Local Activist Killed in Chicago Alongside Legendary Panther Fred Hampton 30 Years Ago

PEORIA -- The killing of well-known Black Panther leader Fred Hampton by Chicago police 30 years ago on December 4, 1969 was one of the critical turning points in the history of the urban civil rights’ movement. Today, however, few people outside a local cadre of civil rights’ veterans — and fewer still among the area’s general population — remember that Peorian Mark Clark also lost his life in that polarizing tragedy which had national repercussions.

Clark, then 22, was in Chicago to attend organizing and strategy sessions of Black Panther leaders from throughout the state, according to U.S. Congressman Bobby L. Rush (D-1st, IL), a current 4-term representative whose district includes Chicago’s South Side. Rush, 53, was a founding member of the Illinois Black Panthers who served as the group’s Minister of Defense in the late 1960s.

“Mark Clark was a quiet leader,” Congressman Rush noted at the site of the Hampton-Clark killings, 2337 W. Monroe St. on Chicago’s West Side, during a recent commemoration of the event. “He was one of those people whose strength came from within.”

Clark’s death was anything but quiet. According to published newspaper reports, 14 police officers assigned to the office of then Cook County State’s Attorney Edward V. Hanrahan stormed an apartment occupied by seven Black Panthers in a 4:40 a.m. raid while most of those inside were sleeping. A federal grand jury, in fact, determined that the police fired between 82 and 99 shots at the people in the flat. Only one shot was proven to have come from a Panther gun. Hampton was killed by two rifle shots to the head as he slept on a mattress, noted the Chicago Sun-Times. Four other Panthers were wounded along with two police officers.

Clark, notably, may have been the only member of the household who was able to come to the aid of his comrades. Accounts in the Journal Star at the time of the incident state that an officer at the scene claimed “Clark fired at him from behind a second door. He said Clark’s shotgun apparently jammed as he was attempting to fire a second time. Clark was hit twice, the fatal wound being in the heart.” Other conflicting reports at the time contend Clark fired no weapon at all.

Whatever the truth, the ensuing controversy over who was to blame, who should be punished, and who would ultimately pay led to an enormous 12-year court battle. A partial roster of the agencies involved is a testament to the incredible reach of the proceedings: the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. Attorney General, the U.S. Court of Appeals and a special federal grand jury, not to mention the City of Chicago and Cook County.

In the end, the case reportedly became one of the longest and costliest civil lawsuits in federal court history. A $1.85M settlement in the early 1980’s was split between the raid survivors, families of Hampton and Clark, and their lawyers.

Attorneys for the victims at the time contend the “settlement (was) a clear admission by federal, county and city authorities that there was a conspiracy to murder Fred Hampton and Mark Clark and destroy the Blank Panther Party,” reported the Chicago Tribune. Opposing opinions posit that government lawyers agreed to the settlement to head off continued litigation in an interminably long legal nightmare.

Though charges were filed, no police officers or other officials were convicted in the Panther case. It is generally believed, however, that Hanrahan’s political career was severely damaged by the affair and its aftermath.

Clark was one of 17 children of the Rev. and Mrs. William Elder Clark. Rev. Clark was a well-known Pentecostal minister who died several months prior to his son’s death. Mrs. Clark lived in Michigan for many years after her son died. She reportedly later returned to the Peoria area where she died three months ago. Several Clark children still live in central Illinois while others reside out of state.

“Certainly, Mark Clark should be considered one the martyrs to the cause of black dignity and human equality,” the Rev. Blaine Ramsey, pastor at Davis Memorial Chapel in LaGrange, IL. and a one-time Peoria minister, declared in a recent phone interview. “He came to my church (in 1969) and asked me, ‘Rev. Ramsey, can we use Ward Chapel A.M.E. for our breakfast program?’ And I consented to it — no other church in Peoria would open their doors — for what I considered a worthwhile endeavor. There were a number of little children who really needed a good breakfast.”

Rev. Ramsey, 75, recalled that the Peoria Black Panthers’ breakfast program for children headed by Clark served approximately 30 students Monday through Friday for six months.

“Mr. Clark was committed, very warm, very affable, and he had a dedication to help his people,” maintained Rev. Ramsey, who served as head of Ward Chapel A.M.E. for three years (1966-1969) prior to moving to Springfield to lead a special racial justice task force of the Illinois Council of Churches. “At the same time, Mr. Clark was of the avant garde and these people were not very well received. He preached a very radical black self-help philosophy. And people were not really ready for him.”

Ready or not, many people in Peoria’s African-American community were deeply affected by Clark’s death. “At the time, I was really sad about it,” Doris Lilly stated when reminded of the anniversary this week. “It was very wrong the way the police handled the situation. Very unfair and racially motivated. Very wrong.”

An accountant with the Peoria Urban League and a long-time member of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Lilly, 50, said she was a classmate of Clark’s during their junior high years at Roosevelt School. “He was a quiet person,” recalled this veteran of area civil rights marches in the 1950s and 60s.

Memories of Clark evoke stronger passions for other fellow Peorians, especially for one of his remaining family members. George Clark, 58, still recoils at the thought of his brother’s death. “I’ve just kind of put it out of my mind. Other people in my family like to remember, but I like to forget. It just brings up bad memories for me,” explained this city street department inspector and former Army specialist by phone this week.

Clark’s brother did offer that some of his family planned to attend 30th anniversary ceremonies December 4 in Chicago. Scheduled activities include a commemoration 6-10 p.m. at the National People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement center at 5409 S. Halsted and a candle light vigil from midnight to 2 a.m. at the site of the original police raid. No local events are planned.

When asked about his brother’s legacy, Clark made the point that “I’m sure (Mark and his colleagues) should be remembered. He’s one of the people that came out with the breakfast program for children. There were many positive things he tried to do here. I think that should be recognized and remembered.”

The young Clark’s final resting place is Springdale Cemetery, the repository for many of the city’s most acclaimed personalities. Having worked alongside him, Rev. Ramsey also served Clark one last time by presiding over his funeral. Held at the no-longer-standing Freedom Hall at First and State streets, the services were “very solemn” noted Rev. Ramsey.

Prior to the funeral, Clark’s body lay in state at the Tench W. Parks Funeral Home (now Colonial Chapels) clad in “trousers, jacket and black beret worn by local Panthers,” according to newspaper reports.

Though much progress across the nation has occurred for blacks and other minorities in the decades following those December 1969 killings, one need not search far for examples of the overt underlying causes that spawned defense groups like the Black Panthers and leaders like Mark Clark.

Over the summer, avowed racist Benjamin Smith, who lived for a time in Morton and had ties to an East Peoria-based hate group, went on a killing spree directed at minorities in Illinois and Indiana. And just last week, the Klu Klux Klan was active in an open recruitment of Pekin-area teen-agers.

It’s little wonder that the ever-shrinking number of those who do remember Mark Clark will never forget him and his work cut short at an early age.

“Oh, yeah. People still remember him,” Clark replied when asked if he still receives acknowledgments from other Peorians concerning his late brother. “Every once in a while people will bring him up.”

Appeared with Clark photo in the Journal Star (Peoria, IL), December 12, 1999.
Grave marker photo by LJM.