Memories of May Day: A look back at Black Panther protests at Yale
In 1970, members of the Yale community prepared for and participated in a wave of demonstrations in support of the city’s Black Panthers on trial.
Yale Daily News
On May 1, 1970, also known as “May Day,” thousands of protestors from around the country joined Yalies and New Haveners on the New Haven Green to rally in support of the Black Panthers. The murder of Panther Alex Rackley by others in the New Haven chapter gave the FBI, who had kept the organization under surveillance for years, the opportunity to prosecute national party leaders.
Black student activists collaborated with the University’s administration and the local chapter of the Panthers to advocate for racial justice and a fair trial for those charged, creating widespread conversations on race and repression at Yale and across the nation. Yale’s administration, residential colleges, dining staff, professors and medical personnel took up the challenge of accommodating protestors and ensuring peace.
Before the Rackley murder, New Haven Panther programs enjoyed support and success. Veronica Kimbro, daughter of Panther Warren Kimbro, said that the New Haven Panthers stood up for the right to self-defense among Black people. In addition, she said they worked to give Black community members greater access to education and medical care. Lew Miller ’70 said he sometimes volunteered with the Panthers’ free breakfast program, where they would feed children before they went to school.
“I wanted a fro like Angela Davis, you know, and we knew that it was something they were doing for the betterment of our people,” Veronica Kimbro said. “And to this day, I don’t feel like they were starting trouble or they were cop-killers or any of that. … They were trying to protect their neighborhoods and trying to protect their people.”
One New Haven Panthers press release obtained from Yale’s Manuscripts and Archives collection detailed their aims, activities and fight against government repression. In its first few months of operation, the chapter opened a “liberation school,” solicited donations for the free breakfast program, protested against lead poisoning and distributed newspapers. According to the press release, the police confiscated funds raised for the free breakfast program in the 1969 raid following Rackley’s murder.
According to “Murder in the Model City: The Black Panthers, Yale, and the Redemption of a Killer,” National Panthers George Sams and Landon Williams arrived in New Haven from California to “whip East Coast chapters into shape.” They “evoked the paranoia” that the party was permeated with FBI and police informants, and as soon as the pair arrived, they told others to keep an eye on Rackley. The book states that this suspicion could have stemmed from a name mix-up. Sams would later claim that even he did not believe Rackley was an informant.
As a result, 19-year-old Rackley spent days captive and tortured in the New Haven Panther headquarters where Warren Kimbro and his family lived. After Rackley eventually “admitted” — under torture — he was an FBI informant to Sams and Williams, he was driven to the swamps of the Coginchaug River on May 20, 1969. Sams told Rackley he would be able to leave on a boat. Instead, he gave Kimbro the order “from Nationals” to shoot and kill Rackley. Lonnie McLucas, another Panther, fired an insurance shot to make sure Rackley was dead.
Veronica Kimbro, who was 8 years old at the time of the murder, still holds vivid memories of her time living in the New Haven Panther headquarters. She still remembers details of Rackley’s captivity in the present. Before he was killed, she came home to find Rackley in her bedroom.
“I saw women go on from the bathroom, and coming back in and tending to him. And his face was all busted up and swollen and bloody, and he was laying in my bed,” Veronica said. “I kept looking at this man who looked like he was just in so much pain that he couldn’t even talk. And the looks on the women’s faces … They looked sad, but they were attending to him.”
The New Haven police, who had spied on the Panthers throughout Rackley’s captivity, raided the headquarters soon after his body was found. Veronica remembers waking up to flashlights and guns pointed at her and her brother. She came down the stairs during the commotion to see cops handcuff several Panthers, including her father.
“Murder in the Model City” stated that “swarming in, officers moved in every direction, stepping over the women on pallets. They overturned flour bins and ransacked the premises.”
After several Panthers were arrested, Warren Kimbro and Sams pleaded guilty to the murder in exchange for a reduced sentence, while Lonnie McLucas chose to go to trial. Charges against other Panthers who frequented the headquarters were eventually dropped after they spent months to years in jail. Ericka Huggins, a leading member and visionary of the New Haven chapter, was charged with aiding and abetting Rackley’s murder, among other charges.
According to Paul Bass ’82, editor of The New Haven Independent and co-author of the book, Huggins’ arrest marked a turning point in public attitudes surrounding the trials. Widespread dissent erupted across the country after National Panther leader and party co-founder Bobby Seale was also arrested in California, despite being out of state at the time of Rackley’s slaying. This prompted thousands to plan “May Day” protests on the New Haven Green, right beside Yale’s Old Campus.
Bass said to the News, “But the government really wanted to get Huggins and Seale — only really there was no case against Seale, or that much of a case against Huggins — and that’s what made it a national story.”
The FBI’s Counterintelligence Program, or COINTELPRO, played a large role in the case against the Panthers, according to Panther press materials and Bass. In the midst of a political atmosphere marked by dissidence, including the anti-war and Black Power movements, COINTELPRO projects sought to illegally conduct surveillance, infiltration, and disruption within groups deemed subversive. According to Bass, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover specifically targeted the Black Panther Party because they “posed a threat to racist power structures” and because he feared the rise of a “Black messiah.”
Yale and the Panthers
Yale’s classes of Black students had long fought against discrimination on and off campus. Hundreds of members of the Black Student Alliance at Yale gathered in Woodbridge Hall in 1969 to meet with former President Kingman Brewster and the Yale Corporation concerning harassment by both the Yale and New Haven police departments. According to former BSAY leader Ralph Dawson ’71, who received the Yale Medal in 2021, students had pushed for Yale to create the African American studies department and to bring more diversity to the student body and faculty.
Yale student organizations and the Panthers shared a short history of collaboration before the 1970 protests. Yale’s chapter of the New Left organization Students for a Democratic Society teamed up with the New Haven Panthers to organize picket lines and sit-ins in support of a local welfare advocacy organization in late 1969. Panther leader Ericka Huggins had previously spoken at Yale and cultivated a following of students, according to Bass’ book. The week of Rackley’s death, Seale had delivered a fiery speech on campus before returning to California.
After Seale’s arrest, student activist groups organized demonstrations at Yale in support of the Panthers’ cause. According to archives of the News, the student groups Revolutionary Youth Movement and Branford Liberation Front interrupted around 20 lectures to speak about “police harassment of the Panthers” and collect funds for the group’s legal defense in December 1969. Five students involved were suspended for the remainder of the term.
The BSAY eventually joined with the Third World Liberation Front, or TWLF, to form the United Front for Black Panther Party Defense. Hundreds sat in the Berkeley College common room as a variety of speakers representing faculty, the Yale Divinity School’s Black Seminarians and Asian American and Latin American student groups shared their messages. Dawson introduced the speakers by reading the group’s prepared statement.
The statement said that Yale must “take a vigorous stance on releasing these political prisoners,” and called for a student strike, a 500,000 dollar donation from Yale to the Panthers’ defense fund and for Yale to host a national conference of Black community groups.
Meanwhile, law students and faculty joined forces with other legal academics to study the trial and sometimes to provide Panther defendants with legal assistance. Early on, several Yale Law students dropped out of the school to devote time to the New Haven Panther Defense Committee, which comprised mainly white radicals. Leading up to the trials themselves, panels at the law school, including one organized by Hillary Rodham Clinton LAW ’73, took efforts to monitor proceedings and review jail terms for the charged Panthers.
Some devoted themselves entirely to the movement to support and free the Panthers, according to Tap Taplin ’70. His best friend, the late Glenn deChabert ’70, served as the BSAY’s first leader and helped found the Afro-American Cultural Center alongside Dawson. According to Taplin, deChabert eventually received four incompletes in his final semester because he “was spending 24 hours a day immersed in protests.”
“We had a number of firebrand African American students from the northeast, out West and from the South. But the northeastern guys, who had been kind of into protesting and movements, were kind of the natural leaders,” Taplin said. “And of the natural leaders, Glenn was the natural leader.”
Aside from firebrands like deChabert, others supported the Panthers in different respects. Taplin, who had earlier worked for the Southern Regional Council’s voter education program, said he took a different ideological approach than his friend did. He identified as an organizer more than a protestor and was less supportive of calls to boycott classes.
“I thought a lot about what’s going to happen to the African American freshmen, sophomores and juniors if classes were boycotted,” Taplin, who was a senior at the time, said. “I was very supportive of what was going on in the streets and the protests, but I was also concerned about making sure that students behind me were going to have a fair shake at completing this place.”
Dawson told the News that some Panther representatives who gave speeches to students told them they should engage in more radical forms of support. He added that although some of the speakers were less “persuasive” than others, students shared many goals with the Panthers. Student leaders often communicated with Panthers, and Dawson himself often spoke with Panther captain Doug Miranda for insight.
“So there was some rough sledding at times. [Panthers] demanding certain things, suggesting to both Black students and students alike, that they are to be more militant, they ought to do this, that or the other. And, you know, we took cognizance of that,” Dawson said. “But we tried to work with them to the extent that we could to try to get the University to position itself in a context where it was standing up for fair trial for the Panthers.”
Miller additionally noted a sense of skepticism among some Black students when Panther advocates called for more radical support. He had spent months in Brazil in the company of revolutionaries before returning to Yale in January 1970 and contrasted the work of Yale students with that of activists like the Brazilian students.
“We might be civil rights attorneys, but we’re probably not going to be revolutionaries,” Miller said. “Or like, Thurgood Marshall, but we’re not going to be Malcolm X.”
The Panthers and their supporters at Yale also received criticism. Several op-eds published in the News questioned Panther ideology, while others took issue with popular claims that the Panthers would not receive a fair trial. One controversial opinion piece written by Douglas Hallett ’71 claimed that protestors intimidated the judicial process and that “the militant tactics of blacks and students in the past two or three years” hurt the prospect of positive change. One editorial published by the News’ staff disputed that it was impossible for the Panthers to receive a fair trial.
Brewster, his administration and Yale faculty were tasked with responding to student demands on the Panther issue. Brewster was characterized as an “extraordinary leader” by Dawson, who he collaborated with in efforts to diversify the student body. At the same time, Brewster initially held back from throwing the University’s full support behind the Panthers, but made clear that Yale had to protect the principles of legal justice and a fair trial for the Panthers. His efforts to respond to dialogue on the Panthers included appointing a faculty committee to “recommend what course of action seems most appropriate for Yale,” which was led by Ernest Osborne.
Many Black faculty members, however, were critical of Brewster’s committee. Several met to discuss the committee and on April 20 sent a letter to Brewster denouncing it. The letter’s signees, “The Black Faculty at Yale,” lamented that the committee, which was chaired by a Black man, attempted to speak for the Black community without consulting it.
The letter, which was published in the News, stated that Brewster’s choice “can only be construed as an attempt to discredit individual members of the black community or its selected committee members. The impending trial of the Black Panthers involves issues and members largely related to the black community including the faculty at Yale.”
At the same time, according to Miller and Dawson, Brewster maintained a channel of communication with students to address the Panther trial. Miller said that Black student leaders from the BSAY, like Dawson, deChabert and Kurt Schmoke ’71, served as an “intermediary” between Brewster’s administration and students, as well as with the broader New Haven community.
Faculty took their own action in support of the Panthers and student activists. The News reported that Black faculty members independently set up a fund to support the Panthers and the needs of the city’s Black community. Pierson College head John Hersey created a trust fund for New Haven and Yale community members to donate to the Panthers’ legal defense. In a “teach-in” program at Yale, faculty conducted workshops on racism, the law and Yale-New Haven relations.
Around 15,000 people flocked to the New Haven Green on May 1, 1970 for May Day rallies in support of the Panthers and anti-war movement. Despite Yale and New Haven groups planning for peaceful and nonviolent protests, fears of violence erupting permeated discussions. One student-faculty committee doubted that the rallies would remain nonviolent, citing a lack of concrete plans by organizers. In preparation, Yale’s students, faculty and administration debated options for the incoming storm.
The student strike movement gained momentum as May 1 approached. While many students supported boycotts of classes in solidarity with the Panthers, others cited safety concerns and the inability to focus amid the political atmosphere and turmoil. The News reported that over 400 students gathered in William L. Harkness Hall to vote for “an immediate three day moratorium on classes” in support of the Panthers. Two groups — Yale’s Student Senate and the Coalition of Concerned Women at Yale — announced support for the moratorium, while Yale’s Student Fair Trial Committee saw the moratorium as counterproductive.
David Hilliard, the Black Panther Party chief of staff, delivered a passionate speech before a crowd of 4,500 students at Ingalls Rink. He called for a strike in solidarity with the Panthers. Drawing far less support from the crowd, Hilliard also advocated for “killing pigs.” Nevertheless, directly following Hilliard’s speech, nine residential colleges voted in favor of a strike. In support of the strikes, Yale’s golf, tennis and baseball teams canceled games, and the baseball team vowed to donate ticket proceeds from two upcoming games to the BSAY.
On April 23, the News reported that around three-quarters of students did not attend the previous day’s classes in accordance with the strike movement. Pickets surrounded several academic buildings while over 800 students gathered outside a faculty meeting held at Sprague Hall to listen to Miranda speak. At a Yale Political Union meeting of 700 students, Dawson interrupted a speech by former Sen. Edward Kennedy to call for the Panthers’ freedom and awareness of political repression suffered by Black people. Schmoke presented faculty with a moving plea for guidance and moral leadership from inside Sprague. Although faculty were initially split on whether to cancel classes or not, they inevitably issued their support.
During the meeting, Brewster also made a comment on the trial which drew national attention, including significant backlash from the Nixon administration.
“I am skeptical of the ability of Black revolutionaries to receive a fair trial anywhere in the United States,” Brewster said. “In large part the atmosphere has been created by police actions and prosecutions against Panthers in many parts of the country. It is also one more inheritance from centuries of racial oppression.”
Former Vice President Spiro Agnew called for Brewster’s resignation, which thousands of faculty, students and alumni denounced. Former U.S. Sen. Thomas Dodd even called on the Senate to investigate the University and the planned rallies. He claimed that he could prove that Yale’s administration and students “have been led into the position of helping a national conspiracy to wreck the legal process.”
In preparation for May Day, residential colleges moved to provide shelter and food for the influx of protestors. Branford College students voted early on to open their facilities to protestors and create spaces for Red Cross services. In the days leading up to the student strikes and protests, all residential college’s masters, now called heads of college, approved plans for open facilities as well.
Brewster himself endorsed the opening of residential colleges and Yale’s Old Campus in what Bass and Miller described as a strategic move to quell violent masses of protestors. Since College Weekend, in which residential colleges “showed off” to attract students to join, was canceled, Miller said the budgets went into planning for food distribution.
“Very smart guy, very smart politician, I’m sure I suspect. And so what he said, what he did was ‘Okay, let’s co-opt these guys — these guys coming from Boston or wherever to take over the campus. We’ll invite them, we’ll feed them, and you know, they can sleep in the common rooms and stuff,” Miller said. “We’ll just accommodate them because you know, we’re nice guys. We’re not reactionaries. So not that many people showed up for it.”
Bass said that his book argues that Brewster and his administration engaged in a “conspiracy” with the Panthers, student activists, New Haven police and city administration to minimize the risk of chaos and violence.
Yale and community medical personnel made plans to staff and administer health aid stations at Pierson College and several nearby churches. In one map of May Day “aids” on Yale campus, which included first aid stations and telephones, there is a doodle of a bulldog arm-in-arm with a Black Panther and alligator. It is not clear what the alligator represents. On the other side of the map is a doodle of a pig.
Several Panther leaders and Yale student organizations made clear, in accordance with Yale’s administration, that violence during May Day rallies would not be tolerated. On April 30, 1970, 2,500 students gathered in Ingalls rink as Miranda, other Panther leaders, Yale students and faculty called for freeing Bobby Seale while maintaining peace. Calls by some activists, mainly white radicals, to “burn” Yale down were shut down by Black students themselves.
“We also made clear that we weren’t for trashing the University. We were happy to talk with them about the issues, to be supportive of some of their protests,” Dawson explained. “And we wanted Yale’s focus to be not so much on those people, but on Yale’s responsibility to the local surrounding communities.”
The May Day schedule released by organizers included workshops on social issues and different forms of oppression, speeches by famous activists like Abbie Hoffman and Artie Seale, and music performances. May 1 would begin with a press conference by organizers in the morning, and the main rally on the Green was set to take place from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.
While Black student leaders operated in support of peaceful protests at Yale, New Haven’s Black community was less supportive, according to the Yale Alumni Magazine. They largely wanted to avoid the violence and disruption predicted by some Panther leaders and white radicals.
White New Haven residents were even less supportive of the protests, according to canvassing findings published by the University Teach-Out program. Most whites feared violence, disapproved of Brewster’s statement on the trial, felt confident in the judicial process and felt hostile toward the Black Panther Party in general.
However, with some exceptions, the May Day rallies were largely peaceful. 15,000 outsiders, community members and students participated, compared to the 25,000 predicted. Student marshals were dispatched to keep the peace and provide aid to those present. In a letter preserved in Yale’s Manuscripts & Archives collection, a student named Ed Samuels wrote to his parents about the time he spent at the rallies on the Green.
Samuels wrote about loose crowds gathered under a “light, festive atmosphere,” and how numbers gradually rose as more speakers took the podium throughout May 1. Later in the night, he wrote about watching hundreds of police and guardsmen descend upon a group of protestors, employing “clouds of tear gas.” Samuels claimed that the crowds were largely nonviolent despite a few people throwing rocks and firecrackers. The clouds of tear gas sent herds of the city’s homeless toward Silliman College for safety. Later that night, an explosion occurred at Ingalls Rink, of which no culprit was identified. Miller remembered that at some point, a small fire broke out in the law library.
Amidst the violence, the Black Panther Party generally encouraged peace on the Green.
“Within twenty minutes a sound truck manned by Black Panthers was let through by police. … The speaker talked quickly denouncing violence, blaming the fire on provocateurs who wanted to cause trouble to the detriment of the Black Panthers and the black community. … I prayed that the news media had noticed the measures which the Panthers were taking to preserve peace.”
Dawson, who attended rallies on the Green, also remembered encouraging some people to leave when tear gassing began. Miller also attended the rallies, and referred to parts of it as “scary” because the crowd was “subject to manipulation.” While most rally attendants were outsiders, Dawson said that a large number of Yale students attended.
Protestors slowly started to fizzle out, largely defeating expectations of violence and an overwhelming influx of people into the city that the media and national government had predicted. Miller laughed as he recounted the feeling that all of the food preparations made for protestors were a “waste” because far fewer people showed up than expected. One headline in Life magazine declared “Yale proves dissent doesn’t have to turn out that way,” lauding the Yale and New Haven communities for effectively ensuring the peace was kept.
Beyond May Day, the fight for racial justice at Yale and for the Panthers on trial continued. When Seale and Huggins went to trial in October 1970, Judge Harold Mulvey ultimately dismissed the charges brought against them because of the inability to produce an unbiased jury. Bass commented on concerns over whether the Panthers would receive a fair trial in hindsight, quipping that “they did — and with a racist judge.”
Meanwhile, Warren Kimbro opened a new chapter in his life after his release from prison. Although Veronica endured a difficult adolescence because of the lasting impacts of her father’s incarceration, she enjoyed a healthy relationship with him after the birth of her first child. Bass’ book details Warren Kimbro’s journey to the Harvard Graduate School of Education and subsequent nonprofit work after his release. Veronica noted that racial justice has still not been achieved in New Haven.
“Redevelopment was supposed to come in and make it all good. And when you go down Whalley Avenue, nothing has changed, when you go down Newhallville, a little has changed,” Veronica said. “I’ve seen some good changes, over there up Ashmun Street. They put homes there and people seem to be taking care of it.”
Yale’s Black student activists enjoyed considerable success in their later careers. Dawson is now a well-regarded lawyer, former Democratic National Committee member and recipient of the Yale Medal for outstanding service to the University. Schmoke served for 12 years as mayor of Baltimore, and currently serves as president of the University of Baltimore. Miller has worked as a financial advisor, entrepreneur and city council member in Claremont, California, in addition to serving on the Yale Alumni Association Board of Governors. Taplin also worked as an attorney after graduating from the Law School, but he had to endure the loss of his close friend deChabert in 1994.
This success, according to Miller and Ron Howell ’70, came at a cost. Howell wrote a 2011 article in the Yale Alumni Magazine noting the “disproportionately high death rate for black Yalies,” and reporting that while Black students made up 3 percent of his graduating class, they now total 10 percent of the deaths from his class. Both Miller and Howell attribute this mortality rate to the stress placed on Black graduates once they enter the workforce.
After mentioning three Black student activists who are now deceased, Miller said, “Our mortality from those early classes is related to what I was saying before about the stress that we were subjected to once we graduated, trying to enter into these previously all-white corporations and law firms.”
Once May Day was over and the Panthers were released, social activism at Yale continued to take shape. Headlines from the News largely focused on anti-Vietnam War activism in the wake of the Nixon administration’s decision to send troops into Cambodia, which happened immediately after May Day weekend. According to Dawson, the next big racial justice issue to hit campus came through protests and strikes over Yale’s labor relations with its service and maintenance workers. Today, the Af-Am House that Dawson helped found still serves as a hub of the campus’ Black community and racial justice activism remains prominent among Yalies.
The Af-Am House is located at 211 Park St.