50th Anniversary of May Day Weekend

"Free the Panthers" photo credit Tom StrongFifty years ago, tens of thousands of Yale students, civil rights activists, professors, Black Panther Party leaders, and community members gathered on the New Haven Green. In 1969, members of the New Haven Black Panthers murdered fellow Panther Alex Rackley, whom they suspected of being an informant. Black Panther Party New Haven chapter leader Ericka Huggins, party co-founder Bobby Seale, and other Panthers were charged with murder, kidnapping, and conspiracy. Denouncing their arrests, the Panthers called on supporters nationwide to come to New Haven on May Day 1970 to protest the trials.

Ericka Huggins photo credit WTNH Channel 8

Yale became a focal point for demonstrators who wanted to free these members of the Black Panther Party and for those who opposed the Vietnam War and were angry with institutions slow to act on matters of racial and gender inequality.

Dwight Chapel poster

During the May Day 1970 weekend demonstrations in New Haven, Dwight Hall was the epicenter of student planning and response to the events on the New Haven Green. Dwight Hall provided space for numerous workshops and planning meetings for Yale students, faculty, administrators, and staff, and sponsored discussions with neighborhood leaders, representatives of the Black Panther Party, and members of the Chicago Seven. Significant sleeping space was made available on the second floor, in the hallways, and in staff and student organization offices.

Artie Seale and Michael Tabor photo credit John T. Hill

Learning from the bloodshed at Harvard two weeks prior, Yale University President Kingman Brewster ’41, and his top aide, Sam Chauncey ’57, diffused this tumultuous situation. Phelps Gate and the campus remained open, while classes were suspended for the remainder of the semester. Brewster and Chauncey actively communicated with demonstrators, students, community leaders, and the media, and welcomed most of the out-of-town protesters.

Jerry Rubin May Day Speech photo credit John T. HillThe White House intervened, and the National Guard was called in. Tanks took up positions on the roads into New Haven. Under the leadership of Bill Chickering ’70, 250 Yale student Marshals were trained as a peaceful non-violent buffer between the Connecticut National Guard and 25,000 demonstrators gathered on the Green.

Yale women served as leaders on the Strike Committee and as peace monitors, ensuring the New Haven Green remained calm and non-violent. Dr. Mary Pearl ’72, ’76MPhil, ’82PhD shared, “Classmates and I (Kurt Schmoke ’71, Nancy Ryan ’71, ’75JD, and many others) created a day care center for children of demonstrators at Davenport College. Many parents left their young kids with us before they went to the Green.” William Farley, Jr. ’72, Ralph Dawson ’71, and other students drew attention to the cause of black Americans in the criminal justice system and helped preserve peace at the daytime gathering on the Green. Following a nighttime concert at Ingalls Rink, two bombs shattered glass, yet everyone escaped serious injury. May 1, 1970 in New Haven ended with just 21 arrests and some minor injuries.

Yale Daily News article May 2, 1970

Dwight Hall General Secretary and Executive Director David Warren ’70MDiv, ’70MUS helped ensure Yale student participation in the rally remained calm, and, looking back, stated, “Dwight Hall staff coordinated with the University to provide granola meals for demonstrators on Old Campus, and to assist the City in managing the presence of 25,000 protestors. The leadership and work of the Dwight Hall staff and student volunteers were a significant factor in assuring a peaceful non-violent May Day rally, with minimal damage to New Haven and Yale property.” 

Mr. Chauncey recently remarked, “It is ironic that fifty years later, to the day, in the morning, on May 1, 2020 New Haven is very much like it was on May 1, 1970 - deadly quiet; everything closed up with an ominous feeling about. Today we face a crisis, as we did then, and it is clear to me that we must save ourselves in the same way as we did then: looking at the problem without ideology or politics and finding a way to work together.”

Were you a part of May Day 1970 in New Haven, or how did this event impact your student experience? Your reflection, photographs, or news clippings may be shared with Dwight Hall here.

Dwight Hall at Yale commemorates the fiftieth anniversary of this weekend. Fifty years later, the Hall remains a hub for student activism on campus. Students are remotely taking exams amidst the coronavirus pandemic and continuing the fight for social justice.

External Links:

“In Her Words: May Day 1970” as featured in Yale News

In spring 1970, in anticipation of mass demonstrations that would bring thousands of students and activists from all over the country to Yale to protest the trial of Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, Yale cancelled classes and shut down many operations of the University. In this video, Yale alumni women reflect on what it meant to attend Yale during such tumultuous times politically and socially.

Bulldog and Panther: The 1970 May Day Rally and Yale courtesy of Yale University Library

The phyisical exhibit was curated by Sarah Schmidt, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and Bill Landis, Manuscripts and Archives, and was on view in the Memorabilia Room in the Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University from February 10-May 16, 2014. The online exhibit was produced by Kerri Sancomb, Exhibit Production Coordinator, Conservation and Exhibits Services.

Credit: Paul Bass ’82 and Douglas W. Rae, The Panther and the Bulldog: The Story of May Day 1970 (Yale Alumni Magazine, July/August 2006).  

Photo Credits: Tom Strong (“Free the Panthers,” top photo). WTNH News Channel 8 (Ericka Huggins, second photo). Yale Manuscripts and Digital Archives Library (Dwight Chapel poster). John T. Hill (Artie Seale and Michael Tabor, third photo). John T. Hill (Jerry Rubin, May Day Speech, fourth photo). Yale Daily News, May 2, 1970 (bottom photo).

For more stories, check out the Voices and Stories Archive page.