Q&A | Bass: Kimbro proves ‘you don’t give up on people’

Paul Bass ’82, the editor of the New Haven Independent and a lecturer in the Department of Political Science, is the co-author, with School of Management Professor Douglas Rae, of the 2006 book “Murder in the Model City: The Black Panthers, Yale, And the Redemption of a Killer,” which examined the story of the New Haven Black Panther Trials.

Warren Kimbro, whose killing of a fellow Black Panther member spurred those trials, died late Tuesday at the age of 74. In an interview with the News, Bass reflected on Kimbro’s case, his efforts to redeem himself and his legacy in the Elm City.

Q: Who is Warren Kimbro?

A: Warren Kimbro is a son of New Haven — in every sense of the word. He grew up here and took part in every important civic enterprise of the second half of the 20th century. He was an idealistic soldier in the war on poverty, working with troubled kids and organizing neighborhoods to steer development. He, like so many people, soured on the limits of liberal reform. He was very briefly radicalized. He spent six months as a Black Panther, ends up in a swamp with a gun put in his hand and he was ordered to ice “a wrongly suspected informant.” He quickly repents, confesses and experiences in our brief moment in history when the corrections system sought to rehabilitate people rather throw them away in warehousing. … He becomes an incessant crusader to giving people second chances like the ones he had. His influence extends to the highest levels of power to the lives of the powerless.

Q: Again, who is Warren Kimbro?

A: He was a funny, visionary, warm, passionate man who had this intimate connection with hundreds of people. Each person felt like what Warren was his special guide or confidante or sounding board, or fun person to hang out with. [laugh]. Whether he was before a crowd of scholars at Yale or in a room full of inmates serving hard time, he could connect with people on the deepest level.

Q: Why did you write Murder in the Model City with School of Management Professor Douglas Rae?

A: Over the years as a reporter in New Haven, I had been gathering string for this story. The case kept coming up in people’s life. I got a box of FBI documents that showed complete wrongdoing in the New Haven case. I got to know Warren. I learned some interesting inside stories from Yale officials about what happened on May Day. It seemed like the seminal political event in the second half of the 20th century that brought into focus these crucial issues about poverty, race, social change, the plight of cities and the politics of protest.

Q: The driving narrative for your book is the consequences of Kimbro killing Alex Rackley, who was suspected by the Black Panther Party to give the Federal Bureau of Investigation incriminating information. How did Rackley’s murder affect Kimbro in later years?

A: Warren never shook off the ghost of Alex Rackley. Every morning, he’d pray and always think about him. He never fully forgave himself. He knew he did wrong. The Black Panthers formed originally in California to combat the violence by police against innocent black man. Warren joined the Black Panthers and ended up killing an innocent black man.

Q: Did Kimbro ever meet Rackley’s family?

A: No. I tracked down Rackley’s family in Florida. I went to visit them. They knew very little about the murder. They were curious. They wanted to meet Warren; they weren’t angry. I tried to get Warren to come with me. He said he just couldn’t face the family. He couldn’t face the brothers and sisters of the man he killed.

Q: Why did Kimbro agree to be featured in Murder in the Elm City?

A: He asked me to write the book. He wanted to come to grips with what really happened. He wanted people to understand to understand that he wasn’t a hero for committing a murder. He didn’t want young black men to follow that path. He wanted the truth to come out about the misdeeds of the federal government, the police, the Panthers, everyone. He thought the historical record needed to be set straight.

Q: Who called him a hero?

A: Everyone calls him a hero. His wife was being operated on by a doctor who came out and said, “I marched for you in the 60s. You were a hero!” He said, “No, I wasn’t!” I thought he was hero, but not in any way for killing Alex Rackley. The people romanticized that era, and he was worried that the romanticism excused violence.

Q: What happened to him during his four years in prison?

A: He studied hard and got his degree. He started a training program for inmates to help them improve their lives. He rediscovered his religion, and he made time count. He always said, “Don’t count time. Make time count.” He made the basis to rebuild his life and tried to confront honestly what he had done and the wrong turn his life had taken.

Q: Kimbro was the CEO of Project MORE up until his death. How has Kimbro altered how New Haven and Connecticut perceive prison reentry?

A: Dramatically. There are thousands of people who now come out of Connecticut with extra help to kick the drug habit, learn how to go to a job interview, find a job, control their anger, wrestle with their demons, and hopefully not to return to life of crime. Warren demonstrated that that approach can work.

Q: Do you feel New Haven, and Connecticut, has continued with what Kimbro has done in prison reentry?

A: Definitely. We recently opened a new shelter for women inmates who just came out of jails, the Virginia Wells House. Last night, as Warren was breathing his last breath, the committee of Board of Aldermen unanimously approved a “Ban the Box” proposal to help get ex-inmates to get a foot in the door and get job interviews. Warren had promoted the bill and had been working with the city to craft a prison reentry strategy. New Haven has caught up with Warren Kimbro.

What did Yale University mean to Kimbro? How did it change over the years?

Q: He loved Yale. He always rooted for the Yale football team. His wife Beverly worked at Yale as an administrative worker at Luce Center. He had lots of friends, in the political science department especially. He spoke at events at Yale. He socialized with Yale professors and staffers, played sports together, watched football games with them.

Q: You traveled the state with Kimbro in order to promote “Murder in the Elm City.” What did you learn about him then?

A: That he could connect with the most bizarrely wide range of people. One day, he’d be in a jail with 100 felons about to be released into the street and scared that they were going to return to a life of crime. The next day, he’d be with 80-year-old Jewish bubbes [Yiddish for “grandmothers”] at a Woodbridge synagogue singing them the Yiddish lullaby that his mother used to put him to sleep with in the 1930s. They felt he was mishpacha, which means “family.” In between, he’d be in classes, whether it was Hillhouse High School or Hillhouse Avenue, and he would inspire kids and connect with them.

Q: What were Kimbro’s thoughts of President Barack Obama?

A: He initially endorsed [New York Sen. Hillary] Clinton [LAW ’73]. He didn’t believe that the country was ready for Obama. I remember riding up with him to the Cheshire jail during the primaries and was amazed he was supporting Clinton. It came down to his conviction, common to his people in his generation, that America wasn’t ready to support a black man, and it all would backfire. He wanted Barack to be vice president and earn eight years of American acceptance. When the world did change, Warren was so thrilled. He was excited to see this in his lifetime.

Q: Who will remember Kimbro?

A: Everyone in New Haven, the lives he touched. Ex-convicts will remember Kimbro. Social workers for who he was a mentor will remember Warren. Everyone in politics will remember Warren. The people in Yale’s political science department will remember Warren. His family. His grandchildren for whom he was a father figure will remember Warren. Innumerable student and community groups he addressed will remember Warren. State corrections officials who looked him for guidance will remember him.

Q: What resonates with you most about Kimbro’s life?

A: The idea that you don’t give up on people.

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