Black Panther leader Fred Hampton's family fights to keep his legacy alive

KIARA BRANTLEY-JONES
·7 min read

In the wake of the film "Judas and the Black Messiah," increased attention has been brought to the story of Chairman Fred Hampton, the leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, and the fight to keep his legacy alive.

Fred Hampton Jr., an activist and the son of the Black Panther Party leader, said the same struggles his father fought against are still plaguing the Black community today.

“The core of the attacks on our people are still here,” Hampton Jr. told ABC News’ “Nightline.” “It may tweak its tactics, so we said the only logical response is that we continue moving forward with advancing our struggle for self-determination.”

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“The Black Panther Party was not a reactionary organization,” he said. “We were fighting for survival, and it was that of service to the people through the programs.”

Hampton’s legacy

Originally called the Black Panther Party for Self Defense, the organization was founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966 to end police brutality and promote the Black Power movement. Hampton later joined the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party and quickly rose to the position of chairman.

He was killed by law enforcement in 1969 during an armed FBI raid of his Chicago apartment.

More than 50 years later, his son, Hampton Jr., now works as the international chairman of the Black Panther Party Cubs, a political organization founded by descendants of Black Panthers. He describes the organization as “the ideological offspring” of the Black Panther Party.

PHOTO: Fred Hampton Jr.,Chairman of the Black Panther Party Cubs, spoke with ABC News' 'Nightline' about fighting to keep his father's legacy alive. (ABC News)
PHOTO: Fred Hampton Jr.,Chairman of the Black Panther Party Cubs, spoke with ABC News' 'Nightline' about fighting to keep his father's legacy alive. (ABC News)

Akua Njeri, Hampton Jr.’s mother and the then-fiancée of Hampton, also works on the organization’s advisory board.

“I feel fortunate to have fallen from the tree of two freedom fighters,” Hampton Jr. said. “We’re going to keep on trying our best not to walk in their footsteps, but the Black Panther Party paw steps.”

“We say it's a tough act to follow,” Hampton Jr. added. “Unfortunately, we have to deal with the same issues the Black Panther Party had to deal with ranging from what was once referred to as police brutality, which we refer to as police terrorism.”

MORE: Black Panther Fred Hampton's then-fiancee remembers the night he was assassinated

Following recent protests against police brutality and racial injustice, Njeri, who tried to protect Hampton the night he was killed by police, said the timing is perfect for people to see Hampton’s story on the big screen as “a freedom fighter, as a person that loved the people and was willing to and gave his life as a sacrifice.”

Njeri said she continues her work in order to defend Hampton’s message and the core values of the organization he led. She jokingly said that if she didn’t continue her work as an activist, the spirit of Hampton would haunt her saying, “Well, we ain't free. So, what you waiting on?”

“People have built organizations, communities off the pain and suffering of Black people, and Black people are still at the bottom of the rung of the ladder,” Njeri said. “We want to be people that have control of our own Black lives in our own communities and be self determining and [that’s] what we want as a people, not individually but collectively as a people.”

'Judas and the Black Messiah’

"Judas and the Black Messiah," co-written and directed by Shaka King and released in February, portrays the life and death of Hampton (played by actor Daniel Kaluuya).

The film highlights Hampton’s unification of underserved communities and the Black Panthers’ creation of social programs, including free medical clinics and the pioneering Black Panthers’ Free Breakfast for School Children, which provided the blueprint for free lunch programs that now exist in schools across the country.

MORE: PHOTOS: The world of the Black Panthers

The Black Panther Party’s efforts were met with fierce opposition from the federal government and caught the attention of then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. In 1969, Hoover denounced the Black Panther Party as the “greatest threat to national security” and promised to “neutralize” the organization to prevent the rise of a “messiah” that would unify the Black nationalist movement.

PHOTO: Fred Hampton, left, head of the Illinois Black Panthers, and Dr. Benjamin Spock, right, attend a rally against the trial of eight people accused of conspiracy to start a riot at the Democratic National Convention. (Don Casper/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images, FILE)
PHOTO: Fred Hampton, left, head of the Illinois Black Panthers, and Dr. Benjamin Spock, right, attend a rally against the trial of eight people accused of conspiracy to start a riot at the Democratic National Convention. (Don Casper/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images, FILE)

Car thief-turned-FBI informant William O'Neal (played by LaKeith Stanfield) infiltrated the Black Panther Party, serving as chief of security while secretly supplying the federal government with key information used against the organization. He even provided authorities with the floor plan of Hampton’s apartment used to target him the night was killed, according to a 1990 Chicago Tribune article.

In the early hours of Dec. 4, 1969, police raided Hampton’s apartment on Chicago’s West Side and unleashed nearly 100 bullets, killing the 21-year-old chairman in his sleep, as well as 22-year-old Mark Clark, the defense captain of the Illinois chapter.

‘The spirit of Chairman Fred lives’

Hampton Jr. and Njeri served as “consultants and cultural experts” on set during the filming to ensure the portrayals of Hampton and the Black Panther Party were accurate.

“I hope after people see this film that they understand they have a responsibility to do something in the struggle for self-determination, for oppressed people, for Black people in this country,” Njeri said.

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She said she felt it was important to work with filmmakers to “straighten out a lot of misinformation” about the Black Panther Party and Hampton.

“So we had to, I guess you say, knock that down,” she said.

Hampton Jr. said he and his mother initially struggled to find unity with filmmakers on details ranging from proposed titles to scripts.

“There were many cases where our political position continued to kind of clash [with what] may have been creatively advantageous to put out,” said Hampton Jr. when describing his work as a consultant on set. “So we would struggle to find various points of unity, and it wasn't an easy tour of duty.”

However, he said the Hampton family formed a good relationship with the cast and producers, all of whom were receptive to constructive feedback.

Kaluuya, who played Hampton in the movie, told “Good Morning America” he was “taken aback and honored” when asked by the film’s directors to portray the chairman on the big screen. The actor even took lessons with an opera singing coach to help him capture Hampton’s cadence as he repeatedly chanted “I am a revolutionary” in his speeches.

Dominique Fishback, who played Njeri, described the opportunity to portray Hampton’s fiancée as a “blessed experience.”

“I’ve always loved and celebrated the Black Panther Party,” Fishback told “GMA3” in February. “I knew about Deborah Johnson, now Mama Akua, and what she had done to shield Chairman Fred’s body.”

PHOTO: Akua Njeri, the fiancée of Fred Hampton, served as a consultant and cultural expert to ensure accuracy on set of 'Judas and the Black Messiah.' (ABC News)
PHOTO: Akua Njeri, the fiancée of Fred Hampton, served as a consultant and cultural expert to ensure accuracy on set of 'Judas and the Black Messiah.' (ABC News)

Njeri, formerly known as Deborah Johnson, recalled that Kaluuya, Fishback and other cast members met at Hampton’s old house prior to filming. Later on that evening, some cast members visited neighborhoods on Chicago’s West Side to speak with residents in the community just a day after a shooting occurred.

“I thought that was a hell of a thing to do,” Njeri said. “It was amazing also to see the characters as they developed throughout this process. Everybody that acted in that movie did a tremendous job.”

"I went to these old schools, these old homes, which is a town in Maywood, and then just spoke to the people, understood what Chairman Fred meant," Kaluuya told ABC News' "Nightline," adding that he'd then read about Chicago street politics at that time and learn more about the places he had been.

"The first day when we met at the Hampton House, I told Daniel Kaluuya, I said, 'Oh, I ain’t worried about you. You've got this,'" Njeri said. "I knew he had it, just from talking about some of his life experiences and why he wanted to play Chairman Fred."

MORE: Daniel Kaluuya talks about his new film, ‘Judas and The Black Messiah'

Hampton’s family launched a GoFundMe campaign in 2019 called “Save the Hampton House,” which has raised more than $365,000 of a $350,000 goal to purchase and restore the former leader’s childhood home in Maywood, Illinois.

"We are seeking landmark status for the home and plan to establish it as a museum," the GoFundMe's vision statement reads. It would also include educational services, community gardens and a community meeting place.

“I feel complete as a person when I'm doing this work,” Njeri said. “I'll still, you know, struggle to try to do it, because there's so much work to be done.”

But Hampton’s legacy is inspiring a new generation of young activists, she added.

“The spirit of Chairman Fred lives,” Njeri said. “The work of his political thoughts, his political education for people still lives ... and is still being carried on through the Black Panther Party Cubs.”

ABC News’ Neil Giardino contributed to this report.

Black Panther leader Fred Hampton's family fights to keep his legacy alive originally appeared on abcnews.go.com