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Bobby Hutton was one of three children born in Jefferson County, Arkansas, to John D. Hutton and Dolly Mae Mitchner-Hutton. When he was three years old, his family moved to Oakland, California, after they were visited by nightriders intimidating and threatening blacks in the area.
Hutton met Black Panther Party founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale at the North Oakland Neighborhood Anti-Poverty Center, a "government-funded agency that employed local youth to work on community service projects." In October 1966, the 16-year-old Hutton became the first member and the first treasurer of the Black Panther Party. In May 1967, Hutton was one of thirty Panthers who traveled to the California state capitol in Sacramento to demonstrate against the Mulford Act, a bill that would prohibit carrying loaded firearms in public. The group walked into the state assembly armed; Hutton and four other Panthers were arrested.
On the night of April 6, 1968, Bobby was killed by Oakland Police officers after Eldridge Cleaver led him and twelve other Panthers in an ambush of the Oakland Police, during which two officers were seriously wounded by multiple gunshot wounds. The impetus for the police ambush was the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4. The ambush, which Cleaver admitted he led, turned into a shoot-out between the Panthers and the Oakland police at a house in West Oakland. About 90 minutes later Hutton and Cleaver surrendered after the police tear-gassed the building.
Eldridge Cleaver stated that police shot Bobby more than twelve times after he had surrendered and had stripped down to his underwear to prove that he was unarmed. The police maintained that Hutton attempted to run away and ignored orders to stop. According to Eldridge Cleaver, one Oakland police officer who witnessed the shoot-out later told him: "What they did was first degree murder." Cleaver and two police officers were also wounded.
Hutton's funeral was held on April 12 at the Ephesians Church of God in Berkeley, California. About 1,500 people attended the funeral and a rally held afterwards in West Oakland was attended by over 2,000 people, including actor Marlon Brando and author James Baldwin. He was buried at Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, but did not have a gravestone until 2003, 35 years after his death.
Bobby Hutton's death at the hands of the Oakland police was seen by those sympathetic to the Black Panther Party as an example of police brutality against blacks. At the time, Cleaver falsely claimed that the Oakland police had attacked the Panthers; he did not publicly admit to having ambushed the police and seriously wounding two officers until 1980. Hutton was the first Panther to die and "immediately became a martyr for the cause of black power."
DeFremery Park in West Oakland, California, was unofficially named after Bobby Hutton not long after his death. "Lil' Bobby Hutton Day" has been held annually at the park since April 1998. Organized by family members and former and current Black Panther Party members, the memorial event features speakers, performers, and art works commemorating Hutton's black consciousness and dedication to the party.
The 1968 album Together, by Country Joe and the Fish, was dedicated to Hutton.
He is mentioned by Tupac Shakur in the song "Ghetto Gospel", the Smif-N-Wessun song "Still Fighting," the Bhi Bhiman song "Up in Arms", "Get Up" by The Coup and Dead Prez as well as the Dead Prez song "RGB Till' I Die" and in Bishop Lamont's "Land of the Free".
He appears on the cover of the Primal Scream single "Star".
He is the subject of a portrait by the socially engaged artist Brett Cook.