Judas and the Black Messiah: An intergenerational conversation with revolutionaries

By Pierre Clark
Black Star Project & Black Graduate Students of the University of Chicago

“You can kill the revolutionary, but you can’t kill the revolution.” said Michael McCarty quoting Fred Hampton.

“The struggle continues. It don’t stop, ever.”

These powerful statements symbolize the compelling intergenerational conversation which took place on 11th March 2021 based on the movie “Judas and the Black Messiah.” The movie tells the true story of the assassinations of Illinois Black Panther Party members Chairman Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, on 4th December 1969 by the Chicago Police Department. The film is told through William O’Neal, an FBI informant and BPP insider, who set up Hampton and Clark. The film has become an instant classic and is the first Hollywood feature film written, produced, and financed entirely by Black people to be nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the Best Picture of the year. It has further been nominated for five Academy Awards in all, including Oscar nominations for its two extraordinary lead actors, Daniel Kaluuya as Chairman Fred Hampton and LaKeith Stanfield as FBI informant William O’Neal. Dominique Fishback was also nominated for a British Academy Film Award (BAFTA) for her role as Deborah Johnson/Akua Njeri in the film.

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A group of revolutionary practitioners who were, in those days, young contemporaries and young adults working in parallel or coordination with Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party, came together more than 50 years later for a Zoom conversation on 11th March to reminisce about those times and how and if they were illuminated by the movie’s account. You can view the full conversation here:

The following people weaved an immensely rich collection of lived experiences into two hours of shared memories, education, admonishments, and enlightenment:

Rosemari Mealy, Haki and Safisha Madhubuti, Michael Simmons, Michael McCarty, Rachel Harding, and Fred Hampton’s son Chairman Fred Jr., and was guided by Gloria Smith, Raheem Cooper-Thomas, Joshua McKeever, and Justin Douglas, with libations and a “Stand Up” rallying cry by Mama Edie Armstrong and Baba Atiba Walker.

The conversations, as much as they were about the movie, were really about the history of the varied phases of the liberation struggle, of which Chairman Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party were a key part, and how those phases shaped our triumphs and successes, as well as the struggles and challenges which were present then and remain today. Hampton Jr. (who was in his mother’s womb as she lay next to his father as he was being murdered), recounted the struggles he and his mother had of ensuring that Chairman Fred’s life would be accurately depicted in the film, whilst also acknowledging the near impossibility of Hollywood ever capturing a fully accurate account.

The panelists reflected on how they viewed the film's story, and how it aligned with their own experiences and viewpoints from then and now:

Dr. Rosemari Mealy (attorney and former BPP member): “Some of us thought - at the time the movie depicts - that the revolution was going to happen tomorrow or today. And so, we believed we were at war. That was the sentiment for us. And the community was supporting us. And we were ready to die for the revolution and for Black people. We were ready to die for that! We believed in what we were doing. That’s what we have to convey in this intergenerational conversation. I thought that the film depicted that.”

Michael Simmons (human rights activist and former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) member) reflecting on the influence of Fred Hampton as the 21-year-old leader of The Illinois Black Panther Party, said: “I had been in jail for three months starting on a 2.5-year sentence for refusing to join the Army when Fred Hampton was killed. And at that point, it was really striking to me the impact that the assassination had on the inmates, people who were ignored as being political but clearly were very affected by it. And that always stayed with me and I continue to be amazed at the impact someone that young had and continues to have on society.”

“We have to continually project a positive future and look at what our movement has done. People act like our movement is a series of isolated events. It is important that we let people know that these struggles were a legacy of the work that has been done. The work in the last election was being done by people who were in those struggles and are still there, working on the things that we were working on back then. The results today are the results of a movement that predated many of the voters.”

Safisha Madhubuti (founder of Third World Press and Institute of Positive Education): “When we depend on others to tell our stories we can expect biased representations of that when we talk about the challenges we face and the continuity of those challenges. The fact is, we do not live under the conditions that our ancestors lived under and the reason is because of our organizational struggles. That struggle, as all struggles, move forward and back, forward and back. What we have been doing for the last 50 years in our work is preparing young people to take up the baton each previous generation passed on to us.”

Haki Madhubuti (founder of Third World Press and Institute of Positive Education): “There’s nothing more important to me than Black people. We are asked all the time why we continue to do this work at our age. [It’s] because we love Black people. Chairman Fred, a brilliant, serious brother, loved Black people. And after his assassination, for those of us who were/are in the struggle, we continued to grow. The Panther Party became after Fred’s death an international phenomenon.”

Michael McCarty: “The night before Fred’s murder, we had a rally at the People’s Church. Then we went over to Fred’s apartment to meet. I fell asleep on a couch until about 2:00 am and then went home. My parents lived on the West Side. Just about the time I got home, the word came about the raid. So, we went back to the apartment. The police, in their arrogance, had not secured the space which allowed us to show the people of Chicago [the apartment] what had happened to counter the lies of Ed Hanrahan. We woke people up in a big way. Fred lives. The spirit of Fred lives. He incited so much belief in so many of us. As Fred said: “You can kill the revolutionary but you can’t kill the revolution.”

Chairman Fred Hampton Jr.: “A lot of people don’t believe that Black people are worth being targeted or assassinated or that we have an actual structural organization. Hollywood is incapable of telling the complete story of Fred Hampton. You can’t put a shark in a fish tank. Fred was a revolutionary and led a revolutionary organization.”

There are many more such memorable observations. This was a remarkable collective conversation sparked by a remarkable movie, with deep wisdom and insight into our shared histories in the civil rights and social justice struggles. It’s an important conversation that will be well worth your time to check out.

The March 5th movie screening and March 11th conversation were both co-sponsored by Participant, Warner Brothers, The Veterans of Hope Project, CCT/Healing Illinois, Black Graduate Students of the University of Chicago, Goldin Institute/Chicago Peace Fellows/ Mutual Aid Collaborative and The Black Star Project. The Goldin Institute brought the idea to the attention of Gloria Smith at The Black Star Project who felt the movie needed to be seen by young people and community elders followed by an intergenerational dialogue. The groups are in discussion about a second conversation around the topic of "coalition building" in the movie. Stay tuned.

Banner Image Credit: ESK / Associated Press File Photo from October 29, 1969 of Fred Hampton outside the US Courthouse in Chicago.
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