Yale panelists recall May Day rally that transformed campus, and history

Henry Louis Gates, Bobby Seale, Kathleen Cleaver, and Sam Chauncey at a Yale May Day panel.
The May Day @ Yale panel during the second reunion weekend included (left to right) Henry “Skip” Louis Gates ’73, Bobby Seale, Kathleen Cleaver ’84, ’89 J.D., and Sam Chauncey ’57. (Photo credit: Brita Belli)

For members of the class of 1973, the “May Day @ Yale” panel during their 45th reunion weekend brought them back to the most seminal moment of their undergraduate lives.

We were coming of age on the Yale campus 48 years ago,” said moderator Henry “Skip” Louis Gates ’73 B.A., the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.

May Day was the beginning of how we saw ourselves. The world was on fire outside,” said Gates.

Many of the alumni gathered for the discussion at Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall had witnessed a fiery speech from David Hillard, national Black Panther chief of staff, at Ingalls Rink in April 1970. Hillard had just been released from jail, and Gates recalls that he implored the nearly 5,000 assembled students to “off the pigs.” An architecture student climbed a pillar and was severely beaten by Hillard’s body guards. “It was one of the most terrifying nights of my life,” Gates said, and indicative of the tensions raging at the time around cries for equal rights, job opportunities, and political revolution.

Panel member Bobby Seale was, Gates said, “a metaphor for the revolution itself.” Seale was national chair of the Black Panther Party, jailed on suspicion that he’d ordered the murder of 19-year-old Alex Rackley, who had been believed to be an informer. Yale students and faculty called on the administration to support a strike — a suspension of academic priorities — so they could debate the Panther trial in their own backyard.

To everyone’s surprise, Gates recalled, Yale President Kingman Brewster Jr., who notably increased the numbers of African American students and presided over Yale’s first class of women, agreed. Brewster declared on April 24, 1970 that he was “skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States.”

Unlike Harvard’s president before him, Brewster decided not only to allow the strike, but to keep Yale’s gates open to the 40,000 protestors expected to converge on the city. “Many of us who would become ‘Old Blues’ saw the President’s move as a brilliant, counterintuitive maneuver,” said Gates.

Panelist Sam Chauncey ’57 B.A., assistant to Brewster at the time, said he remembers posters around the city that read “Free Bobby Seale! Burn Down Yale!” He met with Archibald Cox, special prosecutor during the Watergate trial, who was then his counterpoint at Harvard, about what to do. He recalled: “Archie said, ‘You can’t lock modern-day radicals out.’”

Ultimately, Chauncey said, the Yale administration was not worried about the Black Panther Party, which he called “one of the most positive aspects in the U.S. at that time,” but about more destructive-minded groups like the Weather Underground — and President Nixon. “If Yale blew up, the center of the country would move right, and Nixon would be reelected,” Chauncey said.

Panelist Kathleen Cleaver ’84, ’89 J.D., communications director for the Panthers at that time, was living in Algeria in political exile with her husband, Panther activist Eldridge Cleaver, author of “Soul on Ice.” “When we got the news [about the planned May Day rally] I was extremely impressed,” Cleaver said. “It was time to revolutionize society, to end the Vietnam War, to end racism and sexism.” 

Seale, now 81 years old, was jailed in Montreal when he heard the news. He had been organizing his own prisoner strikes. “I loved everything you were doing,” he told the audience. “The biggest rally I could muster with [Black Panther co-leader Huey Newton] was 5,000 people.”

In the early morning hours leading up to the May 1 rally, Brewster, Chauncey, the police chief, and activists like civil rights lawyer William Kunstler ’41, and antiwar protester David Dellinger ’36 convened to set the terms of the rally in hopes to prevent violence. They agreed that Yale would keep the gates of the residential colleges open – and even offer food and beds for the protesters — and that the National Guard and armored vehicles would remain at a distance.

May Day rally attendees on the New Haven Green
May Day rally attendees on the New Haven Green, from “Bulldog and Panther: The 1970 May Day Rally and Yale” via Online Exhibits@Yale. (Photo credit: Stephen West)

As it turned out, the protest numbered closer to 15,000, including prominent countercultural figures like Abbie Hoffman, co-founder of the Youth International Party (Yippies), and beat poet Alan Ginsberg. Leading off the rally was the reading of a letter from “Chairman Bobby” — which, Gates recalled, implored the protesters “not to do harm, because doing so would hurt the Panther cause.” Peace prevailed that day, said Gates, calling it “a noble day, when students took a stand for what is right with the backing of the president and the support of the majority of faculty.”

Chauncey concurred. “May Day is the weekend when black students became the leaders of the whole student body,” he said. “When May Day was over, people thought we’d hit the jackpot with the extraordinary young people we’d let into the class.” 

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Brita Belli: brita.belli@yale.edu, 203-804-1911