Judas and the Black Messiah Remembers Fred Hampton Was a Man of His Words

Judas and the Black Messiah reminds us that Fred Hampton’s words had greater power than the violence that tried to silence him.

Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton giving a speech in Judas and the Black Messiah
Photo: Warner Bros.

This article contains Judas and the Black Messiah spoilers.

Early on in Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) meets with a Chicago gang called the Crowns–they’re an amalgamation of several community action groups who rose from the turf battles of the street to become protectors in their neighborhoods. In that pivotal scene, a man named Steel (Khris Davis), an obviously charismatic leader of the South Side’s urban militia, says Hampton is “the great orator of the West Side.” And while Hampton’s “million-dollar words” don’t coalesce into a merger that day, both sides appreciate what they hear.

This moment, which perhaps plays against expectation for some audiences and the FBI spying in, is a reminder that active listening is one of the greatest tools of acting. It is both a talent and a skill. Kaluuya is so gifted at this, it would not be surprising to find out he could hear the sounds of an enraptured, viewing public while the movie was still in production. His Hampton can captivate a room, a city, and a country.

But even as the movie’s Hampton speaks, he takes in all the ambient noise in the hall; and he translates the atmosphere into sonic attacks and subtle invitations to the listener. The real Hampton did this all his life. He was a great activist because he actively heard the needs of everyone he encountered. “Power anywhere where there’s people,” Hampton said in his 1969 speech at Olivet Church.

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Hampton was far from tone deaf and always had the perfect pitch. Hence a similar scene where he walks into what looks like a white nationalist meeting, with Confederate flags front and center, and confronts them with echoes of their own complaints. Hampton really did hear everyone. He heard every word, and articulated many more which begged expression. It’s how he brought people together, like when he and the Black Panthers stood in solidarity in 1969 with the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Young Lords, a former Puerto Rican street gang transformed into a human rights organization. The coalition convened over Vietnam War concerns, the railroading of the eight people accused of conspiracy to cause a riot during the Democratic National Convention (later known as the Chicago Seven), and independence for Puerto Rico.

As Hampton’s future fiancée Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), says in the film, Hampton was a poet, albeit one she was surprised to discover was “shy.” But there was nothing shy about his demand for more than small gestures from the establishment. 

“We’re gonna have to do more than talk,” Hampton can be heard saying in the 1971 documentary film, The Murder of Fred Hampton. “We’re gonna have to do more than listen. We’re gonna have to do more than learn.” Every proclamation in Hampton’s speeches also asks a question, every call-and-response line begs further examination. The first time Hampton declares “I am a revolutionary,” we take him at his word. As it continues, we are forced to deal with how, why, and what it means to be a revolutionary. Ultimately, it all comes back to just who is this revolutionary?

“If you walk through life and don’t help anybody, you haven’t had much of a life.

Frederick Allen Hampton was born on Aug. 30, 1948. According to most sources, he was born in Chicago, or its suburb Argo, Illinois. Up Against the Wall: Violence in the Making and Unmaking of the Black Panther Party, by Curtis J. Austin, says he was born in Shreveport, Louisiana. The Hampton family was friendly with the family of Emmett Till, who was 14 years old when he was savagely beaten and lynched in Mississippi in 1955. Till had been accused of offending a white woman four days earlier.

Hampton’s family moved to the suburb of Maywood when Hampton was 10. “I was born in a bourgeois community and had some of the better things in life,” Hampton says in The Murder of Fred Hampton. “But I found that there were more people starving than there were people eating, more people that didn’t have clothes than did have clothes, and I just happened to be one of the few. So I decided that I wouldn’t stop doing what I’m doing until all those people are free.”

Before graduating with honors in 1966, Hampton led the Interracial Committee at Proviso East High School. He protested and changed the school’s policy of nominating only white girls for homecoming queen. He also earned three varsity letters, running cross country and track. Though his dream may have been playing baseball for the New York Yankees, Hampton enrolled as a pre-law student at Triton Junior College. He also attended Crane Junior College, a short time after it was renamed Malcolm X College. While attending the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, Hampton led the Youth Council of the NAACP’s West Suburban chapter. Membership swelled by 500 during his time. In 1967, Hampton was arrested for demonstrating for a community pool in Maywood.

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“We’re not metaphysicians, we’re not idealists, we’re dialectical materialists.”

Bobby Seale and Huey Newton formed the Black Panther Party in Oakland, California in October 1966 to protect local communities from police brutality and racism. The Party ran medical clinics and provided free food to school children. Along with members Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Bobby Hutton, and Eldridge Cleaver, the Black Panthers developed into a Marxist revolutionary group. They first publicized its original Ten-Point program on May 15, 1967.

Hampton helped found the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party in November 1968. At the time, Chicago was a segregated city. It was still recovering from the violence of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Rioting had also followed the April 4, 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who had led the Chicago Freedom Movement, which protested racist housing practices. Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley ordered police to shoot to kill suspected arsonists.

As chairman of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party, Hampton’s first order of business was to establish a community service program, known as “Survival Programs.” These included the Free Breakfast for Children program and a medical clinic that did not charge patients for treatment. The People’s Medical Care Center in North Lawndale was the first area clinic to offer testing for sickle cell anemia. Hampton also taught political education classes.

Some viewers may find some of the Marxist rhetoric in Judas and the Black Messiah excessive, but the screenplay by King and co-writer Will Berson actually toned it down. Hampton’s speeches are explicitly anti-capitalist. His title was “chairman” and he quoted Mao Tse-tung. “All power to the people” was not just a slogan, it was a calling.

“I am the people, I’m not the pig,” Hampton said. “You got to make a distinction. And the people are going to have to attack the pigs. The people are going to have to stand up against the pigs.”

Hampton also instigated projects to help the community contain overzealous policing. The Black Panther Party also recognized the necessity of firearms and trained with a military discipline.

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“People have to be armed to have power, you see,” Hampton explained in speeches. The cops and the Panthers ultimately engaged in eight gun battles nationally, four in Chicago, including a November 1969 shootout that left 19-year-old Party member Spurgeon “Jake” Winters and two police officers dead. Shortly after, under the headline “No quarter for wild beasts,” the Chicago Tribune wrote the Black Panthers “have declared war on society” and “forfeited the right considerations ordinary violators of the law might claim.” The Black Panther Party headquarters on West Monroe Street was raided three times, and over 100 members were arrested in 1969.

“You don’t fight racism with racism. We’re gonna fight racism with solidarity.”

The founding members of the Black Panthers began building the movement multiracially through the Peace and Freedom Party. Billy “Che” Brooks, the Deputy Minister of Education for the Illinois Black Panther Party, credits Hampton with brokering an unprecedented partnership between poor urban dwellers and blue-collar workers from the countryside. In May 1969, Hampton held a press conference where he announced a nonaggression pact between Chicago gangs and the formation of what he called a “rainbow coalition.”

Also called the “poor people’s army,” the collaboration began in February 1969 when Hampton visited Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood to meet José “Cha-Cha” Jimenez, the leader of the Young Lords. The Young Lords began as a Puerto Rican street gang in 1960, but declared themselves a civil rights organization in 1968. They had shut themselves in the 18th District police station to protest the ongoing police harassment of Latin residents. The city’s police commander and the media were also locked in during the protest.

Building on the work of Chicago militant youth organization Rising Up Angry, Hampton also reached out to the Young Patriots. Led by William “Preacherman” Fesperman, it was a street organization of white youths whose parents and grandparents migrated from Appalachia looking for work and settled into their own slum. Hampton brought the leather jacketed, beret-wearing Black Panthers together with young nationalists who wore Confederate Flags on their jean jackets. It’s no wonder FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, played by Martin Sheen in Judas and the Black Messiah, was afraid that the “rise of a messiah that would unify and electrify the militant nationalist movement.”

Believing the Black Panther Party was “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country,” according to Curt Gentry’s book J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and His Secrets, Hoover formed the Bureau’s counterintelligence program, known as COINTELPRO. Its aim was to discredit and undermine radical groups, with a particular emphasis on Black leaders. Hampton’s name was added to the FBI’s Agitator Index two weeks before his death.

Local law enforcement also pursued Hampton. Judas and the Black Messiah highlights Hampton’s conviction for stealing $71 worth of ice cream, which he allegedly gave away to local children. Hampton was sentenced to two to five years in prison. The conviction was eventually overturned, but police harassment continued. The arrest wasn’t the first. In January 1969, Hampton was arrested on an old traffic warrant while appearing on television.

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“You can kill a revolutionary but you can never kill the revolution.”

By late 1969, many top Black Panther Party members had been killed, jailed, or left the U.S. Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale faced criminal charges, Hampton was elevated to national spokesman for the party. “You might run a liberator like Eldridge Cleaver out of the country,” Hampton said in a press conference during the Chicago 7 trial. “But you can’t run liberation out of the country. You might murder a freedom fighter like Bobby Hutton, but you can’t murder freedom fighting.”

The “Massacre on Monroe,” as the raid on Hampton’s apartment was labeled by the Panthers, began at approximately 4:45 a.m. on Dec. 4, 1969 when about a dozen police officers executed a search warrant for illegal weapons inside the West Side apartment Hampton shared with several fellow Black Panthers. A layout of Hampton’s apartment had been provided by William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield in the movie), an informant who had been groomed by the FBI to infiltrate the Panthers after a teenage career in petty crime. Played by Stanfield, he is the “Judas” in the movie’s title. Rising to the upper echelons of the Chicago faction’s inner circle, O’Neal had also allegedly dosed Hampton with barbiturates.

According to the Jeffrey Haas’ book, The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther, Hampton’s fiancée, who is now named Akua Njeri, recalled Hampton had been working late into the night and drifted off to sleep while talking on the phone in bed. When the raid began, Mark Clark, who organized a Peoria chapter of the Party, was on security duty at the front door of the apartment. He was shot in the heart as the cops stormed the room. As his body fell, he fired once from the shotgun on his lap. Njeri, who was then pregnant with Hampton’s son, had been sleeping in bed next to Hampton when the police began shooting into the apartment. Njeri said Panthers tried to wake Hampton, but he remained unconscious amidst the smell of gunpowder and the five-minute barrage of bullets.

The cops headed to Hampton’s bedroom and fired at the bed, striking Hampton but missing Njeri. The shooting broke when a Panther yelled that Njeri was nine months pregnant. She was thrown into the kitchen, as officers entered the bedroom. Njeri later stated she heard one officer ask, “Is he still alive?” before hearing two gunshots fired. “When it stopped another voice unfamiliar to me said, ‘He’s good and dead now,’” she recalled, according to The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther.

The police found no illegal weapons during the raid. The seven Panthers who survived, four of them wounded, were arrested for aggravated assault and attempted murder. The deaths of Hampton and Clark were ruled justifiable homicides. Police said the killings were in self-defense, the Black Panthers fired the first shots, and they had been responding to gunfire. Njeri, who would give birth to Fred Hampton Jr. weeks later, was charged with attempted murder and aggravated assault along with other Panthers, and held on $100,000 bond.

Illinois Black Panthers Defense Minister Bobby Rush went underground after the raid. After learning the cops were looking for him, he found refuge at a Catholic church on the South Side and in an apartment attic in the Gold Coast section of the city. He turned himself over to the authorities at a church service presided over by the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson. Today, Rush is a Democratic congressman from Chicago.

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The raid was directed by Cook County state’s attorney Edward Hanrahan. “The immediate, violent, criminal reaction of the occupants in shooting at announced police officers emphasizes the extreme viciousness of the Black Panther Party,” Hanrahan said in a statement after the shooting. Hanrahan told the Chicago Tribune he and his officers had no idea Hampton or Clark were in the apartment. The paper ran exclusive photos which purported to show holes from bullets fired by Black Panther members.

The Chicago Daily News countered the police reports on Dec. 10, reporting “Without warning, the detectives began firing toward mattresses near the southeast corner of the living room of the apartment, the eyewitnesses said. Clark was killed in the volley.” Hampton was shot “while still in his bed.” The Sun-Times hit Page One with news that the photos released by Hanrahan’s office were nail heads.

Police staged a filmed reenactment of the raid, which was broadcast on WBBM-TV. The apartment where the shooting happened was not sealed off by officials, and the Black Panthers conducted tours to show evidence that police did most of the shooting. Columnist Mike Royko of The Daily News reported that, after inspecting the apartment “more than once,” the claim that police were fired on by the Black Panthers “doesn’t mesh with the condition of the place.”

Charges against the Black Panthers who’d survived the raid were dismissed in 1970 after Hanrahan conceded ballistic tests and forensic issues undermined the state’s case. A federal grand jury investigation found police fired 82 to 99 times. Only one shot was fired from someone inside the apartment: Clark, who fired off a shot from his lap after being shot in the heart. Hanrahan was indicted along with 13 others on charges that they attempted to prevent the prosecution of police officers for their role in the raid. Hanrahan and the others were acquitted by a Cook County judge in late October. Hanrahan was voted out of office in 1972.

“They talked us into buying candy bars and throwing the candy away and eating the wrapper.”

The Hampton and Clark families were represented by Flint Taylor of the People’s Law Office. The $47 million lawsuit was the longest civil rights trial in federal court at the time. After 13 years of litigation, the legal team helped expose the FBI’s secret COINTELPRO program. The People’s Law Office filed numerous motions with Judge Parry requesting all FBI files relating to the Illinois Panthers and COINTELPRO.

While most attempts were blocked, the few documents which were made available showed the drawing of the floor plan of Hampton’s apartment made by O’Neal. This exposed him as a paid informant because the FBI gave him a special bonus to thank him for providing the diagram. A separate document outlined a deal between the FBI and U.S. deputy attorney general Richard Kleindienst to conceal the existence of COINTELPRO, according to “The Black Panthers and the Assassination of Fred Hampton,” by Hans Bennett.  Another document showed the FBI made a deal with deputy attorney general Jerris Leonard, who led the 1970 federal grand jury investigation.

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In 1975, a U.S. Senate Committee chaired by Senator Frank Church found the COINTELPRO Program was bent on destroying the Black Panther Party and its leadership. In 1983, the same year Harold Washington was elected the first Black mayor of Chicago, a settlement was reached for the city of Chicago, Cook County and the federal government to pay $1.85 million to survivors of the raid and to Hampton’s and Clark’s families. The ruling stated the government conspired against the Black Panther Party and violated the civil rights of the plaintiffs.

More than 5,000 people attended Hampton’s funeral at First Baptist Church of Melrose Park on Dec. 9, 1969. Reverend Jesse Jackson, who would resurrect the Rainbow Coalition, delivered one of the eulogies. The Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party dubbed Dec. 9 “International Revolutionary Day.” They hold a vigil at the site of the police raid, 2337 W. Monroe St., “ground zero” for the struggle for black liberation, to memorialize the anniversary of the deaths. The apartment is not the same. The building where police killed Hampton and Clark has been torn down.

The Legacy of Fred Hampton

“I believe I’m going to die doing the things I was born to do,” Hampton is quoted as saying in Judas and the Black Messiah. “I believe I’m going to die high off the people. I believe I’m going to die a revolutionary in the international revolutionary proletarian struggle.” Hampton died three months after his 21st birthday, his fiancée was only eighteen. Fred Hampton Jr., the son of the martyred Black Panther leader, continues his father’s works by serving the community and people through the Black Panther Party Cubs, an international organization.

The original 10 points of The Black Panthers’ “What We Want Now!” demands included land, bread, decent housing, education, full employment, clothing, justice and peace. The desire for “the power to determine the destiny of the Black Community” was declared radical at the time. The call for “an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of Black people” is still stifled by the choke hold of reactionary resistance.

Hampton heard that call long before he became a statistic of it. Those cries continue into the 21st century from Willie Ray Banks through Eric Garner and George Floyd. The death of Sandra Bland resulted in a Day of Rage in 2015. Chicago underwent three “Days of Rage” in October 1969 over similar abuses.

Fred Hampton’s words inflicted deeper wounds than the  bullets used to silence him. In his life, he was a regular voice on news broadcasts. He brought revolutionary socialist policies to national TV. Pro-police groups consistently resist community efforts to portray Hampton as a martyr because they regard the Black Panthers as a militant organization that killed police. Following in the footsteps of Malcolm X, Black Panthers equated self-defense with common sense, acting as if Black lives mattered.

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Hampton was a man of his words, actively listening to the needs of the people and delivering on the promises he could keep. His actions were loud, and still reverberate on the streets, classrooms, clinics and the halls of justice. His example continues to inspire the fight against the excesses of the police, but Hampton might see himself as an amplifier.

He gave volume to sounds society was deaf to. He gave them voice and his words were ammunition. He took the silencers off the weapons of self-determination.  “When I leave, you’ll remember I said, with the last words on my lips, that I am a revolutionary,” Hampton said. “And you’re going to have to keep on saying that. You’re going to have to say that I am a proletariat, I am the people.”

We hear you. 

Judas and the Black Messiah opens in theaters and premieres on HBO Max on Feb. 12.