About the BKF
If you look at the 1960’s, you will see that it was a time of sharp contrasts in America. During this generation, “baby-boomers” spoke a language of peace, love and soul. In 1960, music pioneer Berry Gordy started the Motown Records label. BKF members would later provide security for many of the leading Motown legends of the day. In 1961, optimism was high with the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. By 1962, the U.S. commitment in Vietnam deepened. By 1963, civil rights leader Medgar Evers and President Kennedy were both assassinated. The riots in Watts, California followed in 1965.
In 1967, The Beatles pleaded that, “All You Need is Love,” but that year Newark, N.J. erupted in three days of riots. President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner to head a commission to study the disturbances. The Kerner Commission stated that, despite some political rights for blacks from the civil rights movement, unemployment, ingrained racism and poor housing still remained. The commission concluded that: “Our nation is moving towards two societies: one black, one white – separated and unequal.”
By 1968, the “dream” was crumbling as Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy were both assassinated. As America moved even deeper into Vietnam, Muhammad Ali – world heavyweight boxing champion, icon and hero to millions – had his title stripped and was willing to face jail rather than be drafted to fight an unjust war.
On March 4, 1968, one month before the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), sent a communiqué to field operatives. It specifically identified the Nation of Islam and its founder, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, as well as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SNCC), as primary targets of Hoover’s Counterintelligence Program (COINTELPRO). This operation was the FBI’s secret program to undermine a growing black consciousness that was sweeping the country during the 1960s. COINTELPRO was finally exposed to the public to the public in March 1971, when secret files were removed from an FBI office and released to the news media.
The most serious of the FBI’s strategies for disruption within the black community were those directed at “Black Nationalists” between 1966 and 1971. These programs were supposed to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist, hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership and supporters.”
Agents were instructed to “inspire action in instances where circumstances warrant.” The most intense operations were directed against The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Founded by Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale and later led by Eldrige Clever, the organization was started in 1967 in Oakland, California to patrol black neighborhoods and monitor routine police mistreatment of blacks.
By the mid-1960’s, the influence of men such as Dr. King, who had developed a mass following on the basis of appeals for “equal rights,” was being rapidly supplanted by younger leaders such as SNCC’s Stokley Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, who espoused a much more proactive vision of black empowerment.
These events of the past should not be lost to current practitioners of BKF kenpo because when several black men met in Los Angeles to form an organization in 1969, the cause for which they fought was much in the spirit of the times. As athletes, the founders of the BKF experienced racism in the martial arts and wanted to gain a stronger and more unified voice in sport karate events. These days are a far cry away from the days (1966) when one popular white southern champion openly declared that he did not “want to compete with niggers.” There were times when tournament promoters would intentionally match black competitors against each other and employ other tactics to eliminate black participation. Finally, these pioneering young men who dared to speak up were ostracized and labeled “militants” in the hopes of further discouraging their participation in the martial arts. All of this would continue unabated until the arrival of The Black Karate Federation.
In the late 1960’s, young black martial artist in their mid 20’s had been meeting for some time and training at various locations in and near Los Angeles, such as the Teen Post, Manual Arts High School, the West L.A. Karate Institute, Duarte High School and Manchester Part. The group included Steve Muhammad, Ron Chapel and Curtis Pulliam, who trained in Kenpo; Cliff Stewart (originally from the goju system) had trained in hapkido; Jerry Smith (shorin-ryu), Donnie Williams (taekwondo) and Frenchie Humble, lima lama. Mr. Humble was later killed in Germany in a car accident. There was also Isaiah Williams, Curtis Faust (now Abdul Muhammad), who trained in lima lama, as well as Lloyd Francis, a tang soo do stylist from San Diego, Charles Murphy with the five animal system gung-fu, Jim Kelly with Okinawa-Te (he taught at Vernon Avenue and Broadway in Los Angeles), Bob Owens with shotokan (Owens died in a fatal auto mechanic shop incident) and Hugh Van Putnam, a hapkido practitioner. The group meetings coalesced at Van Ness Park, where every Saturday, dozens of black men would come together, train and exchange techniques.
Another significant martial arts figure in Los Angeles during this period was William Short. At an imposing 6-foot, 4-inch, 278 pounds, “Willie” Short became one of the first African-American to earn a black belt in shotokan karate overseas, which he did in 1953. Short studied shotokan with Kobayashi sensei while stationed in the Air Force at Tachikawa AFB, Japan.
As a reflection of the times, the push for a united voice in sport karate was soon taken up in earnest. Black martial artists were tired of being cheated so often at tournaments. If it was not because of race, it was because of bias towards a particular style or system. Perhaps the decisive factor was the infamous 1969 tournament between Joe Lewis and Steve Sanders. Everyone, including Joe Lewis, acknowledged that Sanders was cheated out of a win. All of these elements brought about an awareness for the need of a new strategy. They reasoned that if they united together, they could stand as one. Cliff Stewart, Ron Chapel and Jerry Smith soon met with the intent of establishing an organization for blacks in the martial arts. It would further motivate the group to see how Asians were representing themselves with organizations such as the Japanese Karate Association (JKA) and the Chinese Martial Arts Association.
The regular Saturday meetings at Van Ness Park attracted dozens of other martial artists and soon a core group began to form. Calling themselves “The Magnificent Seven” after the popular Japanese Samurai film by Akira Kurosawa, the group included Cliff Stewart, Jerry Smith, Ron Chapel, Steve Sanders, Donnie Williams, Karl Armelin and Curtis Pulliam. Smith recalls the group. “We were the right mix of people at the right time,” he says. “We created a great and unbeatable mix of techniques.”
Steve Sanders was the catalyst for those Saturday workouts, and therefore became the unofficial leader of a team who, like the group in the film, was comprised of several distinct, colorful and sometimes clashing personalities. At a follow-up meeting, several names for an organization were suggested. Jerry Smith, whose background was in graphic design, created a few logos with the initials ‘BKF,’ which stood for the Black Karate Federation. During the meeting, several logo designs were introduced to the group.
The organizational structure of the BKF formed with Steve Sanders, the most prominent and visible member of the group. Therefore, he was unanimously selected to be the organization’s first president. Jerry Smith became the first vice-president; Cliff Stewart the secretary, Ron Chapel the technical historian and Karl Armelin was treasurer. From this core group, which included Donnie Williams and Curtis Pulliam, the Black Karate Federation was officially founded.
During this period in 1969, the group of pioneers were young men in their 20’s who were highly influenced by the times. No one could have predicted that in the decades to come, their efforts would spawn leaders in the fields of law, medicine, motion pictures and sports. In an era of high hopes, dismal failures, government attempts at sabotage, the rise of Los Angeles street gangs and the desperate need for heroes within the black community, the BKF provided a way for talented, young black girls and boys in South Central Los Angeles to achieve their fullest potential. Generations of children to come, of all backgrounds, stand to benefit from the continuing evolution of this truly American expression of an ancient African martial arts tradition.
What the early pioneers of the BKF may have lacked in experience, they made up for in enthusiasm and dedication to a cause. Admittedly, there were some who did not fare well in this process of turbulence, change and evolution. By far, however, the lives of thousands of inner city youth – of all ethnic groups – have been enriched forever.
In 1969, a short time after its inception, the BKF began to more actively support and train black fighters in the increasingly visible world of sport karate. Sports in America have provided tremendous opportunities for many professional athletes in modern times such as golf’s Tiger Woods, basketball’s Michael Jordan, and Venus and Serena Williams in tennis.
For blacks in the martial arts in the 1970’s, they saw the potential to forge a new chapter in the American dream. Many BKF fighters would go on to win numerous titles and championships in spite of the challenges and prejudices they faced. Al “Hot Dog” Harvey, noted researcher and first generation BKF student explained that, “We were being groomed in the Jackie Robinson and Arthur Ashe school of martial arts in terms of behavior and how to professionally conduct and represent ourselves. As far as talent was concerned, what we saw Michael Jordan do on the basketball court, we had several athletes like him in the BKF whom we got to see and train with every night.”
Alvin Hilliard, also a first generation BKF student who later became one of the first kickboxing champions remarked, “We were kids, fighting grown men, and beating them! We didn’t know at the time how ground-breaking the achievements we were making actually were.”
Although it was unofficial, the Sheenway School, which we will soon look at, provided one of the first training locations for the BKF. The first official Black Karate Federation School opened in late 1970-71 at 10302 South Western Avenue in Los Angeles. Known as ‘The 103rd Street School,’ it was the home of the original students of the BKF, which included Ronnie Sanders (Steve’s brother); Vountria Tommy Moss, Jr. (the first superstar for the BKF); Frank “Nitty” Wilson, a Crenshaw High school track star who was duded “the fastest human alive”; Ronald Hill; Kraiguar Smith; Sammy Pace; Al “Hot Dog” Harvey; Carl Scott and BKF photographer Carvis “Wildman” Baldwin.
The 103rd Street School was the home of champions and future champions. In those days of fanatical dedication, if the windows did not fog up during a workout, it was not considered a workout… period. Martial arts champions such as Joe Lewis, Cecil People and Benny Urquidez frequented the school to train because they always knew they could get a good workout there. Lewis would come there to prepare for his tournament battles.
The 103rd Street School achieved notoriety as the location chosen to film a portion of the immortal martial arts films, “Enter The Dragon,” which starred Bruce Lee. Released by Warner Bros. Studios in 1973, the film contains a scene in which Jim Kelly (‘Williams’) goes into the karate school to say good-bye to his instructor (Steve Sanders) and the assistant instructor (Donnie Williams).
Some believe that the film’s director, Robert Clouse, and the star, Bruce Lee, originally had Sanders in mind for the role that Kelly eventually got. Kelly, by the way, would use that film to launch a successful, but all-too brief career during the “blaxploitation” period of the 1970’s.
In the ‘Enter The Dragon’ scene, BKF co-founder Jerry Smith, as well as several BKF students, can be identified. As fate would have it, those few seconds of exposure in ‘Enter The Dragon’ has cemented the continuing legacy of the BKF because of Bruce Lee and the global impact that the film continues to have.
Even as history was being made with feature films and world-class black and white martial arts competitors who trained at the 103rd Street School, the BKF still suffered its share of harassment from local law enforcement. In the film “Enter The Dragon,” Williams leaves the karate school and two policemen stop him in an alley. For blacks at that time, and in many instances still today, this event is a familiar occurrence. In the early days, the entire BKF School would jog information throughout the neighborhood while chanting cadence. From the dojo, they would run north to Sportsman Part (now Jesse Owens Park) at the corner of Century and Western Avenue. On one particular occasion, while more than 100 students and their families trained at the part, police helicopters circled overhead and squad cars converged on the park. In another instance, there were reports of strange, unidentified people who would drive up to the school and take pictures through the windows. However, none of this deterred the BKF from performing its service to the community: keeping youth out of gangs and away from drugs.
In fact, nowhere in the history of the BKF can anyone show that BKF students advocated violence or that they were some sort of left or right wing paramilitary group, as some would have preferred the public to believe. Keep in mind how COINTELPRO targeted ‘ANY’ group or organization that sought to raise black consciousness and help black youth feel better about themselves. It mattered not that five out of seven of the BKF founding members were Vietnam veterans, four of whom later became public servants in law enforcement, and one, a spiritual leader of a church. These were the events that shaped the Black Karate Federation.
A short while after the 103rd Street School was established, an official branch of the BKF was developed at the Sheenway Kindergarten Culture Center, located at 10101 Broadway in Los Angeles. Dr. Herbert A. Sheen founded this and his daughter, Dolores ‘Dee’ Sheen, later became the executive director. She and her son, Erin Blunt, (co-star in “The Bad News Bears,” “Car Wash” and other films between 1976 and 1978), became students in BKF Kenpo.
Dee Sheen expanded the Sheenway program in 1971 to include the martial arts. Steve Muhammad has named Dolores ‘The Mother of the BKF’. Assitant BKF instructors such as Alvin Hilliard and his brother Melvin ‘Sugar Bear’ Hilliard (aka The Fighting Hilliard’s) were sent to Sheenway from the 103rd Street School to work with the beginners. They would eventually help to produce champion BKF students such as the irrepressible Terri Dent, Lenny Ferguson (the first African-American to win International Grand Championship in 1975) and Robert Temple, who developed as a talented teacher and competitor. The Sheenway School provided valuable awareness of and commitment lives transformed through the martial arts at Sheenway under the direction of Steve ‘Papa’ Sanders.
The second official BKF School opened in 1971 at 4273 Crenshaw Blvd. in Los Angeles. Gino Barbre, an artist and local businessman at a nearby auto dealer, financed the school. Under the leadership of Steve Sanders, the Crenshaw school became home to BKF champions such as Alvin Prouder, who held four world titles at the same time and surpassed Joe Lewis by winning the coveted Internationals title four times. His sister, Cynthia Prouder, also excelled in competition and later became a professional boxer.
The Crenshaw school was also home to actor/comedian Stu Gilliam, veteran of more than 21 film and television shows since 1968 and one of the oldest BKF members to earn his black belt. Stu became the official griot or historian for the BKF. Around this time, martial artist Jim Kelly, the International middleweight champion in 1971, opened one of three schools a few doors away from the Crenshaw School. Soon however, his commitment to a motion picture career took the bulk of his time. Kelly went on to star in numerous films such as “Black Belt Jones,” “Hot Potato,” “Three the Hard Way” and “Golden Needles.” Nat Moore and Hap Halloway, who became a sponsor of Tournament fighters such as Alvin Prouder, later purchased his schools.
In 1991, Robert Temple and Robert Humphrey opened a BKF school at 10953 South Broadway. That school became established a few years later and Amen Rahh, formerly known as Andre Young, was in charge. With his emphasis on African history and culture, Amen Rahh later relocated to Africa where he opened the first International BKF School in Kenya, Africa in January of 1997.
In all of the BKF schools, particularly in the early years, the military style discipline and training that the students received – combined with inner city determination and tough street smarts – forged a powerful statement of unity. In the group’s first appearance, the Lima Lama tournament in 1971, 150 students walked into the event in single file, with military precision and all carrying… briefcases. Each briefcase contained a fighter’s “armor,” which was their starched and folded karate gi. They wanted people to know they were there to take care of business. Because the group presented a strict, no-nonsense image, the announcer introduced them as the “Black Panther” Karate Federation. Interestingly enough, The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, although they were not affiliated with the Black Karate Federation, became aware of the BKF around 1971 through students Alvin and Melvin, whose uncle David Hilliard (author of ‘This Side Of Glory’ with Louis Cole), was Huey P. Newton’s close associate. However, the BKF was never conscripted into the Black Panther Party, nor any other organization for that matter. They were a family unto themselves whose only concern was to excel in the martial arts. Nonetheless, even in the absence of any political affiliation or aspiration, in later years some BKF founding members, not surprisingly, did reveal that they were aware of the presence of the FBI, which had begun to monitor their activities. The founders spoke of wiretaps, while younger students recounted experiences with police surveillance, frequent stops and questioning.
It was also during this time of dynamic social activity and growing consciousness within the black community in South Central Los Angeles that the antithesis of these good works would find expression with a 15-year-old youth by the name of Raymond Washington. Other local gangs encouraged he and a few of his friends (Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams and Jamiel Barnes) to start their own gang, which they called the “Baby Avenues.” Later, they changed the name to the “Avenue Cribs” and finally the “Crips.” Today, there are Crips gangs across the country and variations in several countries.
For the record, there were a number of street gangs already in existence in Los Angeles before the Crips. However, during these times, there were new, clandestine forces at work that were set in motion to drag black youth into the type of gun violence that characterized this new generation of gangs, such as the Crips and their rivals, the Bloods.
Thousands of lives have been adversely affected since the founding of the Crips in 1969. Interestingly enough, that was the same year that the Black Karate Federation was formed. As previously mentioned, four out of seven BKF founding members were Vietnam veterans. After the military, many of them continued to serve their community and country without recognition. Yet, in an ironic twist of fate, to the surprise and bewilderment of many, Tookie Williams, the founder of the Crips, actually received a nomination from a member of the Swiss legislature for a 2001 Nobel Peace Prize. It was reported that Williams was nominated for his efforts to change his life. He had also authored a series of books about his gang experiences, in the hopes of discouraging youth from the lifestyle he helped to create.
Tookie Williams is remembered within the BKF for brief encounters they had at the now defunct Rio Theater on Imperial and Western Avenues in Los Angeles. On occasion, the BKF was hired to provide security for the theater. However, in an attempt to turn lives of these youth around, Williams and Barnes actually participated in an Upward Bound Program under the direction of a BKF founding member. As time went on, more gang members, hoping to distance themselves from what was quite literally a dead end life-style, actually joined the BKF family and began to train in Kenpo under Steve ‘Papa’ Sanders. With former gang members in their midst, this also attracted local law enforcement to the school. Not surprisingly, later findings seem to indicate that covert COINTELPRO type tactics may have been used to infiltrate the BKF School and sow dissension among its ranks.
Despite these setbacks, the BKF remained committed to helping inner city youth and providing a way to improve their lives. Many well-known celebrities such as Richard Pryor joined with Mable King, Dolores Sheen and Donnie Williams at Sheenway. On one occasion, they offered $92,500.00 to a program that was designed to bring about a gang truce from the destructive activities that have claimed the lives of thousands of youth in the community. Sanders would often teach children for free in their parents were unable to pay, simply to get them off the streets. Many BKF students went on to become doctors, lawyers, and professionals in many diverse fields. Today, they acknowledge a debt of gratitude to grandmasters Sanders and Williams and the entire BKF family that cannot be measured, nor repaid.