Where is Deborah Johnson now? Real story of Fred Hampton's fiancée Akua Njeri whom cops ‘grabbed by the hair’
Not only Fred Hampton's activism but his love story with Deborah Johnson was also cut short by the tragedy
Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party (BPP), lost his life to an FBI raid in December 1969 when he was horrifically shot and killed in his bed. Inspired by true events, ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ sheds the spotlight on that era and how FBI informant William O'Neal betrayed him.
Not only Hampton's activism but his love story with Deborah Johnson was also cut short by the tragedy. Directed by Shaka King, their beautiful relationship forms the crux of the movie. But how true is the movie to real life? How did Deborah — who has now changed her name to Akua Njeri — first lock eyes with Fred? Let's turn the pages of history books and take a look at what really happened.
Who is Deborah Johnson?
A prominent writer and activist, Deborah Johnson was inspired by social issues around her since the age of 12, a drive that probably came from her “blood line”. As a young lady, she would strut around streets protesting slumlords and attending Martin Luther King, Jr's marches. In the late 1960s, when she was 17, she attended an event sponsored by a Chicago college’s Black Student Union that changed her life.
“Njeri is a large woman with a fondness for long flowing African gowns that make her presence all the more imposing,” Adam Langer once described her. “She commands attention just by walking into a room. But despite her radical past and her continued allegiance to anti-establishment causes, she displays a certain quiet amiability. Stern yet approachable, she brings to mind a caring yet exacting grade school teacher.”
Reminiscing old memories, Njeri said in an interview, “The Black Panther Party with Fred Hampton and some other members came over to Wright City College, and I heard them speak. Prior to that, I had seen, ah, Fred Hampton, Bobby Rush, Iris, and I think her husband, on Ronnie Barrett's, ah, Chicago Show.” Confessing she was impressed by Fred's knowledge of history, she added, “He seemed to really be sincere, believing in what he was doing.”
What caught her attention was how Fred took over the interview even though Ronnie Barrett seemed to be trying to cut him off. A survivor of the December 4 assassination, she then went on to pen down an in-depth article and a book narrating her experience. Every year, since his death, Njeri has celebrated Fred's life with public memorial service.
How did Deborah Johnson and Fred Hampton meet?
Sketching out details of their first meeting, Deborah said in the same interview, “When Fred came over to Wright City College, it was the first time that I actually met him. I knew from seeing him on TV that I would meet him, though... I knew, too, that I would have his baby. I tried to get some friends to go and listen to them because I didn't want to go by myself. But, some of them didn't want to go. So I went in and I sat down in the front, and I heard them, I heard Fred speak. Afterward, I introduced myself to him.”
Love blossomed in the following days and in early October 1968, Hampton and his fiancee rented a four-and-a-half-room apartment at 2337 West Monroe Street to be closer to BPP headquarters. She was nine months pregnant then.
Just 19 then, Deborah was with Fred on the night of the raid. Armed with a map, cops burst through the doors and showered a series of bullets. The events of the horrific night remained fresh in Deborah's mind for a long time. “I remember it like it was yesterday. The police knocked on the door (around 4.35 am) and Defense Captain Mark Clark (who headed up the Black Panther’s Peoria chapter) answered the door by saying, ‘Who is it?’ The police said, ‘Tommy.” And Mark responded, ‘Tommy who?’ Then the police responded back, ‘Tommy gun.’ After that, the police kicked in the front door and started shooting. And Mark was killed instantly.”
Fred was shot dead in the next few moments and 25 days later, she gave birth to their son. The night turned out to be the biggest catastrophe in her life.
What happened to Deborah Johnson after the raid?
Shedding light on Fred's last few moments, Deborah said they called his mother to tell her they wouldn't come that night. Fred fell asleep while talking to her and she couldn't wake him up. The first thing she remembered about the next morning was being awakened by somebody shaking Fred saying, “Chairman, Chairman, wake up, the pigs are vamping, the pigs are vamping!”
Describing how the cops manhandled her, she said, “The policeman grabbed me by the hair and pretty much just shoved me — I had more hair then — pretty much just shoved me into the kitchen area.” She asked for a policeman to pin up her robe because it was open and heard someone say, “He's barely alive, he'll barely make it,” adding, “He's good and dead now.”
“I didn't see Fred's body as I left the apartment... I was afraid of what I would see. And I didn't know what I would do if I saw Fred there bloody or dead. So I didn't look down; I didn't look around; I just looked straight ahead, and really concentrated on walking straight, not stumbling, really lifting my feet up, you know, so that I wouldn't fall,” she continued. After that night, she was taken into custody. She vaguely recalled being charged with two counts of attempted murder and aggravated assault. “I was pregnant and could possibly have my baby at any time due to the stress and everything that happened,” she recalled. Along with other members of the Black Panther Party, she decided not to attend the grand jury investigation as they felt it was not seeking to find out the truth about what actually happened in the apartment.
Where is Deborah Johnson now?
After being taken being the bars, it was Bobby Rush — co-founder of the Illinois Black Panthers chapter — who told her Fred was dead killed. Thousands of supporters helped raise money for a $100,000 bail and Njeri was released first. Fred Hampton, Jr was born on December 29, 1969.
Over the years, she dedicated her life to several social causes. Not only has she written the book ‘My Life with the Black Panther Party’ but also served as the president of the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement — an interracial organization dedicated to self-determination for Black Americans — and the chairperson of the December 4th Committee — which fights to defend and maintain the legacy of the Black Panther Party. She is also associated with a campaign to rename a block in Chicago, 2300 W Monroe, as Chairman Fred Hampton Way.
Fondly remembering her old days with him, she called him “dynamic and charismatic.” Reflecting back on his life, Njeri once confessed Fred a good sense of humor but “could not dance” and called him “my role model, my hero and my best friend.”
The movie ‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ will release in theaters and on HBO Max on Friday, February 12, 2021. It drops at 12 am PT or 3 am ET and is available for streaming on HBO Max for 31 days. The subscription costs $14.99 a month.