Black Karate Federation
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.
12/4/2020 07:56:22 pm
Greetings Honorable Masters of Kenpo I so am trying to find a school or DVD training that I could purchase from you all I live in the deep south of Tennessee please respond thank you.
1/16/2023 03:46:29 pm
Awesome Website and so cool that tribute is made to so many great fighters who were largely responsible for building the West Coast Tournament culture. I was always in awe of the BKF fighters in every tournament I competed in. Every fighter had a unique style and every bout was a learning experience. If I went to a tournament which was associated with the BKF, I knew despite my ethnicity, style, or status I would be treated fairly. This was not true of many of the tournaments at that time. There was always a mutual respect: respect was received if respect was given. My favorite fighter of the the mid to late 1970's was Mr. Leroy Charbonnet. I met him at the AAU Championships in Berkeley in 1980. He was a class act and a great fighter. His Memorial Tournament was I believe in Beverly Hills. Mr. Joe Swift was awesome as was Bernis "White Lightening." (Sp).
2/17/2021 03:38:54 pm
My name is Brian Ivie and I run film for Stephen Curry's Unanimous Media. I was hoping to connect with Lenny Ferguson to discuss a project about his life.
1/24/2022 08:25:34 pm
I realize our response is very late, however here is the information you seek:
7/8/2021 08:44:48 pm
Just got reunited with team and classmate, have been in the military for 20yrs 1st BKF class on western. Hope to be add to family tree.
8/1/2021 11:25:48 pm
Interesting history of the BKF. I am a practitioner of Kenpo karate and as It's my understanding that although the members and practitioners of the BKF primarily train in Kenpo with the emphasis on tournament fighting in which they had a dominate presence, I understand that other members such as Mr. Clifford Stewart has a background in the martial art known as "Hapkido". Years ago I have read two good books on BKF Kenpo written by Mr. Donnie William's and Steve Sanders ie Sijo Steve Muhammad. I'm curious as to why Mr. Muhammad was not mentioned in the very informative article about the BKF. I understand that he may not have been one of the "ground floor" founders of the BKF but later on he represented the BKF and as a tournament champion the BKF was a "voice" for justice and equality for the tournament fighters such as Mr. Muhammad , Bishop Donnie William's, and other BKF Champions!! My inquiry is not in the spirit of criticism. I was just thinking that Mr. Muhammad and perhaps others, because of their "indirect contribution" to the BKF, they would receive " Honorable Recognition "...
8/25/2021 04:16:06 pm
It would be helpful to find a directory of active BKF affiliated schools.
1/24/2022 08:34:59 pm
Good question Tim. During the last two years many of out brick and mortar schools had to shut down and many of the instructors now tech in their backyards, living rooms, garages, parks and open parking lots. Hopefully once the people and the land heals, we will be able to reopen schools.
1/16/2023 06:00:19 pm
Hi KC JONES
1/16/2023 05:59:43 pm
11/1/2021 11:20:15 pm
My name is Ken Anthony I first came into the BKF family in the early seventy's with B.K.F. Instructor Mr. Clarence McGee inside the Nixon Gardens Gym until I moved out in 1976 to Pasadena Ca. and Study under Ed. Parker /Tommy Chavez & Frank Trejo. Until 1978 When I came in contact with Pop Mr. Sanders / Mr. Muhammad. I was told to learn the Parker System but go and stay in the B.K.F. system to learn to (FIGHT). I was also told to stay under Mr. Sanders as long as I can. I did that with my brothers (Ray & Conrad) and became one of MR. Sander/ Mr. Muhammad Top Fighters. Please note I believe we train for real life incidence & competed to test our skills at times. I started competing in 78 five years after my brother (Ray & Conrad) started. I stop fighting / Competing in 91/92. I do believe myself and others are the second Generation in the B.K. F. system. But I'm not an historian I now live in the High Desert area (Victorville Ca.) I know that things has change a lot I hope to see some of the old and new BKF Family member soon. (714)319-8569
John battista magliuolo
5/5/2022 04:03:39 am
11/15/2022 04:12:10 pm
ken Anthony cell update (760) 269-9933
Ray ( lightning) Anthony
11/2/2021 09:42:38 am
I started my training back in the early 70’s. Which began with Clarence McGee along with my brother Ken in the gym of the Nickerson Gardens behind the stage. A couple of other guys David who went on to train under Chuck Norris and Terry Who continued to study hapkido under Mr Heddricks at Markam jr high. Soon after I trained under my cousin Tommy (Ice T) Chavies as well as my brother Conrad who studied under Mr Muhammad which we had joined the BKF family after our introduction. I still continue to practice Kenpo under Mr Chavies who is still teaching to this day after studying many years under our founder of American Kenpo Ed Parker who also was the instructor of Mr Muhammad prior to founding the BKF. Many of our originals are gone but some are still around to carry on. I’m looking forward to seeing some of the original warriors to reflect as well as the new ones.
11/15/2022 03:39:36 pm
I am a member of the BKF from the Crenshaw house. I studied with Malik and some with magic and Ahmad. Best place for training and comradery. The wisdom is automatically given. We need a reunion or a annual event... leimert park is ready...
11/17/2022 10:47:51 am
First already meet according program business rather day. Fill process finally computer. About region meeting in test city eat. Possible system keep one bank tough.
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