Although Thomas Cole ’71 has some typical college memories — intense discussions in the dining hall, professors who mentored him — he also has some unique ones, like filling sandbags with members of the Black Panther Party.
“I remember filling sandbags with them in their house, because they were scared they would be attacked by the police,” Cole said. “But when I saw the guns [party members] had, I thought, ‘Okay, I’m not going to put myself in the middle of this anymore.’ The FBI tapped my phone. But it was very scary and exciting and passionate. It was a great learning experience, but not in the conventional sense.”
Cole was just one of many students who worked with the Black Panther Party in the spring of 1970, during the New Haven trial of Black Panther Party chairman and co-founder Bobby Seale. Seale was on trial for torturing and murdering another Black Panther Party member in New Haven, and many students felt that a black man like Seale could not receive a fair trial in the American legal system. A student strike, which began April 22, shut down campus and caused University President Kingman Brewster to end the school year earlier than scheduled.
In the middle of the Vietnam war and the civil rights movement, campuses across the country were hotbeds for activism. The Seale trial incited many Yale students already enmeshed in the issues of the era to become active in political demonstrations. And while many of the Seale strikers did not continue a life of activism after Yale, they all say the strike was a sign of the times and an important part of their Yale experiences.
Although participants in the strike estimate that about 25 percent of the student body decided to join in by not attending classes, students in nine out of the 12 residential colleges voted in favor of the strike after an April 21 rally in Ingalls Rink, and the Yale College Senate endorsed it. The News reported that 75 percent of Yale students were not in class the first day of the strike.
“It was the times,” activist Larry McSpadden said. “If I had to use one word, it was tumultuous, inside and outside the University.”
William Farley ’72 LAW ’77, the chairman of the Strike Steering Committee, said given the general atmosphere around campus, students felt a dramatic response was necessary.
“We felt that with the Panthers trial going on literally down the street from Old Campus, we could not ignore the implications of what was happening to the Panthers, nor those of the Vietnam War, nor town-gown relations, and it mushroomed from there,” Farley said. “As long as people went along with their daily lives, things would not be confronted and faced. The only way to get things confronted and faced was to stop normal activity and to concentrate on what was going on around us.”
Larry Thompson ’72, a member of the Black Student Alliance at Yale who chose to strike, said the protests created a tense atmosphere on campus.
“It was an extraordinarily exciting time,” he said. “The campus was electrified. People were all over. A number of students actually left the University because, unfortunately, there was a lot of fear-mongering that there would be riots and things of that sort. On the campus itself, there were a lot of us who held seminars and things of that sort so we could try to educate people as to what was going on.”
Some students dropped out of Yale to become more active with the Panthers. McSpadden, a white student who could not see the point in attending school to study liberal arts “when it looked like the world was falling apart around us,” left Yale in the spring of his junior year. He and his housemates — fellow Yale dropouts and Panther supporters — helped with day-to-day activities, such as selling the Panther newspaper around Connecticut, talking to student groups at other colleges, cooking for Panthers and driving prominent Panthers to speaking engagements.
“It was 18 to 20 hours a day, seven days a week of running errands, giving talks, selling newspapers, anything we could come up with,” McSpadden said.
Not all Yalies active in the strike had actual ties to the Panthers. Although Farley led the strike efforts, he said he was never connected with the Party. He said the Panther Party used Yale and its students as a means to an end.
“The Black Panther Party made it very clear certainly to those of us in BSAY, if not to other white students who were sophisticated, that Yale students were being used for the political objectives of the Panther Party,” Farley said. “There was no love lost between us and the Panthers, and they made it quite clear that all the outrageous demands they made were for the purpose of squeezing as much out of Yale and its students, and afterwards they would be done with us.”
Cole, who made a passionate speech at a rally in April beseeching the Yale Corporation to give $500,000 to the Panthers, found himself too closely aligned with the Party. Cole said he loaned his car — a 1963 blue Mercury his mother gave him — to the New Haven Panthers, but did not realize how they were going to use it. The Panthers, he said, would ride down Elm Street with posters and an amplifier broadcasting phrases such as “power to the people” and “black power.”
Even students who did not agree with or partake in the strike could not help being affected by it. Farley and Cole both said the strike angered students and professors alike who did not want their normal lives disrupted.
“The point of the protest was to force a change of ideas and a change of attitudes towards what we thought was an unjust society,” Cole said. “So there was a lot of struggle. There were never physical fights but a lot of people were very unhappy about the level of disruption that took place that spring.”
As the national media turned its spotlight on New Haven, the University became more and more embroiled in the issues as the Yale administration tried to keep violence to a minimum. When the preparations for a massive rally on May Day — the culmination of the strike efforts — began, Brewster recognized that the best course of action would be “cessation of normal activity.”
In fact, Brewster’s decision may have been inevitable. For about three days, tens of thousands of people gathered on Yale’s campus to protest Seale’s imprisonment. The May Day rally on the New Haven Green ended in violence, when rock-throwing demonstrators clashed with police, who used tear gas to contain the protesters.
“The University really got scared [after hearing how many people were coming] and decided that probably the best thing to do was to close the University and open up the dorms to all these demonstrators coming in, and to provide meals [to the protesters],” McSpadden said. “I think that really helped keep the lid on things and kept it from being what could have been a very explosive situation.”
The Seale trial ended in a hung jury after six months, and the May Day rally practically ended the turmoil on the Elm City campus, which returned to “pretty much normal Yale in the fall,” Farley said. Although many of the Yale students involved in the rally continued to be active in the social issues of the era, including movements for women’s rights, against the war in Vietnam, and for civil rights, they, for the most part, returned to their “normal” lives.
“The strike ended and we went back to school, thank God,” Cole said. “You felt out of control in those days. You didn’t know what would happen next.”
Cole, who became a humanities professor in medicine at the University of Texas School of Medicine, married a fellow Yalie he met during a rally in Washington and now has two children. He said he still has his passion for justice, but has moved beyond his protesting days.
“It’s a very scary thing to challenge authority,” Cole said. “Looking back on it, I think of myself as a know-it-all student radical. I don’t regret it, but I understand it as a phase in my life and a phase in history from which history has moved on, and I’ve moved on.”
Farley and Thompson both went to law school — Farley to Yale and Thompson to Berkeley — and each found successful careers in private practice.
Farley said he does not feel like he abandoned his activist roots, despite what many would call a conventional Yale career path at a private law firm.
“I think most Yale students involved in the strike had similar experiences,” he said. “There were some who went [into] legal aid, for example, or a public service program of that nature right out of law school. But I would get calls from [those] people, who would say, ‘I can’t stand it, nothing gets done, there is too much politics, I don’t get paid enough, please get me a job in your law firm.’ It was an ironic time immediately after leaving Yale.”
Despite dropping out of Yale, McSpadden also finished college, at the University of Indiana, and began his own insurance practice. He said he does not frequently discuss his involvement with the Black Panther Party with his family.
“When something came up where I would talk about it, it was just sort of like an adventure story of dad’s, clearly from another time or another place,” McSpadden said. “It’s analogous to how rarely my dad talked about his time serving in the Navy in World War II. It’s a tough time to portray with any accuracy to someone who wasn’t there.”
The activism of their college years is not something many of them have seen again, they said. Cole said he is disappointed not to see more engagement and social activism on college campuses today.
“I think we were a more idealistic generation,” Cole said. “That’s one of the beauties of youth, as long as it’s not followed by the disillusionment of middle age. I think young people need to stretch the boundaries of things and tell their elders what they like and what they’d like to see different.”