Hampton was an African American activist and revolutionary socialist. He came to prominence in Chicago as chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP), and deputy chairman of the national BPP.
He founded the Rainbow Coalition, a multicultural political organisation that initially included the Black Panthers, Young Patriots, and the Young Lords, and an alliance among major Chicago street gangs to help them end infighting and work for social change.
The FBI had identified him as a radical threat, trying to subvert his activities in Chicago. Hampton was shot and killed in his bed during a predawn police raid at his Chicago apartment by a tactical unit of the Cook County State's Attorney's Office together with the Chicago Police Department and the FBI. Another Panther, Mark Clark, was also killed and several others were seriously wounded.
An informant, William O’Neal, had provided police with detailed information about Hampton's apartment in advance. He had also slipped a barbiturate sleep agent into Hampton’s drink, so that he wouldn’t wake during the raid.
Hampton was hit in the shoulder as he lay in his bed; another witness said he was then shot twice in the head by police.
Police claimed they had faced a barrage from inside the apartment, although later evidence revealed they had fired over 90 bullets and just one gun from the Panthers had been fired (at the ceiling). Seven Panthers were initially charged with attempted murder.
A civil lawsuit was later filed on behalf of the survivors and the relatives of Hampton and Clark. It was resolved in 1982 by a settlement of $1.85 million.
Given revelations about the COINTELPRO program and documents associated with the killings, several authors and historians have argued that Hampton's death should be considered an assassination.