Crazy to think that in just a few short hours, this day will be part of history. As I write this, I think about how easily today becomes a memory. The question is, will it be a day worth remembering? Will I remember a cold day with clear skies and the birds building their nests in the tree outside my bedroom window?
As I sit here wearing my I am Black History sweatshirt and my blackballed fists earrings, I am forced to ask myself what it means. What does it mean to be the embodiment of black history?
When I think about it, I think about legacy. Those things we leave behind for others to grab onto. We live in a world where a person’s significance is realized the most after death. Something about the absence of their presence forces us to consider the nobility of the lives they lived and what we take from it.
Toni Morrison once said, “the function of freedom is to free someone else.” I think about the responsibility of that, and I resolve that being black history in the flesh means to live my life in such a way that black people feel free.
Still, I am constantly contemplating what that means in all its fullness. How does a person feel free? What parameters must exist for an individual to feel uncaged? These are not simple questions to answer, yet I think we answer them daily with our actions. I think we answer them with the lives we live.
Alice Walker said “the most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” I supposed this is why Dr. King talked about holding on to your somebodiness, because your somebodiness is your power. Your sense of identity and belonging. Your truth.
Do you know your somebodiness? Do you know your mother’s name and her mother’s name? Do you know your people? Do you know from what root you sprang? How much time do you spend investigating how to reclaim your own identity? You say you are black history. You wear the shirts, use the hashtags and pump your black fists into the air, but do you know your name? Do you know what was taken from you? Do you know what was not?
Louis pulled the olive-drab wool service cap down as far as it could go. Why he was hiding his face, he didn’t know. It was not like anyone could see him. Louis’s heart fluttered. After all these years, even the thought of her made him blush. His excitement was quickly replaced by sorrow. He had not been the best husband. Maybe if he were, she would not have asked for that restraining order, he would not have joined the Army, and the terrible future he knew was coming would not happen.
But Louis was on a mission, so now he couldn’t think about that. Life was funny in that way. Sometimes you don’t realize your purpose until after you have already lived.
The scream of the train’s horn startled him out of his thoughts. The 63rd Street Station in Chicago was lively, with travelers. He looked down at his watch as the train’s horn sounded again. They will be here any minute now.
“Now, where do you think you are going?”
Louis looked up and smiled. That tiny voice and round, golden-brown face always did something to him. Then, she had the nerve to have those sexy glasses on. But Mamie wasn’t talking to him and had not spoken to him in years. No, Mamie Carthan was talking to their son.
Louis stopped thinking about her beauty and rushed over to stand next to them. There was not much time left, and although he knew neither one could see him, the whole situation still made him nervous. Nerves. Was that even a thing anymore? Louis brushed imaginary lint from his wool, four-button olive coat. It was the same coat he had been wearing for ten years now. The same uniform he has worn since he died.
“Come on, ma. I’m gonna be late,” whined the chubby little boy.
Louis smiled. He knew Emmett would be a handful the day they discovered he was a breech baby. That’s why he gave him his name because he knew he’d be hard-headed, just like his father. Emmett Louis Till. Bursting into the world wide-eyed and feet first.
“Yea, but you didn’t kiss me goodbye.”
Emmett smiled and gave Mamie a peck on the cheek.
Give her the watch.
Louis cleared his throat. He hadn’t realized how long it’s been since he had said anything out loud. He looked around at the people walking by. It was strange the way they seemed to look right at him.
Give her the watch.
He repeated the command as he stared down at his son.
You won’t need it where you are going.
He could see the boy thinking the words over in his head. He knew he thought they were coming from his own mind. Louis had come to learn that sadness was different in the after-world, but if he could, he would shed a tear. He stood watching his son remove the watch he was wearing and give it to his mother, and his heart ached at the future.
“Here,” said Emmett, “take my watch.”
Mamie frowned as she put it on, “Why?”
“I won’t need it where I’m going,” he said, turning his back to his mother and dashing off in the direction of the train where his cousin Wheeler and great Uncle Moses were waiting.
“Bobo, wait! What about your ring?”
Louis turned away from Emmett to look admirably at his ex-wife. She was the one and had always been the one. He thought she was chosen for him to be his wife this entire time. But the truth is she was chosen to be Emmett’s mother.
He pulled himself away from her face. He was running out of time. Emmett had to be on that train.
Show it to the fellas.
Emmett turned around and pulled the ring from his pants pocket, and put it on, rubbing his fingers across his father’s initials. He lifted his head and stared straight ahead, like someone who had just discovered a new world or happened upon a new invention, and flashed a big grin.
“I’m gonna show this to the fellas!”
Mamie laughed and waved her handkerchief.
“Alright then, boy. Go on ahead now.”
Louis watched his son jump on the train and Mamie staring after him. He remembered the day he got the thing made in Europe, just one year since he had been drafted into the Army. But it was not his ring anymore. Soon, the whole African American community would wear that ring.
No. This was no longer LT’s ring. Now, it was the ring of freedom.
The quietness of the station alarmed him, and Louis looked around in awe of the now dark, empty station. The Master warned him that time moved differently here. He had better get a move on it if he was going to make it to Money in time.
Louis inhaled deeply as his body disintegrated into the wind for his next mission.
After watching ABC’s “Let the World See” about the role of Mamie Till and how she handled Emmett Till’s death, I was happy to see some discussion about Emmett’s father, Louis. Since grade school, I have been studying the Emmett Till story, when I first learned about it, heard many versions of the story, and have seen countless documentaries. My favorite is the one that aired in 2005, “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till,” on YouTube. I like it mostly because Mamie Till was still alive and could tell it the way only she could.
But in all the docs, even my favorite one, there was never anything about his father. This had me thinking.
What if we tell both of their stories at the same time?
Louis Till died at the young age of twenty-three when he was accused of assaulting some Italian women in Europe while serving overseas in the Transportation Corps of the U.S. Army during World War II. He and a friend were found guilty and lynched in 1945.
What if our story doesn’t end here?
What if the spirit world informs Louis about his son’s death and its necessity to jump start The Civil Rights Movement?
And what if it becomes Louis’s responsibility to make sure Emmett wears his ring so that they can identify his body?
And what if his soul isn’t allowed to rest until he does?
What if we can tell both stories through the power of the ring that binds them?
It is September 23, 2009, and there is a dust storm in Sydney. But, Grace is from a family of pagans, so it is not only a dust storm for them. As the amber glow, which Grace calls the glowing, tangerine-colored fog, blankets the city, Grace Fieldgrill, now in her seventies, senses her time has come to die. The amber glow will want a sacrifice, and she is ready to give herself.
Grace believes the day she unlocks the trunk in the corner of her room, the spirit of John, her feu sacré or sacred flame, would come, as prophesied by her mother, to whisk her away. But, before she dies, she wants her son, Christian, to know the truth about his birth father and her granddaughter Samantha (Sam) to succeed in her career. These are affairs she must sort through before sunset. Grace commands Sam to unlock the trunk, and this is where our story begins.
“73-years is a long time to remain earthbound when you want to fly.”
I am not convinced Ms. Waters is not a poet. As with Catch the Moon Mary, Fields of Grace is full of poetic language and reads like a romantic love story and a historical fiction novel. When Sam opens the trunk and pulls out items, we follow Grace back to 1934, where she lives at the Wyncote House, a ladies-only establishment. The women of the house are hilarious. Although, Julia’s low self-esteem and constant complaints about not being pretty made me want to jump through the page and shake her.
As a history buff, I loved how the author used actual historical figures to interact with the fictional characters, which I love doing in my own writing. Sir John Gielgud was an English actor and theater director whose career spanned eight decades. And Peggy Ashcroft was an English stage actress who appeared in both classic and modern plays. Peggy and Gielgud’s relationship in the novel reminded me of brother and sister:
‘Our new thespian is rich, flings money like confetti at a wedding. A little flattery will grant me artistic freedom.’
‘Peg pushed my remaining ribbons aside and swiveled to face Mr. Gieldgud. ‘How rich?’
‘I knew that was all you heard.’
Wendy Waters, Fields of Grace
The author also gives us updates on Hitler and the pending war and where the world stood on women’s rights at the time.
Some parts were so fun I found myself reading some of the lines aloud as if I was in a play. Here is a funny exchange between Peggy and Grace about a handsome man named Dashiell Tanner, who has just replaced another actor:
‘I think he has talent, don’t you?’
‘He’s incredibly handsome.’
‘He’s incredibly arrogant.’
‘So, you’re not in love with him?’
‘Do I sound like I’m in love with him?’
Wendy Waters, Fields of Grace
You will learn the significance of this exchange when you read the book.
The story goes back and forth from past to present. I was worried about getting lost, but the author did this so well it was not confusing at all.
My only criticism is the book is very long, and it might be too much for readers with not a lot of time on their hands. (It took me a while to finish myself). Otherwise, I found Fields of Grace to be an exciting and entertaining read.
“Beginning in about 1890 and continuing until 1968, white Americans established thousands of towns across the United States for whites only. Many towns drove out their black populations, then posted sundown signs.” – James W. Lowen
When I first published this article in 2017, I got much controversy about it. I didn’t take it personally for two reasons. First, very little literature covers sundown towns, and not much is said about it in the limited topics covered during black history month.
The other reason is, although these towns were known as sundown towns, the people of the town did not call it that. It was only a well-known fact that some blacks were not allowed in some towns, and if they visited, they had better leave before the sun sets or risk lynching. Therefore, when I wrote about it, some people thought I was making it up.
This past week, I posted this image to my Instagram, and I was surprised to see how many more people had not heard of this. For this reason, today, we are revisiting our black history fun fact on sundown towns.
“Is it true that ‘Anna’ stands for ‘Ain’t No Niggers Allowed’?” I asked at the convenience store in Anna, Illinois, where I had stopped to buy coffee. “Yes,” the clerk replied. “That’s sad, isn’t it,” she added, distancing herself from the policy. And she went on to assure me, “That all happened a long time ago.” “I understand [racial exclusion] is still going on?” I asked. “Yes,” she replied. “That’s sad.”—conversation with clerk, Anna, Illinois, October 2001.
Anna, Illinois, was named after the daughter of the town’s founder but got its more derogatory name after the 1909 lynching of a black man in Cairo, IL, and the mob of angry white citizens who drove out Anna’s 40 or so black families following the lynching. It is at this point that Anna, IL became a sundown town.
A sundown town is a town with an exclusive population of non-whites on purpose. They are towns with overwhelming populations of non-whites and are so deliberately. Sundown towns were also known as “Sunset Towns.”
“A sundown town town is an organized jurisdiction that for decades kept African Americans or other groups from living in it and was thus “all-white” on purpose.”
Side Note: In the black community, black kids are constantly warned to “come in the house when the street lights come on,” so many of us had to be in the house before the sunset. I wonder if Sundown Towns had something to do with this. Not to say black parents are the only ones with this command, but it’s food for thought.
Although signs were posted, forced exclusion was also implemented:
“There were also race riots in which white mobs attacked black neighborhoods, burning, looting, and killing. Across America, at least 50 towns, and probably many more than that, drove out their African American populations violently. At least 16 did so in Illinois alone. In the West, another 50 or more towns drove out their Chinese American populations. Many other sundown towns and suburbs used violence to keep out blacks or, sometimes, other minorities.”
– America’s Black Holocaust Museum, James W. Loewen, PhD; Fran Kaplan, EdD; and Robert Smith, PhD
Sundown towns began after slavery and the Civil War when blacks left the plantations and poured into every city and corner of the country. This was followed by the system we know as Jim Crow.
Jim Crow laws were state and local laws that enforced racial segregation in the southern and northern United States to keep blacks in a state of servitude. It included having to look down and step to the side when a white person walked by, drinking from separate water fountains, entering the rear of the bus, sitting in the balcony of the movie theater (which came to be known as “Nigger Heaven,”), attending separate schools, and more.
While Jim Crow and segregation are most notably known as a southern practice (“The Jim Crow South”), it also existed in the north. In fact, many parts of the north were more segregated than the south, and when it comes to Sundown Towns, these communities mainly existed in the north as the Great Migration brought floods of blacks into northern cities. Many suburbs to this day are mostly white because they were either part of redlining -the systematic denial of various services to black residents either explicitly or through the selective raising of prices – or its white residents ran its black residents out of town, and the descendants of those people kept it that way.
I’ll use Chicago as an example, still one of the most segregated cities in America. Yes, I said Chicago. Remember, we started this conversation with Anna (“Ain’t No Negroes Allowed”), Illinois.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visited Chicago in 1966 due to the high poverty rate in black neighborhoods and rented an apartment on the west side. He was there as part of what he would call The Poor People’s Campaign and the Freedom Movement. On August 5, 1966, King led a march through Cicero, an all-white district, and was hit in the head with a rock by members of the angry mob.
Years later (the early 80s), my brother-in-law and his friends would be chased out of this same area, racial slurs hitting their backs as they rode their bikes out of Cicero.
This statue below is of Orville Hubbard, which sits outside of the City Hall in Dearborn, Michigan, was the cause of much controversy when people started to learn more about his past.
Hubbard was the mayor of the then all-white suburban town outside of Detroit from 1942 to 1978 and, in a 1969 speech acquired by the New York Times, said that “If whites didn’t want to live with N–they sure didn’t have to.” He went on to say this was a free country, and this was America.
“City police cars bore the slogan ‘Keep Dearborn Clean,’ which was a catch phrase meaning ‘Keep Dearborn White,’ ” according to David Good, a lifelong resident of the city who is the author of ‘‘Orvie: The Dictator of Dearborn,” a biography of Mayor Hubbard.
“Out here in Dearborn where some real Ku Klux Klans live. I know Dearborn, you know I’m from Detroit, used to live out there in Easten. And you had to go through Dearborn to get to Easten. Just like riding through Mississippi once you got to Dearborn.” – Malcolm X
Over time the name “Sundown-town” faded, but Sundown Suburbs still exist. A sundown suburb is a discrete way in which Sundown-towns live today when large white populations migrate to the suburban part of the city with the express purpose of separating themselves from the minority population. We can see this in our Cicero example.
Many Black Americans are replacing their fourth of July celebrations with Juneteenth. I don’t celebrate holidays, and as much as I love my people, this includes Kwanzaa and Juneteenth. But I think it’s important to talk about Juneteenth, and why it is celebrated. For some, this day is a celebration of freedom, but even after Juneteenth, many blacks were still enslaved and suffering.
According to the Emancipation Proclamation issued by Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, the proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”
By rebellious states, it was referring to those states that had seceded or withdrawn from the United States, leaving slavery untouched in the loyal border states. It also exempted parts of the Confederacy (the Southern secessionist states) that had already come under Northern control. The freedom it promised also depended upon United States military victory. In brief, emancipation only applied to those slaves who lived near Union lines.
Sound like a bunch of excuses to me.
News of the supposed emancipation did not spread as quickly as the movies would have us to believe. Many slave-owners packed up their belongings and their slaves and moved to Texas in mass.
“Since the capture of New Orleans in 1862, slave owners in Mississippi, Louisiana and other points east had been migrating to Texas to escape the Union Army’s reach.” (Henry Louis Gates Jr.)
In a hurried re-enactment of the original Middle Passage, more than 150,000 enslaved people had made the trek west, according to historian Leon Litwack in his book Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery. As one former slave recalled, “it looked like everybody in the world was going to Texas.” For the next two years, the enslaved would live removed from the updates of the war, and slavery would go on, business as usual.
And so, when General Gordon Granger entered Galveston, Texas, on June 19th to lead the Union occupation force, he had to deal with ongoing slavery in defiance of the Emancipation Proclamation. To fix this, he issued the following order:
“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property, between former masters and slaves and the connection heretofore existing between them, becomes that between employer and hired labor. The Freedmen are advised to remain at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.”
“The Freedmen are advised to remain at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts; and they will not be supported in idlenesseither there or elsewhere.”
Long story short, this proclamation, specifying “all slaves were free,” is the foundation for Juneteenth’s celebration, combining June and the nineteenth when they issued the order, commemorating the freedom of the enslaved and allegedly ending slavery in the US.
But, this order did not free all enslaved persons.
“There is much evidence to suggest that southern whites—especially Confederate parolees—perpetrated more acts of violence against newly freed bondspeople in Texas than in other states,” writes historian Elizabeth Hayes Turner in an essay titled “Juneteenth: Emancipation and Memory.”
“Between the Neches and Sabine rivers and north to Henderson,” she continues, “reports showed that blacks continued in a form of slavery, intimidated by former Confederate soldiers still in uniform and bearing arms.” Murder, lynching, and harassment were common. “You could see lots of Negroes hanging from trees in Sabine bottom right after freedom,” reported one freed slave, “They would catch them swimming across Sabine River and shoot them.”
Blacks celebrated their freedom with the first official Juneteenth event in 1866, where they read the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and, oddly, praised Abraham Lincoln as the great liberator.
The celebrations continued until coming to a halt with the institution of Black Codes and, eventually, Jim Crow. These laws essentially put Blacks back into a form of slavery where they were fully disenfranchised. After the Civil War and the end of slavery, Southern states, which had amassed great wealth from slavery, found their economy in shambles. They had to figure out how to keep a slave-like system going.
So that’s what they meant by “they will not be supported in idleness.”
These laws could be imposed on Black men easily, sending them to jail, and thus, former slave owners turned “entrepreneurs” could lease them to various companies that would work them to death and treat them like they were slaves. This made the states tons of money.
In 1883, about ten percent of Alabama’s total revenue was derived from convict leasing. In 1898, nearly 73 percent of total revenue came from this same source. Death rates among leased convicts were approximately ten times higher than the death rates of prisoners in non-lease states. In 1873, for example, 25 percent of all black leased convicts died.
The laws passed in Texas were similar to those passed in every other Confederate state. Modern-day politicians often make comparisons to Jim Crow as one of the worst periods in African American life. Jim Crow didn’t have shit on the Black Codes, which was the South’s attempt to recreate enslavement and go back to business as usual. Mass incarceration isn’t a recent invention; during the Black Codes, Black people could do little without running afoul of the law with the penalty being sent back to the fields if they weren’t already there.
Juneteenth didn’t make a full resurgence until The Civil Rights Movement, when Blacks began to celebrate it in full again. And while many Blacks have celebrated it for centuries, it still did not become an official Holiday until 1980, when it was made a Texas State Holiday. Still, it wasn’t until 1997 that Congress recognized June 19 as “Juneteenth Independence Day,” after pressure from a collection of groups like the National Association of Juneteenth Lineage and the National Juneteenth Celebration Foundation.
This post was originally published three years ago, in June of 2018. As of today, June of 2021, Juneteenth is now being turned into a National Federal Holiday.
But the question remains, what exactly did Juneteenth accomplish for the black man, woman, and child? What freedom did it bring about? Some sum it up this way:
“Today Juneteenth commemorates African American freedom and emphasizes education and achievement. It is a day, a week, and in some areas a month marked with celebrations, guest speakers, picnics and family gatherings. It is a time for reflection and rejoicing. It is a time for assessment, self-improvement and for planning the future. Its growing popularity signifies a level of maturity and dignity in America long over due. In cities across the country, people of all races, nationalities and religions are joining hands to truthfully acknowledge a period in our history that shaped and continues to influence our society today. Sensitized to the conditions and experiences of others, only then can we make significant and lasting improvements in our society.” – https://juneteenth.com/
But, Spivey brings out another good point worth considering:
Slavery still existed in Delaware and Kentucky, which resisted all Union attempts to end slavery and refused to ratify the 13th Amendment. In California, slavery was sort of outlawed in 1850 as a condition for statehood. The exception was slaves who had been brought to California and where the possibility they might return one day to their original home existed, even if that state had voted to ratify the 13th Amendment.
New Jersey had as many as 400 people remain slaves long after Juneteenth. Oregon’s provisional government banned slavery in 1844 but forbade free black people from settling in the territory. Settlers continued to bring slaves with them. General Joseph Lane, a former territorial governor, kept at least one slave on his farm until 1878, 13 years after the passage of the 13th Amendment.”
It is true Blacks were not free on July 4, 1776. But it is also true many Blacks were not free on June 19, 1865, either.
As many African Americans celebrate and reflect this weekend on what this day means to them, there is certainly much to think about.
Speaking of Freedom, this is a great time to dive into The Stella Trilogy if you have not already! Below is the link to book one. Enjoy!
In book one, Cynthia McNair and her boyfriend, Alex, express some racists’ feelings toward blacks. They visit Cynthia’s Grandmother Sidney McNair, who recounts the story of her ancestor, a slave named Stella Mae. Cynthia has no idea of her African ancestry or how deep this rabbit hole goes.
You are a rarity.
A gemstone that is not only precious but scarce.
You’ve been disgraced and beatdown so long
I doubt you know the difference.
Something is only precious when it is preferred.
But when a gemstone is rare
people search for it, and when they find it, they rejoice
for a rare gem is not easily available
for it, one must look.
There is no creation like you.
There is no body like yours.
No mind can conceive of the things you’ve seen
Even the ground is confused in the way that you walk
When you wake, the earth
quakes and shudders and the sun smiles
No instruction can map out the contents of your mind
You precious one.
You delicate rock.
You silk mountain.
Do not become small for those who refuse to climb.
Let the ordinary ones stay on the ground.
Let those who cannot swim stay on land.
Understand, you are a fist full of moon.
And those who cannot appreciate your light
must stay in the darkness.
There is no place for shadows
in the land of the living.
You are life.
You are womb.
Without you, the man was incomplete,
and without help.
You are not only golden
You are gold.
You are historic.
You are not only precious
You are rare.
We were knee-deep in a new pandemic when I noticed this film in August 2020. Immediately upon seeing the trailer, I was hooked. I could not wait to see the movie. Well, it is 2021, and the film is finally here, and you better believe I saw it. Here are my thoughts.
If you are familiar with biopics, you know they are based on a true story, so you already know how this ends. Still, I must tell you this review contains spoilers if you have not seen the movie.
Judas and the Black Messiah
First, let’s talk about this title.
Judas was one of the original twelve emissaries chosen by the Messiah, but he was a traitor. So, when the Scribes and Pharisees were looking for a way to kill Yahoshua, the Biblical Messiah, they found what they were looking for in Judas. He spoke with the chief priests and captains, who agreed to pay him for his services. (Luke 22:3-6) He is called “the son of destruction” in John chapter seventeen verse twelve because he set out to destroy the savior. After selling out Yahoshua, Judas ended his own life by committing suicide. (Matt. 27:5)
William O’Neal was only seventeen-years-old when the FBI recruited him to infiltrate The Black Panthers after stealing a car and speeding across state lines. Like the biblical Judas was chosen by Yahoshua, O’Neal was selected and promoted to head of security by Chairman Fred. Just as Judas met with high priests and captains of his day, O’Neal met with FBI agents like Roy Mitchell.
Judas was paid thirty pieces of silver, and O’Neal was paid $300 after the raid of December 4, 1969. Judas sold out Yahoshua with a kiss, and O’Neal sold out Fred with a floor plan.
Both committed suicide.
The title of the film is fitting.
Like most movies based on a true story, I expected Judas and the Black Messiah to take some creative liberties. It is not possible, for instance, for us to know exactly what the conversations was like, especially between William and Roy.
However, I found the film to be mostly accurate with only minor exceptions.
Hampton and O’Neal’s Perceived Age
While in the movie, the actors look 30-ish, it’s important for viewers to know they were young in real life. Fred’s activism started when he was just a teen organizing a way for black kids to go swimming in Maywood, a suburb of Chicago. The white kids swam at the pool at a private Veteran Industrial Park, but black kids weren’t allowed. Even though he couldn’t swim, Fred and his friends carpooled black kids from Maywood to a Chicago Park District in Lyons several miles away.
Fred’s outspokenness caught the attention of Don Williams, head of the West Suburban Chapter of the NAACP. In 1964, at just sixteen years old, Fred was head of the NAACP Youth Branch.
William O’Neal was also young, only seventeen, as stated, when he was recruited for the FBI. According to O’Neal’s 1990 testimony in the documentary Eyes on the Prize, he (Williams) was looking for an opportunity to work off his case, which made it easier for Roy Mitchell to recruit him.
I want us to think about this for a moment.
A young man stealing cars and joyriding is not a hard thing to imagine. Young people do stupid stuff as we also did stupid stuff when we were young. This is not to excuse O’Neal’s actions. But, the men’s youthfulness, in my opinion, adds depth when you realize the FBI took extraordinary measures to destroy a movement led by teenagers. The FBI started their investigation into Fred Hampton in 1967, a year before they recruited O’Neal. Fred was nineteen years old.
These were kids and America feared them.
O’Neal’s Repentant Heart
They may have been kids in the beginning but O’Neal grew up working for the FBI and it shows.
In the movie, the fictional O’Neal seemed more repentant than the real O’Neal. Based on his interview in part two of Eyes on the Prize (and in part one as well), I couldn’t help but feel an uneasiness watching him. His eyes shifted a lot, and he had a hard time looking directly at the camera. I could tell recounting the story was bothering him. He seemed kind of cold.
Nick Pope describes what I mean:
“Watching his infamous ‘tell-all’ interview with the 1990 docuseries Eyes on the Prize II, you’d be hard pressed to find a semblance of guilt or shame about his role in the Chicagoan group’s violent downfall. Equally, he refused to accept any blame for the murder of Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton at the hands of the Chicago Police Department in 1969.
“Do I feel like I betrayed someone? Absolutely not. I had no allegiance to the Panthers,” O’Neal told the interviewer, in a section that ultimately didn’t air. He simply thought of himself as a man who “had the courage to get out there and put it on the line”; a man who had been made a “better person” through his work with the FBI. By the end of the conversation, he seemed sanguine about his legacy. “I think I’ll let history speak for me.”
I don’t know how much we can trust that came out of O’Neal’s mouth that day, so it makes sense that filmmakers took it with a grain of salt.
“In an interview, the writers told Decider that the biggest assumptions they made involved Hoover’s knowledge of the raid that took Hampton’s life (which was recently confirmed) and O’Neal’s relationship with Mitchell. For the latter, they had to fill in some gaps, as O’Neal’s information – available via the docu-series Eyes On The Prize featured at the end of Black Messiah – is understandably unreliable.” (Gabriel Ponniah)
“Nine months after conducting the explosive interview, in the early morning of 15 January, 1990, the 40-year-old committed suicide by running out onto the westbound lanes of Chicago’s Eisenhower Expressway.”
Although O’Neal does not appear repentant, that’s not for any of us to decide. “In an article from the Chicago Reader titled “The Last Hours of William O’Neal,” O’Neal’s uncle Ben Heard details his nephew’s fear, saying, “He said they had someone tied up and they were pouring hot water over his head. They were trying to get him to do something.” perhaps referencing informant George Sams. Heard went on to suggest O’Neal was plagued by guilt for the rest of his life after Hampton’s murder: “I think he was sorry he did what he did. He thought the FBI was only going to raid the house.” O’Neal’s suicide attempts would back this up – and in the end, one of those attempts succeeded.”
Stanfield did a great job in his role as the Judas that was O’Neal, although it was so stressful for Stanfield that he mentioned needing to go to therapy afterward.
50/50: Did O’Neal Personally Lace Hampton’s Drink?
I had to look into O’Neal personally poisoning Hampton and delivering the drink. I am still skeptical about if he did it personally, but I did discover multiple sources that confirm this part of the story is true.
It’s still 50/50 for me though.
First, why am I skeptical?
When discussing whether he was personally responsible, in one instance he doesn’t outright reject the accusation but in another he also seems to reject it, saying:
“I don’t buy it. There’s just no way. Fred was the type of person that you didn’t have to drug anyway. Fred was always tired. He could get in a car, and we couldn’t ride two blocks without him dozing off. I mean, he, he just, he was a high-energy person that ran on very little fuel, and wherever he’d sit down, he was well-rested. I have never, I have never believed that, I mean…”
In everything O’Neal spoke about, he never seemed comfortable admitting to poisoning Hampton. This isn’t to say Fred wasn’t drugged because they found it in his system, but perhaps O’Neal was conflicted within himself.
“Per a 2021 report (via Esquire), O’Neal once admitted “while high” that he did indeed drug Hampton. Specifically, the former FBI informant used “a substantial dose” of secobarbital (a barbiturate) in a glass of Kool-Aid, at least according to a “criminal associate” who testified in court.”
O’Neal says Hampton never consumed marijuana or any drugs and that most party members didn’t even drink alcohol so the Kool-Aid thing makes sense. Additionally, In The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther, Hass talks about the report from Cook County chemist Eleanor Berman who ran two separate tests that presented evidence of barbiturates in Hampton’s blood, though he was not known to take drugs.
The FBI did not find such evidence in their own tests, but then, of course they didn’t.
Did William O’Neal personally poison Hampton or did they pin this on him?
What I Know is Real
Outside of these exceptions, I found a lot about the movie to be accurate. Thanks in large part to Fred Hampton Jr., and Akua Njeri, formerly Deborah Johnson, who Dominique Fishback plays in the film.
Hampton’s arrest on the charge of stealing the ice cream happened, the shootout with the officers and the building set on fire and the community helping to restore the building is all true.
The bit about Fred’s mom babysitting Emmett Till is also true.
Mamie Till and Emmett were neighbors to the Hamptons. Mamie Till had come to Chicago from Mississippi a few years earlier, and Emmett’s father found a job at the Corn Products Company in Argo (a suburb on the southwest side of Chicago) just as Fred’s father had. Fred’s mother, Iberia, became friends with a woman named Fannie Wesley, Emmett Till’s regular babysitter. Because Iberia stayed home with her children (until Fred was eight), she sometimes babysat Emmett too, who she described as “a handful” (haha). Fred was only six years old when Emmett was brutally murdered in 1955.
In the movie, the FBI wrote a letter to one gang pretending it was from the Panthers to cause disunity in the community.
This is accurate.
The Panthers persuaded members of the Black Stone Rangers and Chicago’s Puerto Rican gangs to call a truce and be of service to the community. From my perspective, Hampton saw their grit and no non-sense demeanor not as a weakness but as something that could be a strength and add value to the movement.
“We all were living in shoddy housing. We all were not receiving education. We all were getting our asses kicked by the police,” says Felipe Luciano. “Why shouldn’t we get together?”
But following FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s orders, O’Neal and others* undid much of Hampton’s work to foster peace in the community.
FBI agents wrote a letter to Jeff Fort, the Black P Stones leader, saying the Panthers were putting a hit on him. This kind of disinformation happened all the time. Today there is disinformation through Social Media and email. Back then, it was through handwritten letters and phone wiretaps.
The FBI tried to make The Black Panther Party out to be a hate group. Hampton destroyed this idea every time he preached “All Power to All People,” including white power to white people, yellow power to yellow people, red power to red people, and black power to black people. Hampton worked with white-dominated groups like Students for a Democratic Society and the Weather Underground. He called the multiracial groups he collaborated with his “Rainbow Coalition.”
“People learn by example. Huey P. Newton said people learn by observation and participation,’ so we understand by observing that we need to do more acting than writing. We didn’t talk about a breakfast for children program; we got one.”
The Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast Program did so well that the FBI claimed the program indoctrinated and disrupted children. They then vowed to do away with this “nefarious activity” of feeding children.
These are just some examples of the “imaginative and hard-hitting counterintelligence measures aimed at crippling The Black Panther Party.”
This is the extent the government went to discredit, disarm, and do away with the panthers to prevent what they referred to as “the rise of a Black Messiah.”
You know you gotta be doing outstanding work to be considered “the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States.”
*O’Neal was not the only agent. Mitchell had as many as nine informants within the Black Panthers leading up to Fred’s murder. O’Neal went into a Federal Witness Protection Program in 1973, four years after Hampton’s death.
Can we talk about Daniel Kaluuya’s Fred Hampton accent? He nailed it!
Now, look past the fact that Kaluuya looks nothing like Hampton (Tee Hee)
But his accent and acting is on point.
Fred Hampton was an intelligent young man who studied pre-law at Triton College and already had experience working with the NAACP. He spoke quickly and with authority. If you are not careful, you will miss some of what Fred says because he spoke fast. The Hampton quotes recited by Daniel in the movie were spot on, and I enjoyed the creative direction in its delivery.
“We are an organization that understands politics, and we understand that politics is nothing but war without bloodshed, and war is nothing but politics with bloodshed.” – Fred Hampton
The real Fred said this to reporters while standing outside of a Panther office in Chicago during an interview with ABC News. In the movie, they showed him teaching this to members in a classroom setting. I liked this direction because it showcased the teaching role of the Panthers’ activism. In a 1989 interview O’Neal says:
WILLIAM O’NEAL: “We would go through political orientation. We would read certain paragraphs and then Fred Hampton and Rush would explain to us, the new membership, basically what it meant, and what was happening, and they drew parallels to what was going on in the past revolutions in the various countries, like, for instance China or Russia, and they was drawing parallels to what was going on in the current political scene within the United States. So they were drawing associations between the revolutions in, in, in the Communist countries, as I understood it, as to what was happening in the United States. And, and so I understood them to be a little bit more sophisticated than a gang. I expected that there would be weapons, and we would be out there doing turf battles with the, the local gangs, but they, they weren’t about that at all. They were into the political scene: the war in Vietnam, Richard Nixon, and specifically freeing Huey. That was their thing.”
Speaking of politics, my favorite part by Dominique Fishback as Deborah was when she walked up to Fred and told him he was a poet. It reminded me of a speech Amanda Gorman did when she said that Poetry is Political. Their romance scenes were cute.
Even the negative quotes in the movie were pretty much word for word.
“He’s barely alive. He’ll barely make it.”
“He’s good and dead now.”
We heard this in the movie but according to the testimony of Akua Njeri (Deborah Johnson), the police also said this when they killed Fred in real life.
The reason he was barely alive was because of the amount of fentanyl they laced in his drink. Hampton’s autopsy revealed he had enough in his system to knock out a horse.
Sadly, even if Hampton had not been shot, it is a good chance he would still have died of the poisoning.
Preventing the Rise of Black Saviors
Yahoshua, the Biblical messiah’s purpose was to save his people from their sins, but there were many messiah’s throughout history that saved the children of Israel like Moses.
The Panthers and other organizations like them’ engaged in activities and programs that could save, redeem, and restore the black community in the same way these messiah’s rescued the children of Israel from their oppressors back then. This strikes much fear into the heart of America.
There has always been a separation between righteous revolution and pseudo-revolution. Do not be thrown off by that word revolution. It only means change, and those who set out to positively change the conditions of black people have always been attacked by those who wish for things to remain as they are.
Controversy Over Who Shot First
The movie gave additional details about what happened in the aftermath through text at the end but did not detail the controversy of the trial.
It would have been a bonus to show how the Black Panther Party took people in the community through the apartment to show what they had done to Fred, Mark Clark, and the others after the raid.
Cook County State Attorney Edward Hanrahan went on TV to say that the Panthers attacked the officers first. The Panthers conducted their own investigation by hosting visuals of the apartment to members of the community. They could do this because although the raid/murders happened on Dec 4th, the apartment wasn’t sealed until Dec 17th, so the Panthers used that time to get evidence that proved it was, in fact, the officers who shot first. Evidence included pictures of bullet holes that were not bullet holes but nail heads.
“Our goal was to really make a movie that captured 1968. But so little has changed between 1968 and 2021, that we don’t really have to draw parallels to the present.” – Shaka King
“Judas and the Black Messiah” (Film, 2021) Prime Video
The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI Murdered a Black Panther by Jeffrey Haas (Chapters 1-3)
More Movie Reviews Coming! You can find them under the Movie Night Friday page of this blog. From this point, forward movie reviews will be titled like book reviews using the words: “Yecheilyah’s Movie Reviews,” or “Yecheilyah’s Book Reviews.”