Between 1969 and 1971, New Haven was the site of one of the most significant political trials of the century: the New Haven Black Panther trials. Beginning in 1966, the Black Panther Party formed and, in the following years, expanded to every major city in the U.S. Because of the Party’s calls for violent action against racist institutions, J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI called the Black Panther Party as “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country.”
In New Haven in 1969, local Panther Party members suspected another member, Alex Rackley, of being an informant for the FBI. Rackley was held hostage at the Party headquarters on Orchard Street and subsequently tortured and murdered. The following trial, beginning in 1970, garnered national media attention. Three of the killers were arrested and eventually confessed while the FBI took the opportunity to move against the group’s leadership.
By May Day in 1970, tens of thousands of Black Panthers gathered in New Haven and on Yale grounds to protest the trials. Hostilities and violence undercoated the mood of the city, and everyone—from J. Edgar Hoover to New Haveners—made plans to leave town, thinking the city would explode. In the aftermath of the trial, both the Black Panthers and the FBI suffered substantial damage to their reputations.
The Black Panther Trials in New Haven began on May 21, 1969, when a farmer in Middlefield, Connecticut, came across the body of Alex Rackley, a member of the New York chapter of the Black Panther Party who was suspected of being an FBI informant. Rackley had been shot in the head and the chest. The following day, acting on information from an unidentified informant, New Haven police raided the local headquarters of the Black Panther Party. Black Panther party founder and national chairman, Bobby Seale, was already in New Haven, at Yale University, giving a speech. Seale, Ericka Huggins (who was heard on tape during Rackley’s interrogation), and nine other party members were arrested.
A year later, the murder trial began with Lonnie McLucas, the only member who physically took part in Rackley’s murder that refused to plead guilty (he had confessed, but he was also facing the death penalty). The State also charged Seale and Huggins with conspiracy to kidnap and murder Rackley, and prosecutors sought the death penalty as well. Party members feared the charges were designed to destroy the Party.
Under national media attention, some 15,000 Panthers, as well as others, gathered on the New Haven Green to protest the trial. Even the President of Yale, Kingman Brewster, claimed:
“I am skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States.”
In addition to the trial, protesters were voicing concerns about FBI director Hoover’s Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), in which Hoover ordered agents to disrupt, discredit, or otherwise neutralize radical groups like the Panthers.
Three Panthers, Warren Kimbro, Lonnie McLucas, and George Sams were given prison sentences while Seale and Huggins eventually had their charges dismissed after months of controversy. The New Haven trial was significant across the country, and as with the Amistad case over 100 years prior, the trial presented a certain apex of racial tensions. This time, however, it was between groups like the Panthers and the FBI (and inherently the U.S. Government). However, the trial had a two-pronged, negative effect on both the Panthers and the FBI; other African-Americans sought to distance themselves from the Panthers while the FBI’s COINTELPRO was put under heavy scrutiny for its unsavory activities.
The trial also played a role in the eventual downfall of the Party. After a string of confrontations with law enforcement, along with the jailing of Party leaders, the Black Panther Party was essentially inactive by the mid-1970s.1