his research, he found himself, like Proviso East’s girls and the growing crowds who attended Hampton’s speeches, swooning.
Two years ago, in the fall of 1967, Hampton led a crowd of dozens of young blacks to Maywood’s city hall. They were going to demand that the town build a swimming pool and recreation center for its kids, things surrounding towns had been doing for years. But those towns, Hampton noted, were white. Why, he reasoned, can’t black kids go for a swim?
Hampton and a few others strode into the council chambers but the rest of the crowd was barred from entering by Maywood cops. There weren’t enough seats for everybody, Hampton was told. Fine, Hampton responded, we’ll stand.
Can’t do it, the cops said.
Then move the meeting to a bigger place, Hampton said.
Ha ha, the cops said.
The crowd began to stir. The cops got edgy. Someone got the bright idea to break up the crowd using tear gas. That broke them up, alright. They began racing down Maywood’s commercial strip, Fifth Avenue, breaking store windows and rocking the cars of passing motorists. Just like that, Maywood had its first riot.
Hampton was arrested and charged with mob action. News of the arrest made its way to Washington, D.C. where J. Edgar Hoover ordered his name added to the FBI’s master list of Key Agitators.
A year ago, Bobby Rush, the founder of the brand new Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers, told Hampton the Panthers needed him. Hampton did not hesitate, he jumped right into the West Side fray. Hampton brought his peculiar energy and organizational skills to the Panthers. In addition to the Breakfast program, the Party started free law and health clinics. Hampton and Rush traveled from one end of the West Side to the other, exhorting growing crowds with speeches about black self-determination. They put out their own newspaper and began a campaign that called for — whoa! wait a minute here! — community control of the police.
One day Hampton demanded a hapless Good Humor man pass out all the ice cream he had in his cooler to some neighborhood kids. The Good Humor Man would tell the cops Hampton had stuck a pistol in his ribs. Hampton was quickly arrested, the cops treating him as if he’d blown up the U.S. Capitol and a church for good measure. The Chicago Police had already been briefed by Hoover’s local agents. Get ‘im, the agents urged the cops.
But if they were going to get ‘im, the cops learned quickly, they’d better run fast. Hampton flitted all over the city, trying to raise money for the Breakfast program, urging pregnant mothers to visit one of the Panthers’ free clinics, and even brokering a peace between the warring Blackstone Rangers and Eastside Disciples. Hampton had brought together the SDS, a Communist youth organization or two, a half dozen black and Puerto Rican street gangs, and the Panthers. He said that turf wars and rivalries only played into the hands of The Man, keeping minority youth in a state of perpetual poverty. In May, Hampton held a press conference, declaring a new force in the city of Chicago — a “rainbow coalition,” in his words — comprised of thousands of young people, some of whom were not averse to packing heat. By the summer of 1969, Fred Hampton himself had become a force.
Anthony learned all this and one more thing: Everybody calls Fred Hampton “The Chairman” now.
J. Edgar Hoover thought himself a lucky man after Martin Luther King Jr. was disposed of, but his good fortune was short lived. Right now, he might wish he had King back on his hands rather than this new kid. Here’s a kid so brazen that he comes right out says he’s a Commie rat! Talks about greedy pigs and this proletariat garbage and revolution.
At least King had the good sense to conceal his nefarious agenda. Civil rights? Bah. The burrhead was pink.
But this Hampton kid, he’s red through and through. What makes it even worse is he and his cohorts are armed. Hoover’s men entered into Hampton’s FBI file an interview he’d granted to the Sun-Times. “What this country has done to non-violent leaders like Martin Luther King — I think that objectively says there’s going to have to be an armed struggle,” Hampton told the reporter.
Oh, This Holy Land is in mortal peril. The gorillas are coming in from the jungle. Never has J. Edgar Hoover been so desperately needed by good Americans. This is the culmination of all his work these last fifty years. Thin blue line? Please. There’s no line standing between civilization and the wild. There’s only me. Lord in heaven, my sacred duty is before me. I will not fail you nor the good white Christians of the United States of America.
In February, the Director sent the word to his Chicago field office: infiltrate. Get someone inside that local Black Panther chapter, right now. Break up those bastards and put a stop to all those “serve the people” programs.
So the Chicago Special Agents turned up a petty thief named Otis Bryant in Cook County Jail. He wanted to get out in the worst way and the FBI was only too happy to accommodate him. All he had to do in return was go to the West Side and join the Black Panther Party.
By November, Chicago’s cops had raided Panther offices and hangouts three separate times, arresting more than a hundred gorillas. In one of the raids, in July, the cops ransacked the Panther headquarters, destroying office supplies, food cartons for the Breakfast program, and medical supplies for the free clinics. They set some small fires and beat the hell out of the Panthers they’d caught in the office. That summer shootouts between the cops and the Panthers almost became commonplace, with two dozen killed or wounded. Otis Bryant had provided his FBI handlers with invaluable inside information, which they’d passed on to the Chicago police, leading to the raids and shootouts. One problem: The cops had not yet been able to put the squeeze on Fred Hampton.
Bryant enjoyed his work. He was good at it. He rose within the Panther hierarchy. He made a lot of suggestions, some of which seemed a tad strange — like his proposal that the Panthers procure a shoulder-mounted missile launcher and aim it at the fifth floor of City Hall, the location of the mayor’s office. The rest of the Panthers laughed at this one even though Bryant was dead serious. He also suggested that the Chairman was in mortal danger from the Pigs and would need constant protection. Bryant suggested the Chairman have a 24-hour bodyguard. That was a good idea. So good that everybody agreed the bodyguard should be none other than one Otis Bryant.
Just before Thanksgiving, Bryant met with his FBI handler to collect his monthly stipend. He stuck out his right hand and clasped the thick roll of cash. With his left hand he passed along a detailed map of the apartment Fred Hampton now lived in on West Monroe Street. He’d drawn it carefully in pencil, taking special care to to indicate exactly where the Chairman’s bedroom was, even noting precisely how many inches from the door his bed was.
To be continued
All fictional characters, descriptions, and situations are the property of the author.