Walk through the Sterling Memorabilia Room’s new collection of primary documents from the 1970 May Day Rally, and you’ll be transported from the small exhibition space to a more explosive time at Yale, when protests rocked the campus and violence threatened to erupt every day.
On May 19, 1969, Black Panther Party (BPP) members in New Haven kidnapped and killed fellow member Alex Rackley on the suspicion that he was an FBI informant. Nine BPP members, including the organization’s co-founder Bobby Seele, were arrested; they would later be known as the “New Haven Nine” (a nod to the Chicago Seven). Their trial instigated protests from people both within and outside of Yale, all of which cumulated in a three-day rally on the New Haven Green. While Yale didn’t meet demands for a moratorium on classes, the University demonstrated its support by providing shelter, food, first aid and a day care for the ralliers and their children.
But the rich collection of black and white photographs, posters, newspaper pages and documents demonstrates that, long before the New Haven Nine, sociopolitical tensions were already affecting life on campus. The first part of the collection sketches out the University’s growing pains during the tumultuous 1960s as it — like many other schools during this period — contended with the increased visibility of female students and students of color, as well as the presence of anti-Vietnam War protests and labor rallies.
It would be impossible for one exhibit to show us the entirety of Yale’s evolution during that decade; however, curators Sarah Schmidt and Bill Landis succeed in displaying objects that outline how the times were, as Bob Dylan would put it, a-changin’. In one photograph, an elderly woman holds up a sign that reads “Yale Employees on Strike for a Fair Contract.” An album with the caption “Yale is the wrong place for a black radical” depicts two Black students pumping their fists upwards, making the Black Power salute.
The bulk of the collection’s strength rests in its documentation of the events that led directly to the May Day Rally, from the rumblings of discontent in early April to the loud, albeit largely peaceful, roar of the May Day weekend itself. The pieces of history that rest behind the glass cases have the demanding duty of bringing the past alive with still pictures and printed words; this isn’t a multi-part documentary that has the benefit of interviews or a smooth narration by Morgan Freeman.
As a result, the curators display certain primary sources that dramatize the history that the accompanying plaques merely summarize, making for an experience that is at once that of an historical thriller and an epic. For instance, FBI papers appear throughout the exhibit, thus demonstrating how much surveillance the bureau placed on the Panthers. A read through these documents illustrates effectively why the Panthers would feel paranoid and, as a result, suspect members in their ranks. The many excerpts from newspaper columns that covered the turmoil on campus also highlight the significance of the May Day Rally as a cultural event. And with a snapshot of the aftermath of a bomb detonation at Ingalls Rink, we are reminded us just how close the protest came to descending into fatal violence. These images and documents transcend their stasis and pull the viewers into the same era as the Panthers and the protesters, causing us to feel the mixed emotions of anger, fear and hope that the rally brought with it.
But even as the exhibition succeeds in drawing us into a more fiery time in American history, its conclusion is lukewarm. The exhibit would have benefitted from touching on how the trial indicated the continued fracturing of the Black Panther Party, which was already disintegrating under the FBI’s aggressive neutralization efforts and under the weight of its own ideological schisms (e.g., how the Panthers should deal with community involvement, political activism, gender roles, etc.). By concluding the Black Panthers’ story with a plaque detailing the conviction of three of the New Haven Nine, we’re left with a cliffhanger. The Panthers’ story is much bigger than the trial and the rally on the Green. In the end, of course, this is an exhibit about Yale. The curators have little obligation to tell the story of the Panthers, even if it’s compelling.
While the exhibit informs us about a fascinating chapter in Yale’s history, the images also push us to consider the sociopolitical activism that has marked our stay at the college. In the past three years on campus, students have dealt with an increased awareness of sexual violence on campus, the boycotts surrounding wage disputes at Gourmet Heaven and a desire to open up more conversations on class issues. This new collection enables us to not only travel back to a more incendiary time, but also to reflect on how much has — or hasn’t — changed within the University’s gates.