It’s About More Than Belts and Uniforms
Hidden amid the glorious combat pyrotechnics that make Bruce Lee’s 1973 classic Enter the Dragon such a memorable movie is one scene in which African-American co-star Jim Kelly, on his way to the big martial arts tournament, is stopped and harassed by white policemen. Viewed against the current backdrop of civil unrest gripping American society over police brutality and social injustice, Enter the Dragon’s brief foray into issues of race may well be the film’s most lasting symbolic image.
“That scene is very, very timely, even so many years after the movie came out,” said Warrington Hudlin, a longtime martial artist and successful movie producer. “The message wasn’t just explicit but implicit. But to be honest, when I originally saw it, it didn’t stand out to me. I was already very familiar with that kind of racism.”
While Kelly’s confrontation with the racist policemen now stands out as a graphic reminder that America has wrestled with these issues for a long time, nearly forgotten is the scene immediately preceding it: Jim Kelly enters a dojo and says goodbye to another African-American man in a karate gi. Displayed on the wall behind them is a large logo of a fist with a cobra. The logo is highlighted in black, red and green, the colors of Pan-Africanism.
Although the film is a work of fiction, the logo is the symbol of a very real group, the Black Karate Federation, and the sensei who sends Kelly off to Han’s tournament is one of the organization’s founders, Steve Muhammad (then Steve Sanders). Muhammad was one of the greatest tournament fighters of the era, a man whose hands were so quick that his personal fighting style became known as “the invisible fist.” He won his weight division virtually every year he competed at Ed Parker’s Long Beach International Karate Championships, the most celebrated tournament of the day. But neither Muhammad nor any other African-American of that era ever won the grand championship.
“At that point, grand championships didn’t exist for us,” Muhammad said with only a hint of bitterness still showing through after all these years. “And all of the Black fighters who came up at that time would tell you yes, it was because of racism.”
Martial arts are, and have been, a part of American society for a long time. And although it’s not a popular topic to address within the arts, just as with the society it’s a part of, race has always played a role in the arts.
Warren Lewis is a name no one will remember. In part, that’s because the institutional memory of martial arts in America doesn’t go back any further than the founding of Black Belt in 1961. But it’s also because the accomplishments of African-American martial artists have often gone overlooked. Born in Los Angeles in 1915, Lewis may well have been the Jackie Robinson of the martial arts. Achieving his shodan in 1932 and reaching the rank of nidan by 1936, he was almost certainly the first African-American to earn a black belt in judo and quite likely the first Black person to earn a dan rank in any Asian-based martial art.
But as interesting as Lewis’ accomplishments are, his impact on the martial arts, and Black people in those arts, seems negligible. It wasn’t until the 1950s that Black Americans began to take up the Asian fighting arts in more significant numbers and then began to teach those arts to others.
Like their white contemporaries, many of the earliest African-American martial arts instructors had limited credentials. While a handful did learn from expert teachers, many were forced to piece together their experiences with World War II military combatives and a bit of judo to teach their own blend of fighting. Some of the earliest pioneers of this era included judo champion George Harris and shotokan karateka Maynard Miner, as well as people like Charles Elmore in New York, Ron Williams in the Midwest and William Short in California. Formal training from qualified Asian instructors was limited for all Westerners, including Caucasians, during this period. Ernie Cates, a Marine Corps and armed forces judo champion in the late 1950s and early ’60s, recalled that when he began training in judo in Okinawa in 1954, he could find only one instructor on the whole island who would accept Western students.
But if some Asians were reluctant to teach any Westerner, many white servicemen who became martial arts instructors during that era had a reputation for being less than welcoming toward African-American students in particular.
Chaka Zulu grew up in Harlem in the 1950s, picking up a bit of judo at the local YMCA from Charles Elmore before joining the Marines near the end of the decade. Although he would eventually learn goju karate and develop such a fearsome reputation in the New York area that it’s said he was an inspiration for the martial arts warlord Sho’nuff in the cult classic film The Last Dragon (a role he claims to have turned down over its racist implications), Zulu’s first exposure to karate came while in the military. Stationed in North Carolina, he sought entrance into an isshin-ryu class that fellow Marine Don Nagle ran in Cates’ judo school.
“They had a school outside Jacksonville, and I made an attempt to train there — but Nagle wasn’t having any of that,” Zulu recalled. “He didn’t say outright that it was because I was Black. It was more a subtle thing. But he made it known in subtle terms I just wasn’t welcome.”
Years later, when Nagle attempted to greet him at a banquet, Zulu said, “He acted like nothing ever happened, but I remembered and cursed him out for it.”
The 1950s was still a time of segregation, and in places like North Carolina, it was technically illegal for Blacks and whites to mix in a dojo. But some white instructors were willing to buck social conventions. John Keehan (aka Count Dante) was a notable exception in the Midwest, while one of Zulu’s teachers, Peter Urban, was willing to instruct anyone, regardless of race, in the New York and New Jersey region. But Cates is perhaps the one most fondly remembered by older African-American martial artists because they have a deep respect for his willingness to cross the color line way back in 1957.”I remember a young man walked through the door, and he was a shade darker than the rest of us,” Cates recalled. “He wanted to speak to the owner. His name was Ronnie Duncan, PFC, and he said he wanted to learn jujitsu. Well, when I was in Okinawa, I couldn’t find an instructor until I met Matsumoto sensei. He was the only one willing to teach foreigners. So I felt I owed it to teach him (Duncan), I owed it to the art and I owed it to a fellow Marine.”
With curtains hung on the dojo windows to hide Duncan’s presence from the outside world — and students who happened to be local police officers turning a blind eye to the state’s segregationist Jim Crow laws — Cates trained Duncan and other Black students who would eventually return to the New York area and begin teaching.
“Martial arts is a microcosm of society. In some ways, it’s ahead of society, but in other ways, it’s not. I’ve known people who wouldn’t study martial arts with a Black person. It had to be with an Asian or no one.” Those are the words of former tournament champion and Hong Kong kung fu film star Ron “The Black Dragon” Van Clief.
When Ronald Duncan returned to New York from his tour of duty with the Marine Corps, he began teaching in Brooklyn at the St. John’s Recreation Center. Commercial martial arts schools in general had limited prospects at that time, even more so if run by a Black instructor. So the St. John’s Rec Center became something of a mecca for aspiring African-American martial artists in the New York area. Included among the lineup of instructors who taught there were Duncan, Miner, karate teacher George Cofield and jujitsu sensei Moses Powell. Future martial arts stars like Black Belt Hall of Famers Thomas “LaPuppet” Carroll and Ron Van Clief got their start there.
“I began with Ronald Duncan, and he kind of gave me off to Moses Powell,” Van Clief remembered.
Powell would become possibly the most influential African-American martial arts figure on the East Coast, if not in America. He, and many of the other early Black pioneers in the region, got much of their training from Florendo “Professor Vee” Visitacion, a Filipino who’d studied Japanese jujitsu, as well as some Filipino arts, and was open to teaching anyone who wanted to learn. Powell became one of his leading students before founding his own form of jujitsu. Called sanuces-ryu, it developed a large and devoted following across the metropolitan area. But unlike many of his predecessors, Powell saw martial arts not just as a sport or form of fighting but also as a political tool. In the early 1960s, he began training members of the Nation of Islam.
“Master Powell, himself, never refused to teach anyone because of their race and had many white students,” said Darrell Sarjeant, a student of Powell’s and several other prominent African-American instructors of the era. “But you have to remember, at that time, Black people were dealing with a different level of discrimination.”Sarjeant pointed out that groups like the Nation of Islam were seeking to empower young Blacks in the 1960s, and the martial arts were one of the most significant methods they found for this.
Thomas Green, Ph.D., a professor of anthropology and one of the first Western academics to seriously explore the history and culture of the martial arts, said a number of African-American practitioners in the 1960s sought ways to merge their arts with the growing political consciousness among Blacks.
“Several of the early guys were associated with the Nation of Islam. Besides Moses Powell, there was [chito-ryu karate instructor] James Cheatham. And a martial artist named Mfundishi Maasi was the bodyguard for [writer/activist] Amiri Baraka. There were people who were politically active, and they wanted some type of self-defense,” said Green, who also pointed out that beyond self-defense, the martial arts became a symbolic means of Black empowerment.
Although continued interest in the martial arts by many in the Black community is now commonly attributed to the rise of Bruce Lee and the wave of kung fu movies that followed, in fact that interest started well before most of the general population had heard of Lee. It has its roots in the notion of Black empowerment through martial arts that sprang up in the 1960s.”The fact of the matter is we had our martial arts heroes in the Black community before Bruce Lee showed up,” said Geraldine Chisolm, a student of Duncan’s who became known as Lady Sensei. (See the June/July 2020 issue of Black Belt.) “Because we didn’t have any cinematic role models back then, gentlemen in our community who practiced martial arts like professor Duncan, Moses Powell, George Cofield and Thomas LaPuppet were our superheroes.
“They were mythological to us, doing things like breaking boards. All the little boys wanted to be like them. Mothers took their teenage boys, who might be on a wayward path, to Powell and Duncan and said, ‘Please do something with our son.’ Many men found that martial arts put them on a path to discipline and making better choices in life.”
But while these movements took hold in the urban areas of the Northeast, other parts of America sometimes lagged behind in matters of martial arts and race.
In her acclaimed 2011 book The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson chronicled the “Great Migration” and the “Second Great Migration,” the mass movement of Blacks from the South to, ostensibly, more welcoming Northern climes between 1915 and 1970. The book takes its title from a poem by author Richard Wright, himself a participant in the exodus:
I was taking a part of the Southto transplant in alien soil,to see if it could grow differently,
if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns. …
As with other aspects of American life, martial arts practiced by African-Americans in the 1960s seemed to find some regions of the country more conducive to growth than others. It wasn’t just Southern vs. Northern but often rural vs. city and the heartland vs. the coastal regions.