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On May 20, 1969, in New Haven, three members of the black nationalist organization known as the Black Panthers killed 19-year-old Alex Rackley in the mistaken belief that he was an informer. Two of the killers were arrested and eventually confessed. The FBI took the opportunity to move against the group’s leadership. In addition to local Panther leader Ericka Huggins, who was charged with conspiracy, Bobby Seale, the national chairman of the Black Panthers, was charged with ordering the murder. The Panthers called on supporters throughout the nation to come to New Haven—and Yale—to protest the trials on May Day 1970.
In a new book, Murder in the Model City (to be released this August) journalist Paul Bass and Yale professor Doug Rae examine the murder, the trials, and the aftermath of one of the most notorious crimes in late-twentieth-century America. The following article about May Day at Yale is adapted from the book.—The editors
On March 19 national Panther chief of staff David Hilliard set the tone for the coming weeks in a speech to 2,000 students at the University of Connecticut. “Not only will we burn buildings,” Hilliard vowed, “we will take lives.” He implored the white students to join the effort. “If you want to break windows, if you want to kill a pig, if you want to burn the courthouse, you would be moving against the symbols of oppression.”
The FBI forwarded an account of Hilliard’s remarks to, among others, presidential adviser John Ehrlichman. (This and other FBI documents were later made public under the Freedom of Information Act.) Memos traveled from office to office within the FBI warning of violence-bent crazies descending on New Haven. “As many as half a million persons,” said one FBI teletype.
On April 14, a group of high school students, turned away from the courthouse after some had entered the lobby chanting slogans, started looting the area of the Chapel Square Mall. They broke windows, scuffled with cops, snatched purses, and knocked a woman to the sidewalk.
On April 15, in Cambridge, 1,500 demonstrators showed up for a march at Harvard—only to find the Harvard gates along their parade route locked shut. Incensed demonstrators smashed windows, threw rocks, lit fires. Some 214 people were hospitalized; $100,000 worth of property was destroyed. At the rally, Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman vowed that marchers would burn down Yale on May 1.
The patricians entrusted with Yale University’s future knew it was time to swing into action. First order of business: they arranged a picnic.
Mary Brewster filled a wicker basket with a meal fit for a king—or, more to the point, for “King,” Kingman Brewster '41, president of Yale. Mary prepared cornish hen. She packed a bottle of white wine and a shaker of martinis. Brewster and his young assistant, Henry “Sam” Chauncey Jr. '57, took the basket to the appointed meeting place: a field in Sturbridge, Massachusetts. They had originally considered eating at the Sturbridge Publick House. But Brewster and Chauncey didn’t want to be seen with the person they were meeting. What’s more, they had noticed that information they discussed in their daily 6:00 a.m. phone calls would show up in other people’s conversations. When they tested for tapping—pretending that a noted visitor was coming to campus—a reporter would call hours later to ask for details on the visit.
So they had decided to seek privacy for their meeting with Archibald Cox, future Watergate special prosecutor and the top Harvard official dealing with campus unrest. Fresh from combing through the ashes, broken glass, and dried blood on Cambridge streets, Cox could help Brewster figure out how to avoid an even messier implosion in New Haven. Cox told them that Harvard should never have shut the campus gates. That focused the marchers' rage on the physical landscape of Harvard. When the tens of thousands of radicals descended on New Haven for May Day, Cox advised, Yale should not close the gates.
As May Day neared, Doug Miranda, a young Panther leader sent from Boston, urged Yale students to burn the campus. “Man, if you really want to do something,” Miranda exhorted one gathering, “you ought to get some guns, and go and get Chairman Bobby out of jail!” Incredulous students shouted back objections. One of Miranda’s fellow organizers retorted that the students should “at least” burn down the Beinecke Library.
William Farley '72 and some of his fellow black students caught up with Miranda afterwards. “You ain’t serious about that shit you were running,” one of them asked, “are you?”
Miranda came clean about his strategy. “We’re trying to get a strike going here, man! Now, you can’t just tell them, 'Strike!' You’ve got to give them something more extreme, and then you let them fall back on a strike.”
“You may get some of these people hurt,” Farley objected.
“Man, I don’t care about these whites. I’m just using them to get Chairman Bobby out of jail. And I’ll use them any way I have to,” Miranda responded.
Miranda needed Yalies, black and white alike, to stir up the city, because the Panthers had drawn little active support from black New Haveners. On April 19, he gave the call for a student strike. “I’m not going to tell white students to go out and kill pigs at this time,” he said to a crowd of 1,500 jammed into Battell Chapel. Shoulders relaxed. “The most minimal level you can participate on is a call for a student strike. You can close Yale down and make Yale demand release.” Elite white students were only too ready to romanticize, and be swayed by, figures like Miranda. Now they could do something to “free Bobby.” And that something required no bloodshed. “That Panther and that Bulldog gonna move together!” declared Miranda. The Yalies leapt to their feet, applauding. The entire campus was now consumed with the Panther trial.
Black undergraduates, many of them wary of Miranda, joined the front lines of his march toward a strike. Farley was selected as the head of a steering committee. Secretly, he met with Kingman Brewster and Sam Chauncey. Both sides wanted to prevent violence. “If anyone comes to us” with questions about how to get involved in planning for May Day, Brewster told Farley, “we’ll send them to you.”
“You know,” Farley told Brewster at the conclusion of a planning meeting, “we’re going to close the university down.”
“We’re going to try to stop you,” the president responded.
“OK,” Farley said. Like two Yale gentlemen, they shook hands.
Everyone—from J. Edgar Hoover to frightened New Haveners making plans to leave town—believed the city was about to explode. Paranoia and overheated rhetoric came from all sides. The Panthers continued ratcheting up the threats despite Miranda’s call for a strike. On April 20, pro-Panther students at the University of Connecticut beat another student with a tire iron.
On April 21, David Hilliard took the podium before 4,500 to 5,000 students in Ingalls Rink and proceeded to advocate murdering cops: “Everybody knows that pigs are depraved traducers that violate the lives of human beings, and that there ain’t nothing wrong with taking the life of a motherfucking pig.” The audience started booing. Hilliard called them racists and dared anyone to come up front and stab or shoot him. Then he offered conciliatory words, and the crowd replied with cheers.
But when a light-skinned man—later found to be a harmless Lebanese architecture student with mental problems—stumbled toward the stage, Hilliard’s Panther bodyguards tore into him with kicks and punches. The crowd started booing again. Hilliard left the stage with a parting message to the Yalies: “Fuck you! All power to all those except those who want to act like a bunch of goddamn racists.”
Order was rapidly breaking down.
Brewster and Chauncey decided to open the gates to the May Day protesters—most importantly Phelps Gate, the main Old Campus entrance next to the Green. Yale would welcome most of the out-of-town protesters and coordinate sleeping arrangements and mass granola feedings in residential college courtyards with the students and college masters. Still, Brewster and Chauncey waited to reveal the full extent of their plans. They said no at first to opening up the campus. They wanted the protesters to feel they'd won a victory when Yale “relented.”
Dealing with the strike was trickier. Brewster needed to safeguard Yale’s educational mission—and to protect the considerable portion of his faculty and student body immune to Panthermania. On April 23, he presided over a mass faculty meeting that approved a plan to suspend academic “expectations” for the rest of the semester. Faculty members could hold normal classes if they wished. No students would be punished; they could write papers over the summer to meet course requirements.
In the eyes of conservative professors and students, Brewster had sold Yale out to a band of thugs. But it was at another faculty meeting that Brewster uttered the sentence that led some to believe Yale’s blue-blooded president had truly lost his mind.
The meeting took place inside Yale’s resonant Sprague Hall, normally the site of classical music concerts. More than 900 professors showed up; 1,000 students demonstrated outside. The meeting lasted several hours. Black student leader Kurt Schmoke '71 delivered remarks; he stunned the faculty by seeking their counsel. Many students “are committed to a cause, but there are a great number of students who are confused, and many who are frightened,” Schmoke said. “You are our teachers. … We look to you for guidance and moral leadership.” His words eased the tension inside Sprague Hall.
Brewster spoke next, from a prepared text. He began by explaining why Yale, as a not-for-profit institution, could not meet demands to contribute money to the Panthers' defense. As an institution, Yale must remain neutral. But he encouraged people, in their “individual” capacities, to speak out if they felt strongly. Then he delivered the sentence that would affix itself to his legacy: “In spite of my insistence on the limits of my official capacity, I personally want to say that I am appalled and ashamed that things should have come to such a pass in this country that I am skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States.” Gasps were heard in the hall. Brewster finished by inviting proposals for what Yale could do to help address problems in New Haven ghettos. He sat down to an ovation.
When Yale released a text of Brewster’s remarks, the reaction to the “skeptical” sentence was swift and sharp. Connecticut governor John Dempsey was “shocked.” William F. Buckley Jr. '50 called Yale’s president “a prime example of what the mob can do to the leader.” Vice President Spiro Agnew said alumni should demand “a more mature and responsible person” to head Yale: “I do not feel that students of Yale University can get a fair impression of their country under the tutelage of Kingman Brewster.”
Within a day of Agnew’s remarks, 3,000 students signed a pro-Brewster petition. The faculty presented Brewster with another petition containing more than 400 signatures. Agnew’s salvo also bombed with some influential editorial writers. The Washington Post, for one, gave Brewster “major credit for achieving a sense of unity, coherence, and purpose out of seeming division and discord. Of course, he owes an incalculable debt to Vice President Spiro Agnew.”
Letters poured in, most from alumni. Yale’s administrators tallied popular sentiment: of 1,513 letters and telegrams received over ten days, 1,012 expressed support for Brewster; 501 disapproval.
In those waning moments before May Day, the White House dispatched 4,000 National Guardsmen to Connecticut. They would be reinforced by at least 2,000 state troopers plus thousands of Marines and paratroopers on standby in neighboring states. Both Chauncey and New Haven police chief James F. Ahern feared the troops would provoke violence more than prevent it. Ahern battled with the governor and state police chief to retain command of minute-by-minute deployments. (Ahern and Chauncey did put state troopers to use in a ruse to strand two buses of violence-bent Weathermen in rural Massachusetts before they reached New Haven for May Day.) And Ahern struggled to dampen the hysteria generated by the FBI. The New Haven FBI office, pressured by J. Edgar Hoover for a continuous flow of information and evidence of action, was forwarding every drip of hearsay that came its way.
Adding to the conjured hysteria were genuine fears and confirmed facts: the theft of 18 rifles and shotguns from a Meriden sporting goods store; the theft of hundreds of bayonet-mounted guns from an unguarded truck; the disappearance of 140 pounds of explosive mercury fulminate, used in blasting caps, from a Yale laboratory.
Resentment coursed through New Haven’s neighborhoods at the occupation of their city. Hundreds of Yale students had trimmed their hair, dressed neatly, and canvassed the neighborhoods to discuss the upcoming rally with New Haveners; they learned that white middle-class New Haven blamed them and the Panthers, not the police or the courts or the Man, for all this trouble.
Hardest to swallow for white radicals was the resentment of New Haven’s black community. The Black Coalition, which had kept its distance from the Panthers but also raised money for their legal defense, was immersed in planning to keep the peace on May Day. It released a devastating critique of those who claimed to pursue justice but truly sought the thrill of violent confrontation: “The truth in New Haven, as in most of the country, is that the white radical, by frantically and selfishly seeking his personal psychological release, is sharing in the total white conspiracy of denial against the black people.”
Black Coalition organizers hoped to keep as much of black New Haven as possible, especially young people, in the neighborhoods and away from Yale and the Green on May Day—and to keep the largely white pro-Panther invaders out of the neighborhoods. Some of their marshals would stay by the Green, ready to intercede with any local people causing trouble, and would keep an eye on police brutality. Unlike the Panthers, whose core of local activists never numbered more than a couple dozen and rarely organized a sizable following in New Haven’s black community, the coalition found many neighbors eager to enlist in the cause of keeping the peace.
From the Oval Office to Woodbridge Hall, from dorm rooms to Middle American living rooms, foreboding, a sense of inevitability, loomed. Then, just hours before May Day, President Nixon went on TV to announce that U.S. troops would invade Cambodia, until then neutral territory in the Vietnam War. “My fellow Americans,” Nixon said, “we live in an age of anarchy, both abroad and at home. … Even here in the United States, great universities are being systematically destroyed.”
Within hours, Nixon’s announcement would plunge universities across America into convulsions. Days later, on May 4, National Guardsmen at Kent State University in Ohio would shoot into a crowd of unarmed student war protesters, killing four.
The timing of the Cambodia announcement ensured that it would provoke outrage from the antiwar movement—at the very moment thousands of the movement’s most devoted shock troops were streaming into New Haven. More than 600 credentialed reporters from around the world arrived in New Haven to await the bloodshed.
After midnight on May Day, hours before the start of the rally, Brewster entertained guests in the presidential mansion on Hillhouse Avenue. The guests included radical attorney William Kunstler '41, David Dellinger '36, and Yippie Jerry Rubin, who'd been stretching his vocal cords in denunciation of Yale.
In these final hours, their agendas, even the police chief’s agenda, had fully converged. Brewster and Chauncey agreed with the protesters that Yale must keep gates open in the event of trouble and try to move the invading army of guardsmen and state cops as far away as possible from the hordes of ralliers on the Green. For their part, the radicals needed to hammer the nonviolent message home.
When dawn broke on May 1, the visiting demonstrators lined up for breakfast served by volunteers in the residential college courtyards. Other volunteers set up first aid stations. Vietcong flags filled the air; gas masks were distributed. Streaming banners and impromptu chants abounded: “Seize the Time!” “End U.S. imperialism around the world!”
Tanks took up positions on the roads into New Haven; on the Green, a fresh coat of grease on the pole protected Old Glory from potential flag burners. At a meeting in the Goffe Street Armory, Guardsmen received ammunition and gas grenades.
Four hours before the start of the official rally, a thousand protest organizers and supporters assembled for a raucous press conference. Jerry Rubin led the crowd in chanting “Fuck Kingston Brewer!” He also managed, in his hour-long tirade, to trivialize every serious Pantherite complaint about oppression: “The most oppressed people in America are white middle-class youth. … We don’t want to work in our daddy’s business. We don’t want to be a college professor, a prosecutor, or a judge. … We ain’t never, never, never gonna grow up.”
A mostly white sea of disaffected American youth, peppered with young black Panther supporters, filled the Green for the noon start of the Big Rally, Day One. The half million hadn’t materialized. The total was closer to 15,000. Still, battle-ready law enforcement officers and uniformed National Guardsmen remained just off the Green on adjoining blocks. They kept their distance as rock music blared from the stage.
The FBI kept intelligence flowing all day to J. Edgar Hoover, who then sent teletypes to the offices of President Nixon, the vice president, the CIA director, and the attorney general. At one point in the day, an informant called with a sighting of a wanted Weatherman fugitive on the Green. The man disappeared before agents reached him. But a teletype read, “30 Weathermen Faction of SDS members were on campus with Abbie Hoffman.”
All the while, the neighborhoods stayed quiet. On the Green, speeches began around 4:00 and went on for two and a half hours. While the rhetoric was militant, everyone kept true to the promises. The speakers counseled calm, and the crowd was with them. Soon everyone dispersed for food, more speeches, and rehashed arguments in Yale’s college courtyards. There, fiery words mixed with scenes of comic absurdity. A knot of white visitors, frustrated at a Panther’s exhortation to cut the talk of violence, shot back, “We’re more oppressed than you are” because of “our long hair.”
The beat poet Allen Ginsberg recited a poem he had written for the occasion. Ginsberg crammed more detail and color into his lines than an AP reporter:
Around 9:30 p.m., a black teenager joined the protesters in Branford College courtyard. He claimed to be a Panther. He wasn’t. Whom he truly represented, who sent him, no one would ever know. He shoved Jerry Rubin from a microphone to announce that police had arrested black men for entering the Green after dark. That, too, would prove a lie; no one had been arrested. The teen exhorted the crowd to confront the cops. “To the Green!” chanted motorcycle helmet-wearing white youths from a militant outfit called Youth Against War and Fascism.
Rubin reclaimed the mike. “Don’t go down there!” he yelled. “This is full of shit!” Too late—the fragile peace was broken. Other provocateurs brought the same false message to the Old Campus and Ezra Stiles College. A fired-up band proceeded out of Stiles. “The streets belong to the people,” they chanted, and proceeded to smash the windows of stores on Broadway apparently owned by non-"people.”
By 10:00 p.m., the streams converged in a parade of more than 1,000 violence-bent white people, many of them from out of town. They marched to the end of the Green opposite the courthouse. Hundreds of National Guard reinforcements arrived to supplement the 400 already there.
Calls for help went to the Panther Defense Committee headquarters. Doug Miranda raced all over, chasing after hot spots. He took the Old Campus stage and convinced crowds of protesters to remain in place. Then he sped to the Green. He joined teams of student and Panther monitors who fanned out, urging the marchers to return to campus. Dozens of Panthers worked the streets, frantically trying to keep the peace in concert with every stripe of “pig” found in the Black Panther bestiary.
Most of the great May Day assemblage heeded their words. But the holdouts in front of the courthouse ignored them. A bottle was thrown at the guardsmen and police. Bricks and cherry bombs followed. Finally, the police responded by shooting tear-gas canisters into the crowd. The demonstrators regrouped a few blocks southwest, at Temple and Chapel. Through megaphones, marshals read a statement from Bobby Seale, calling this kind of confrontation dangerous to the Panther cause.
Most of the demonstrators chilled out. A few resumed hurling bottles and rocks. Again, more tear gas. The police pushed them toward Phelps Gate, the Old Campus entrance planned to absorb crowds at moments of trouble.
Just then, Sam Chauncey’s longstanding order somehow got lost: an on-duty police officer started closing the gates. This was the nightmare Chauncey and Brewster had worked so hard to avoid. Chauncey got the call at his command center on Temple Street; he furiously phoned the campus cops and ordered the gate opened. A statement from black student leader William Farley was read over a sound system, telling the crowd to take shelter inside Old Campus.
Most protesters returned to the Old Campus. Allen Ginsberg was at the microphone, tapping universal Buddha consciousness in the stinging cloud of tear gas. “Ommmmmmmmmm,” Ginsberg chanted, as he had done in the midst of the police riot in Chicago a year earlier. People dabbed at his eyes with wet towels.
The last of the protesters at the courthouse gave up before midnight. At around the same time, a few blocks north of the Green, a more peaceful assembly was breaking up. Rock bands had just finished playing for hundreds of May Dayers inside Ingalls Rink. As the last band finished packing up, two bombs exploded from the basement with a force that blew out glass from both ends of the rink. The arch of the ceiling cracked. Miraculously, everyone escaped serious injury.
Investigators found no definitive signs of the perpetrators. Brewster and Chauncey would always suspect dirty tricks by operatives of the Nixon administration, seeking to portray the protest movement as violent and scary in the eyes of mainstream society. But the explosion would remain unsolved.
May 1 ended with New Haven intact. On film, it looked like war in the streets around the Green. Thousands of participants certainly tasted the chemical air of catastrophic confrontation. Yet in the end, it was more of a full-costumed rehearsal. A few windows were broken. Citywide, police made only 21 arrests all day, mostly on minor charges, some unrelated to May Day. Two police officers and a few demonstrators went to the city’s two hospitals, which had geared themselves for massive emergencies. The injuries were minor, the victims released not long after being admitted.
May 2 was an anticlimax. The Panthers and Yippies returned to the Green in the afternoon for more speeches, but the crowd had dwindled. “Fuck Kingman Brewer—or whatever his name is!” proclaimed Jerry Rubin.
“Fuck Jerry Rubin!” some local protesters responded.
The day ended with a speech by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) leader Tom Hayden, one of the nation’s preeminent student radicals. He offered a remarkable statement of what the murder of Alex Rackley meant to white radicals. “Facts are as irrelevant in this case in Connecticut, as facts are irrelevant about Vietnam and whether the Vietcong commit terror,” Hayden declared. “A lot of educated people are going to have to be convinced that the facts are irrelevant!” SDS had once drawn tens of thousands of committed activists to organize thoughtful opposition to the war in Vietnam and support for civil rights. Now, no one had the time or the interest or the energy to worry about facts any more.
That night, the last remnants of the white militants confronted the Guard and the cops, in smaller numbers, with fewer bottles and rocks. They got more tear gas; the Guard had had enough.
Then it was over. Call it luck. Call it brilliant planning. Call it a conspiracy between the Man and the Panther. Whatever the reason, death and destruction passed by New Haven.
Kingman Brewster ’41, eleven generations off the Mayflower, spent ten years on the faculty of Harvard Law School before he became provost of Yale in 1960 and president three years later. The Brewsters hailed from the old Republican Party. With a mix of motives—noblesse oblige, class prerogative, financial self-interest—their circle had opposed slavery, formed the American Civil Liberties Union, and donated fortunes to pursuit of intellectual inquiry. Years before it became more acceptable for establishment figures, Brewster had joined New Haven mayor Dick Lee at a rally to denounce the Vietnam War. Although he feared the intolerance of dissent he saw among too many campus radicals, Brewster had grown even more disgusted with many of his peers’ antagonism to those demanding change. Brewster loved talking with students, mixing with them on campus. He saw protests not as a threat, but as an opportunity to strengthen the system.
Willliam Farley Jr. ’72 was one of 96 black students in his class—the largest contingent in Yale history. He ran Yale’s Ulysses S. Grant Foundation, which tutored black children from New Haven. As a sophomore, he was already an emerging campus leader when events catapulted him to a central role in the May Day tempest. When the Panthers called for a student strike at Yale, undergraduates selected Farley as the head of a steering committee to plan the strike. Farley, and other black students who struggled with their roles at a changing Yale and in a changing America, felt caught between self-serving “pseudo-revolutionaries” and an unjust system. They wanted to improve Yale; they didn’t want to burn it down. They opposed violence. But they also cared deeply about injustices faced by black Americans in the criminal justice system. That was the central issue of the Panther trial protests.
Law Student Leader
Across the campus, students held meetings that, in most cases, led to endorsements of the Panthers’ call for a strike. In the Law School, students voted not to strike. The law students formed a committee—cochaired by future First Lady and U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham (Clinton) ’73JD—to monitor the trial, offer legal advice to demonstrators who got arrested, and help prevent violence at the May Day rally. Rodham’s cochair was a close friend named Jerry de Jaager ’67, ’72JD. (Bill Clinton wouldn’t arrive on campus until the following fall.) De Jaager would remember Rodham as a voice of reason whenever anyone grew too emotional about the course of events. Rodham’s calming influence became indispensable when, in the days leading up to the big protest, someone started a fire in the law school basement.
Decades later, some right-wing critics would distort Rodham Clinton’s role to make it appear she supported the murder of Alex Rackley and sided with radicals advocating violence. She herself has not chosen to shed light on her role during that time. In writing and speaking about the period, she does not mention cochairing the committee and has limited her public recollections.
Henry “Sam” Chauncey ’57, who later became secretary of the university, was Brewster’s top aide in charge of preparing for the May Day weekend. He transformed the Alumni House, a three-story wood-frame house on Temple Street, into Yale’s command center. Campus security officers slept in the beds usually reserved for visiting alumni. The Green was visible from the second-floor window, where Chauncey himself sat during the protests, monitoring the police radio. He kept in touch with the masters of the 12 residential colleges, and numerous other key people, with a bank of some 50 black rotary telephones.
When a bomb went off at Ingalls Rink in the last minutes of May 1, Chauncey remembered the advice of Yale trustee and former army secretary Cyrus Vance ’39, ’42LLB: stay in contact with journalists when trouble starts, in order to keep exaggerated media reports from inciting crowds. He called the news desks at the local radio and TV stations and assured them that the situation was not nearly so serious as it may have sounded on the police radio. As emergency response personnel raced to assess the crowd and collect evidence, the story stayed off New Haven’s midnight airwaves.
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