Robert James Hutton packed a lifetime of activism into less than two decades. His untimely death 53 years ago this month became a rallying cry against police brutality, foreshadowing the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020.
What might motivate a teenage boy in the 1960s to join an organization like the Black Panthers? For Bobby Hutton, the experience of everyday life as an African American in the Jim Crow south was all it took. Bobby and his family lived in the area of Pine Bluff known as “Pot Liquor.” When Bobby was a toddler, his family was harassed by racist vigilante groups associated with the Ku Klux Klan. In 1953, when Bobby was about three years old, his parents moved the family to Oakland, California, hoping to escape the threats.
The history books don’t say much about Hutton’s life as a young boy, but it seems safe to assume that life in California wasn’t racism-free. In December 1966, Hutton happened to meet Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, founders of the newly formed Black Panther Party for Self Defense, at the North Oakland Anti-Poverty Center. Intrigued by their Ten-Point Program for racial justice and eager to make a difference in his community, Hutton became the Black Panther Party’s first recruit. At just sixteen, he was their youngest member, and he became their first treasurer.
Hutton jumped right into the action. On May 2, 1967, he participated in a demonstration organized by the Black Panther Party at the California State Capitol Building in Sacramento to protest the Mulford Act, which prohibits the carrying of firearms in any public place. Hutton was arrested with several other members for carrying weapons into the State Capital. He was again arrested on May 22, 1967 for violating an 1887 law prohibiting the carrying of firearms adjacent to a jail.
On April 6, 1968, two days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and with riots raging across cities in the United States, Hutton was traveling by car with Eldridge Cleaver and other Black Panthers. The group confronted Oakland Police officers. During the melee, two police officers were shot. Hutton and Cleaver fled to an apartment building where they engaged in a ninety-minute shootout with police officers. Ultimately, Cleaver was wounded, and Hutton voluntarily surrendered. According to Cleaver, although Hutton had stripped down to his underwear and had his hands raised in the air to prove that he was unarmed, Oakland Police shot Hutton more than twelve times, leading to his death. Police reports claimed that Hutton was attempting to run away, and his hands were not visible.
The death of Hutton was a major event in the party’s history, angering the Black Panthers and becoming the rallying cry against police brutality across the nation. His funeral on April 12, 1968 was attended by approximately 1,500 mourners. 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.
In 1968, Country Joe and the Fish dedicated the album Together to Hutton. He is also mentioned in the following songs: Tupac Shakur’s “Ghetto Gospel,” (released posthumously in 2004), Smif-N-Wessun’s “Still Fighting” (2007), and Bhi Bhiman’s “Up in Arms” (2007). Hutton’s image appears on the cover of the single “Star” by Primal Scream (1989).
Every April since Hutton’s death, family and friends have held a memorial service at DeFremery Park, which, in 1998, was renamed Bobby Hutton Park by the City of Oakland, California. Around the same time, the Commemoration Committee for the Black Panther Party organized the Lil’ Bobby Hutton Literacy Campaign.
More than 50 years after Hutton’s death, the eradication of racism in America remains unfinished business. What would Bobby Hutton have to say about our situation today?
Learn more about Bobby Hutton in this video, part of Explore Pine Bluff’s Delta Civil Rights Legacy Trail
Sources: EncyclopediaofArkansas.com, Blackpast.org, NPR.org