A lot has changed in the 50 years since the predawn Chicago police raid that left two Illinois Black Panther Party leaders dead and four other members wounded.

For one, I'm a lot older now. Illinois chairman Fred Hampton, who was 21, and member Mark Clark, 22, were about the same age as I was then and were robbed of that opportunity.

I used to think that the Panthers leaders had been too paranoid when they complained that "the government" was not only tapping their phones but working actively to turn the Panthers and Chicago street gangs against each other.

After the raid and, even more, after the exposure in 1976 of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's secret COINTELPRO, counterintelligence program, I realized that the Panthers' paranoia might not have been paranoid enough.

What I saw in the Panthers, as in the Little Rock Nine, the Freedom Riders or the anti-war movement, was a bold assertion of resistance and empowerment by members of my baby boomer generation. Hoover saw something far more sinister.

We now know that Hoover sent an urgent directive in 1967 to all FBI field offices under the file name "COINTELPRO -- Black Nationalist Hate Groups" instructing "Racial Matters" agents to take aggressive and, by the way, highly illegal actions to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize the activities of black-nationalist, hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership and supporters."

On March 4, 1968, a month before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, another Hoover directive instructed "Racial Matters" agents to take COINTELPRO actions to "prevent the rise of a 'messiah' who could unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement."

If Hampton didn't fit that "messiah" description, he was on his way up. He was an eloquent speaker and an NAACP organizer in his suburban Maywood area since his early teens. Known as a unifier, he negotiated peace between gangs and built a cross-racial alliance with the Latino Young Lords Organization and the white Young Patriots.

The Illinois Panthers connected with their poor black neighbors on the South and West sides by operating a free breakfast program for children, opening a free medical clinic and by protesting police brutality, which did not please Hoover either.

Many people, like me, reacted skeptically at first to reports of the shootout, which came a few weeks after another gun battle left two Chicago officers and one Panther member dead.

But the cover story about Panthers firing back at police fell apart as more evidence turned up to contradict it. Holes from about 90 shots by police were counted later and only one possibly came from Clark's gun, which might have gone off accidentally as he fell dead. Particularly painful for the Chicago Tribune, where I worked then and now, were the "exclusive" photos of reputed bullet holes fired by Panther members that turned out to be nail heads.

"Not only was it not a shootout, it was a shoot in," attorney Flint Taylor told me. "The ratio -- more than 90 bullets from police to one -- ultimately showed that."

Taylor and his longtime law partner, Jeffrey Haas, both of whom have written books about the Panther case, co-founded the People's Law Center, which represented the Hampton and Clark families through a 13-year civil lawsuit that resulted in a $1.8 million settlement with the city.

As much as the raid brought mixed reactions in many places, it awakened a new political consciousness in Chicago's black electorate. In 1972, a record turnout of black votes unseated Cook County State's Attorney Edward Hanrahan, who was seen as the main architect of the police raid.

That same year, U.S. Rep. Ralph Metcalfe, former Olympic track star and one of the most respected politicians in town, regardless of color, turned against Mayor Richard J. Daley and the Democratic machine over the police brutality issue.

Black "anti-machine" fervor made more history in 1983 by electing another former machine pol, U.S. Rep. Harold Washington, to be the city's first African-American mayor.

And, among other breakthroughs, Bobby Rush, who replaced Hampton as chairman of the organization they co-founded, went on to be elected alderman and then congressman from Chicago's South Side. He also holds the honor of being the only politician to beat a challenge from Barack Obama, now former president.

Yet, even as political offices have become more inclusive in Chicago and elsewhere, the issues that concerned Fred Hampton and the Panthers -- health, nutrition, education and police conduct -- still are with us. So is the importance of good leaders and conscientious voters to hold them accountable.

Contact Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.

Continue Reading

on Recordnet

Featured