The Panthers at Yale

Kingman Brewster
Kingman Brewster; drawing by David Levine

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…

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