The police in Illinois, where Fred Hampton was born to Louisiana-born parents, were regularly harassing people who looked like him. In places with a large black population, access to social goods was also made difficult, if not impossible. As a result, Hampton found a natural home with the Black Panther Party.
Huey Newton and fellow student Bobby Seale founded the party, which advocated for a Black Nationalist response to racial injustice. The Illinois chapter of the party was founded in 1967, and Hampton, then 20 years old, became a member in 1968. He was also a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) during the time, serving as the youth leader of the Chicago branch’s West Suburban chapter.
Hampton’s charisma, leadership abilities, and brilliance began to shine for the Black Panthers. Hampton led the Illinois chapter of the Panthers when Stokely Carmichael’s Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) broke from the Panthers in 1969. Students of the time feel Hampton could have risen further in national fame from his home state of Illinois if he hadn’t been assassinated largely thanks to William O’Neal.
The FBI compelled O’Neal, then a petty felon, into helping them crush Hampton and the Black Panther Party. And when he infiltrated the party and gave the FBI a floor diagram of the Chicago flat where Hampton was slain in 1969, he did exactly that.
As his role in the 1969 raid that killed Hampton and another Black Panther commander became public, O’Neal was despised by some and praised by others for the rest of his life. Many people believe his death in 1990 was caused by his remorse regarding his participation as an FBI informant. O’Neal was murdered after seemingly walking in front of a speeding automobile. His death was determined to be a suicide.
However, before his death, the mysterious O’Neal, who could play any part the FBI required, appeared to declare he had no option but to accept such assignments.
In 1966, he was tracked down by FBI Agent Roy Martin Mitchell after stealing a car and driving it across state borders to Michigan. Mitchell informed him in his teens that if he agreed to work for the FBI and infiltrate the Panthers, he could forget about the stolen car accusation.
The Panther Party was known at the time for displaying guns, fighting police brutality, and providing for the black community. O’Neal decided to infiltrate the party, and after being admitted, he became the group’s security head. According to reports, he became Hampton’s security chief and had access to Panther headquarters and safe houses.
Unbeknownst to Panther leaders, William O’Neal was also working as an FBI informant, giving the bureau crucial intelligence. He finally provided the floor layout of Hampton’s west-side residence, which was utilized to plan the raid that killed Hampton and his Panther colleague.
“I believe he felt remorseful for what he had done. In 1990, O’Neal’s uncle, Ben Heard, said, “He felt the FBI was merely going to raid the house.” When word of O’Neal’s FBI activity spread, he went under the identity of William Hart and entered the federal witness protection program.
O’Neal rarely spoke about his undercover years, but he did say in a 1984 interview with the Tribune, one of his last public appearances, that he “thrived” in his work with law enforcement, even if he eventually recognized he was “only a piece in a very big game.”
He admitted that his undercover job made him “restless, yet without sorrow.” ”If you ask me if the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, I believe they do.”
”If I look back at myself, I believe I would be in jail or dead if I had never met Mitchell,” he says.
”If you ask me if I am a happy man, I will tell you that I am not happy; in fact, I am not even content.”
So, how much did he get paid for his services?
“In general, I was paid in cash, and usual sums would have ranged from $300 to $500 depending on my requirements. In a 1989 interview, O’Neal claimed, “If I asked for a specific amount, I knew I could get it.”
“But the payments were sporadic; I mean, Mitchell figured out early on that spending money was the fastest way to blow your cover. I was also living in the Panther environment, in a Panther house, which they called a crib, where I was eating and sleeping with them 24 hours a day, so I had very little need for money, and I was always assured that my money was being held in trust and that I could draw from it, draw down on it anytime I got ready, or any time I had a legitimate need that would not compromise my security. I suppose I couldn’t have obtained a thousand dollars or two thousand dollars from the FBI at any point.”
After covertly returning to Chicago from California in 1984, O’Neal worked for an attorney in downtown Chicago until his death. He divorced his first wife and remarried with a five-month-old baby, but he remained reclusive and had few acquaintances.
On the Saturday before his death, O’Neal traveled to his uncle’s house in Maywood to spend time with him. ”He kept going to the washroom on Sunday night,” his uncle Heard recounted. ”He was in there for quite some time. He tried to go out the window the previous time he came out. I yanked him back, but he bolted and headed straight for the expressway.”
Heard explained, “I was just wearing my house shoes and jeans.” “I couldn’t chase him down like that. I wouldn’t have been able to catch him anyway. ‘Lord, it sounds like somebody got hit on the expressway!’ remarked a woman who stood in front of the house.
And that was how O’Neal, who was 40 years old at the time, died. He “ran down the embankment near 5th Avenue, crossed the eastbound lanes, and was struck by a car in the westbound lanes,” according to police.
That was O’Neal’s second time doing it; the first time he did it, in September 1989, he was hurt. In 1990, Bill Hampton, Fred Hampton’s brother, remarked, “The act (of becoming an informant) he performed was wrong and ignorant.” ”It’s something he attempted but couldn’t live with.”