In the late 60s to early 70s, the groups had a fairly similar ideology. They were both black nationalist. NOI had religious overtones, whereas the BPP didn't.
Did they have strength in the same cities? Were they allies or opponents?
There was some co-operation at the local level, but it was limited. Interestingly, though, it was not uncommon for 'rank-and-file' members of one organization to have some involvement with the other.
Although the Black Panther Party (BPP) interacted and cooperated with a wide range of other groups whose interests overlapped in some respects with theirs, the Nation of Islam (NOI) - except to perhaps a limited degree at the local level - was not one of these groups. During the period the original BPP existed, the NOI had very little interaction with other non-Islamic groups. Nonetheless, the BPP's original platform closely resembled the NOI's and it was not uncommon for people to attend events of both parties.
The (original) Black Panther Party (BPP) worked with a wide range of organizations but interaction with the Nation of Islam (NOI) seems to have been very limited, at least at the leadership level. In fact, sources on the BPP say very little about the NOI (either positive or negative), and sources on the NOI only mention the BPP in the wider context of black activism.
At the leadership level, the BPP and the NOI both attended the 1972 National Black Political Assembly in Gary, Indiana. Bobby Seale (BPP Chairman and co-founder) and Louis Farrakhan (NOI) were among the thousands of attendees, both “participants listed on the program” , along with Jesse Jackson, the widows of Malcolm X (Betty Shabazz), and Martin Luther King (Coretta Scott King), and others. There doesn’t seem to be any photographic evidence of the Seale and Farrakhan meeting, and there is no reason to assume that they did (though there is a picture of Seale and Jackson).
Also in 1972, Huey P. Newton (BPP Minister of Defense and co-founder) was on the steering committee of the African Liberation Day Coordinating Committee (ALDCC) along with many others (including Betty Shabazz), but there is no mention of NOI participation.
In general, the NOI under the leadership of Elijah Muhammad (1934 – 75) had little interaction with non-Muslim groups, though there is one notable exception: in 1962, the NOI invited members of the American Nazi Party to the Saviours' Day celebration in Chicago (both organizations were pro-segregationist). The BPP, on the other hand, formed a wide range of alliances. Examples include the rainbow coalitions in Chicago (in the late 1960s and early 1970s) and Houston (in 1970), the latter which included
the John Brown Revolutionary League (JBRL), a white leftist formation, and the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO), a recently formed Chicano nationalist organization…State and regional white leftist groups such as the SDS chapter in Austin, Texas, and the Red Panthers cadre, an antiracist, anti-imperialist, pro–women’s liberation collective based in New Orleans,
Source: Judson Jeffries (ed.), 'On the Ground: The Black Panther Party in Communities across America' (2011)
On a perhaps less ‘official’ level, Muhammad Ali spoke ‘in support of the panthers’ when still a member of the NOI, and there is a photo of him with members of the group.
Source: The Nation
The Nation relates that
In a 1970 interview for a publication known as The Black Scholar, Ali said. “I was determined to be one n—-er that the white man didn’t get. Go on and join something. If it isn’t the Muslims, at least join the Black Panthers. Join something bad.”
At the local level, the BPP and the NOI were at least pulling in the same direction on some issues. In Corona, Queens (New York):
Activists affiliated with the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party worked in concert with middle-income school, NAACP, and block association organizers on a number of projects, ranging from protests over the lack of traffic lights at dangerous school crossings to the founding of a black library and cultural center in Corona in 1969. Young middle class activists….. attended Black Panther Party and Nation of Islam meetings and were strongly influenced by their political programs and beliefs.
Source: Steven Gregory, Black Corona: Race and the Politics of Place in an Urban Community
Concerning the preferred site for the Langston Hughes Library and Cultural Center, when the owner of a suitable building refused to lease the building, daily pickets were organized
drawing support from parent, youth, and senior citizens groups and from local chapters of the Black Panther Party and Nation of Islam
Another example comes from Cleveland following the bombing of a BPP health clinic in August 1971:
Along with the Nation of Islam and several other Black Nationalist Organizations, the BPP and the Afro Set spearheaded a fund-raiser picnic with the Afro Set donating a portion of the proceeds to the rebuilding of the People's Free Health Center
Source: Ryan Nissim-Sabat, 'Panthers Set Up Shop In Cleveland'. In Judson L. Jeffries (ed.), 'Comrades: A Local History of the Black Panther Party' (2007)
Participation in the activities of both organizations by activists seems to have been not uncommon for, although the organizations were very different in key respects, they were both working for the advancement of black interests. Gregory also cites a young activist Elwanda Young who
attended the Nation of Islam’s mosque in Corona and worked with the Black Panther Party
while Vilbert L. White in Inside the Nation of Islam mentions
a 6'4" linebacker from the Bronx. This quarterback killer, who transferred from the University of Kansas, epitomized the dumb jock who found God. “Mad Dog,” as he was called, moved within one year from being a Black Panther, to being a Pentecostal Christian, to becoming a member of the Nation of Islam.
On the Ground cites two other cases of ‘organization switching’. One, Willie ‘Iceman’ Rudd, was first an NOI member before later forming the first BPP in Houston; he was suspected of being an FBI plant. Also, there was Ron Johnson, formerly in the NOI before joining the BPP.
The reasons for the lack of interaction at the leadership level can in large part be attributed to their very different approaches. From encyclopedia.com
The public perception of the NOI as a radical and aggressive group finds little support in its social and cultural practices. The group was fundamentally conservative in organizational structure, economic outlook, and political matters. Muhammad functioned as an autocratic leader, issuing direction from the top of a rigid hierarchy. Women's roles in the NOI were restricted and subordinated to those of men. The NOI was thoroughly capitalistic in economic matters, holding out hope that its small business initiatives could provide jobs and subsistence needed by poor African Americans.
The BPP, on the other hand, really was radical and aggressive. It was also anti-capitalist and, apart from the very early years, women were a key part of the party. Both Bobby Seale and Huey Newton greatly admired the post-NOI Malcolm X and various socialist writers and leaders, including the first president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah.
Malcolm X was the first political person in this country that I really identified with," Huey writes of the Party's origins. "We continue to believe that the Black Panther Party exists in the spirit of Malcolm . . . the Party is a living testament to his life and work." Although Huey and co-founder Bobby Seale did not aspire to replicate Malcolm's Organization of Afro-American Unity, the fledgling political entity whose fruition was cut short by his murder in February 1965, Malcolm's teachings were nevertheless fundamental in structuring the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, as the group was originally named in October 1966. This new call for self-defense, however, furthered Malcolm's ideology, rejecting his black nationalism while incorporating a class-based political analysis that owed much to the writings of Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara, and Mao Tse-tung.
Source: David Hilliard, 'Introduction'. In D. Hilliard & D.Weise (eds.), 'The Huey P. Newton Reader'
In Seize the Time, Seale mentions Malcolm X numerous times (very favourably) but does not mention the NOI at all. Seale and others in the BPP had no time for the cultural nationlism of organizations like the NOI. The BPP were prepared to work with all races whereas cultural nationalists, in the words of Seale,
just hated white people simply for the color of their skin
The editor of Seale’s book sums this up well:
Cultural nationalists and Black Panthers are in conflict in many areas. Basically, cultural nationalism sees the white man as the oppressor and makes no distinction between racist whites and non-racist whites, as the Panthers do. The cultural nationalists say that a black man cannot be an enemy of the black people, while the Panthers believe that black capitalists are exploiters and oppressors. Although the Black Panther Party believes in black nationalism and black culture, it does not believe that either will lead to black liberation or the overthrow of the capitalist system, and are therefore ineffective.
Seale and Newton were also largely dismissive of religion, a key element of the make up of the NOI. Another difference was the BPP's willingness to put up candidates for election, and to support candidates of other, especially, radical parties. The NOI, on the other hand, practiced 'political separatism'.
Despite this ‘conflict in many areas’, the BPP’s original 10-point program was
With the exceptions of the provisions on the draft and the plebiscite, the program was not markedly different from what other community organizations had been demanding. In fact, it bore a startling resemblance to the Nation of Islam’s platform.
Source: Paul Alkebulan, 'Survival pending Revolution: The History of the Black Panther Party' (2012)
Thus, it was most likely the two organizations’ very different approaches which limited their interaction.
Concerning the BPP and NOI’s relative strengths in different cities: in some cities, both were prominent while in others, one was strong while the other wasn’t. The BPP was much smaller in membership (perhaps only one tenth the size) and had a presence in at least 28 states (maybe as many as 48), but reliable estimates are thin on the ground for both organizations.
This map of BPP events gives some idea of the areas where the party was most active. Source: Black Panther Party Actions 1967-1979
Both organizations seem to have had a strong presence in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Chicago (and perhaps a few others). The BPP was also strong in Oakland / the Bay Area and Seattle (where the NOI was less visible) while the NOI must have been more prominent in many other areas given its greater membership (details are hard to come by on the NOI). This University of Washington page has a series of maps showing BPP offices and other locations of interest in the areas where the party had the greatest impact.
Another complicating factor in trying to get a clear picture is that some BPP centres (in particular) didn’t last long, or were closed, re-opened, closed again etc (e.g. Houston). Further, the BPP, unlike the NOI, had a fairly short lifespan. This was in part due to internal strife and some highly negative publicity (note the notorious case of Alex Rackley in New Haven), but also because of the relentless pressure placed on it by the authorities (the following quote also gives some BPP locations):
In 1969 COINTELPRO launched its main attack on the Black Liberation Movement in earnest. It began with the mass arrest of Lumumba Shakur and the New York Panther 21. It followed with a series of military raids on Black Panther Party offices in Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Haven, Jersey City, Detroit, Chicago, Denver, Omaha, Sacramento. and San Diego
'The Genius of Huey P. Newton' (Essays by Newton)
The two organizations had similar goals and methods, but there were enough philosophical differences to keep the Nation of Islam from forming an alliance with the Black Panther Party. This is supposition though given how the Nation of Islam interacted with other organizations it would be uncharacteristic for it to form an alliance with the BPP. The fact these two organziations weren't proximal(Detroit vs Oakland) is a significant reason why their wasn't much interaction between the two groups. Likewise the fact the two groups were so small and geographically diverse, especially the BPP, is probable the reason why they never competed seriously for either attention or recruits and thus never came into contention.
- Both groups believed in Black Power / Nationalism
- Both groups dismissed Martin Luther King's non-violent movement
- Both recruited from within the prison system
- Both established support systems for African Americans (economic, medical, social )
- Both groups sought political influence and in similar ways
Yohuru Williams states in the book, "In Search of the Black Panther Party" that they "never espoused anti-white racism like the NOI did".
Civil Rights Digital Library Huey Newton (BPP leader) said "we don’t hate white people, we hate the oppressor. And if the oppressor happens to be white then we hate him".
It's easy to think the Black Panther Party(BBP) and the Nation of Islam(NOI) could have been allies given a 20,000 foot view of goals and methods. Both saw themselves as working for the betterment of the oppressed. The NOI which was larger, older and influential on the Black Panther Party; however, significant differences still remained. The BPP had a good track record of working with a broad collection of groups including liberal civil rights organizations which the BPP expressed public disagreement with. The NOI on the other-hand, did not have a good record of working with organizations which it disagreed with, and the Black Panther Party certainly would have fallen into that category. In fact the NOI was openly hostile of other organizations which it disagreed with on ideology and or method. So probable an alliance was unlikely.
Primarily though, I don't think the Black Panther Party had confrontations or alliance opportunities with the Nation of Islam due to how small, insular, and far apart geographically both organizations were.
Background The Nation of Islam was founded in 1930 out of Detroit Michigan and it's numbers range between 20,000 and 50,000. Small but it's the largest of the two groups.
The Black Panther party was founded by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton in October 1966 in Oakland California. It was operational for about 16 years, and while it had international chapters for a time, it remained much smaller than the Nation of Islam.