Today in 1970, the stage was set for one of the most polarizing trials of the modern Civil Rights era. Bobby Seale, national chairman of the militant black power organization Black Panthers, arrived in Connecticut to stand trial for allegedly ordering the murder of a New Haven man killed 10 months earlier.
The Black Panther Party, formed in 1966 by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton, was a politically active and often militant group 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. This prompted the FBI to closely monitor their activities, often using warrant-less wiretaps and other methods of questionable legality. As a result, many Black Panthers became hyper-conscious to the point of paranoia about the presence of FBI informants in their ranks.
In the New Haven chapter, such tensions 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 arrested nine members of the New Haven Black Panthers — quickly popularized in the national press as the “New Haven Nine” — on charges connected with Rackley’s killing, and also charged national Panther leader Bobby Seale, who had been in New Haven at the time of Rackley’s abduction, with ordering the murder.
Seale arrived in Connecticut on March 13, 1970. The national media descended upon New Haven, accompanied by scores of protestors who called for freeing the Black Panthers on the grounds that local racism made it impossible to find an impartial jury. The subsequent trials, which lasted over a year, became a lightning rod that exacerbated tensions between white and black Americans nationwide and worsened “town and gown” relations across New Haven, as many Yale students loudly protested in defense of the Panthers.
Ultimately, the three Black Panthers who confessed to participating in Rackley’s murder were all convicted. Bobby Seale, on the other hand, 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 rogue and overzealous FBI. Racial tensions were both unresolved and simmering, today in Connecticut history.
Tasha Caswell, “‘Free Bobby, Free Ericka’: The New Haven Black Panther Trials,” connecticuthistory.org