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From Emmett Till to Daunte Wright, the eerie ties among Black victims of violence

Before he was brutally killed by racists in Mississippi at 14, Emmett Till, left, had sometimes been cared for by the mother of Chicago Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, right, who was shot to death by police in 1969.

The connections are as revealing as they are disturbing.

Daunte Wright, who was killed by police Sunday at a traffic stop in Minneapolis by a White police officer who confused her gun for a Taser, knew George Floyd’s former girlfriend.

Caron Nazario, a Black Army officer threatened by White police officers during a traffic stop in Windsor, Va., considered Eric Garner, who died in a police chokehold on Staten Island in 2014, his uncle.

Caron Nazario saw Eric Garner, who he called ‘uncle,’ die in police hands. Then officers pepper-sprayed him six years later.

Yet the bonds of trauma have tethered Black people together long before now.

Consider this: Iberia Hampton, the mother of slain Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, used to babysit for Emmett Till, whose searingly brutal killing by White racists in Mississippi in 1955 when he was 14 helped usher in the civil rights movement.

Iberia Hampton and Mamie Till had both moved to the Chicago area from the South — Hampton from Haynesville, La., and Till from Money, Miss. — during the Great Migration of African Americans fleeing Jim Crow to seek opportunity in Northern cities.

The two women became neighbors in the working-class town of Summit Argo, just outside Chicago. Hampton’s husband, Francis, and Till’s spouse, Louis, both worked at the processing plant for Corn Products, the maker of Kayo Syrup and Argo Corn Starch that served as a draw for Black migrants.

Iberia Hampton and Mamie Till had a mutual friend, Fannie Wesley, who babysat Emmett for Mamie. If Wesley couldn’t do it, Iberia, who was staying at home with her three young children, Fred, Bill and Dee Dee, would often pitch in, Jeffrey Hass, a civil rights lawyer who once represented Hampton and the Black Panthers, said in an interview with The Washington Post.

Emmett, whose nickname was “Bobo,” was “curious and quite rambunctious, a handful,” Iberia Hampton recalled to Jeffrey Haas in his book “The Assassination of Fred Hampton: How the FBI and the Chicago Police Murdered a Black Panther.” At the time the arrangement started, Iberia’s son Fred, born in 1948, was just a toddler; the bright-eyed Emmett was about 10 or 11.

Fred Hampton had just started grade school in the summer of 1955, when Emmett, by then 14, went to visit his relatives near Money in the Mississippi Delta region.

It was there that Emmett was accused of whistling at 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant, a White woman who decades later acknowledged that she had lied about their interaction in the book “The Blood of Emmett Till.”

On Aug. 28, 1955, Bryant’s husband, Roy, and his half brother J.W. Milan, abducted Emmett at his great-uncle’s house. They beat and mutilated the child before shooting him in the head and shoving him into the Tallahatchie River.

“Fred, Dee Dee and I used to talk about Emmett, particularly when we went South,” Fred’s older brother, Bill Hampton, told Haas. Their mother had told them that Emmett had a “funny lisp. … We heard that it was his lisp, which sometimes came out like a whistle, that had cost Emmett his life.”

Emmett’s body, bloated and barely recognizable, was brought back to Chicago, where his mother insisted on a public funeral with an open casket so all could bear witness to the racist brutality of her son’s murder. Thousands walked past his open casket at the Rayner Funeral Home.

Emmett Till’s mother opened his casket and sparked the civil rights movement

Iberia Hampton couldn’t bring herself to go. “I couldn’t stand going to his funeral and seeing him like that,” she said. “I wanted to remember him as the active and saucy kid I babysat for.”

In 1958, when Fred was 10, the family moved to Maywood, a working-class suburb west of Chicago. Although Fred was popular with the other children, his peers made fun of his large “watermelon” head, his mother told Haas. Fred fought back by cutting down his opponents with sharp but humorous word play, known as “the nines” or “the dozens” in African American parlance.

This was a feat, given that Fred, like Emmett, also had a lisp. He overcame it by enunciating clearly and quickly and, growing in confidence, imitating the artful oratory of well-known Black preachers, his father told Haas.

By the time he was a teenager, Fred was using his voice to speak out, successfully pushing for more Black teachers and administrators at his integrated high school and leading a boycott that resulted in students electing the first Black homecoming queen. He also led a youth branch of the NAACP, recruiting hundreds of peers to join.

Like Emmett and so many other Black children whose parents had migrated north, the Hampton children would head south in the summer to visit their relatives in Haynesville, La. Recalling what happened to young Emmett, the trips made Iberia anxious.

“I was a little nervous about letting them go back south, particularly because Fred had such a big mouth,” she said.

By his late teens, Hampton became attracted to the Black Panther Party, with its ethos of self-determination, socialism and armed self-defense, particularly against police brutality. In November 1968, he joined the party’s newly founded Illinois chapter.

Soon, the charismatic and oratorically gifted Hampton had become the party’s leader in Chicago. He managed to broker a peace agreement between Chicago’s most powerful gangs before forging a multiracial alliance of Black Panthers, White leftists and Latino activists that became known as the Rainbow Coalition.

He organized rallies, attended strikes, taught political education and spearheaded the party’s free breakfast program, for which his mother frequently cooked, Haas said. Soon he began to move up the party’s national ranks. By then, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI had already pegged the young activist as a threat, opening a file on him in 1967.

The agency offered to drop charges against a Black teenage car thief named William O’Neil in exchange for his infiltration of the Chicago chapter of the party as a paid informant — a relationship that formed the crux of the plot in the Oscar-nominated movie “Judas and the Black Messiah” about the Hampton assassination.

The secret FBI informant who betrayed Black Panther leader Fred Hampton

This film depicts the betrayal and assassination of Fred Hampton, chairman of the Black Panther Party. (Video: Warner Bros. Pictures)

O’Neal drew a map of the apartment where Hampton lived with his girlfriend, Deborah Johnson, who was pregnant with their first child. In the early morning hours of Dec. 4, 1968, Hampton nodded off as he was listening to his mother on the phone, probably a result of sleeping pills O’Neal had slipped into his drink. At 4 a.m., a heavily armed team of Chicago police officers burst into the apartment. Hampton was shot by police in the shoulder as he lay in bed and then killed with two shots to the head. Johnson later recalled an officer saying, “He’s good and dead now.”

Later that day, people in the neighborhood moved freely through the unsecured apartment to pay tribute to their fallen hero Hampton and Panthers defense captain Mark Clark, who was also killed by police in the raid. Haas’s fellow Panthers attorney, Flint Taylor, had lingered to examine the bullet-ridden walls when he overheard a woman muttering that the police raid was “nothin’ but a Northern lynching.” The phrase evoked the murder of Emmett Till, but in a place where Black people had come to escape.

On Dec. 9, 1969, 14 years after glimpsing Emmett’s ravaged body, Chicagoans streamed through the Rayner Funeral Home again, this time to pay their respects at the open casket of Hampton.

He was just 21, and Iberia Hampton’s worst fears had come true.


An earlier version of this article misstated the first name of the FBI director in the 1960s. It was J. Edgar Hoover, not Herbert Hoover. The article has been corrected.

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Emmett Till’s mother opened his casket and sparked the civil rights movement