Editor’s Note: The following story published in the Crusader three years ago is the personal account of Congressman Bobby L. Rush, who founded the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s. This December 4th marked the 50th anniversary of the deaths of Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.
By Chinta Strausberg
The celebration of Representative Bobby L. Rush’s 70th birthday comes days before the anniversary of a tragic event he will never forget. He recently shared his reflection of the December 4, 1969 assassination of Black Panther Party leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, killed by Chicago police in a pre-dawn raid. Rush says he was supposed to have been among the dead.
Hampton, 21, who was the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP) and deputy chairman of the national BPP, was killed along with Mark Clark, 22, the son of a preacher and member of the BPP. Several members were also wounded.
They were victims of 14 Chicago police officers who claimed it was a shoot out. Evidence clearly proved they lied after an investigation revealed police fired almost 100 shots to the Panther’s one shot during that early morning raid at Hampton’s apartment, 2337 W. Monroe. The officers were assigned to a special unit of Cook County State’s Attorney Edward Hanrahan.
It is a day Rush, who turned 70 on November 23, says he will always remember. At that time, Rush was coordinator of the Illinois Chapter and Executive Minister of Defense of the BPP. It was during the period of the FBI’s infamous and illegal 1960’s COINTELPRO spy program monitoring the Black liberation movement and its leaders.
“The FBI informant, William O’Neal, who sided with the FBI to raid Fred Hampton’s apartment, told the FBI” that Rush was supposed to be at the apartment at the time of the raid. “If I had been in that apartment, I would have been killed,” said Rush.
He was not in the apartment at the time of the execution because of the overcrowded conditions. “We had out-of-town Panthers who stayed in that apartment. Some of the others had their own homes in Chicago. There wasn’t enough room for all of us to sleep over all night. So, the FBI planned to kill everybody including me, with the Chicago Police Department.”
Rush slept in his own apartment at 2030 S. State Street, which spared his life. The BPP had a plan when they suspected police raids. “There had been at least two raids earlier that year on the Panther headquarters. We developed a plan. When we suspected a raid, the leadership would be put underground.
“They came to my apartment the very next morning armed with a warrant for my arrest,” Rush recalled. He followed the plan of going underground when they suspected a raid and that is what Rush did. “They missed me.”
Rush stayed underground from that Wednesday evening until Saturday, December 7, 1969.
“In those two days, my attorney, Kermit Coleman; Renault Robinson, head of the Afro American Police League; and Howard Saffold, a member got in touch with Rev. Jesse Jackson and asked for his help. They asked Jackson if I could turn myself in to Rev. Jackson, which I did. I was on the run for four days.”
“I’ll never forget,” said Rush. “Rev. Jackson said, ‘We’re turning him over to you, Commander. I want you to look at him. He does not have a scratch on his face, on his body, no broken bones. He’s in fine health and that is how we want to see him again in the same condition.’”
On the fourth day of being on the lam, Rush said, “I turned myself into the 2nd District Commander” who was an African American. Rush said the police did not handcuff him and that he was treated “very respectful.”
Rush was released on his own recognizance. When asked what was the charge, Rush said, “They had a warrant for me saying I had guns in my apartment. They didn’t find any guns there, but what they found was a bag of bird seeds.
“My wife liked canaries; so they said that was marijuana.” Rush said the warrant was for alleged possession of marijuana. “We settled out-of-court. They were really trying to set me up to kill me.”
“I was the number one fugitive from the law…news plastered all over the TV. They said I was armed and dangerous, and they had orders form the police department to shoot on sight.”
“Fred Hampton was killed on a Wednesday night. The first night I stayed with Father George Clements at Holy Angels in the rectory. Father Clements hid me out. Holy Angels was the first sanctuary. I went to him because I didn’t think they would raid a Catholic church.
“I moved around to three different places. I went to a friend of mine, a white guy who had a townhouse on North Astor Street. I spent the second night there. He hid me out in his attic. He was a white noted photographer. On the third night, I stayed in the apartment of a white producer, Steve James, who produced Hoop Dreams.”
While he was moving around I asked what was he thinking, Rush said, “Retaliation. I felt like retaliating against the police department.” He was concerned about his family.
Rush said after the police shot up Hampton’s apartment, “they were so afraid and wanted to get out of the community, that they left the apartment open. They didn’t rope off” the site. “The community started a steady stream of visitation into the apartment to see what was going on. It was all over the news that they killed two Panthers.”
Rush, then 23, said they began holding tours. “People came in and showed them where the Panthers were killed. We showed them the evidence…the bullet holes in the walls, in the door, the bed where they shot Fred with the blood still on it.
“We were conducting tours. We had about 25,000 people come through that apartment. The police said it was a shoot out, but we said it was a shoot in.”
When told that Chicago police have always told this reporter that the BPP were criminals, Rush rejected that label. “The Panthers had programs. We were not criminals. We were a political party. We were young militants, activists, and revolutionaries.
“We had a ten-point platform and program. We conducted political education classes. We created the breakfast for children program. We ran a free medical clinic with certified trained doctors, some working at the University of Chicago hospital. We had busing to prison programs where we bused families and loved ones to prisons throughout the state and the nation.
“We were not criminals. We were not thugs. We were organized and disciplined in philosophy and ideology. We sacrificed our lives for people. We consider ourselves as being the vanguard of the revolution,” said Rush.
When asked why were the police so afraid of the BPP, Rush said, “Because we were not afraid to shoot back. We said our Constitutional right was to arm and protect ourselves, but they were more afraid of us because we were organizing the community around its survival. We posed a political threat to the status quo.
“Hanrahan, who engineered the raid on Fred’s and my apartment was the heir apparent to Richard J. Daley, and his political motivation was if he could arrest the BPP, he thought he would be welcomed and a savior to the Black community,” Rush said.
Rush said today he feels “humbled, blessed, and I feel like the Lord saved me for a reason. I was supposed to be dead in my grave some 47 years ago, but I’m still here. It’s not that I am so good or smart….”
Asked why did he become a minister, Rush said, “I want to dedicate the last remaining years of my life to sharing the gospel of the one who saved me. I got a testimony. My whole life is a testimony because I am still here.”