Yale University: Spring of 1970

  • Saturday, November 26, 2005
  • Bart Whiteman

During the spring of 1970, I was a senior at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. It was an extraordinary time, certainly like no other at Yale before or since. The same could be said for the entire nation. The Vietnam War protest movement had reached a slowly developing crescendo over many years, which culminated in a general student strike at numerous college campuses across the country.

Yale had a particularly long and eventful strike – marked by a complete cessation of classes – that was highlighted by a large rally in support of Black Panther party leader Bobby Seale, who was on trial in New Haven at the time of the strike for allegedly ordering the murder of a fellow Black Panther who had allegedly been an FBI informant. The two events – the strike and the trial – had both nothing and everything to do with each other. Seale was one of the infamous Chicago Eight, a group of political protest leaders who had been arrested, charged and tried for inciting the public riots in Chicago during the Democratic Convention in the summer of 1968. Seale had received the further punishment of being chained and gagged in the courtroom during large parts of the trial because of his vocal outbursts at the presiding judge.

A rally in support of Seale was announced nationally for May 1-3 in New Haven. The other members of the Chicago Eight were scheduled to appear and speak at a huge rally on the New Haven Green, central to the city and immediately adjacent to the Yale campus. Thousands of people from across the country were expected to and did ultimately attend.

New Haven prepared for this event like it was an approaching hurricane. Almost all shops downtown were closed and boarded up. The National Guard was mobilized and placed in position in large numbers throughout the area. Military jeeps and troop carriers rolled through downtown in an open display of force. There were rumors of tanks being parked and ready at the perimeter of the city. I never saw any.

I also have never met Bobby Seale, nor did many people at Yale have any stake in his trial other than as proximate observers. Who among us knew about the inner workings of the Black Panthers? They attained a national prominence for a brief period during the late 60’s and early 70’s, and they were certainly the target of FBI scrutiny and harassment. Whether Bobby Seale had anything to do with ordering someone’s murder was never the larger point. (The murder charge against him was subsequently dropped.) Yale and Yale’s students could not sit idly by while the drama of the trial and the rally unfolded right next to it. Preparations had to be made, and as it turned out, Yale managed to have one of best organized massive protests of the entire period, organizational skills that I am sure were later transposed to Wall Street, the CIA, major universities, political campaigns, and numerous law firms around the country, the sorts of places that most Yalies end up.

The rally took place from Friday to Sunday, May 1-3, 1970. Yale survived it.

On Monday, May 4, the day after the Seale rally ended in New Haven, the Ohio National Guard indiscriminately fired live ammunition at a crowd of Kent State University students killing four. Without knowing it, we had come very close to the precipice. Had those deaths occurred on Saturday, at the height of the Seale rally, there could have very easily been a blood bath of serious proportions in New Haven.

Can we call this a “bright shining moment?” It would depend entirely on your point of view. As it was, the Seale rally had its moments of craziness, intelligence, and passion. It was the 60’s in a microcosm. It is my belief that at some distant point in time, the jointure of the Civil Rights protests and the anti-Vietnam protests (following one upon the other and often intertwined) will be considered one of the high points of our historical evolution as a country. There was a point to it all, and it was a good one. Sadly, in recent times, this era has fallen into disrepute and used as a fashionable bash point for political gain. The Bush-Kerry campaign was more about Vietnam than anything else. The Iraq War has been maintained nationally by people who regret the outcome of the Vietnam War and firmly believe it would be a point of national shame, rather than wisdom, to let it happen again. Never has it entered their minds that the same error-prone sequence of events leading up to and into a war can, in fact, produce the same results.

I was recently e-mailed by a current Yale student researching a paper on the spring of 1970 at Yale. She claims that source material on this time is thin. People apparently did not write down their thoughts and observations and make a lasting record of it. They wanted to move on. There was something both exhausting and scary about it. Friendships were lost. Educations were sacrificed. So much was at stake.

I thought it might be productive to publish my response to her queries in an effort to create my own small record of that time from my point of view. There are certainly many others out there, and maybe in time they will be encouraged to come forward and give to anyone who might be interested the benefit of their recollections.

Our exchange:

Dear Mr. Whiteman,

My name is Lindsay Ullman; I'm a sophomore in Saybrook (one of Yale’s residential colleges) and am currentlyworking on a paper about the Black Panthers May Day rally in 1970 for my Collective Action and Social Movements class. I am particularly
interested in the connection between students' participation in the May Day protests and their participation in anti-war protests. There's a surprising lack of solid information about both, and so I am contacting as many people as possible from the class of 1970 to try to fill in a number of the gaps. I was wondering if you would mind answering a few
questions for me (listed below). Feel free to answer as many or as few as you'd like, as any insight that you might have would be an enormous help.

Thank you so much, and please let me know if you have any questions!

Lindsay Ullman

Relative to similar universities, (Princeton, Harvard, Columbia, etc.) was Yale generally perceived as being more or less active in anti-war protests?

Less than some, more than others. Except for a bomb going of in Ingalls Rink (home of Yale ice hockey) and blowing out the windows, Yale's protests were remarkably civilized. Yale made national news because Yale’s president Kingman Brewster said at one point that he didn't believe a Black Panther could get a fair trial in America. That comment did not endear him to conservative alumni. Rev. William Sloan Coffin (Yale’s chaplain) had gained notoriety during the Civil Rights days, but with regard to the growing war protest and strike, he was perceived as a moderate. Cornell and Columbia had violent building takeovers. Yale had none of that. The violence and passion was in the rhetoric.

Were there particular points during your time at Yale that anti-war sentiment became particularly strong?

It grew each year at Yale while I was there. Then in the fall of 1970, after I had left, it calmed down. I was back for a semester in the spring of 1972, and there was a revival, when Nixon bombed North Vietnam. During my senior year ('69-'70), it was non-stop, culminating in the strike and the May Day weekend in support of Bobby Seale.

Before May of 1970, can you think of any major anti-war protests that took place on campus?

Yes, there was a large meeting in Ingalls Rink in the spring of 1969 over the presence of ROTC on the campus. The issue was put to a vote among everyone there (nearly 2500 people), and it was a dead even tie (for keeping ROTC or eliminating it). I was there. Then, in the fall of 1969 there was "The Moratorium" which was highlighted by a very large mass meeting on the Green that included Yale people and New Haven people. The message was "enough." I played on the football team, and we wore black armbands during the game that week (against Princeton and we won in an upset) in support of it. Again, conservative alumni were not happy.

Did you participate in any protests (against Vietnam or otherwise) during your time at Yale? What were you protesting and (approximately) when did you participate?

1) Yes. The Vietnam War. Whenever I could. 2) During my sophomore year, there was a protest over the architectural design of the Sterling Memorial Library going under the Cross Campus (an open, central campus gathering and recreational space). Today, it looks like it did before the extension. The original extension design was quite different. No one but the architect liked it. I lived in Berkeley College (my residential college), so it was a focal point of our "college" world. One day at lunch a large flatbed truck with bulldozers perched on it showed up to start pulling up the trees on the Cross Campus for relocation in preparation for the construction. This was before the design issue had been happily resolved. Word spread through the Berkeley cafeteria, and a contingent of folks (including me) went out and stood around the tree to prevent the crew from moving it. The standoff lasted an hour or two. Finally, the administration relented and told the tree moving crew to go home (to New Jersey). The architect's design was finally nixed. This was a "Yale" protest, and it was successful. Not many were. 3) In the spring of 1968 when Martin Luther King was assassinated, there was a brief protest involving the possible boycott of downtown stores by the Black community. A few picketers (including me) showed up to encircle one store (Macy's, I think). There were a few signs, a few chants, and a few songs. The protest had almost no effect and never really got off the ground. New Haven did not burn the way Washington, D.C. did, for instance. The odd thing is that a small group of baseball bat wielding motorcycle gang members (the Slumlords) showed up and took a few swings at the protesters and connected a few times. How did they know we were there? This was in broad daylight in downtown New Haven in the middle of a workday. No police showed up as this crew circled the entire building and then left.

Did you participate in any capacity in the May Day protests? If yes, why? If no, why not? If you did participate, did you feel that there was any risk involved?

Yes. Yale spent weeks preparing for it. We were determined it was not going to be a chaotic and dangerous mess owing to a lack of organization the way so many protests had turned out, including the 1968 Democratic Convention protest, which had made Bobby Seale and his cohorts famous. There were meetings every day. Some Yalies chose to split (including my brother) and avoid the whole thing. They came back when it was over. I and many others felt it was our responsibility to try to do it right and actually took steps to prevent the complete trashing of the University. The students really saved the campus in the long run.

There were a wide variety of organizational groups to deal with different parts of the anticipated weekend activities and outcomes. Fifty medical stations were set up manned by medical students throughout the campus to deal with normal large crowd medical problems and the possibility of injuries due to violence. Downtown New Haven boarded up its store windows, except for the popular hamburger places, which stayed open during the entire weekend. Risk? I guess so. The National Guard drove and marched through the streets before and during the weekend. They were bivouacked around the city to create an enclosing perimeter to keep whatever was going to happen in the heart of downtown. The police were on their highest alert probably ever. The New Haven community was terrified that downtown was going to be destroyed and that the violence would spread to the suburbs. The authorities were ready to stop that from happening. Attorney General John Mitchell made sure that the Marines were on standby ready to parachute into New Haven at a moment's notice. I have a vivid memory of watching a National Guard platoon make its way down a city street foot by foot with one member across the checking the rooftops for snipers. I was on my way to get a hamburger with a friend. It was a fine example of both over-kill and the level of paranoia that was in the air then. As it turned out, we were lucky. The shootings at Kent State were the Monday after our weekend. It was the same National Guard that did the shooting. We could easily have ended up with something similar happening. The National Guard people I saw were armed and nervous.

The high point (?) of the weekend occurred on Saturday night after the huge daytime gathering on the Green had broken down to smaller meetings. I was participating in an organizational group we called "the marshals." We had walkie-talkies to communicate with a central headquarters with regard to any activity that needed monitoring and little yellow armbands to identify ourselves. A provocateur (the Achilles' heel of the anti-war movement) burst into one meeting claiming so-and-so had been "busted" by the cops. People stormed out of that meeting in the dark and headed for the far corner of the Green where the New Haven courthouse stood and where Bobby Seale was going to be tried.

I saw them parading across in an obviously angry fashion and radioed into headquarters what was going on. Myself and one other marshal took action. We moved to the front of that crowd (maybe a few hundred strong), and when they got to the courthouse we indicated by waving our arms and shouting "This way!" that everyone should head to the right and continue marching. The idea was to not let the crowd gather in one spot and reach critical mass. Marching would dissipate its energy, or so we hoped. I and my cohort then raced again to the front of the crowd to head it off at the next intersection to repeat our little ploy, which worked like a charm. The crowd just did what we said. We repeated our ploy several times and drove the crowd in a large circle and eventually back to the courthouse. Two unfortunate things happened. One, the crowd kept getting larger and larger because its noise was attracting others spread throughout the campus. By the end of one loop, it was several thousand. This made the crowd look uglier, even though it was just as easy to control. Two, the police started to respond. Squad cars came squealing in from all directions, and very animated cops were relaying distress messages through their radios. They looked as thought they thought the world was coming to an end.

The infamous standoff featuring New Haven Police Chief William Ahearn (later appointed by Nixon to the Kent State Commission) ensued. The police drew up a phalanx in full riot gear featuring helmets and shields. The National Guard came in double time formation out of the dark and formed a line behind the police. A tear gas machine gun was rolled into position and pointed at the crowd. Things were getting tense. Television crews were showing up, and the TV lights were being turned on. It was taking on a very surreal atmosphere. I made my one attempt at sanity by cautiously approaching Chief Ahearn and making a plea to let us (the marshals) try to dispel the crowd. We hoped to find a way to avoid what was about to happen. He told me, “Kid, go f*** yourself." I retreated. So much for negotiation. Shortly after that, the machine gun was turned on. It made a hideous grinding noise that drove the crowd to hysteria, since it was obviously going to be used on them. Projectiles started sailing through the air at the police. The police opened fire with the tear gas. The crowd scattered in fifty directions at once.

The rest of the night was spent with the police and National Guard tear-gassing the entire campus. They heaved canisters at any small group of people they could find, through gateways, and over walls. (I was almost hit in the leg by one.) The entire campus was saturated. I spent the next few hours in the Berkeley common room with a wet towel dabbing my eyes. No one's room was safe. I was in the company of most of the college, and we a sat out the saturation with welled up eyes and lots of commiseration.

Were there particular students/student groups/other leaders leading Yale's participation in the May Day protests? Did protestors come from specific groups on campus?

1) Yes, see above. It was massive. 2) Protestors came from all over the country.

Could you give a brief description of what the Yale campus was like that weekend? How were students feeling? Were they only talking about the trial, or were they linking the protest with the war, etc?

It was like nothing before or since. It was creepy. It was exhilarating. There was a roller coaster of emotions. There was exhaustion after spending so much time and effort in preparation. I also think there was an enormous sense of pride. We pulled it off. No one got killed. Except for Ingalls Rink, there was no destruction of property. The world came to the New Haven Green and Yale, and then left. Everything under the sun was discussed. Sure, the war was the focus, but there were splinter groups of all kinds. The social movement of that time was multi-tiered and ventured into every aspect of life. It helped give us (for better or worse) the world we have today.

What role did the administration play in the May Day protests?

The administration made two key decisions that probably saved the university from being torched. One, it opened the colleges to housing the people who came. They could camp out in whatever space they could find. Two, the university fed everyone who came. Enormous food lines with brown rice as the main course were set up and manned from beginning to end. This was an amazing accomplishment. A little old-fashioned hospitality went a long way. The administration was not going to do these two things at first. They had to be talked into it. Again, there was considerable criticism from those who wanted to treat the crowd as rabble. The proof was in the (rice) pudding. Yale made it through unscathed, except for a little tear gas residue and some broken glass.

What role did your residential college and master play?

See above. I vividly remember sitting in the common room the night of the tear-gassing talking to Berkeley's dean with tears rolling down both of our faces.

What kind of relationship, if any, did the Black Panthers have with Yale students?

They showed up at a few meetings and spoke. There was not a very involved relationship or presence on campus.

Any additional thoughts?

My generation took the forefront in leading the protest concerning a variety of social causes. The war was just one, albeit a very big one. Campuses (including Yale) today are very different. One big reason was that we had the draft to contend with looming over everyone's shoulder. This personalizes things. Today's students have no collective personalization like that. Maybe having the draft was a good thing. It made us do something. Today's war (Iraq) has potential consequences for us as a nation much worse than the calamity of Vietnam, and yet the campuses are quiet. The big question is: What happened?

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