‘My father was the ‘Black Messiah’, murdered before I was born – I’ve spent a lifetime getting to know him’

·7-min read
Chairman Fred Hampton speaking at a rally outside the US Courthouse in Chicago - ESK/AP
Chairman Fred Hampton speaking at a rally outside the US Courthouse in Chicago - ESK/AP

Before Chairman Fred Hampton Jr tells me why he doesn’t romanticise being born into political activism, he momentarily stops and says to tell him if he starts speaking too fast. As the son of the Illinois Black Panther Party leader Chairman Fred Hampton, his Chicago accent carries the same reverberations as his father – and as anyone who has watched Shaka King’s new film, Judas and the Black Messiah, knows, you have to pay attention to his words to catch them all.

“I feel fortunate to have fallen from the tree of two freedom fighters,” he says after catching his breath, “but the climate I grew up in was a period of defeat for organisations like the Black Panther Party.”

On December 29, 1969, Hampton was born with the name Alfred Johnson, but his mother, Akua Njeri, had it legally changed when he was 10. Four weeks before he arrived into the world, police stormed the rear bedroom of his parents’ apartment on West Monroe Street, and shot and killed his father as he slept next to his heavily pregnant fiancée.

The murder of Chairman Fred, at 21, was facilitated by William O’Neal, a petty car thief turned FBI informant, who leaked information to police, and spiked his drink with a sedative on the evening before the dawn attack. King’s film is an attempt to explain the impact this betrayal and murder had on the Black Panther movement.

Over the years. Hampton and his mother have turned down many projects, books and films that would have “co-opted” his father’s legacy and gone “against the grain”. For this project though, he says: “We pretty much had a dream team, from the scriptwriters to the cast. But there were some contradictions and narratives that came with the perspective chosen for the film about the vicinity O’Neal had to my father. He wasn’t his bodyguard... even down to the wardrobe, there was a scene where Chairman Fred had some stars on his beret and we had to get that removed.”

British actor Daniel Kaluuya was chosen to play the radical and charismatic leader and Hampton was consulted on the film with his mother. Before they gave their blessing, they invited Kaluuya, Dominique Fishback who plays Njeri, King and the producers to their home in Chicago. The meeting lasted for about seven hours, and Hampton was impressed by how much respect Kaluuya had for the role he was about to take on.

Still, watching the father he never knew being portrayed and murdered in what was to be dubbed “the massacre on Monroe” was “definitely uncomfortable”. But important. “His legacy was more than his life; it’s like a piece of fine china that everyone can eat from and pass down to generations,” he says.

Growing up on the south side of Chicago, Hampton lived in the shadow of his father’s ‘freedom fighter’ legend. He sought out information about the Black Panthers to push back against any negative stories he would hear at school about the movement being a bunch of thugs who just wanted to kill white people.

He says his mother spoke to him daily about his father’s courage. “When I first saw video footage of him speaking, I used to try and hold my hands down as I noticed how we both spoke with our hands,” he says. “Raising an orphaned horse is difficult, because you have no idea about the simple things, such as trotting or walking when someone is physically taken away from you.”

Njeri, a poet and activist, has spoken about the “persistent and lingering” guilt she has carried “for a long time” since her partner was assassinated, while she survived. But “I used to say that if I gave up, the ghost of Chairman Fred would haunt me to this day,” she told ABC News. “Because we’re still not free. Power to the people has not become a reality.”

Apart from penning a book, My Life with the Black Panther Party, in 1991, Njeri has served as the chairperson of the December 4th Committee, which fights to defend and maintain the legacy of the Black Panther Party, and was president of the National People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement, an interracial organisation dedicated to self-determination for black Americans.

As a teenager, Hampton says paranoia became second nature. “I remember driving with a few people when I was 18, and everyone kept asking me why I was constantly looking in the rearview mirror. I just understood the role of police surveillance,” he says.

“When the ice cream truck would come down the block in my neighbourhood, I would have to make sure that it wasn’t a Good Humor ice cream van,” he says. “I was told that the police used the vendors to frame my father in July 1968, when they claimed he stole $71 worth of ice cream.”

Chairman Fred Hampton during a press conference with the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican civil and human rights group, in 1969 - Chicago Tribune
Chairman Fred Hampton during a press conference with the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican civil and human rights group, in 1969 - Chicago Tribune

Educated in public and Catholic schools, Hampton graduated from Tilden High and studied journalism periodically at Olive-Harvey College. In the late 1980s, he worked part-time as a mechanic while speaking at rallies and serving as a National People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement organiser and distributing copies of the African Socialist Party newspaper, The Burning Spear.

But in 1993, he was convicted of aggravated arson and sentenced to 18 years in prison for allegedly tossing Molotov cocktails into Lee’s Men’s Fashion and MJM, two local Korean businesses in Chicago on Halsted Street, during the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Hampton maintains his innocence, claiming that he was framed and had been at home on May 9. He was finally paroled on September 14, 2001.

In prison, he was nicknamed ‘Déjà Vu’ because people mistook him for his father. When he was taken to Menard Correctional Centre in 1999, he met some of the same guards who had worked there when his father had been incarcerated before his murder. Some prisoners had photographs of his father in their cells, and a rule had been created to extend prison sentences if anyone was caught with them.

Judas and the Black Messiah has certainly brought his memory into sharp focus and in doing so has added to ongoing debate about how racist society is in the UK and over the pond. While we have lived through a year of Black Lives Matter protests, many believed an African-American actor would better relate to experiences of racial prejudice.

But for Hampton, such conversations are misguided. The Black Panther Party, he argues, was an international organisation that transcended gender, geographical and generational lines – “so the film has something that people can relate to wherever they are at,” he explains. “The time is now for people to have their ‘aha’ moment, because whether you are in the UK or Ghana, the work is universal.”

Daniel Kaluuya as Chairman Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah - Glen Wilson
Daniel Kaluuya as Chairman Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah - Glen Wilson

Before Hampton was officially acknowledged as the chairman of the Black Panther Party Cubs, he already believed he was called to a lifelong commitment of “serving the people” and standing on the shoulders of his father. “It’s a tough act to follow, but I’m honoured to have a concrete template that was self-determined with Black Panther paw steps to follow,” he says.

Most recently, his family reached another milestone in preserving his father’s memory and legacy and won a campaign to save his father’s childhood home, the Hampton House, raising over $365,000. They have plans to upgrade it as a museum and make it into a more modern and comprehensive place of learning.

Hampton has been asked numerous times why he refers to his father as ‘Chairman Fred’ and his response is always that it doesn’t change who he is. “I don’t hold him subjectively to just being my father,” because he is an “international example that no one should be deprived of knowing,” he says. That’s why Hampton encourages people to read, educate themselves and have healthy discussions.

“People only get involved with the struggle because of three things: inspiration, aspiration and desperation. So with the racial tension that is going on around us, this is prime time, as everyone’s political paws are open.”

Judas and the Black Messiah is available via Amazon Prime Video and other platforms now

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