This is a remarkable work, a well-told tale, a true crime story, a legal and political page-turner of a thriller that is as important for us to comprehend now as it was in the sixties.
Just over forty years ago, National Lawyers Guild attorney Jeffrey Haas was in a Chicago jail interviewing Fred Hampton’s fiancée, Deborah Johnson. She was in her nightgown, pregnant, shaking, and sobbing, having barely survived the hail of eighty bullets that came into her apartment just four hours before. She had been sleeping at 4 am next to Fred Hampton, the extraordinary young leader of the Chicago Black Panthers. Johnson described to Haas how the police pulled her from the room as Hampton lay unconscious on their bed. She heard one of the officers say, “He’s still alive.” Next, two gunshots. A second officer said “He’s good and dead now.” She looked at Jeff and asked, “What can you do?”
Haas tells the story, interwoven beautifully with his own personal and political biography, of a truly amazing piece of movement lawyering. It took thirteen years of grueling litigation, including more than 37,000 hours of work, and political agitation outside the courtroom. After losing an eighteen-month trial, Haas and his colleagues—Flint Taylor, his People’s Law Office (PLO) collective, Dennis Cunningham, and Morty Stavis from the Center for Constitutional Rights—won an appeal in Federal Circuit Court in a famous civil rights decision (Hampton v. Hanrahan). They finally nailed the FBI, the Cook County State’s Attorney, Edward Hanrahan, and the Chicago police for their summary execution of the exceptionally promising—he was only twenty-one at the time—Black leader. “Who knows what he may have become, if they hadn’t killed him,” his mother, Iberia, told Haas.
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover had an idea of what Hampton might become. He was concerned, as he wrote in one directive, about “the rise of a new black Messiah.” Martin Luther King and Malcolm X had already been murdered. Haas and Taylor uncovered the story of how the government killed Hampton, and made the government admit its guilt by winning a wrongful-death settlement for Hampton’s parents. The feat is especially remarkable, considering that Haas was barely out of the University of Chicago Law School when he undertook to represent the family, and Taylor was still a law student at Northwestern. Their law collective had no resources to speak of against a government whose litigation fund was unlimited.
Even at twenty-one, Fred Hampton was an accomplished person. He worked a factory job and saved money to pay his college tuition. Like Malcolm, he wanted to be a lawyer. Hampton studied Malcolm’s speeches and was, by all accounts, a master orator. While in high school, he founded a youth chapter of the NAACP. When he turned eighteen in 1966, he refused to register for the draft, the same year that Muhammad Ali refused to be inducted. Hampton was well-read, rising at least two hours before facing the day to read Marcus Garvey, Che Guevara, Malcolm X, Mao, Marx, Lenin, and DuBois. Like them, he understood that “a revolution is a class struggle. It was one class—the oppressed—versus those other classes—the oppressor.” Indeed it was this sort of radicalism—the advocacy of Black Power and socialism—that made him dangerous. And Hoover knew it. Black Power for Hampton, as Haas observes, was “not a tool to attack whites, but…a concept to bring blacks together and build their confidence.”
Hampton was targeted by the police and arrested several times on technical traffic violations. After being arrested for “mob action,” he was put on the FBI’s Key Agitator Index, a group Hoover ordered agents to monitor closely. The NAACP gave only lukewarm support to Hampton. Meanwhile, the radical program of the Black Panthers in Oakland, California, had caught Hampton’s’s attention.
His mother, Iberia, a factory worker and union activist, was upset when he became a Panther. She thought the rhetoric of the Panthers was provocative and might get him killed. Fred himself said, “You kill one pig, you get some satisfaction, you kill all the pigs, you get complete satisfaction.” Haas recalls, “The rhetoric that energized the Panthers was often the same rhetoric that the police used to justify attacks on them.”
The murderous raid on Hampton’s apartment was ostensibly performed to exercise a warrant in search of weapons. Fred’s bodyguard was actually a police informer, a provocateur who urged the Panthers to do illegal acts and got them guns. Hampton’s bodyguard drew up a floor plan of the apartment, including where Hampton slept, so the police knew exactly where to find him. A second autopsy, performed at the request of Haas’s team, showed that the two gunshot wounds to Fred’s head were fired at a downward angle at close range. It also showed he had been drugged with barbiturates, which accounts for the fact that he was unable to rouse himself when the police shooting started.
Most Black people in Chicago were horrified by the killing. To them, it was a police assassination, and they remained active in supporting the exposure of the crime. The People’s Law Office worked with the Black community and presented the case in a political, not only a legal, framework. They put the state on trial. This public approach became critical in determining how the PLO would represent the movement and victims of police and official misconduct in the future. Today, forty years later, the firm is suing and scandalizing the police for torturing and extracting false confessions from more than 100 Black men in a South Side police station. The current mayor, Daley’s son, was involved in the cover-up.
Jeff Haas left the firm a few years ago in order to write this book. He writes, “Like others who heard Malcolm X, Dr. King, and Fred Hampton speak in the 1960s, I learned that fighting injustice and inequality is the struggle of our lives, and perseverance in this struggle is what makes our lives valuable.”