You would not be able to tell from looking at her. Her appearance is seemingly unthreatening…… until you piss her off.
A short, ample, butterscotch colored woman standing about five feet tall with short silver hair, hazel eyes and a husky voice is not the poster child for a revolution. Then again, far too many of the poster children for the revolution now live on in memory, with only stories left to tell. And in a movement, a singular face does not represent all.
But I digress. The boisterous storyteller who I grew up with, the woman who got her groove on no matter the beat, the little woman who scrapped with her older brothers, the woman who stayed out past curfew fully aware of the beating awaiting her. My grandmother, Jeanette Clay, was a member of the Black Panther Party in Chicago. This is her story.
The chaos commenced after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. The city of Chicago felt the burning rage of its Black citizens. The fuse of Black Americans was blown to smithereens after the non-violent leader of the civil rights movement had been slain.
America had made a martyr out of Dr. King and the people saw red. My grandmother was about 15 or 16 at the time. Even as a teenager she felt the rage and weight that now weighed on her shoulders. Something had to be done.
She and her Black classmates took to silently protesting at school. Instead of wearing the mandatory white hats as part of their uniform, they wore black hats out of solidarity. The hats, although a small detail, were an act of rebellion.
It was during times of devastation that the youth tried to look back into their own history and look to their ancestors for guidance. But to no avail. In the 1960s, there were not any history books that remotely touched the achievements of Black people. Black History Month was not officially realized until 1976, during the Ford administration.
My grandmother recalls that they had to turn to Black magazines for their history. Ebony and Jet stood in as encyclopedias of Black culture and held the weight of Black history within their 32 page binding.
More than 18 months after King’s assassination, America set its eyes on a new target: the Black Panther Party. Specifically, an outspoken 21-year old in Chicago by the name of Fred Hampton.
From the start, it was clear to Black folks that the police had it in for Fred Hampton and his Black Panther associates. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover declared the Black Panther Party a national threat, stating that they were “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country,” according to The Washington Post. The FBI’s Investigation was threatened by an organization of young Black Americans who united their people, provided food and education programs and spoke out against injustice. In fact, Hampton himself pushed to form a rainbow coalition, in which different races were united on the front of the blue collar citizen.
The real threat lied within the bureau. On Dec. 4,1969, without warning, the FBI fired multiple rounds of bullets into Hampton’s first floor apartment. With an estimated total of nine people in the apartment, the raid had a desired casualty of two: Hampton and Mark Clark.
According to The Washington Post, the remaining victims of the shooting were arrested for attempted murder.
My grandmother and her classmates had a more direct connection to the murders than they had realized. Cook County state attorney Edward V. Hanrahan, who authorized a warrant for illegal weapons, was related to one of her high school’s administrators.
“The state attorney’s father was our high school principal. So we were really pissed,” she said.
The day after Hampton and Clark were shot and killed, the Black students gathered at school and scheduled a walk-out to the crime scene.
The leftover carnage at the crime scene was gruesome. “It was so many bullet holes, we were across the street and you could actually see inside the house. Now there may have been two or three shots that came from inside the house but I could see the matches on the floor from the outside and the blood was still there. His pregnant girlfriend, she was laying beside him and she got shot. She wasn’t killed but she got shot. I mean it was a house full of people.”
My grandmother recalls that both Hampton and Clark were targets of the Chicago Police. “Fred was having rallies in Maywood at the time,” she said. “But they [CPD] were pissed because Fred and Mark were getting people to follow them. So they killed him like they did King, Malcolm X, Kennedy, and Medgar Evers. They just started an all out war with Black folks. Men, women, they didn’t care. But the more they killed us, the more the city burned.”
My grandmother never met Hampton or Clark face to face, but she did get the opportunity to hear them speak. “I remember Fred gave a speech at a park across the street. So I could listen while sitting on the porch. It was a crazy time in the city.”
A crazy time it was indeed, from Mayor Richard Daly’s orders of shoot to kill on suspected arsonists, to the deplorable Democratic National Convention of 1968, up to Hampton’s and Clark’s assassinations.
Chicago was up in arms, enduring the growing pains of a shifting society. Now, the life of a semi-revolutionary can get quite complicated. My grandmother was a civil servant by day and revolutionary member by night. While maintaining active membership in the BPP, she also worked at a police station.
It was almost as if she was living a double life. According to her, she was putting her community work into action by working at the police station. She also benefitted from the constant protection.
Grandma played it smart. Of course, the police station never knew of her extracurricular activities and the Black Panther Party never knew about her at the police station. Grandma also knew how to keep a secret.
Of course, grandma grew older. Although the fire of justice still burned within her, it began to fizzle out, as it does with many African-Americans. For decades she had put her past behind her and carried on.
Until one day, her place of employment called her in after looking at her record. And there it was. Evidence of the resistance she once participated in, staring back at her on a computer screen. Despite the Black Panthers’ past label as a threat, her status as a Panther did not affect her livelihood. What was supposed to tarnish her name ended up being a reminder of a young girl’s position in a revolution.
The Civil Right’s Movement was born over 60 years ago. But truth be told, the Civil Right’s Movement never dissipated. It was simply rebranded and passed on to the children of the children of the Civil Rights Movement. There is still a fight to be fought. The question is, how many more generations and martrys is it going to take for us to win?