What began as a social media movement quickly broadened, inspiring large-scale demonstrations and catapulting young, tech-savvy activists into the public eye. And, as it evolved, Black Lives Matter came to resemble the Black Panther Party, established 50 years ago this month by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale.
As Oakland, hometown to both movements, marks the 50th anniversary of the Panther Party’s founding with a new museum exhibit and conference, activists from both eras, academics and others see clear differences, but also many connections and parallels. And while many say it’s inspiring to see a similar movement emerge today, some take it as a sign of how little progress has been made over half a century.
“If you look at the policy demands of both movements, they’re literally almost identical,” said Frank Roberts, a political organizer who teaches a class on the Black Lives Matter movement at New York University. The issues that spurred the Panthers into existence — police violence against black people; economic inequality; the dearth of medical services, educational opportunities and healthy food for people living in low-income neighborhoods — still bedevil activists today, he said.
“And that probably says more about the tragedy in American justice than anything else,” Roberts
Scot Brown, associate professor of African American Studies at UCLA, said the two groups have similar ways of engaging radical ideas and presenting them to a mass audience. Yet he also sees a clear distinction between the Panthers, who rose in an era of global political manifestos that “gave people a sense of direction,” and Black Lives Matter, which is more atomized and issue-driven.
“Black Lives Matter is not trying to represent what an organization 50 years earlier did,” Brown said. “It’s shaped by the realities of the moment. It’s looking forward.”
Newton and Seale announced the Panthers’ formation in October 1966 with a manifesto. Their “Ten-Point Platform and Program” could be a blueprint for the political agenda that Black Lives Matter drafted this year. Steeped in the revolutionary zeal of the time, the Panthers called for a sovereign state for black people, an end to mass incarceration, and economic reparations to redress the injustices of slavery.
Black Lives Matter refined those demands into concrete goals: universal health care, cuts in military spending, free high-quality education for black people, public financing for political elections, and citizen oversight of police.
“The Black Panther Party platform was part manifesto, part wish list,” said Yohuru Williams, a history professor at Fairfield University in Connecticut. “The Black Lives Matter platform goes one step further. They said, ‘We’re not just going to be aspirational, we’re going to lay out solutions.’”