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Newly Obtained FBI Files Shed New Light on the Murder of Fred Hampton

The horrifying story of the 1969 police murder of Fred Hampton is now well known. But there’s still much to be revealed about the case — like the information in bureau files newly obtained by Jacobin showing the FBI awarded Special Agent Roy Martin Mitchell, the handler of informant William O’Neal who was key to the raid that killed Hampton, a $200 bonus for work well done.

Fred Hampton in 1968. (Getty Images)

In the predawn hours of December 4, 1969, fourteen Chicago Police officers, claiming they were searching for illegal weapons, crashed into a first floor apartment on Chicago’s Monroe Street and opened fire. Inside were nine members of the Illinois Black Panther Party, including the rising star of the chapter, Fred Hampton.

The police claimed the apartment’s occupants fired on them, but after a fusillade of more than ninety bullets, the only people shot were Panthers, including Mark Clark and Hampton, who were dead. The picture of grinning cops carrying Hampton’s body out of the apartment that circulated in the wake of the killing said it all: the Chicago Police Department (CPD) had wanted Hampton dead. Their mission was accomplished.

The Chicago police, however, were not the only ones celebrating. We now know that within days of the murderous operation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) awarded their Special Agent Roy Martin Mitchell, the handler of the informant who was key to the raid, a $200 bonus for work well done. This, and other information is contained in documents obtained by Aaron Leonard — posted here for the first time — via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

The murder of Fred Hampton remains a point of tremendous outrage and debate decades after the fact — most recently thrust into the spotlight with the release of the film Judas and the Black Messiah. Too often there is an assumption that all facts are known. But with these new documents and others released in the past few years, it is clear there is more to uncover — not only for the sake of historical accuracy, but to understand how the bureau targeted those who were deemed threats to the status quo, so we can try to ensure such voices will not be silenced in the future.

COINTELPRO: “Black Nationalist Hate Groups”

When speaking of Fred Hampton the term COINTELPRO, the syllabic abbreviation for counterintelligence program, has become near-synonymous with his killing. So it is worth looking at what the COINTELPRO aimed at the Black Panther Party (BPP) actually was.

The United States at the end of the 1960s was in tumult. The antiwar movement was radicalizing, Catholic pacifists were destroying draft records, and the black freedom movement was giving way to Black Power and armed self-defense. Against this backdrop, in August 1967 the FBI launched a program called “COINTELPRO, Black Nationalist Hate Groups,” expanding on an effort begun in the mid 1950s directed at the Communist Party. The Bureau soon expanded the program. In a memo issued on March 4, 1968, they elaborated on its objectives:

1) Prevent the coalition of black nationalist groups

2) Prevent the rise of a “messiah” who could unify, and electrify, the militant black nationalist movement [here citing Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr, Elijah Muhammad, and Stokely Carmichael as examples]

3) Prevent violence on the part of black nationalist groups

4) Prevent militant black nationalist groups and leaders from gaining respectability

5) Prevent the long-range growth of militant black nationalist organizations, especially among youth

Taken as a whole, this was a masterplan for destroying radical black nationalist groups. As 1968 gave way to 1969, the Bureau was particularly fixated on the Black Panther Party.

The Black Nationalist Hate Groups COINTELPRO was a major undertaking, and its exposure played a large role in forcing the Bureau to curtail domestic security operations in the mid-1970s. But COINTELPRO was just one piece of the Bureau’s larger toolkit against radicals, one that included surveillance, informant infiltration, intelligence gathering, and compiling lists for possible detention, and working with local police and their red squads to achieve these goals. Understanding this gives a much clearer picture of what Hampton and the Chicago BPP were up against.

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, which started in Oakland in 1966, did not get its start in Chicago until the end of 1968. Around this time, elements of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), including leaders Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), James Forman, and H. Rap Brown, briefly joined the BPP. In Chicago, this included SNCC member Bob Brown, who would become one of the chapter’s original members, along with Bobby Rush, and twenty-one-years-old NAACP Youth Chapter leader Fred Hampton. While the Panther-SNCC merger ultimately fell apart, the Chicago BPP did not.

From the start, the FBI was all over the Chicago chapter, having the advantage of an informant who joined the group as it was forming. William O’Neal had been recruited by FBI Special Agent Roy Martin Mitchell. Mitchell, who had learned that O’Neal had stolen a car and crossed state lines — making his case a federal one — used that as leverage to turn him into a snitch. According to O’Neal, Mitchell told him:

“I know you did it, but it’s no big thing.” He said, “I’m sure we can work it out.” And, um, I think a few, few months passed before I heard from him again, and one day I got a call and he told me that it was payback time. He said that “I want you to go and see if you can join the Black Panther Party, and if you can, give me a call.”

O’Neal’s joining the Chicago chapter at its inception is consistent with a practice the Bureau had developed: aiming to embed informants into radical groups at their formation, where they could more easily assimilate and potentially rise in the ranks. This held true for O’Neal: who quickly became a security captain for the chapter. It also helps explain how the FBI was able to develop insightful, if not always successful, COINTELPRO efforts against the chapter.

One of the first measures they implemented was a “poison pen” letter sent to the Chicago Mau Mau street gang in December 1968. The letter purportedly from “a disgusted Black Panther,” slandered Bob Brown and Bobby Rush “as opportunists and hustlers out for their own personal gain.”

A month later they again tried to foment divisions, this by sending an incendiary letter to the Black P. Stone Nation, a formidable street gang, which was already in conflict with the Panthers over recruitment. The letter from “A Black brother you don’t know,” claimed “the Panthers blame you for blocking their thing and there’s supposed to be a hit out on you. […] I know what I’d do if I was you.” Fortunately cooler heads prevailed, though such was not the intent of the letter.

These were official COINTELPRO operations, meaning they had to be proposed and approved within the FBI hierarchy. Notably, they were not singularly targeted at Fred Hampton. Our research has only been able to find one example where Hampton is the explicit target.

That plan, outlined, in a November 25, 1969 memo, proposed sending a letter from “a disgruntled Panther” to the national office that would state:

Myself and other brothers are getting tired of the screwing Hampton [Name REDACTED] are giving the brothers and sisters here in Chicago and the brothers in Berkeley. Last week [REDACTED] and Hampton called us all in for a meeting and the M….F……told us we are purged from the Party. All the time they are bitching about you no good nigger. [sic] They say you only think of Chicago when you need bread. You don’t give a damn about all our brothers in jail….

The fodder for the letter was an incident in which Hampton had suspended a group of Chicago Panthers (the memo says “purged” until they “‘earned’ the right to be called a Panther”) for being late to a meeting. The letter’s aim was to sabotage plans for Hampton to move up the Panther hierarchy by joining the national office.

Notably, that same proposal shows up in a memo dated December 3, 1969, which also references “a positive course of action” the Chicago Police Department were about to carry out (i.e., the raid, using intelligence the FBI had passed on to them from their informant William O’Neal).

It is confusing that both the raid and the proposed COINTELPRO against Hampton are mentioned in the same memo, suggesting the FBI’s effort against Hampton were more ongoing and they did not anticipate he would be killed the following day. At minimum, more information is needed to understand what the FBI was aware of about the imminent CPD raid.

The Chicago BPP in 1969 was in the middle of a tempest. On the one hand, the chapter was in the midst of an influx of new members, and the party was seen by many black youth as an electrifying force. Hampton himself was in high demand for giving speeches to organizations and on college campuses. Meanwhile police were routinely raiding BPP headquarters, the media was vilifying them, members were being arrested with minor charges transforming into major ones, and various secret police were working in the background to sabotage their efforts to work with and unite with other forces.

The CPD & the Red Squad

The murder of Fred Hampton unfolded against a pitched dynamic of raids and armed self-defense. In 1969, the Panther headquarters in Chicago was raided three times, first by the FBI and twice by the CPD. Such an extraordinary situation helps explain the Panthers’ emphasis on security and self-defense.

Meanwhile, there were forces in operation in the background beyond the FBI. While the Panthers repeatedly ran up against Chicago street cops, the CPD also had a sizable intelligence component, operating under different names over the years but generally referred to as “the red squad.”

For a single city, the operation was huge. In his 1990 book Protectors of the Privilege, which documented the activity of big-city red squads, late ACLU director Frank Donner, called Chicago the “National Capital of Police Repression.” He reported that in 1970, 382 people were assigned to the unit, with forty-nine specifically targeting “subversives.” Not surprisingly, the Panthers were a target. According to former Panther Billy “Che” Brooks, the Chicago chapter was under the constant eye of the Chicago Red Squad and Gang Intelligence Unit.

It was against that backdrop that the CPD’s targeting of the BPP reached a crescendo. On November 13, Panthers Lance Bell and Spurgeon “Jake” Winters were in the abandoned Washington Park Hotel when police were called out to them. Bell fled the scene, but Winters engaged cops in a running shootout, killing one and wounding nine officers. After an extensive chase, he shot one of the two officers on his trail, knocking him down. According to the account in Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin  Jr, as the other officers rushed forward, “Winters walked to the fallen officer, purposely raised his gun, and shot the officer in the face.” Winter was in turn killed by approaching police.

According to informant William O’Neal, this was the incident that set the CPD on a course of murderous revenge that would result in the killing of Fred Hampton.

The Rising Informant

It was against this backdrop that positions in the Chicago BPP chapter were constantly shifting. In the case of FBI informant William O’Neal, he appeared to be on the rise. This comes through in a 1,636-page document released by the FBI in 2017 (under the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act), which includes numerous reports from SA Mitchell and an informant — most likely O’Neal.

Specifically, one document has SA Mitchell reporting, “HAMPTON is allegedly considering approaching O’NEAL to see if he will take over as acting Minister of Defense if RUSH goes to jail.” At the time, Bobby Rush was facing jail for possession of an unregistered weapon, stemming from a police arrest after a Panther speaking event in Urbana, Illinois.

While O’Neal was rumored for promotion, Hampton himself was confronting prison for an incident in which an ice cream truck was looted of $71 worth of merchandise and distributed to neighborhood youth. Hampton would be convicted at trial and later released on bail, but lost his appeal on November 26 and was facing a return to jail to serve an excessive two- to five-year sentence.

The CPD were apparently in no mood to await Hampton’s imprisonment. Here, the FBI’s informant William O’Neal played a key role. It was O’Neal’s floor plan, a rough diagram, later refined by Mitchell of the apartment where Hampton and other Panthers were staying, which was given to the CPD raiding party — a document that lawyers Jeff Haas and Flint Taylor were able to pry loose in a later civil trial. While this is hard evidence of O’Neal’s role, many accounts of the murder also claimed that O’Neal drugged Hampton the night before the killing. That evidence, however, is still in dispute.

O’Neal’s role in supplying the floor plan, and the fact that he was given a $300 bonus a week after Hampton’s murder, has been known for some time. What had not been known previously, and which we learned with the release of 491 pages in SA Mitchell’s personal file, is the degree to which the Bureau was following, encouraging, and rewarding O’Neal and Mitchell throughout 1969 — culminating in a personal commendation by J. Edgar Hoover himself for Mitchell, days after Hampton’s murder:

Through your aggressiveness and skill in handling a valuable source, he is able to furnish information of great importance to the Bureau in this vital area of our operations. I want you to know of my appreciation for your exemplary efforts.

In the memo, Hoover is careful not to spell out what the “vital area of our operations” is. But a notation on the letter reads, “Re: Black Panther Party,” making clear it was his work against the BPP. Further diminishing the commendation’s vagueness, another note references a “Moore-Sullivan” writing on December 2, 1969 that recommends the award for Mitchell’s “development of a highly productive informant in the Black Panther Party” — almost certainly William O’Neal.

Notably, the same day Hoover congratulated Mitchell, the FBI issued a COINTELPRO memo following up on the proposed poison pen letter aimed at Hampton. In it, they noted, “In view of the fact that Hampton was recently shot and killed by Chicago police, no further action is being taken in regard to your proposal.”

It remains unclear all the details the FBI knew about the CPD raid at the moment Hoover wrote to SA Mitchell. But it is clear that they knew their informant, carefully cultivated over months, had played an integral role in the “success” of an undertaking where the only people shot were Black Panthers awoken from their sleep, two of whom were shot dead. That in that moment, the Bureau chose to reward their agent’s work further closes a loop of culpability: it was blood money for a bloody deed.

Still More to Uncover

The Fred Hampton story has been told and retold such that it is frozen in amber, as if all the facts are known. Yet our obtaining of previously secret documents shows there is still more to be learned — not only from the corpus of files held by the FBI, but from the files of Chicago’s SAC Marlin Johnson, the informant William O’Neal’s file, any liaison notes between the CPD and the FBI that may exist, to say nothing of information that may lie in the records, not destroyed, of the Chicago Police and their red squad. (The CPD admitted in 1974 that it destroyed 105,000 files on individuals and 1,300 on organizations.) That all this time later we are still learning new information about Hampton’s killing is testament to the sheer volume of the effort aimed at this young revolutionary — and hopefully a spur to finally get all the secrets out.