by Dr. Rhonda Sherrod
Iberia Hampton died some weeks ago and it still stuns. Mrs. Hampton was a Maywood, Illinois institution — the kind that moored many of the African Americans who moved into the village during the late 1950s and early 1960s to the village. Black people who were experiencing the kind of baffling racism that comes with moving into a predominantly White suburban community knew, beforehand, that strength in the face of adversity was a requirement to make such a move. Yet, no one here was forced to embody the type of inner strength Iberia Hampton, a former union steward, and her late husband, Francis Hampton, a World War II veteran, were forced to exhibit. That unbreakable strength helped many Maywoodians understand that she was someone truly special. Watching Iberia Hampton grieve and endure so much pain under the scorching heat of the public glare made Maywoodians very protective of her. A Haynesville, Louisiana native, Mrs. Hampton, was the mother of international Black Panther icon, Fred Hampton, one of Maywood’s most esteemed sons. The Hamptons raised their family here, so they were really our own.
When I was younger, every time I encountered Mrs. Hampton I found myself studying her. I studied the way she comported herself with such dignity, grace, warmth, and, even, a sense of nobility. There was a magnificence about her that was clearly perceptible. The regal and proud manner in which she carried herself left a deep impression on me as a young girl coming into womanhood.
I must confess, however, that I often wondered how she could be so peaceful, so dignified, and so serene considering the staggering, unspeakable tragedy she had suffered with regard to her brilliant baby boy, Fred Hampton. After all, he had been assassinated by agents of the state, as a result of a devastating law enforcement scheme that reached all the way up to the federal government of the United States of America. Fred had been an extremely gifted orator and an immensely talented community organizer who sought to bring Black, Brown, Red, Yellow, and poor White people together to form what he called a “Rainbow Coalition.” (The phrase was later popularized by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, but it was Fred who coined it.) Fred had a singular ability to mobilize and bring people together. And I did not realize, as I sat there probing her psychological interior all those years ago, that Mrs. Hampton had babysat, on occasion, for Emmett Till whose grisly and sickening murder at the hands of degenerate White men sparked the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 60s. I would not learn that Mrs. Hampton had experienced that sordid tragedy, on a personal level, until many years later.
It is quite interesting that today we are witnessing one of the most vicious, vulgar, and disgraceful presidential campaigns in modern day history — one that has been fueled by the savage anger of many dispossessed White people who can no longer count on an America in which their White privilege is guaranteed all the time. Black people have been watching almost, but not quite, with disbelief as a man supported by the Ku Klux Klan attempts to claw his way to the presidency where he would preside, if successful, as the “leader of the free world.”
Fred Hampton and the Panthers presaged the horrific rise of the White hot anger of White people that we are witnessing in the public square. Black people have always had the presence of mind to recognize the utter stupidity of the unjust manner in which everything from personal to constitutional to economic and natural “rights” have been subverted by wealthy White people who, almost from the very beginning, decided that their “rights” to everything — from the Native Americans’ land, to Black people’s labor, bodies, and brilliance, to the manipulation of poor White people’s minds — would reign supreme. White people have never had to fight the type of battle that characterizes the Black experience in this country, but still, Fred compassionately perceived that the impoverished White man was, in fact, getting a raw deal, even if that same impoverished White man had a hard time recognizing that Black people were not his enemy or the cause of his “pain.”
Fred, astutely, tried to point out that the members of the elite White power structure who looked like the poor White man, but perceived him entirely differently, created the problems of inequity in society with their gross, outsized, and unrelenting greed. However, while Fred was busy trying to enlighten White people at the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder about the fact that they should be natural allies with people of color, if they could just ferret out their socially-engineered racism, other deeply disturbed lethal forces were moving in his direction.
Then Federal Bureau of Investigations Director, J. Edgar Hoover, a twisted, cruel, and crude little ruffian, was busy trying to make sure there was no “rising Black Messiah” in the Black community. At the same time, the cold blooded racism that permeated Chicago, then one of the most rigidly segregated cities in the country, was ripening to strike Fred with lethal force to prevent him and the Panthers from policing a police force that featured far too many officers who were brutalizing Black people. The Panthers were also guilty of feeding poor Black school children breakfast, and making demands for freedom, dignity, jobs, land, and self-determination for Black people who were stuck in the worst slums in the country. For having the brilliance and boldness to want, and to actively work for, a fair, egalitarian, and just society for his Rainbow Coalition, Fred Hampton had to die.
As I studied and questioned Iberia Hampton, with the kind of unmitigated gall that only the brashness of youth can confer, since my questions were deeply personal and intrusive, I was able to glean that she had an inner peace that no one could take away from her. Her joy was rooted in the knowledge that she and her husband had conceived, and she had birthed into the world, a child whose brilliance set the world ablaze, a child who continues to inspire people who quest for justice and self-determination all over the world. That, I learned, was something no force for evil could wrest from her. The elegance she possessed was underpinned by the knowledge that, long after the thugs who killed her son on that glacial cold winter night of December 4, 1969 are forgotten, her son’s name will still be uttered like a talisman by people who quest for freedom.
Moreover, Mrs. Hampton knew her son’s name would continue to be raised by those who know that the level of brutality that was unleashed on her son, and that is only unleashed on Black people, will one day be considered indecent to all the decent people in this country. The heartwrenching killings of unarmed Black people at the hands of law enforcement that we see on videotape today are, in many ways, reminiscent of what happened to Fred. Not only was he unarmed, he was asleep in his bed, apparently drugged by a government informant, as police riddled his apartment with bullets before killing him at point blank range. So, Mrs. Hampton understood that what happened to her son underscored just how dangerous an unchecked government can be toward its own citizens. Fred’s case continues to be studied by legal scholars all over the world because the clear message that his death sent to us is that no group of people professing to operate under a civilized form of government should allow that government to discharge that kind of awesome power on any citizen, let alone one who strove to uplift and empower the very people that government supposedly serves.
So, as Maywood mourns and says goodbye to Mrs. Hampton, I have given a lot of thought to the quiet reverence that many Maywoodians — Black, White, and Hispanic — have had for Mrs. Hampton all these years. I think we all felt favored to call her and her family our own. Moreover, I think we all had sense enough to recognize that when we encountered Iberia Hampton — when we were fortunate enough to touch her, and to be embraced and hugged by her — we were not just touching history, goodness, and greatness, compounded by grace, we were touching pure love itself.
Rest in peace, Iberia Hampton, and know that your heart, and your son’s short life, will never be forgotten. (Note, Fred Hampton was only 21-years-old when he was assassinated.)
Rhonda Sherrod, a lawyer and clinical psychologist, is the author of the upcoming book, Surviving, Healing, and Evolving: Essays of Love, Compassion, Healing, and Affirmation for Black People.