These learning activities will provide students with knowledge of the origins of the Black Panther Party through analysis of important documents of the era. Students will emerge with an understanding of the BPP’s departure from the reformist movement (e.g. SNCC).
This lesson plan is designed to follow a class on the basics of the black civil rights movement, particularly in the 1960s. Students will make use of primary sources, including the founding documents of each group, in order to better understand the social, political, and economic conditions that incentivized many black Americans to join the Black Panther Party. Students will be challenged to place themselves in the position of a black American desiring change and faced with two main choices for activism, the radical nationalists (Black Panther Party) or the reformists (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). In so doing, they will gain an empathic and historically accurate understanding of the beginnings of the Black Panthers. Depending on the length of the class period, this lesson plan may be divided into two classes.
The Black Panther Party emerged from the disillusionment of black communities with their situation, the failure of the U.S. government to address their needs, and from black Americans’ desire for immediate change and justice.
1. How did the Black Panther Party come to be – who started it, where, and why?
2. What are the differences between the founding documents and philosophies of the BPP and SNCC? How did these emerge?
3. What can we understand about the social and political realities of black people during the time that the BPP’s platform was written and distributed?
4. How did the economic climate contribute to the rise of the Panthers?
5. What compelled black Americans to embrace the more radical approach of the Black Panthers? What compelled others to join SNCC? What were the major differences in attitude between those who preferred the different philosophies of each organization?
Although in the 1950s, segregation of Americans based on race was largely condemned by U.S. law, the struggle for equal civil rights would continue well into the late 20th century. In the 1950s and 1960s, black Americans followed different paths. Some stayed in the South, facing injustice and oppression. In reaction to this, nonviolent student protest was organized, culminating in the birth of SNCC (the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) in 1960.
Other African Americans were drawn from the South to the North by the promise of economic opportunity and less racism. But after having settled in California, they were faced with racist antagonism and rampant unemployment due to deindustrialization. Black youth faced special hardship because of increasingly severe police harassment and brutal juvenile prisons. In order to resist, these youth channeled “their anger and their pain into a concrete program of consciousness-raising and action” – the Black Panthers1. At the same time, there was an expansion of college attendance at the time and greater access to higher education. Critiques of the ways in which black people were being treated found a home in California universities, like U.C. Berkeley. Students pushed for more Black Studies courses and created a study group discussing African American racial identity called the Afro-American Association2. The AAA used street speeches to recruit and popularize racial pride in the Bay Area. This ideology of Black Power gave rise to the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, founded in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale.
The Black Panthers believed that violence was necessary to decolonize America, based on the view that the black community was a “colony within the mother country [of America] that was regularly subjected to violence by a foreign occupying army”3. They sought to create a separate black state, which is why they are referred to as nationalists. The Panthers also sought to respond to community welfare needs that the government refused to address, through free breakfast programs and health clinics4. They encouraged black Americans to defend themselves against the threats that they faced, particularly from white police. Above all, the Panthers generated a radical black consciousness in California and beyond – the importance of which is difficult to overstate.
1. “Black Panther Party Ten Point Program”
2. “Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Founding Statement”
3. “Image of Black Panther Party Poster 1”
4. “Image of Black Panther Party Poster 2”
5. “Image of SNCC Poster”
6. “Image of SNCC Pin”
7. “Video of Bobby Seale speaking about the Black Panther Party’s Ten Point Program”
8. Poster-sized sheets of paper
As the opening activity for the discussion of the Black Panther Party’s beginnings, either project onto a screen or hand out individual copies of the posters and pin affiliated with the Black Panther Party and SNCC. Because the students have already been taught some general knowledge of the struggle for black civil rights, ask the students to analyze the divergent, specific strategies reflected by these recruitment materials and what they say about the founding principles of each division of the movement for black civil rights. What do the phrases and gestures on these posters imply? What does the image of the Panther symbolize? What is there a pig in police uniform and why is it smaller than the man holding a gun? What does Elaine Brown mean by her quote? Why are the men in SNCC’s poster bowing their heads? What does SNCC mean by “us” when they say “Come let us build a new world together”? These answers should take the form of a whole class discussion lasting around fifteen minutes, in which students offer answers or are called upon to share their thoughts.
After this brief discussion, hand out individual copies of the Introduction (above) and have the students read it. Were any of the students surprised based on their previous understanding of the Black Panther Party? What seem to be some of the central tenets of the party? How does the importance of youth compare to the other social movements we’ve read about?
Next, hand out individual copies of the Black Panther Party Ten Point Program” and the “Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Founding Statement.” Have the students form groups of 6-8 people. Ask these groups to analyze and explain the motivating factors for each point in the 10-point program based on their knowledge of the Black Panther Party’s origins from the introduction. What compelled black Americans to demand these particular changes? What was the situational basis for each demand? What do we learn through a comparison of the items on this program to the statement from SNCC? The groups should be given twenty minutes to brainstorm and to write their answers on a large sheet of poster-size paper in big enough print for the class to read.
[If the lesson plan must be divided into two class periods, then end the first class here. If not, then continue.]
Then, show the video of Bobby Seale giving a speech about the Black Panther Party’s Ten Point Program. After the video, have the students form new small groups of three or four people. Ask them to write a very short speech of their own designed to “recruit” people to the Black Panther Party. These roughly 2-minute-long speeches should draw upon social, political and economic factors facing black Americans and should include comparative benefits to joining the Panthers instead of SNCC or similar non-violent reformist organizations.
After that, have each student individually write two paragraphs on a sheet of paper. In the first paragraph, they should describe a fictional member of the Black Panther Party and in the second paragraph, they should describe a fictional member of SNCC. In the writing assignment, the students should be asked to emphasize the personal history of each fictional individual and how that history motivated them to become involved in their respective organization. The students can be allowed to collaborate with the person sitting next to them, and should be informed that they will be turning in these paragraphs. After partners complete the assignment, a few volunteers (or drafted students) should read their paragraphs. Then ask for brief comments if students agree or disagree with others’ portrayal of these characters.
Finally, as the students are preparing to leave for the day, have each write down a question that they still have about the Black Panther Party. Their homework assignment will be to try to find the answer to the question on the Internet via a qualified source, or to write about the complications of the issue that make the question difficult to answer factually using common online understanding and scholarship of the topic. Read them quickly as they walk out the door to make sure they are formulating good questions for further inquiry.
Joseph, Peniel. The Black Power Movement. New York: Routledge, 2006.
Kirkby, Ryan J. “‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’: Community Activism and the Black Panther Party, 1966-1971.” Canadian Review of American Studies 41, no. 1 (2011):25-62.
Murch, Donna. Living For the City. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
Williams, Yohuru. “Some Abstract Thing Called Freedom: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Legacy of the Black Panther Party.” OAH Magazine of History 22, no. 2: 16-21.
1. Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
2. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
3. Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.
4. Analyze in detail how a complex primary source is structured, including how key sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text contribute to the whole.
5. Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.
6. Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
7. Evaluate an author’s premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information.
1Donna Murch,Living For the City(Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 68.
2Donna Murch, 86.
3Donna Murch, 133.
4Ryan J. Kirkby, “‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’: Community Activism and the Black Panther Party, 1966-1971,” Canadian Review of American Studies 41, no. 1 (2011): 31.