Stories you may not have heard, and may never hear from anyone else.
In the late 1960’s, young black martial artists in their mid 20’s had been meeting and training at various locations in and near Los Angeles. The group included many who had trained in Ed Parker’s Kenpo as well as Hapkido, Shorin-ryu, Tae kwon do, Lima lama , Tang soo do, five animal system Gung-fu, Okinawa-Te and Shotokan.
As a reflection of the times, there was a push for a united voice in sport karate. 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.
It was said that the decisive factor for forming the Black Karate Federation (BKF) was the infamous 1969 tournament between Joe Lewis and Sijo Muhammad, known then as Steve Sanders. Everyone, including Joe Lewis, acknowledged that Sijo was cheated out of a win. All of these elements brought about awareness for the need of a new strategy.
They reasoned that if they united together, they could stand as one. With the intent of establishing an organization for blacks in the martial arts, the group examined 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, “Seven Samurai.” The group included Sijo, Cliff Stewart, Jerry Smith, Ron Chapel, Donnie Williams, Karl Armelin and Curtis Pulliam. Smith recalls the group as being the right mix of people at the right time. It created a great and unbeatable mix of techniques and talent.
It was also said that Sijo was the spark 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. This was the birth of the Black Karate Federation (BKF).
Sijo was unanimously selected to be the organization’s first president. Jerry Smith became the first vice-president; Cliff Stewart the secretary, Ron Chapel the technique historian and Karl Armelin was treasurer. From this core group, which included Donnie Williams and Curtis Pulliam, the Black Karate Federation was officially founded.
No one could have predicted their efforts would spawn leaders in the fields of law enforcement, medicine, motion pictures and sports. In an era of high hopes, government attempts at sabotage, the rise of new Los Angeles street gangs and the desperate need for
heroes within the black community, the BKF provided a way for talented inner-city youth, of all races, in South Central Los Angeles to strive to be successful in whatever they chose to do. Generations that followed, of all backgrounds, benefited from the evolution of this truly American expression of an African American martial arts tradition.
The 103rd Street School in South Central Los Angeles was the first home of BKF champions. Those were long and infamous days of complete dedication to training. “If the windows did not fog up during a workout, it was not considered a workout.”
In the early days, the entire 103rd St. school would jog in formation throughout the neighborhood while chanting cadence. From the dojo, we would run north to Sportsman Park (now Jesse Owens Park).
In the BKF’s first group appearance, the Lima Lama tournament in 1971, a large number of students walked into the event in single file, with military precision and all carrying briefcases. Each briefcase contained a fighter’s starched and folded karate uniform or gi. They wanted people to know they were there to take care of business.
Other well known martial arts champions such as Joe Lewis, Cecil People and Benny Urquidez, frequently came to the school to train because they always knew they could get a good workout there and they could aggressively prepare for their tournament battles.
The 103rd Street School also gained its fame as the location chosen to film a portion of the immortal martial arts film, “Enter the Dragon,” which starred Bruce Lee. The film contains a scene in which Jim Kelly (‘Williams’) goes into the karate school to say good-bye to his instructor (Sijo).
The 103rd Street School performed a service to the community by keeping youth out of gangs and away from drugs. The fact that five out of the seven BKF founding members were Vietnam veterans, four of whom later became public servants in law enforcement, didn’t prevent the school from being scrutinized by local law enforcement and government.
A short while after the 103rd Street School was established, an official branch of the BKF was developed at the Sheenway Kindergarten and Culture Center, located at 101st and Broadway in Los Angeles. The center was founded and operated by Dr. Herbert A. Sheen, and his daughter Dolores, who later became the executive director and expanded the Sheenway program to include the martial arts. Ms. Dee and her son, Erin Blunt, (co-star in “The Bad News Bears,” “Car Wash” and other films between 1976 and 1978), also became students in the BKF.
Two of the notable assistant BKF instructors at Sheenway were Alvin Hilliard and his brother Melvin ‘Sugar Bear’ Hilliard (aka The Fighting Hilliard’s).
Another BKF school opened in 1976 at 42nd and Crenshaw Blvd. in Los Angeles. Also under the leadership of Sijo, 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, BKF fighter Cynthia Prouder, also excelled in competition and later became a professional boxer and actress in the movie, “Million Dollar Baby.”
The Crenshaw school was also home to veteran actor/comedian Stu Gilliam, with more than 21 film and television shows including the Wiz and host comedian on Hugh Hefner’s Playboy after dark. He is the oldest BKF member to earn his black belt. Stu later became the official historian for the BKF.
In all of the BKF schools, particularly in the early years, the military style of discipline and training combined with inner city determination and tough street smarts, forged a powerful statement of unity.
For those of you who are new to the history of BKF, and possibly not even alive when this history was being made, here are just a few more of Sijo’s original champion BKF fighters:
These were some of the people, schools and events that shaped the Black Karate Federation and now you know the rest of the story.