On April 22, 1970, a student strike at Yale University began that nearly led to the early ending of the school year. According to reports at the time, the kidnapping and murder trial of Black Panther Party co-founder Bobby Seale was the main impetus.
Seale was implicated in the kidnapping, torture, and murder of 19-year-old Panther member, Alex Rackley, in 1969. George Sams and Warren Kimbro, both Panthers, admitted to killing Rackley over suspicion that he was a FBI informant. Sams and Kimbro testified against a third Panther, Lonnie McLucas, in exchange for a reduction in prison sentences. Kimbro and McLucas actually shot Rackley in the head and chest, respectively.
Rackley was held captive and tortured at the Black Panthers’ New Haven headquarters, where Seale, the Panthers’ national chairman, visited on May 19, 1969 after delivering a talk at Yale. Sams told the authorities that Seale was at the headquarters, although it was never proven what the chairman knew about the murder. Sams himself came under suspicion as some Panther believed he was the informant and implicated Rackley to cover his betrayal.
Yale student William Farley called for the strike, to address not only the trials but also student opposition to the Vietnam War and other concerns. Farley, along with Larry Thompson and the future first Black mayor of Baltimore, Kurt Schmoke, were members of Yale’s Black Student Alliance. Farley was not officially aligned with the Panthers and said in interviews that the Panthers were using the students and the campus as a base to push its own agenda.
A large “May Day” rally was planned for May 1, 1970 at the New Haven Green Park in solidarity with the Panthers and the trial. Yale President Kingman Brewster took notice of shrinking attendance and growing media attention of the New Haven trials He elected to effectively end the school year early, though not officially. The May Day rally included some skirmishes between demonstrators and police but ended amicably.
The New Haven Black Panther trials ended in a hung jury six months later and student life returned to normal in the fall of 1970.