BLM vs. Black Panthers: What’s the Difference?


Protestors holding BLM and Black Lives Matter signs

Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the Black Panther Party (BPP) have been compared many times since the founding of the BLM movement. While both groups were created due to similar issues, there are key differences between them. 

Black Lives Matter is a social and political movement that advocates for racial equality, better black representation in politics, and dismantling modern-day white supremacy. The Black Panther Party focused on organizing armed citizens’ patrols in response to police brutality and creating programs to improve unemployment, education, and healthcare in black communities. Technological advancements have greatly aided the BLM movement in gaining traction and support.

Both BLM and the Black Panthers were founded in response to racially motivated killings of two black teenagers.  Both movements achieved extraordinary impact and raised America’s consciousness about racial injustices.  In this article, we’ll explore differences between BLM and BPP, including their advocacy style, structure, support, and public opinion. 

1. Background

Who started Black Lives Matter?

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement began in 2013 with the use of a hashtag on social media, #blacklivesmatter.  The hashtag was used in response to the acquittal of the man who killed a black teenager named Trayvon Martin.  (Source: BLM website and video).

The hashtag developed into a network created by three black female activists:  Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi.  They used the hashtag to speak out against police brutality and organize anti-racism protests. 

The network is called the Black Lives Matter Global Network. Its goal is to support black empowerment, develop black leaders and end white supremacy. The work of the BLM network sparked a movement that inspired many individuals, from all backgrounds and races, to fight against racism.  Today, the BLM network has more than 40 chapters and the movement is supported by millions of people.

As you can see from these developments, Black Lives Matter is a term used to describe several things.  It is a hashtag, a slogan or sentiment, a movement, and an organizational network.  In this article, BLM will refer to the movement unless stated otherwise.

Who started the Black Panther Party?

The Black Panther Party (BPP) was started by two black men:  Huey Newton and Bobby Seales.  It was founded in 1966 after the assassination of activist Malcolm X and the murder by police of an unarmed black teen named Matthew Johnson.  It was created as a way to fight police brutality and end white oppression.  In achieving this goal, the BPP is probably most known for “policing the police”.  They would show up during police arrests of black people and watch from a legal distance while armed with guns.  (Source: HuffPost)

The BPP’s goals also included black empowerment and self-determination.  This reflects helping black people create positive institutions in their communities to meet their own needs. To achieve this goal, they created as many as 60 survival programs to serve the community.  Their programs included free breakfast for children, free medical clinics and an ambulance program, free self-dense classes for senior citizens, free clothing and more.  (Source: PBS)

The Black Panther Party was active for 16 years and ended in 1982. 

2.  Technology:  The BLM uses less aggressive tactics for anti-racism advocacy.

Technology advancements make a big difference in anti-racism activism by offering a safer and more efficient way to advocate.  We’ll explore this further by discussing the tactics used by BPP in the 1960’s and those used 50 years later by BLM.

Patrolling vs. Recording

Both BPP and BLM wanted to bring awareness to and end racism in policing.  However, the Black Panther Party lacked much of the technological resources available nowadays to the Black Lives Matter movement. While videotape recorders were invented in the ’50s and growing more popular in the ’60s and 70’s, the use of video recording was not widespread at the time when the Black Panther Party originated.

This meant that they had to use much more hands-on and confrontational styles of monitoring police behavior. They used armed members to form patrol units that would essentially guard black neighborhoods.  And while the goal was to protect vulnerable citizens, the approach was considered aggressive and risky. 

Smartphones Changed the Game

The Black Lives Matter movement had an advantage not available to the Black Panther Party, thanks to the invention and widespread use of smartphones. Following Trayvon Martin’s murder, individuals increasingly began using the video recording ability on their phones to record wrongdoings or violence carried out by police.  And, they posted their recordings to social media using the hashtag, #blacklivesmatter.

While Trayvon was not killed by the police, many felt the case was grossly mishandled by the local police department. According to the Black Lives Matter website, the murder of Trayvon Martin lead to his family advocating for the end of gun violence and “catalyzed a generation of organizers and activists to take action for Black lives.”

The Black Lives Matter hashtag, as well as the Justice for Trayvon hashtag, brought worldwide attention to the case. The use of cell phones and hashtags also shined a light on other injustices faced by black people in America.  Bystanders can use their smartphones, without physical confrontation, to record police brutality incidents.  And supporters can quickly share the recordings and organize demonstrations with a moment’s notice. 

Technology and social media, especially Twitter, allowed the BLM movement to gain incredible amounts of traction and support.  In general, supporters of Black Lives Matter can rely on subtler and safer technological means today to record racist behavior and report incidents of police brutality.

3.  Public Opinion:  BLM is viewed more favorably by the public than BPP.

Do Americans Support Black Lives Matter? 

The Black Lives Matter movement sees more mainstream support than the Black Panther Party experienced.  Polls conducted in 2017 and in 2020 found that 55% of adult Americans expressed some support for Black Lives Matter.  And support for BLM had been as high as 67% in June 2020 after the police killing of George Floyd.

Yet, despite this high level of support, it’s not always hugs and kisses for the BLM movement.  Many BLM supporters have experienced the same oppressive and discrediting tactics that were used against supporters of the BPP and the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s.  A letter on BLM’s website from one of its founders, Patrisse Cullors, describes the striking similarities:

In the last six years many of us faced down tanks, rubber bullets, were forced to do jail and prison sentences, have been surveilled, lied on, called terrorists, been given false labels by the FBI, and some of us have lost our lives. These six years have been the most profound six years of my life and the most traumatic and destabilizing six years of my life.

Patrisse Cullors

Does access to information help validate anti-racism advocacy efforts?

Although BLM has been called a terrorist group and subjected to discrediting attacks, supporters of anti-racism haven’t been deterred by these falsities.  While technology has made it easier to spread myths, it’s also made it easier to find the truth and dispel such myths. Today individuals and journalists are more likely to investigate such claims on their own. This is easier to do than ever before because information is readily available and easily accessible on the internet.  And there are more fact-checking sources to rely on.  In this way, technology has helped BLM become more supported than feared.

Did Americans support the Black Panther Party?

In contrast, the Black Panther Party was feared more than they were supported.  One reason for this is because the media and the government treated them like a threatening terrorist group.  The New York Times admitted in recent years that their coverage of the BPP was influenced both by their fear and fascination.  Also, the FBI eventually apologized for the extreme and wrongful measures they took against the BPP.

The Black Panthers were militant in their approach, but that didn’t mean they were terrorists.  They dressed in all black, with black berets and black jackets and openly carried guns. They organized and promoted numerous peaceful protests, but also made it known that they would fight back if attacked.  The Panthers were considered aggressive because white people weren’t used to seeing black people carrying guns and asserting their rights to defend themselves physically.  This was a contrast from the suit-wearing civil rights protestors lead by Martin Luther King, Jr.  And it deeply frightened the media and most of white America. 

How did the news media influence public opinion about the Black Panther Party?

Access to accurate information and the availability of unbiased, or even varied, news sources was much more difficult for the Black Panther Party.  For example, studies analyzing how the media treated the Black Panther’s found news articles heavily focused on their confrontations with the police and their legal battles. None focused on their numerous community programs, such as:

  • The Black Panthers created over 60 programs to improve education, healthcare, and employment in the black community.

How did the government influence public opinion about the Black Panther Party?

The media and the government have great influence on how the public views advocacy and activist groups.  During the 1960s, the media was less likely to question police and the government.  Thus, they were less likely to do their own research and investigations upon receiving information from the police and FBI.

“A concrete example of the sometimes collusive relationships between the press and the FBI was the lack of any true investigation on the part of journalists in their press coverage of the murder of Panther Fred Hampton (1948-1969) in Chicago on December 4th, 1969. The first articles covering the police raid only contained interviews with the police officers involved and statements from the State Attorney, all congratulating themselves on having survived the Panthers’ violence. Subsequent ballistic, medical, and independent investigations, however, thoroughly discredited this unquestioned presumption of a Panther attack and revealed falsification of evidence by the police. Only one bullet was fired by the Panthers while 90 bullets had been fired by the police.”

(Source: Open Edition Journals)

Eventually, it was revealed that the FBI deliberately spoon-feed dis-information to the media. They did this deliberately to discredit the Black Panther Party and invoke fear in the public.  And although similar discrediting efforts have been launched against Black Lives Matter, these days such tactics are more likely to be countered with independent investigations and multiple viewpoints from a variety of sources.

How have changes in the news media impacted support for anti-racism activist groups?

Over the years, there have been many changes in how the public receives the news and who reports the news.  Several media-related factors that contribute to BLM having a wider scope of support than the Black Panthers did in the 1960s include:

Reporter Variety: 

There is more diversity among reporters in newsrooms today, and specifically, more black journalists. This allows stories to be covered from a different point of view.

Media Outlet Variety: 

The diversity of media outlets available today compared to decades ago.  Magazines and newspapers usually cater to “their subscribers’ concerns and preconceptions” and this often means suburban white people.  But today there’s a wider range of television stations, magazines and media outlets that cater to many demographic audiences.  Also, internet video platforms, blogging, social media, and smartphones allow ordinary citizens to share information to the world.  This creates another level of diversity with a broader range of opinions and views of independent scholars, professionals and ordinary citizens who are not formal journalists. 

Dissemination Methods: 

In the past, “newspapers relied heavily on wire services which disseminated the same generic story to thousands of media outlets.”  In the 1960s, the Black Panthers had to create their own media and rely on their own publications to send out images and proof of police brutality. This led to them being branded as extremist for sharing graphic images. Interestingly, thanks to social media BLM does not face the same backlash for informing the public through graphic images. Many of the graphic images and videos of racial injustice and police brutality seen today are provided by random bystanders, and not by BLM specifically.

The Power of Social Media: 

Moreover, the Black Lives Matter movement has leaned heavily on social media as a way to get their message out to many people. This has, in turn, led to diverse coverage by both mainstream and independent news outlets alike, as well as media in both the U.S. and internationally.

 

A group of 4 people of different ethnicities and genders standing together and looking down at their cell phones.

4. Organizational Structure:  BLM is decentralized and BPP had a more traditional centralized structure.

Who runs Black Lives Matter?

The phrase black lives matter represents several things.  It is a hashtag, a slogan and sentiment, a movement, and an organization.  The official organization, Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, Inc., is a decentralized structure. This network consists of local chapters, with no national directive or hierarchy. The network has a set of guiding principles and goals, but local organization and power is emphasized over national leadership. Thus, the BLM network doesn’t control the BLM movement.  And there is no one person or one group of people directing the actions of the BLM movement. (Source: USA Today). 

The fact that the BLM network and the BLM movement are two different things has caused confusion, especially in the media.  Many who organize events where the BLM slogan is used may not be in alignment with the BLM network’s message.  And most people who believe in the BLM’s message and goals are not members of BLM’s network.  Being a part of the BLM movement does not require being part of any organization.  This allows for many approaches and views towards making black people’s lives matter. Which contributes to the success and broadness of the movement.

How many chapters does the BLM network have?

Today, the BLM network has 40 chapters and the BLM movement has millions of followers and supporters.

Who ran the Black Panther Party?

In comparison, the Black Panthers had a hierarchy organizational structure with three tiers.  The top tier was the national governing body headquartered in Oakland, California.  The middle tier was regional chapters organized by state.  And the third tier was local branches organized by city.  The top national level of BPP gave directives on strategy and tactics to their chapters and branches.  And they expected their directives “to be followed with discipline” by each chapter and branch. (Source: University of Pennsylvania Scholarly Commons)

How many members did the Black Panther Party have?

The BPP had thousands of members with about 40 chapters and branches.  Co-founder Bobby Seale says membership increased from 400 to 5,000 in the months between Dr. King’s assassination and President Nixon’s election.  And their rallies drew crowds as large as 10,000 people.

How does the Black Lives Matter compare to the Black Panther Party in terms of chapters and members?

When comparing the BLM network to the Black Panther Party it appears the number of chapters across US cities is similar.  However, from the movement standpoint, BLM has far more supporters than BPP had– millions versus thousands.  Below, we’ll explore the differences in supporters and movement size between BLM and BPP.

5.  Supporter Diversity:  BLM has greater support from white people and corporations

The BPP had support from non-black allies, just as BLM has today.  But today it seems there’s increased public acknowledgement by white people that racism persists.  And an increased desire of white people to do something about it.  Scholars believe the number of white people who are active with BLM in a sustained way exceeds the support shown in the 1960s. (Source: New York Times and PBS News Hour)

Diversity of supporters: 

A 2020 poll found that most Americans express support for the BLM movement.  Here’s the breakdown by race of those who “strongly support” or “somewhat support” BLM:

  • 60% of Whites
  • 75% of Asians
  • 77% of Hispanics
  • 86% of Blacks
Young and wealthy supporters: 

Also, a large share of BLM protestors are considered young– under age 35.  And a large share of BLM supporters are wealthy, earning more than $150,000 (Source: New York Times). 

Business supporters: 

Lastly, the BLM movement is also supported by major businesses.  Many released statements on their websites and in publications supporting BLM.  Advertisements and commercials  have been dedicated to encouraging racial equality and unapologetically saying “black lives matter”.  Large corporations such as Amazon and Google have donated millions towards anti-racism programs.  And many businesses made commitments to assess their internal policies and improve aspects that were negatively impacting black people.  Likewise, numerous small businesses have taken a stand in support of BLM and anti-racism— no doubt this would’ve been considered risky during the 1960’s BPP movement.

The broad support shown for BLM reflects the great opportunity our generation has toward ending systemic racism, according Peniel Joseph who is an author and professor.  In his PBS NewsHour interview he optimistically said:

“This is a new national consensus about Black dignity and Black citizenship, one that reverberates to all groups, all corners of this country and around the world in a really positive way.”

6.  Movement Size:  BLM has a larger following

Overall, the Black Lives Matter movement has a much larger following than the Black Panthers did.  We’ve already discussed how BLM has harnessed and benefited from the use of technology. Their activism through hashtags and viral internet content helped them secure mainstream attention.  Also, technology makes it easier to organize rallies and circulate information to supporters. 

In addition to technology advances, BLM’s decentralized network structure and diverse supporter base also help propel the BLM movement to historic significance and impact. 

Black male protestor with sound horn in the forefront of a group of protestors.

In the summer of 2020, an estimated 15 million to 26 million people, although not all are members or part of the organization, participated in Black Lives Matter protests in the United States.  This makes Black Lives Matter one of the largest movements in United States history.

Final Thoughts

Many scholars believe the Black Panther’s impact left an unprecedented legacy that laid the foundation for activism today, such as the BLM movement.  The BPP relied on its own newspaper and publications to gain support and spread its message.  And despite violent government opposition and poor public perception, they were able to advance the liberation of black people in ways never seen before. 

Today, the BLM movement continues the fight to dismantle racism.  With the help of technology, the BLM movement spread information globally through innovative use of hashtag activism and decentralized structure.  People have protested in support of BLM in all 50 states, over 700 US cities and at least 17 countries

Both BPP and BLM have helped the advancement of racial justice in America and made their mark on history in meaningful and impactful ways.

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  • I'm dedicated to helping others and using my skill set to help advance the causes I believe in. I enjoy writing articles to encourage others to do the same through advocacy and volunteering.

Shenetta Webster

I'm dedicated to helping others and using my skill set to help advance the causes I believe in. I enjoy writing articles to encourage others to do the same through advocacy and volunteering.

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