Controversial death comes days after King's assassination in Memphis
On April 6, 1968, America was in turmoil.
Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated two days earlier while standing on a second-floor balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. His killer was on the loose and the U.S. Army was in Chicago quieting the riots that had erupted in the wake of King's murder.
That night, gunfire ripped through the streets of West Oakland. When it was over, four men were wounded and a young man named Bobby Hutton was dead, less than three weeks before his 18th birthday.
An April 7, 1968, article in the Oakland Tribune describes a scene of violence. Two police officers pulled over to question the occupants of several cars parked on Union Street and one was shot as he stepped out from the passenger side of his cruiser. His partner was grazed by buckshot and a total of 49 bullets pierced their car while another patrol car was burned.
The newspaper went on to report that after the officers radioed for help, a few suspects ran into a house on 28th Street and others to a residence on Union. More officers arrived and a gunbattle erupted. Some residents of the house on 28th St. left the building before police launched tear gas and a fire ignited. Eventually, Black Panther Party members Bobby Hutton and Eldridge Cleaver emerged.
The details of what happened next were debated then and are still debated today. Police said Hutton, clad in a coat, was acting suspiciously. They told him to halt and he didn't so they opened fire.
Cleaver, one of the Panther's founders and the party spokesman, said that Hutton had stripped to his underwear to prove he was unarmed and was shot more than a dozen times.
Hutton had joined the Panthers nearly two years earlier and embraced their call to protect African-Americans from claims of police brutality. He was the group's first recruit and first treasurer and in 1967 joined other Panthers in Sacramento to protest a bill that prohibited the public from carrying firearms.
His funeral was held six days after the shooting and three days after King's. More than 2,000 people attended the service at the Ephesian Church of God in Christ in Berkeley.
His death fueled the Panthers and is considered a major catalyst in the group's history. It is echoed today in the cases of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old shot in Oakland by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer and 17-year-old Trayvon Martin of Florida, shot and killed by a neighborhood watch coordinator.
Cries of racial profiling surround their deaths much like those voiced after Hutton's killing. The past continues to reverberate.
Image credit: Emory Douglas, 'Lil' Bobby Hutton, Circa 1973. Offset lithograph, 22 x 14.125 in. Collection of the Oakland Museum of California, All Of Us Or None Archive. Fractional and promised gift of The Rossman Family.