by Gennette Cordova
When young activist Fred Hampton began to gain popularity in his role as the deputy chairman of the national Black Panther Party and chair of the Illinois chapter, his charisma quickly made him a major target of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover expressed serious concerns about the dangers of Hampton’s rise, labeling him “the new Black Messiah.”
“A lot of people get the word revolution mixed up and they think revolution’s a bad word,” Hampton said in his speech Power Anywhere Where There’s People. “Revolution is nothing but like having a sore on your body and then you put something on that sore to cure that infection. And I’m telling you that we’re living in an infectious society right now.”
At the time this speech was delivered at Olivet Church in Chicago, Illinois, in 1969, Huey P. Newton was in jail, and Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter, Bobby Hutton, and John Huggins had already been murdered. Before the year was over, Chairman Fred Hampton would be assassinated by the FBI and the Chicago Police Department. If you examine the language and work of our radical Black leaders from the past, it becomes clear how reasonable the demands of those branded “dangerous radicals” were; how law enforcement agencies function to undermine the efforts to achieve those reasonable demands; and how much things operate in the same way today.
As they do with modern racial justice movements, those with the power to control the way revolutionary movements were perceived by the public maneuvered to frame the work of the Black Panther Party as a divisive, violent threat to society. But Fred Hampton’s words tell a different story.
“We got to face some facts. That the masses are poor, that the masses belong to what you call the lower class, and when I talk about the masses, I’m talking about the white masses, I’m talking about the black masses, and the brown masses, and the yellow masses, too,” Hampton said in the 1969 speech. As he’d done consistently, Hampton preached racial and working-class solidarity. In his condemnation of capitalism and its unyielding oppression of workers, he didn’t assign a race to the issue.
“We’ve got to face the fact that some people say you fight fire best with fire, but we say you put fire out best with water. We say you don’t fight racism with racism. We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity. We say you don’t fight capitalism with no black capitalism; you fight capitalism with socialism. … We have to understand very clearly that there’s a man in our community called a capitalist. Sometimes he’s black and sometimes he’s white. But that man has to be driven out of our community, because anybody who comes into the community to make profit off the people by exploiting them can be defined as a capitalist.”
Today, Black capitalism is celebrated, despite the fact that it’s typically an indication of even more wealth being acquired for even wealthier white people and the exploitation of workers. It becomes headline news, for instance, when a new Black celebrity joins the coveted American billionaires lists, creating the perception that Black people are advancing economically. According to the Center for American Progress, however, in 2019, “the median wealth of Black households in the US was $24,100, compared with $189,100 for white households.” Not only is a Black person becoming a billionaire not progress, but it often serves to downplay the U.S.’s intentionally manufactured Black-white wealth gap and obscure the socioeconomic realities of the Black community as a whole.
Hampton educated his audience on the ways in which police and the government, who are committed to upholding capitalism at all costs, seek to exploit the public’s lack of understanding of socialism and communism. This phenomenon, while ever-present in the U.S.’s political discourse, feels particularly present today. Adding to the insidiousness of this manipulation, he highlighted how police would use these words to engage in fearmongering around even the most benevolent of the Panthers’ work — their Free Breakfast Program. Policemen, Hampton said, would come to the free breakfast sites and quiz the women elders in the community on their affiliation with communism and socialism.
“The pigs say, ‘Well, the Breakfast For Children program is a socialistic program. It’s a communistic program.’ … Any program that’s revolutionary is an advancing program. Revolution is change. Honey, if you just keep on changing, before you know it, in fact, not even knowing what socialism is, you don’t have to know what it is, they’re endorsing it, they’re participating in it, and they’re supporting socialism.”
The Free Breakfast Program was created in direct response to poor Black children having to go to school hungry. In a 1969 U.S. Senate hearing, the National School Lunch Program administrator acknowledged that the Panthers fed more poor schoolchildren than the state of California. In spite of this, the FBI’s COINTELPRO still put resources toward neutralizing the “feed the people” initiatives.
“I’m telling you that we’re living in a sick society. And anybody that endorses integrating into this sick society before it’s cleaned up is a man who’s committing a crime against the people,” Hampton warned, in the midst of dealing with political and police tactics threatening to sabotage his efforts to unite the oppressed and care for his community.
An appraisal of the words of our Black leaders from the past, juxtaposed with how the police, politicians, and the media characterized them, provides a necessary lens through which we must view the way these forces distort and subvert the movements of today. Hampton’s speeches serve as a reminder that these strategies are part of a timeworn counterrevolutionary pattern. Champions of capitalism will keep making boogeymen of communism and socialism. Defending Black and poor communities from state violence will always be equated with terrorism. Radical work, no matter how wholesome, will continue to be viewed as a power play that must be dismantled. Yet, having this knowledge, which is a matter of public record, only strengthens the argument for revolution.
“We ain’t gonna fight no reactionary pigs who run up and down the street being reactionary,” the 20-year-old Hampton said to the crowd at Olivet Church. “We’re gonna organize and dedicate ourselves to revolutionary political power and teach ourselves the specific needs of resisting the power structure, arm ourselves, and we’re gonna fight reactionary pigs with INTERNATIONAL PROLETARIAN REVOLUTION. That’s what it has to be. The people have to have the power: it belongs to the people.”
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Gennette Cordova is a writer, organizer, and social impact manager. She contributes to publications like Teen Vogue and Revolt TV and runs an organization, Lorraine House, which seeks to build and uplift radical communities through art and activism.
📸 Featured image by Susan Fried.
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