Protest season didn’t hit Yale until May Day 1970, but the next few years were full of action.
“Instead of getting hit by the invasion, we absorbed it,” Sarah Shapiro ’72 said.
While students at schools like Harvard and Columbia occupied buildings and held sit-ins, Yale students never protested as aggressively as other schools.
“There was a sense that we were a community and intended to keep our community, despite the differences in opinion,” Jeffrey Orleans ’67 LAW ’71 said.
But still, students made their voices heard, especially when New Haven crossed paths with Bobby Seale and the Civil Rights Movement.
May Day 1970
Seale and other Black Panthers were accused of the 1969 murder of Wayne Kimbo, a former New Haven Panther Party member who supposedly worked for the FBI.
Yale students were concerned that the Panthers might not receive a fair trial in New Haven and protested to have the trial moved elsewhere.
More than 15,000 protesters from across the country participated in the May Day 1970 protest on the New Haven Green, listening to speakers and rallying for a change in the trial’s location.
The Yale Daily News reported on May 2 that “the May Day demonstration did not succeed in freeing Bobby Seale, but it did bring together the largest assemblage of long-haired youths, film crews, and National Guardsmen that New Haven has ever witnessed.”
Yale managed to find room for many of New Haven’s guests.
“We absorbed the other protesters by housing them, allowing them to stay in our courtyards,” Shapiro said. “We fed them, and we spoke to them. We learned how to get the core out of a head of lettuce that weekend.”
Eventually, Connecticut Gov. John Dempsey was forced to deploy the National Guard in New Haven to restore order.
Recognizing a potential distraction to learning, Yale University President Kingman Brewster decided to delay final examinations until the fall.
“Campus life pretty much stopped,” John Stark ’72 said. “I remember lying in my backyard all summer studying poli sci.”
Students from that time said they appreciated the opportunity to protest in a passive manner.
“That was an opportunity to be really happy that I had come to Yale rather than another school,” Shapiro said.
Because the Black Panthers encouraged killing police officers, the New Haven Police Department illegally wire tapped the phones of Yale student leaders, beginning in late 1969.
“I had just attended one Students for Democratic Society meeting,” Stark said. “I signed a sheet of paper, and when the group’s leader called me about the next meeting, the police registered my name.”
Stark, along with several hundred other Yale students who had their telephones bugged, later received financial reparations following a lawsuit against the NHPD.
The Black Panthers often spoke to student audiences at Yale in the late 1960s and early 70s, spreading their message of freedom fighting.
At one meeting, a graduate student rose, approached the podium and challenged the Black Panther preacher in the fall of 1970. The speaker’s entourage fought the student back, and the crowd booed in response.
“It was a turning point against the Black Panthers because people stopped romanticizing about them as freedom fighters,” Stark said.
Shutting down to open up
But student demonstrations never got out of hand, students from that time say.
“Instead of the students getting out of gear, the University switched gear,” Shapiro said.
Yale instituted a policy of “shutting down to open up” as Shapiro recalled. Rather than trying to prevent the protests, the University postponed academic deadlines to maintain order, such as allowing students to take a Pass or Fail grade on several occasions.
Yale’s liberal-leaning faculty contributed to the era by holding academic learn-ins, which involved a panel of three faculty members discussing a current issue. Some students protested what they saw as civil rights abuses on campus.
Dennis McClure ’71 was one of 47 students suspended in 1969 for occupying the administrative offices of the dining services in Wright Hall in a Students for Democratic Society protest of a black employee they felt had been mistreated.
In addition, students were very opposed to the Vietnam War, although Yale’s last ROTC class did not graduate until 1972.
“There tended to be a lot of concern about going to Vietnam, and that tended to push the atmosphere to the liberal side,” George Chopivsky ’69 said.
Campus speakers also reflected the wartime climate. Internationally famous for his dominant boxing career, Muhammad Ali spoke in New Haven about refusing the Vietnam draft in 1969.
Large, organized rallies took place at Ingall’s Rink protesting issues such as the status of Yale ROTC and the presence of Winchester Arms factory in New Haven.
One such 1970 rally in Ingall’s evolved into a fight after a firebomb exploded, said Kurt Schmoke ’71, a leading student organizer at the time and now senior fellow of the Yale Corporation.
Students also protested the Vietnam War by occupying the campus quadrangles. Some of these camp-outs ended in turmoil.
“There were some concerns by the National Guard that the demonstration would get out of hand,” Schmoke said, “and they started lobbing canisters of tear gas. Some folks simply sat down and wouldn’t move, while others left.”
Many students even participated in off-campus protests. Student organizers arranged for bus trips to Washington, D.C. on several occasions.
“Our political views were a little different, our political zeal was different, but everyone went anyway,” Stark said. “Part of the reason was because it was fun to do. It was better than a keg in the dorm.”
Signs of combat
With such opposition to the war, students worried about their number coming up in the draft lottery.
“There was a real tension in the air that night,” Stark said of lottery night in 1971.
All the televisions were in the basements of the colleges, and students gathered to watch the lottery. Many students broke light bulbs in the halls that night in frustration, Shapiro said.
“Imagine the horror of being in a room with men whose birthdays came up,” Shapiro said.
Some Yale students who had left to fight in the war later returned to complete their studies, and Shapiro said they were received well.
McClure, who had left Yale in 1966 for personal reasons, realized that he would likely have to fight in the war.
He thought about dodging the draft, but instead took a position for three years in the United States Army as a military intelligence officer.
“I don’t regret what I did, although I do have a lot of resentment about the experience that I had,” McClure said.
McClure finally returned to New Haven in January 1969 and graduated with the Class of 1971.
“It was one of the most striking contrasts I have ever experienced in my life,” McClure said. “I only knew two other veterans [at Yale], and they were the few students on campus who had an understanding about where I had been.”
Despite his service, McClure never supported the war.
“I resented having been asked by the United States government to do things that the American people were so vocally opposed to,” McClure said. “I resented the attitude of the people that I had done something wrong when it was their government that forced me to do it.”
Stark said draft card burning occurred on a limited basis at Yale.
“I helped a number of friends find ways to avoid being drafted,” McClure said. “I just gave them personal advice and assistance.”
Organized groups helped students avoid the draft, too, such as The First and Summerfield United Methodist Church on College and Elm streets, which then ran a draft resistance office.
But opposition to the war decreased as the draft wound down in 1972. The effective Yale demonstrations added to the nationwide protests against the Vietnam War and convinced President Richard Nixon to move the country toward a volunteer military.
The United States began to withdraw from Southeast Asia in early 1973, and with the end of the war came a more peaceful Yale climate.