On this day in 1970, the stage was set for one of the most polarizing trials of the modern Civil Rights era as Bobby Seale, national chairman of the militant black power group Black Panthers, arrived in Connecticut to stand trial for ordering the murder of a New Haven man who had been killed ten months earlier.
Formed in 1966 by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, the Black Panther Party was a politically-active and often militant organization that promoted an agenda of radical socialism, anti-authoritarianism, and black empowerment. The Black Panthers frequently clashed — sometimes violently — with local police forces, whom they denounced as racist and fascist, prompting the FBI to closely monitor the group, often using warrant-less wiretaps and other methods of questionable legality. As a result, many Black Panthers became increasingly paranoid about FBI informants among their ranks.
In the New Haven chapter, this tension came to a head in May 1969, when Black Panther Alex Rackley, suspected of being an FBI informant, was kidnapped by a group of fellow Panthers, tortured for two days, and then murdered near Middlefield, Connecticut. Authorities promptly arrested nine members of the New Haven Black Panthers — soon popularized in the national press as the “New Haven Nine” — and also charged national Panther leader Bobby Seale, who was in New Haven at the time, with ordering the murder of Rackley.
Not long after Seale arrived in Connecticut on March 13, 1970, the national media descended upon New Haven, accompanied by scores of protestors who called for the freeing of the Black Panthers on the grounds of racism rendering it impossible to find an impartial jury. The trials, which lasted over a year, were a lightning rod that exacerbated tensions between white and black Americans nationwide and worsened “town and gown” relations within New Haven, as many Yale students loudly took up the cause of defending the Panthers. While the three Black Panthers who confessed to participating in Rackley’s murder were all convicted, Bobby Seale eventually had all charges against him dismissed due to a hung jury and the presiding judge’s proclamation of a mistrial. By May 1971, Seale’s trial was over, but the state — and country — was left with plenty of lingering bitterness and resentment over the disgraceful actions of both the Black Panthers and J. Edgar Hoover’s overzealous FBI. Racial tensions left unresolved, on this day in Connecticut history.
Tasha Caswell, “‘Free Bobby, Free Ericka’: The New Haven Black Panther Trials,” connecticuthistory.org