Up Next

Black History Month

Bucks’ Sterling Brown carries on legacy of late activist Fred Hampton: ‘It’s in his DNA’

The former Black Panther Party leader has become a guiding light for Brown

MAYWOOD, Ill.– A glass cabinet inside of principal Patrick Hardy’s office at Proviso East High School preserves a ton of school history, most notably yearbooks from 1963 to 1966. Those pages feature young revolutionary Fred Hampton, who would go on to become an Illinois Black Panther Party leader, who died at the age of 21 after his assassination in 1969.

Hampton’s history is an important subject at Proviso East and in the community of Maywood. Hardy teaches about him to connect the past to the present. A pool less than a mile away from the school is named the Fred Hampton Aquatic Center. And Hampton’s family is working to turn his childhood home into a museum.

Milwaukee Bucks guard and fellow Proviso East alum Sterling Brown remembers hearing about Hampton when he was growing up.

“We used to go to the Fred Hampton Pool a lot, so I was aware of who he was and his story, but I didn’t understand what he was doing and his role with the Black Panthers and their whole movement until I got a little bit older, and that’s some things that I take deeply,” Brown said. “Like, he’s from where I’m from, his house was in the same neighborhood, so that’s something that I can’t avoid.

Former Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton (center) is pictured in a yearbook at his alma mater, Proviso East High School.

Eric Woodyard

“I can’t avoid history and I can’t avoid my history,” Brown continued. “That says something, growing up in the same community as a guy like that, so I definitely did my research. I definitely know what he was fighting for and know what his cause was and it’s still being sought after today and still being felt today by everybody, and I’m one of those.”

Fifty years after Hampton’s death, Brown has embraced his own role as an activist. The 25-year-old has an ongoing civil rights lawsuit against the city of Milwaukee. In January, he told ESPN that his decision to reject the city’s $400,000 settlement offer, after alleging police officers used excessive force when they used a stun gun on him following a parking violation in January 2018, wasn’t about the money.

Although Brown didn’t always intend on things playing out this way, he said, it’s now about pride and continuing the legacy of those who came before him, such as hometown hero Hampton.

“It’s in [Sterling’s] DNA and he may not even recognize how big it is,” said Hardy, who has student artwork of Hampton scattered around his office. “But it’s in his DNA that he would come from Proviso Township High Schools … with the kind of history and activism that comes out of this building and the success that came out of this building.”

The Fred Hampton Pool honors the late Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton in Maywood, Illinois.

Eric Woodyard

Hampton’s life story remains one of the lesser-known chapters in American history due to its tragic ending. Hampton was beloved by the community for his weekly black leadership rallies, free breakfast programs and charismatic organizational skills. But authorities feared him as a black power group leader.

The Black Panther Party leader was shot and killed in the wee hours of Dec. 4, 1969, inside his West Side Chicago apartment during a controversial police raid. The FBI had obtained a search warrant for Hampton’s apartment, where he was allegedly hoarding explosives and weapons.

After the raid, Chicago police announced that the officers had been attacked by Black Panther members. But an investigation later determined that officers sprayed up to 99 gunshots during the interaction that left Hampton dead, along with his Black Panther comrade Mark Clark, while four others were seriously wounded. Only one shot was fired by a member of the Panthers. At the time of the raid, Hampton was sleeping next to his pregnant fiancee, Deborah Johnson (who now goes by Akua Njeri).

In 1982, a civil rights lawsuit by the survivors of the raid and families of the two men who were killed was settled, with $1.85 million to be paid out by the federal government, the city of Chicago and Cook County.

Today, Hampton’s son, Fred Hampton Jr., who was born 25 days after his father’s assassination, has dedicated his life to protecting his father’s legacy. He continues to live in the late activist’s childhood home across the street from Irving Middle School in Maywood. He battled to save the two-story home from foreclosure in 2018 and is looking to turn it into a museum. His two Rottweiler dogs, Uprising and Rebellion, can be spotted guarding the property.

Fred Hampton Jr. stands outside of his father’s childhood home, known as The Hampton House, in Maywood, Illinois, Feb. 25. Hampton Sr. was a Black Panther leader who was killed at age 21 by Chicago police in 1969.

Eric Woodyard

Hampton Jr., 50, is the chairman of the Black Panther Cubs, does motivational speeches and performs spoken word. He and his mother are working with filmmaker Ryan Coogler on an upcoming Warner Bros. biopic about Hampton that is slated to be released in August, according to Hampton Jr. Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield are set to star in the film. And the family is fighting to make sure Hampton’s story is being portrayed accurately.

“I remember being 12 years old growing up on the South Side of Chicago in Englewood and our gas was cut off one of these days, and I remember my mom’s position when they brought this book deal,” Hampton Jr. recalled. “It was making the police out as some heroes and her stance was not going for it. If this happened, we could get the heat on, but that stuck with me. We’ve turned down a lot of situations, but with Ryan Coogler we’ve had some intense discussions and I won’t say it wasn’t no struggle, but I’ve got a lot of respect for that brother.

“This legacy is something we’re dealing with before, during and after this movie.”

In 2019, Hampton’s impact was felt in the sports world when the Utah Jazz and Brooklyn Nets joined in a display of solidarity following a racist incident between a Jazz fan and NBA star Russell Westbrook at Vivint Arena. The teams decided to wear T-shirts before a game in March 2019 with an image of black and white hands clasped together. The shirt featured a quote from Hampton that read: “You don’t fight racism with racism, you fight racism with solidarity.”

Former Jazz center Ekpe Udoh selected the quote.

“It’s important to introduce different freedom fighters in order to bring awareness to the many fighters that go unheard-of to the masses,” Udoh told The Undefeated. “Plus, the quote was fitting.”

Hampton is now a guiding light for Brown.

Hampton Jr., meanwhile, says he would love to connect with Brown to assist him in any way possible.

“Whether you’re a professional basketball player, whether you’re in the streets or trying to go get your degree, every day is like Sept. 11 for us,” Hampton Jr. said. “In fact, we’re not the OGs, we’re OVs of terrorism – the original victims. Although the terms may change, it may be slavery, Jim Crow, police brutality, once we start connecting up with each other at some points of unity with this struggle and just even the conversation happening, we’ll be connected and can’t no chains, no shackles, no water, no land or language barriers divide us. We’re going through the same things.”

Brown continues to give back to the Maywood community through hoops clinics at the high school and other gestures, but he understands that the civil rights lawsuit has placed him in a different spotlight. He’s taking his activist role seriously.

“I didn’t grow up wanting to be a quote unquote activist. I did want to do things to help my family and community do things to make change, but I didn’t want to be an actual activist,” Brown said. “But now that I’m in this position, I’m just going to continue to try to make that change. Try to put people in different positions to be successful, try to help as many people as I can, continue to give the kids hope and continue to let them know that their dreams can come true.

“But as far as being an activist, I’m not going to shy away from that role, because it’s people who look at me as that person now and are waiting on me to do something to help. So, I’m definitely going to take on that responsibility and go at it full throttle.”

Milwaukee’s third-year player also knows he has a long way to go to actually walk in Hampton’s footsteps.

“He did it on a different level. He was more woke to things at a younger age,” Brown said of Hampton. “He had more of a leader-type of mentality to actually be on the frontline and speak on those things. Not saying that I don’t, but it’s just we’re in a different situation. … I feel like now I’m in a similar role but I’m not near to where he was and the things he was doing and the changes he was making in the community.

“I look to be there one day, but I’ve still got a long way to go, I’ve still got a lot to learn, I’ve still got a lot to do. … But it means something for that connection to actually be there.”

Eric Woodyard is an NBA reporter for ESPN. A native of Flint, Michigan, Woodyard is a disciple of the Michigan State “Flintstones” – Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson, Charlie Bell and Antonio Smith – proudly representing 810.