May Day

May 1, 2020

50 years ago businesses were closed and boarded up in New Haven. Downtown was abandoned. Schools were closed. Yale students ended the year early. The FBI tapped phone lines and hid on rooftops. Tanks were in the streets of East Rock and the outer neighborhoods as the National Guard was dispatched by the federal government to secure and hold the peace in case of disaster. Anxiety was in the air. The fear was not based around an unseen pathogen though, but the impending trial of Bobby Seale and eight other Black Panthers for the murder of Alex Rackley, a local New Haven Panther member, in May 1969.

Following a tumultuous season of protests and bombings on college campuses across America, a call went out for a mass “Free Bobby Seale May Day” demonstration on the New Haven Green to happen on May 1st 1970. Initially the gathering was set by the local Black Panthers to protest the arrest and trial of Black Panther leader Bobby Seale. As word spread the call became a rallying theme throughout the country to mobilize and unify a myriad of left-wing protest platforms under one banner. New Haven would be their stand, peaceful or not. However a violent display would play into the hands of President Richard Nixon who had expressed the desire for the collapse of an American college campus to use as a political propaganda tool for his re-election. He thought that with media evidence Middle Americans would be convinced to view the political left as violent and dangerous which would all but guarantee his re-election. The sacrifice of New Haven was a price Nixon was willing to pay.

After 1,500 protesters rioted on the campus of Harvard University on April 15, 1970, the president of Yale, Kingman Brewster, and his staff decided that they would best avoid violence by opening the campus to all of the potential protesters. Local, non-local, Black, White, it didn’t matter. What mattered was a gathering that was peaceful, honest, open to all opinions and not allowed to be dragged into a violent conflict threatening the safety of the Elm City.


May 1st brought an event that was far less monumental in numbers than had been projected. As the day progressed 15,000 to 30,000 participants at a maximum attended the protests on the New Haven Green. The crowd was a broad cross section of leftist politics calling for, in addition to a fair trial for Bobby Seale and the Black Panthers, the liberation of women, a fair living wage compensation for all workers, an end to predatory racist policies, an end to U.S. imperialist foreign policy and the end of killing animals for profit and meat. While the crowd was mixed, the vast majority of attendees turned out to be white students.

The afternoon was a peaceful series of speeches by luminaries such as Allen Ginsberg and Jerry Rubin. Bands played onstage without conflict. As night time fell the situation was agitated by a small group of right wing out of towners with the intent of provoking the crowd. The largest conflict happened away from the Green. Just as a small indoor rally was ending at Ingalls Rink, two small bombs went off. No one was injured. The bombing is believed to have been orchestrated by right-wing factions set on disruption.

As a whole New Haven made it through the weekend relatively unscathed. Despite outside provocations by fringe groups and the federal government, disparate factions of the city’s community saw past their differences and worked together to avoid the worst possible outcome. It wasn’t by any means perfect, but as we are now experiencing on a daily basis what is?

Jason Bischoff-Wurstle
Director of Photo Archives, New Haven Museum

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