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The Panthers at Yale

When Kingman Brewster, Jr., boarded a plane on Monday, May 11, to lead a large delegation of students, faculty, and members of the Yale Corporation to lobby in Congress against the expanded war in Southeast Asia, one sensed that a new alignment of forces was taking place in American political life. It now seems conceivable that the bankers and business executives who comprise university corporations will soon be occupying buildings and circulating petitions alongside students and faculty if the government does not curb its extraordinary appetite for war.

It is too soon to say how fragile or permanent this new solidarity between liberals and radicals, between students and administrators, will be. What is certain is that the first of these alliances was made at Yale, not over the issue of the war but over the infinitely more divisive issue of the Black Panther Party. More than anything else it was the result of that combination of pluck, diplomacy, and conscience which some Yalies refer to as “Kingman Brewster’s Ivy League Machismo.”

Brewster provided a model which appears to have prodded dozens of other university administrators, during the past weeks, to deny their neutrality in a time of crisis, and to speak their conscience. “Perhaps all universities should be on strike,” a Yale professor said the week of May 10, “except Yale. We’ve accomplished too much in the past weeks. We have done here on a small scale what we should be doing in society at large.”

It was ironic that Yale’s moment should have come on College Weekend, the first weekend of May, which is matched only by the autumnal Harvard-Yale events in bucolic and erotic expectations. For decades it has been the weekend to watch crew races and lacrosse matches, go to the beach for the first seaside outing of the year, drink too much at cookouts, take your girl to the spring prom, make love to her by the polluted banks of the Connecticut River. This year, the mood was different. “There’s all this talk about dying,” a Yale senior said to me the week before the May First rally supporting the Black Panthers. “After all in Chicago and Paris there were only billy-clubs. On May Day there’ll be guns. I’m going to the rally, but it scares the shit out of me.” He added, with that strange mixture of terror, Old Blue loyalty, and black humor which pervaded the Yale campus during the week preceding May First: “Of course we’ll take our hi-fi sets out of town before we die.”

What is surprising about the story is Yale’s long innocence. It had been known for almost a year that nine Black Panthers would be put to trial in the New Haven courthouse, a stone’s throw away from the Yale compound, for the murder of their “brother” Alex Rackley last spring. For some months it was known that an immense rally supporting the Black Panther Nine would be held in May on the New Haven Green. In mid-March a white radical group connected with the Conspiracy Seven, and calling itself the Panther Defense Committee, set up shop in New Haven. The rally was being organized by a fringe of the Movement whose dedication to nonviolence was unclear; and its following might well include young radicals whose style of protest, in the past six months, has left deeper scars on the Movement than Agnew’s diatribes have done.

Yet the first two weeks of April dragged on in the somnolent routine of spring classes, with a good portion of the students remarkably ignorant about the body that had been found in Middlefield Swamp in May 1968, comfortably aloof from the trial put in motion by the discovery of Alex Rackley’s corpse. Between Nixon’s November 3 speech and the recent Cambodian crisis, the Movement seems to have been chiefly stirred by events occurring in two courthouses: the Federal Courthouse in Chicago and the State Courthouse in New Haven, which had in common the defendant Bobby Seale, and which called into question, more acutely than before, the quality of justice meted out in this country to blacks and to political dissidents.

Yale’s awakening on April 14 was as swift as it was late. It occurred in the Grecian-columned courthouse a few hundred yards away from the Yale compound, when David Hilliard, Chief of Staff of the Black Panther Party, and Emory Douglas, its Minister of Culture, were given contempt of court sentences of six months for reading a note in court. This event—which suffers only minor modifications from different eyewitnesses—can be described as follows:

Defense counsel Charles Garry handed Hilliard a note from Bobby Seale. Hilliard read it in a whisper to Douglas who was seated beside him. A court officer told Hilliard to stop speaking and put his hand on Hilliard’s shoulder, in what Hilliard interpreted as an attempt to reach for the note. Hilliard stood up and began struggling with the marshal. Douglas, exclaiming “Take your hands off that man,” stood up to assist Hilliard. Court officers surrounded the two Panthers and forced them to the center of the courtroom where they were handcuffed by state troopers. Judge Mulvey, ignoring a plea by Charles Garry to speak for the defendants, immediately sentenced them to six months’ imprisonment for contempt of court.

The campus was suddenly electrified. An editorial in the next day’s issue of the Yale Daily News had this comment: “In view of the events of the last two days, we believe it is mandatory that the entire Yale community examine its relationship to the Black Panthers and the Rackley murder case for the days and the weeks ahead.”

Since the political ideology of the 1970 Yale News is considered “Bob Finch liberal” by the moderate part of the student body, and “liberal Reaganite” by its radicals, it is not difficult to imagine the rage and pandemonium that prevailed in the first student meeting held on the evening of April 15, the day after Hilliard and Douglas were jailed for contempt. Among the milder courses of action suggested: occupy Woodbridge Hall, kidnap Kingman Brewster, shut off the New Haven water supply. A more direct tactic was offered for the imminent May Day rally by Tom Dustou, a Yale dropout and a chief coordinator of the Panther Defense Committee. “Give me some money and I’ll buy guns!” he screamed. “I’ll stand at the Green and distribute them!”

An exotic proposal was brought to the floor by an overwrought law student, who suggested mass suicide: Let each person there be allotted a number, he said, and then each day for the following month the person whose number was drawn would give up his life in support of the Panthers.

Why die?” a student piped up in the stunned silence that followed.

To die like a Panther, to die like a man,” the future barrister cried.

The meeting dissolved in an apotheosis of radical guilt and threats of burning down the university, with a vote for a three-day moratorium of classes and a demand that the Yale Corporation donate $500,000 to the Panthers’ legal defense fund.

The campus simmered for several days, with various classes in the humanities and social sciences devoting their classroom time to talking about the Panther trial. It grew more restless over the weekend after Douglas Miranda, the nineteen-year-old New Haven area leader of the Black Panther Party, urged a large meeting of students to strike in support of his brothers. “Take your power and save the institution…. You can stop the country from using the courts as fascist tools…that Panther and that Bulldog gotta get together.”

Two days later Judge Mulvey agreed to restore David Hilliard’s freedom, after he apologized to the court, attributing the scuffle of the previous week to “a misunderstanding.” This did not placate, but heated Yale’s emotions. The students had flexed their muscles, and felt that it was their political pressure that had moved the Judge to commute the Panthers’ sentences. “Since we had the power to make him commute the sentences,” so the logic went, “we have the power to make him do still more.” If two Panthers sitting as observers in court could be sentenced to six months for the events of April 14, then how could the defendants themselves expect even elementary justice in the trial still to come? The factual question of the Panthers’ role in Rackley’s death became obscured, their right to a fair trial paramount.

Tuesday, April 21: At a tumultuous rally of 4,500 people at Ingall’s Rink, the Reverend William Sloane Coffin, whose views on Vietnam had placed him at the extreme left wing of the college three years ago, made a plea that students submit to mass arrest on the steps of the courthouse in support of the Black Panthers, a tactic which struck the students as old-fashioned. The clenched fists of the students rose in the air when David Hilliard, freed from jail after having served a week for contempt, closed his speech to the students by shouting “Strike, strike!” The students returned to their residential colleges to vote on the issue. Nine of the twelve colleges meeting voted that very night to strike and to open their facilities to out-of-town demonstrators on May Day. The remaining colleges—Pierson, Trumbull, Timothy Dwight—voted the following day. A Strike Steering Committee was formed with one representative from each of twelve residential colleges and the graduate schools. The shutdown of Yale began the next morning, with some 70 percent of students staying out of class. (The attendance was considerably higher in the sciences, and microbiology was said to go on as usual.)

At Yale’s twelve residential colleges numerous referenda were taken, resolutions voted, committees formed. Throughout the following weeks, the colleges remained the organizational units of the strike. It is the autonomy of these units, Yale’s uniquely decentralized cellular structure, which must be given a great deal of the credit for the amazingly harmonious way in which the college prepared for May First. For even in the more radical students there is a tribal Old Blue loyalty to the residential college as well as to the university, a sense of community and commune. “I have some radical types here who’d take terrific risks charging up the Green,” Trumbull Master Kai Erikson said, “but who have a strange affection for their college.” And the council of masters whose power Kingman Brewster has vastly enlarged in the past year—was able to work out a highly efficient liaison between the students and the administration. The new political alignments of liberals and radicals, of faculty and students, taking place at Yale and elsewhere in the spring of 1970 had been clearly shown when Yale’s council of masters had unanimously voted, the day before the students voted, to open their residential facilities to the unpredictable visitors expected on May 1.

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