Who Killed Fred Hampton? The True Story Behind 'Judas and the Black Messiah'

When viewers sit down to watch Judas and the Black Messiah on HBO Max, they'll get a very different look at the circumstances around the death of Fred Hampton, compared to how Chicago authorities originally characterized the 1969 raid that left the Illinois Black Panther Party chairman dead at age 21.

Starring Daniel Kaluuya as the late Hampton (in a performance that's generating award-season attention), the film presents the Black Panther leader's death as the result of a concerted campaign by federal law enforcement. Specifically, it centers on the role of William O'Neal (played by LaKeith Stanfield), the man the FBI used to infiltrate the Black Panthers and gain inside knowledge on Hampton.

The real-life Hampton was shot by police while asleep in his bed in the early morning hours of December 4, 1969. At first, the official story—at least, according to the Chicago Police Department and Cook County State's Attorney Edward V. Hanrahan—claimed that members of the Black Panther Party opened fire on police when officers arrived at the political organization's headquarters on Chicago's West Side at 4:45 a.m.

As history would have it—and as the new film, directed by Shaka King, depicts—the details surrounding Hampton's death were much more treacherous.

Who Killed Fred Hampton
Political and social activist—and Black Panther Party member—Fred Hampton (1948 - 1969) raises his arms at the 'Days of Rage' rally, Chicago, Illinois, October 11, 1969. David Fenton/Getty Images

The officers reportedly had a warrant authorizing a search for weapons. Hanrahan claimed, according to a Chicago Daily News article, that police announced themselves upon arrival, and that Black Panther members responded with a barrage of gunfire. He also alleged that, at least three times, officers stopped firing their own weapons and called for the people inside the headquarters to "come out with their hands up," to no avail.

By the time the shooting stopped, 21-year-old Hampton was dead, and so was 22-year-old Black Panther Party downstate leader Mark Clark. There were injuries—some Black Party members and a couple of police officers were reportedly wounded—but no cops were killed during the altercation.

At a press conference, Hanrahan said a "gun battle broke out as state's attorney's policemen tried to enter the apartment to search for illegal weapons." During that same conference, he justified police actions by saying, "The immediate, violent criminal reaction of the occupants in shooting at announced police officers emphasizes the extreme viciousness of the Black Panther Party."

At the time, some press outlets seemed eager to accept Hanrahan's version of events. For instance, WBBM-TV aired a staged reenactment of the supposed shootout that was filmed by police, according to the Washington Post. The Chicago Tribune, meanwhile, published photos that were said to show bullet holes from rounds fired by Black Panther members; the Chicago Sun-Times, however, refuted those claims with a report saying the so-called "bullet holes" were actually just nail heads. A federal investigation later concluded that the Black Panthers fired just one shot, while police fired between 82 and 99 shots.

It would take a civil suit—originally filed in 1970, by family members of Hampton and Clark, along with survivors of the raid—to reach some clarity about what exactly happened that morning. The findings: The FBI had monitored Hampton through a program dubbed COINTELPRO (an abbreviation for Counter Intelligence Program). O'Neal, an informant, was hired to pose as a Black Panther member, get close to Hampton and provide the department with information about the organization.

Eventually, in 1982, the plaintiffs in the civil suit won a reported $1.85 million settlement. An attorney for the Justice Department told the New York Times that the outcome didn't amount to an acknowledgement of any wrongdoing. However, in that same Times article from '82, an attorney for the plaintiffs described the settlement as "an admission of the conspiracy that existed between the F.B.I. and Hanrahan's men to murder Fred Hampton."

With the release of Judas and the Black Messiah, a prestige drama that's drawing plaudits and likely to compete for some Oscar nominations, it seems that a new generation will have the chance to engage with Hampton's legacy as a political figure. The film could also open the doorway for a more honest critique of the ways in which the state targeted the Black Panthers, says Jane Rhodes, a professor and head of Black Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who also wrote the 2017 book, Framing the Black Panthers: The Spectacular Rise of a Black Power Icon.

"There were many people in the Black Panther Party that were doing many extraordinary things back then. I hope people will realize that there was a concerted government conspiracy to eliminate the Black Panther Party and Fred Hampton was a victim of that conspiracy. And I hope people will take away that the tragedy of America is that we're still fighting over these same issues," Rhodes told Newsweek during a phone interview on Thursday.

Rhodes hadn't yet seen the movie when she spoke to Newsweek, but the professor was hopeful that it could perhaps enlighten people to another side of the Black Panthers' story.

"In history, what we do hear about the Black Panthers, they are demonized. They're made out to be violent. They're made out to be dangerous. They're made out to be sort of unpatriotic and un-American, and the Panthers and groups like them are put in contrast to what is seen as appropriate, non-violent civil rights activism," Rhodes said. "It's important that films like this provide an alternative narrative and are given through the lens of the Black experience. You have Black filmmakers, Black performers, you have a structure and apparatus to make the film that is not totally reliant on a dominant viewpoint."

Judas and the Black Messiah premiered in theaters and on HBO Max on Friday.