Bobby Hutton and Martin Luther King, Jr.: Forty Years On

April 4, 1968 was the day that Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed in Memphis, Tennessee. He had been working with the Memphis sanitation workers in their struggle for better working conditions and a union. The night before his assassination he gave his speech that ended with the words “But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” The next day, he was gunned down on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel by either James Earl Ray and/or persons unknown. Although I am one of those that sincerely doubts Ray’s supposed role in the murder, that is not the purpose of my writing. We will probably never know for certain exactly who conspired to kill Dr. King. We do know whose interests were served by his murder. Many of those same elements of US political and economic society that were served by King’s murder continue to be responsible for much of what goes on in those arenas to this day.

No, my purpose writing today is to talk about another political murder that occurred two days after Dr. King’s. This murder happened across the country in the city of Oakland, California and we know who the murderers were. The murdered man (a young man of 17, in fact) was Bobby Hutton and the murderers were members of the Oakland Police Department. Bobby was the first person to join the Black Panther Party after it was formed by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in 1966. In a rather bitter twist, his murder was also the first murder by law enforcement of a member of the Black Panther Party. By the time, the Party had disappeared from the political landscape, more than thirty members had been killed by various law enforcement agencies. As I write, the government continues its vendetta against former Party members in its attempt to murder Mumia Abu Jamal in Pennsylvania and in its prosecution of the San Francisco 8, to name but two of the better known cases involving party members that are still ongoing. In addition, several former party members languish in prisons around the country—many for crimes they did not commit.

The story around Hutton’s murder is essentially this. After Dr. King’s murder, dozens of cities and towns with large black populations across the United States erupted in what can best be termed as a rebellion. Police departments were quickly overwhelmed and National Guard and regular Army troops were called in to enforce order and protect property. One of the few such cities that experienced very little civil unrest was Oakland, CA. Although the police would not admit it, much of this was due to the role the Black Panther Party played in keeping the lid on things, arguing with angry African-Americans intent on raising hell that any type of insurrectionary activity would provide the notoriously racist Oakland police with an excuse to kill as many black folks as they wanted. The Panthers spent much of the first forty-eight hours after King’s murder diffusing potentially riotous situations throughout the Oakland neighborhoods where they were respected and known.

In circumstances that remain contested to this day, Hutton was murdered either after he left a basement where he and Eldridge Cleaver had hidden following an armed confrontation between the police and some Panthers who were pulled over by police in East Oakland or after he was taken into custody. Either way, he was unarmed. As Cleaver told Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in an interview that appears on the PBS show Frontline, he was told by one of the arresting officers who was at the scene in Oakland on April 6, 1968:

“So I was pulling the trigger to blow your head off, and something told me not to do it.” I (Cleaver) said, “praise the Lord.” He said, “praise the Lord.” He told me, “I am no longer a police officer.” He said, “I have my own private security firm now.” He said, “the reason that they have not been rushing you (Cleaver) to court is because of my testimony and the testimony of 13 other police officers who were there that night who do not agree with what the police did in the way they killed Bobby Hutton.” He said, “they murdered Bobby (Hutton). They murdered my prisoner.” ‘

This information was relayed to Cleaver after he returned from exile and was awaiting trial on charges related to that April 1968 night. Other versions of that night claim that two carloads of Panthers were ambushed by Oakland police. In the chaos that followed the ambush, Cleaver and Hutton escaped and hid in a basement nearby. After a period of time, Hutton and Cleaver surrendered and Hutton left the Building first, unarmed and without a shirt. He was then shot down in cold blood. Either way the story is told, the fact remains that Hutton was murdered by the police.

The murders of King and Hutton within two days of each other convinced many people living in the United States that forces within the US government were intent on destroying the popular struggle against racism and war by any means necessary. The historical evidence since that bloody weekend forty years ago suggests that that those forces were more successful than not. Despite the current campaign by Barack Obama for president, the vast majority of US residents of color are not faring that much better than they were in 1968. Legal apartheid no longer exists and attitudes towards race have progressed, but the economic facts of most of non-white America are appallingly similar to their comparable state forty years ago. Furthermore, the statistics regarding the imprisonment of black and Latino men in the United States provide concrete evidence that the mechanics of racial oppression continue to operate in this country. The criminal justice system continues to be the means by which the predominantly white and essentially racist power structure maintains its control over those who are poor and whose skin is darker in hue. Like I noted above, many of the same elements of US political and economic society that were served by the murder of Dr. King and the destruction of the Black Panther Party continue to be responsible for much of what goes on in those arenas to this day. No matter how one tries to portray the past forty years of this aspect of US history, it is clear that we have not reached the promised land.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way The Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground and Tripping Through the American Night, and the novels Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator's Tale. His third novel All the Sinners, Saints is a companion to the previous two and was published early in 2013. Read other articles by Ron.

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  1. susie day said on April 4th, 2008 at 11:03am #

    Thanks, Ron, for for this little-known history. It’s important to place King’s tragic murder within the context of the larger anti-racist/social change movement. That movement is too easily separated these days into the “wise” anti-violence apostles and the “ego-bound, narcissistic” armed-struggle faction. We forget the common vision of justice and equality that both streams nurtured and developed.

  2. Lloyd Rowsey said on April 4th, 2008 at 6:04pm #

    This is an interesting piece, Ron, and thank you for it. But I can’t agree with your lead sentence in its last paragraph: “The murders of King and Hutton within two days of each other convinced many people living in the United States that forces within the US government were intent on destroying the popular struggle against racism AND WAR by any means necessary. ” (My emphasis.) My memory of the times is that when King and Hutton were assassinated, white anti-war activists in America did NOT perceive those outrages as directed against them in significant part, but instead perceived them as primarily continuing manifestations of white racism.

    Would that historically, black radicals and white anti-war activists had perceived those assassinations so similarly as the quoted sentence suggests. Would that they perceived them so today.

  3. Hans Bennett said on April 8th, 2008 at 7:48am #

    I emjoyed this article, and it reminded me of this little gem from the COINTELPRO papers at the time. One specific tactical approach was expressed in an April 3, 1968 communique urged that “The Negro youth and moderates must be made to understand that if they succumb to revolutionary teaching, they will be dead revolutionaries.”27

    Murdering Bobby Hutton would certainly serve this end, huh?