After the death of George Floyd, there seems to be more attention given to police brutality and the number of African Americans murdered at the hands of law enforcement officials.
Floyd was not the first casualty at the hands of law enforcement; many Black people, especially Black males have been the victims of these senseless murders.
Roughly 50 years ago, one of America’s most dynamic and influential young Black leaders was viciously shot and killed by a special unit of the Houston Police Department (HPD) known as the Central Intelligence Division (CID). His murder, at the hands of law enforcement officials, will continue to be a day that will live in infamy.
On July 26, 1970, Carl Bernard Hampton, was assassinated at the ripe age of 21, after stepping up to the plate to improve the lives and conditions of Black people in Houston and across the entire United States.
The targeted assassination of Hampton is still a difficult pill for so many Black Houstonians to swallow, as his life and legacy continue to be remembered and commemorated 50 years later.
Hampton was a Black man who spoke with conviction and power and regularly rallied people around the issue of police brutality and murders that were prevalent amongst Black people at that time. He was a strong Houston revolutionary and committed organizer, who helped establish the People’s Party II in 1969 – a group that was modeled after the Black Panther Party (BPP).
Born December 17, 1948, Hampton grew up in the Greater Houston area and got engaged in the struggle and plight of Black people at an early age. Prior to returning to Houston to establish the People’s Party II, Hampton did substantial work with the BPP out of Oakland, California.
Because the BPP leadership decided not to open new chapters because they believed they were unable to manage growth, a disappointed Hampton decided to establish the People’s Party II, out of respect for the BPP – an organization he recognized as the original People’s Party.
Because of his influence, Hampton was quickly able to galvanize Black people and was able to gain their sincere respect and commitment.
Hampton set up shop at the 2800 block of then-Dowling Street (now Emancipation Avenue) in Third Ward. Although the area had been known as an extremely rough and crime-ridden area, Hampton committed himself to improving that community. He began providing decent clothing and food to the many of the people in the community who had basic needs and issues that needed to be addressed. The ability of Hampton to effectively galvanize members of Houston’s Black community became an issue with select members of the Houston community – especially law enforcement officials with HPD. One particular incident became a sore spot with members of HPD, which many believe led to his eventual targeted assassination.
As it has been reported, Hampton showed up at his People’s Party II headquarters on July 17, 1970, and upon arriving, he noticed two uniformed HPD officers harassing a young Black man, who had been out on the streets in front of the headquarters selling their Black Panther Newspaper – the Black Panther Newspaper was an extremely popular and widely circulated Black newspaper in the Houston community.
As has been reported, Hampton got out of his vehicle and approached the HPD officers, asking them what the problem was. Consistent with his beliefs within the BPP about protecting yourself through self-defense, Hampton had a legal, unconcealed .45 automatic pistol strapped across his chest in a shoulder holster. One of the officers, who was taken aback at the audacity of a young Black man openly carrying a firearm, decided to escalate the situation by confronting him about openly carrying a firearm. Hampton informed the officer that he had a constitutional right to openly carry his firearm. Angry with his response, the officer reached for his firearm, which prompted Hampton to immediately retrieve his firearm from his holster and draw it on the officer. Seeing what was happening, two other local community members came out on the street with their weapons to stand in solidarity with Hampton, prompting the other officer driving the police car to frantically radio-in for back up. Once Hampton saw what was about to go down, he and the other armed community members, went into their People’s Party II headquarters and barricaded themselves in before police reinforcements arrived.
As Hampton and his supporters looked out the windows of the headquarters, they could see police dressed in riot gear, surrounding their offices and positioning themselves behind cars and buildings in order to address the situation with force. As tensions mounted, an HPD commanding officer went inside to talk to Hampton about surrendering, but was unsuccessful.
Many of the businesses, if not all, were closed that evening.
While all of this was taking place, a large crowd of community members began to gather in the streets surrounding the headquarters, after watching the incident snowball from the very start. There were so many people upset by the situation, particularly because of the way HPD had created such a hostile environment. Many people offered themselves to be a shield between Hampton and his members, and the police. Seeing the support and response of the crowd, HPD officials aborted their plans and withdrew from the area in order to develop an alternative plan.
The media began delivering news reports about what was going on and it galvanized Black people from all over Houston, who showed up at the People’s Party II headquarters – with weapons and their lives – to offer Hampton and his members their support.
The standoff lasted several days, and HPD and other collaborating agencies decided on a well-orchestrated plan to take Hampton out through assassination. On the tenth day of the standoff – July 26 – it has been reported that someone allowed HPD officers, armed with high-powered telescopic rifles, to secretly gain access to the rooftop of St. John Missionary Baptist Church – a historic Black church on then-Dowling St. St. John Missionary Baptist Church was the tallest building in the area and was located on the same block as the People’s Party II headquarters. It served as the best location for these skilled marksmen to avoid any return fire and carry out their assassination of Hampton.
On the night of July 26, 1970, Hampton was speaking to a crowd of roughly 100 people at an impromptu rally held in front of the People’s Party II headquarters. The rally was held for the purposes of raising bail money for two Black men who had been arrested earlier. A car speeding by with two women in it shouted out that there were White men shooting from the roof of St. John Missionary Baptist Church, prompting Hampton to dismiss the crowd out of concern for their safety. Hampton quickly armed himself with his M-1 carbine rifle in order to investigate, with several people accompanying him. As Hampton began to cross the street to further investigate, a White news reporter who was on the church’s rooftop with the armed snipers – Howard Dupree of KULF Radio Station – pointed Hampton out to the snipers. Interestingly enough, Dupree was granted an interview by Hampton a day or so before the assassination, which allowed him to better identify Hampton. Using night vision scopes, the snipers shot Hampton several times in the stomach and chest with illegal hollow point dum-dum bullets. As the barrage of bullets continued to rain down upon Hampton’s helpless body, a young woman got to him, and was able to drag his body to her car and rush him to Ben Taub General Hospital to get him medical attention. He died there in the emergency room on July 26, 1970.
Two days later, on July 28, 1970, a Houston Post editorial defended the actions of the police and condemned the actions of Hampton and the People’s Party II. A grand jury panel was convened and eventually found that Hampton’s shooting was defensive in nature and justified. The grand jury no-billed two HPD officers who were stationed atop the church’s roof on the day Hampton died and no one was ever held accountable for his death.
The pain from the night Hampton was assassinated still stings for many and still serves as a black-eye on Houston and HPD.
Hall of Fame broadcaster and former Forward Times reporter Ralph Cooper remembers the strength and impact that Carl Hampton had, as well as how things went down on then-Dowling Street that fateful night.
“It was no surprise Carl was killed,” said Cooper. “He stood up and voiced his opinion about HPD in the 1970s, especially about their history of brutalizing Black men. The Peoples Party II had the support of several other groups at the time, who were armed also. A White man by the name of Barter Haile, of the John Brown Revolutionary Party, was also wounded, but survived. Many people in the area were arrested that night. Not only was HPD involved, but many other area law officials were on standby in Houston. This was the first time that many of us had seen the white HPD Tank. It was something to behold.”
Cooper states that the details surrounding Hampton’s assassination became even more crystal clear to him, when he went to St. John Missionary Baptist Church on assignment for the Forward Times that next morning.
“The next morning, several Black leaders met at St. John Church, because they had heard HPD snipers shot from the roof of the church,” said Cooper. “It was verified when empty shells and unused shells – the military type – were found on the roof of the church. I know, because I went on the roof where I discovered the used and unspent shells, and put them in a bag and gave them to the Black men who were at the church that day: Julius P. Carter, Forward Times owner; Earl Allen, Voice of Hope; Judson Robinson Jr.; Ed Shannon. KYOK; and Charles Porter, KCOH.
Prior to the assassination, several Blacks tried to convince Hampton to allow his arrest to happen, however, because of the number of cases of police brutality and questionable murders of Black people in the City and county jails at that time, he did not want to subject himself to being arrested. Hampton believed that his chances of survival would be better out in the open – on the street – where he could have his lawyer negotiate the terms of surrender.
Unfortunately, Hampton became yet another casualty at the hands of law enforcement officials.
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, coupled with the continued murders of Black people across this country at the hands of law enforcement, it’s important to remember the story of Carl Hampton and share that story with young people and all others across the Greater Houston area.