Truth crushed to earth will rise again
The cruelty demonstrated by the police involved in the death of George Floyd begged the question as to whether that was an example of “a few bad apples” or the revelation of a systemic reality. Out of the historic global response to that tragedy, truth tellers have been exposing a legacy of institutionalised abuse of power across the United States.
The recently released movie Judas and the Black Messiah by Shaka King fits this bill. This biodrama explores the life and murder of Fred Hampton, the inspirational leader of the Black Panther Party, in Chicago in 1969. The movie showcased at the Sundance Film Festival with positive reviews in early February and debuted in cinemas across the US and HBO Max, as well as Bermuda’s Speciality Theatre, on February 12.
One of the film’s producers, Charles King, has a Bermudian father, Winton King. Charles also produced Fences, Harriet and Just Mercy.
This opinion intends only to provide a historical context for moviegoers.
Fred Hampton died at the age of 21, having provided visionary leadership during that transformative era in the late 1960s. The Black Panther Party represented a controversial departure from the civil rights movement strategy of peaceful protest, championed by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. They leveraged the Second Amendment’s “right to bear arms” in addressing structural violence.
Dr King and Hampton seemed poles apart in their ideologies, but they shared core qualities. Dr King had moved to live temporarily in Chicago in 1966 after the 1965 riots in Watts and other cities. He had attempted to leverage the movement’s success in the South to transform metropolises. Operation Breadbasket was established to support families while employing a housing desegregation strategy.
The tactic failed when White Chicagoans reacted violently, leading Dr King to withdraw in 1967, leaving Operation Breadbasket as a legacy to be fulfilled by the Reverend Jesse Jackson.
In the wake of Dr King’s exit; Hampton successfully established food programmes for children in Chicago’s poorest sections, providing a nationwide template that mobilised the grass roots. The final year of MLK’s life, was a period that the “Drum Major” and this young Panther leader “shared a dream”.
On April 4, 1967, exactly a year before his assassination, Dr King gave a speech, Beyond Vietnam, that served as a pivot in promoting and galvanising the civil rights movement that featured mostly Blacks with the anti-Vietnam War movement, which was driven most by young White people. In that same vein, in Chicago, Hampton championed fostering collaborations across racial and other divides.
The young Panther was able to mobilise White students in the suburbs, along with Latino and other ethnic gangs, to establish the first “Rainbow Coalition”, a template later adopted by Jessie Jackson.
Chicago was the birthplace of gangs in the US and local politics was well known for its corruption, making it a breeding ground for gangs and the resultant conflict. However, Hampton was able to conciliate relations among the warring factions. This clout caused concerns amongst some quarters.
On December 4, 1969, a heavily armed squad of Chicago Police conducted a pre-dawn raid on the apartment where Panthers were sleeping. Hampton and colleague Mark Clark were killed and four others critically injured.
The immediate and false claim by State Attorney Ed Hanrahan was that there had been a shoot-out, with the Panthers first to open fire.
Hampton had nurtured close collaboration with the People’s Law Office, social justice champions. This legal co-operative of mostly White lawyers, students and supporters talked the talk and walked the walk. Their team spent ten days after Hampton’s death meticulously inspecting the crime scene and collecting evidence. Over a 13-year period, the truth was exposed; including:
• Within weeks they showed that of the 90 rounds fired in the raid, only one came from a Panther gun. They were able to expose police manufacturing forensic evidence
• The attempted murder charges against the seven surviving Panthers were dropped
• In 1970, the People’s Law Office began a civil suit on behalf of the families of Hampton and Clarke, which lasted 18 months and included inappropriate conduct by the trial judge. However, vindication came after a protracted legal effort that went all the way to the US Supreme Court. This resulted in a settlement of $1.8 million reached in 1983 — the largest for a Civil Rights case
• In 1975, the People’s Law Office took the Hampton matter to the Senate Intelligence Committee, which was chaired by Frank Church, the Democratic senator from Idaho. That committee, with evidence from various sources, ruled that there was FBI misconduct that led to the death of the two Panther leaders
MLK’s favourite quote, “truth crushed to earth will rise again” captures the reality of Fred Hampton’s inspiration over the generations.
• Glenn Fubler represents Imagine Bermuda