Today's youth can learn something from Black Panther leader's
September 6, 2009
BY MARY MITCHELL
Sometimes, I get up at the crack of dawn and walk my dog, Smoochie,
at a neighborhood park.
There's a swimming pool there dedicated to the slain Black Panther
leader Fred Hampton, as well as a bust.
I must admit that I haven't spent much time reflecting on the legacy
of a young man who was killed at age 21.
Like too many of us, I'm almost desensitized to the deaths of young black men.
But it just so happened that, on Friday, an envelope containing a
38-page booklet about Hampton's life -- published in 1994 to
commemorate the 25th anniversary of his slaying -- landed on my desk.
Once I began reading the testimonials from people who knew Hampton, I
couldn't put the book down.
Hampton was killed by officers from the Cook County state's
attorney's office and the Chicago Police Department in a botched raid
on the Black Panther Party headquarters nearly 40 years ago.
He stood up for disadvantaged
People in Chicago are still so divided over Hampton that, a couple of
years ago, efforts to erect a street sign in his honor caused an uproar.
Hampton will always be remembered by some for advocating violence.
But for many others -- those who benefitted from his courage -- he
will always be remembered for giving hungry children a hot breakfast.
Or for opening a free walk-in health clinic on the West Side.
Or for trying to open a swimming pool, so poor black children could
get relief from the heat.
Or for being a bold advocate for justice.
A positive voice for youth
Like Malcolm X, Hampton scared a lot of people because he wasn't
willing to sit and wait for the times to change.
He tried to be the change.
"He embarrassed blacks who didn't have the courage to stand up,"
wrote Ron Burke, a community activist, adviser and friend.
You might think that a harsh pronouncement. But take a look at the
streets where Hampton did most of his work, and compare what's going
on now with what was going on then.
Gerald Lyles, a childhood friend, described an incident that happened
shortly after Hampton opened the Chicago Chapter of the Black Panther
Party offices at 230 W. Madison.
"We were standing on the outside landing talking when a young kid
about 10 or 11 at the oldest, came up. It was raining very hard. You
could smell the rain-soaked, oversized, ragged wool coat which the
child had wrapped around him.
"The child said to Fred, 'I want to join.' He then opened up his coat
and showed a gun.
"Fred said: 'Little brother, you don't need that.'
"He showed the boy into the headquarters and took the gun away from
the child. Now, we have children running around with guns, shooting
up dope and no one like Fred is trying to take away the guns."
Four decades have passed, and no one has filled the void left by
On the same streets where Hampton toiled and young, gun-toting
brothers have caused such havoc, four West Side aldermen are pushing
for stiffer penalties for gun offenses. Ike Carothers (29th), Sharon
Dixon (24th), Ed Smith (28th) and Emma Mitts (37th) are backing a
measure that would make getting caught with a weapon in Chicago a
mandatory jail sentence.
"Based on the numbers of shootings and maimings that we have seen out
here in the Austin community, we want to send a message that it is
not OK to carry a gun," said Carothers.
Hampton once said: "Why don't you live for the people? Why don't you
struggle for the people? Why don't you die for the people?"
Who'll pick up the torch?
Today, young black men are dying for absolutely nothing. And that
speaks to what is perhaps the biggest failure of my generation.
Many of us did an poor job of passing on the spirit of men like Hampton.
"We are trying to keep his memory alive and show the positive part of
him," his brother, Bill Hampton, told me.
"He was about feeding people, clothing people and providing health
care. Those are the things he fought for."
After reading the words of people who knew Hampton best, I'm sure my
morning walks will have greater meaning.
This year's 40th anniversary celebration of Hampton's life will take
place over three days, beginning Sept. 11. For information, please
contact Bill Hampton at (708) 681-0025.