By Sean Yoes
AFRO Senior Reporter
In 1969, America was in the midst of a racial and political cataclysm closing perhaps the most volatile decade in the nation’s history.
And by the end of that hellish year, Fred Hampton, the 21-year old charismatic leader of the Black Panther Party in Illinois, was murdered in Chicago on Dec. 4, as he slept next to his girlfriend, who was pregnant with their son.
Back then Raymond Winbush was also a young freedom fighter for Black people at the beginning of his odyssey as Hampton’s came to an end.
“I was six months from graduating with a major in psychology from Oakwood University in Alabama. Those were high and heady times,” Winbush told the AFRO in a recent phone interview recently. “I had just led a strike on campus protesting the Vietnam War. Students boycotted classes for one day across the nation,” he explained.
More than 50 years later America once again finds itself flailing within yet another vortex of racial reckoning. And the new film, Judas and the Black Messiah illuminates Hampton’s short, yet astonishing ascendance and murder, and in the process informs the 21st century Black struggle against racism and White supremacy.
The movie released earlier this month has rumbled across the cinematic landscape like a tidal wave garnering much critical acclaim. Winbush, who was on the scene when Hampton was still physically with us, lent his lived experience to the film’s production providing vital research for the story.
“When Fred Hampton was killed, there had been a string of killings of Panthers, most notably Alex Rackley who had been killed in New Haven Connecticut,” recalled Winbush, director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University.
“This is portrayed in the film and as we now know, was orchestrated by a Black snitch for the FBI. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the vast majority of American Africans young people had Black nationalistic feeling at that time because of what had happened during the past… MLK had been assassinated; Little Bobby Hutton had been killed in California; Bobby Seale was gagged in court as part of the Chicago Seven trial and Fred Hampton was assassinated,” said Winbush, who found himself in Chicago July 1, 1970, just six months after Hampton’s murder. His involvement in the making of Judas and the Black Messiah began with a phone call from a former student, a dynamic new Hollywood filmmaker Charles King, one of Messiah’s producers who Winbush taught at Vanderbilt University.
“When he was a student he used to say to me, “If you had it to do all over again Ray, what would you do?” And I said make films because they can be an educational tool…I would make films about positive Black folk and that’s what he’s (King) done,” Winbush said. In addition to Judas and the Black Messiah, King’s credits include Mudbound (2017) and Sorry to Bother You (2018), among others.
“About four years ago, it was in early 2017, he called me and said, “Look Ray, Ryan Coogler is doing a film about a real Black Panther,” right about the time The Black Panther (the Marvel film) came out,” he added. Shortly after that conversation Winbush had dinner with Coogler, the young superstar director and his wife Zinzi Evans in Chicago and he had one simple, yet essential request.
“I said I would help if the film was authentic,” Winbush explained. “I would have just done the film…I was convinced these brothers were really sincere in making an authentic Black film about a very important group.”
And Winbush was apparently just as sincere about contributing to that authenticity.
“When I was doing the research on Fred, I was at the Chicago Historical Society, which is on the Northside of Chicago and this White woman came up to me, she was one of the librarians,” explained Winbush.
“And I told her what I was doing and she kind of looked over her shoulder and said, “Have you ever heard of the red file?” And I said no and she said, “Let me show you something.” She gave me this file, they call it the red file. It was all the surveillance that had been done by the Chicago Police in conjunction with the FBI, from about 1968, really to about the mid-70s. And Fred was in there. There were photographs of him in there.”
That so-called red file sparked a deluge of memories from those tumultuous times that Winbush lived through.
“The groups he (Hampton) pulled together, the Young Lords, the Young Patriots, who were White racists, that was the only way you can describe them, the (Black) P Stone Nation and the Panthers,” Winbush said. “That’s what was terrifying Hoover (the nefarious longtime director of the FBI) and Edward Hanrahan, who was the state’s attorney and orchestrated the raid (that killed Hampton) with the police department there. Those guys were all alive when I was there,” added Winbush. And the man that pulled all those disparate entities together was perhaps the most dangerous of them all to the American status quo of systemic racism.
“Hampton, he was killed at 21, but he started his leadership in high school when he was 18. He had great leadership ability, he was a debate master. His use of the English language and all of that,” Winbush said. “This guy, he did more by the time of his death than most of us do in our lifetime in terms of pulling people together.”
Making the movie proved to be challenging for political reasons despite those political conflicts being more than a half century old.
“Chicago gave us no cooperation. The FBI for obvious reasons and the Chicago Police Department for obvious reasons didn’t give us any cooperation,” Winbush revealed. So much of the filming actually took place in Cleveland, which is Winbush’s hometown.
For Winbush, a pioneering scholar on the impact of racism/White supremacy on the Black global community, those old conflicts have not ebbed at all. In fact, in the wake of what he calls “1621” (the date of the Capitol Hill insurrection) those old conflicts have been inflamed and White racists have been emboldened. And he subsequently wonders about the efficacy of 21st century Black leadership.
“This whole thing about Black leadership right now, with the Black Lives Matter movement. I don’t think young people, with all due respect to young people, I don’t think they really understand the cost of leadership,” Winbush said.
“I always think that the great leaders of the 20th century, you know, are clearly Malcolm, Garvey, King, and I would add to that the ones that nobody wants to talk about, Elijah Muhammad and Fred Hampton,” he added.
“What we want to do with this film is educate people about what true Black leadership was.”