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Bobby Hutton: The Killing That Catapulted The Black Panthers To Fame


Next we have a bit of hidden history from 50 years ago today. We recall what happened, of course, on April 4, 1968, when Martin Luther King was killed. Karen Grigsby Bates of our Code Switch team reports on what happened two days later.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: April 6, 1968. While plans went forward in Atlanta for Dr. King's funeral, Oakland's Black Panther Party had plans of its own.

KATHLEEN CLEAVER: There was a plan on the part of several carloads of Panthers that evening after Martin Luther King was killed that they were going to do something to retaliate.

BATES: That's Kathleen Cleaver, a former Black Panther Party officer. Today, Cleaver teaches law at Emory University. In 1968, she was a Black Panther married to Eldridge Cleaver, one of the organization's most prominent and polarizing members. Several cities had gone up in flames after King's assassination. Oakland had not, in part because Black Panthers circulated in many of Oakland's black neighborhoods urging people to be cool. Kathleen Cleaver says the relationship between these neighborhoods and Oakland's police force has a difficult history.

CLEAVER: The Oakland police beat up a lot of people. They were considered brutal, arrogant. And one of the issues in the Oakland police is that the Oakland police were, in many cases, not from Oakland.

BATES: Eldridge Cleaver believed the police would soon find a reason to violently discipline the more radical elements of his community, so he engineered what he called a preemptive strike against the police. Bobby Hutton, a 17-year-old who joined the Panthers to police the police, was there.

RICKEY VINCENT: Little Bobby Hutton represented for everyone sort of the next wave.

BATES: Rickey Vincent lectures at Berkeley and Cal Arts about the cultural legacy of the Black Panther Party. His mother was a Panther.

VINCENT: He was the youth. He was the person that folks thought was going to carry forward the vision of the party.

BATES: So an April 6, against the advice of older Panthers, some of the younger members of the party went looking to confront the police. Charles Jones, head of the Africana Studies department at the University of Cincinnati, edited "The Black Panther Party (Reconsidered), a book of essays on Panther history. Jones described the confrontation this way.

CHARLES JONES: Unfortunately, it was the consequences of an ill-advised military operation initiated and led by Eldridge Cleaver.

BATES: The Panthers and several carloads of police exchanged fire. At one point, Cleaver and Hutton holed up in the basement of the home of two elderly sisters. When one of the incoming bullets caught fire, Cleaver told Hutton they needed to surrender to avoid being burned alive. Charles Jones.

JONES: Eldridge's been wise, has spent many years in prison, understood the stakes at hand and tried to persuade Little Bobby Hutton to come out of the home completely nude.

BATES: That way, Jones said, it would be obvious to police that Hutton was no threat - but Hutton refused. Kathleen Cleaver explains.

CLEAVER: He was embarrassed. And he took off his shirt, but he didn't want to take off his pants. And he came out of the basement with his hands in the air, and they shot him.

BATES: Most reports say the 17-year-old was shot at least 10 times. Eldridge Cleaver was injured but survived. Eldridge Cleaver falsely claimed the police ambushed the Panthers, a claim he did not correct for over a decade. And many in the Bay Area were outraged that the unarmed young man had been killed. We called the Oakland Police Department for comment and have not heard back. On April 12, 1968, more than a thousand people came to Bobby Hutton's funeral. Actor and activist Marlon Brando gave the eulogy and afterward addressed an even bigger crowd at a local park. He told them white America needed to understand that racism was turning black America into a ticking time bomb.


MARLON BRANDO: And somehow, that has to be translated to the white community now. Time's running out for everybody.

BATES: Hutton's death catapulted the Black Panthers from a local group to a national organization that eventually had several chapters throughout the United States. And though he's gone, Little Bobby Hutton lives on in a day annually dedicated to his memory. Tomorrow, many from Oakland's myriad communities will observe Bobby Hutton Day again, and they'll gather in Bobby Hutton Grove, part of a public park that now bears his name. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.


Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.