FEATURE
Bobby Seale speaking in 1968. Photo courtesy of www.bobbyseale.com

Bobby Seale, among his many other talents and claims to fame—Black Panther Party co-founder and chairman, Chicago Eight trial defendant, college instructor, barbecue chef—has the deadpan delivery of a stand-up comedian. In late June of this year, the self-described "old cripple-foot revolutionary humanist" limped to the microphone at a standing-room-only speech in Yale University’s Repertory Theatre and announced, "I have been in New Haven before." This masterpiece of understatement by the 64-year-old Seale took the audience by surprise, and the reaction to it was delayed. A few titters. [Pregnant pause]. Some nervous laughter. [Even more pregnant pause]. Then, open roars of laughter, applause, foot stomps and cheers. [Pause aborted].

As everyone in the audience knew, on one of Seale’s previous visits to New Haven—31 years ago, in fact—he was sporting handcuffs and was put on trial, along with Ericka Huggins, for the murder of fellow Black Panther Party member Alex Rackley. That trial came on the heels of another trial of three Panthers accused of Rackley’s murder—two confessed their complicity and the third was convicted of "conspiracy murder" charges.

The trial of Seale and Huggins can be seen today as the last gasp, the final straw, the "tipping point" of an exhausting and, by then, exhausted decade. Though their trial did not officially begin until October 1970, it followed in the wake of the May Day 1970 demonstration on New Haven Green, two bomb blasts in downtown New Haven, a memorable statement by Yale President Kingman Brewster ("I am skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States. In large part, the atmosphere has been created by police actions and prosecutions against the Panthers..."), the radicalizing of law students such as Hillary Rodham and Bill Lann Lee (both of whom monitored the trial for fairness), the first and only full student strike in Yale’s history and an international cause celebre that brought French playwright Jean Genet, baby doctor Benjamin Spock, co-"conspirators" Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and John Froines (then a grad student at Yale), among many other renowned activists, militants and celebrities to New Haven to offer ringing defense of Seale.

Indeed, Bobby Seale’s and Ericka Huggins’ murder trial made it clear, even to those involved in the prosecution, that a concerted and sometime illegal effort by the government had been made through the FBI’s COINTELPRO program to harass, provoke and destroy the militant black civil rights movement in America.

To many people intimately involved with the social protests of the 1960s in Connecticut—some were in attendance at Seale’s recent Yale appearance—the murder of Alex Rackley is still a point of heated conflict. The highly-charged legal proceedings—which at first involved as many as 14 members of the Black Panther Party but were eventually reduced to three who were tried and two others who confessed to taking part in the murder (Warren Kimbro and Lonnie McLucas)—are still capable of eliciting polar opposites in opinion. And some of those intimately involved, including Kimbro, now a community activist and university dean in the New Haven area, and McLucas, living with his parents in North Carolina, don’t want to talk about it anymore.

Catherine Roraback, defense attorney for Ericka Huggins, is somewhat reticent to speak of it, too, but for a different reason. She doesn’t think the Rackley murder is any reflection on the real story of the 1960s in Connecticut.

"Oh sure, it’s jazzy and everyone relates to it on that level, but the Panther case was a minor part of the 1960s in Connecticut," insists Roraback, a veteran of many important legal fights that decade. "There was far more to the 1960s than that."

Michael Koskoff, who with his father, Theodore, defended Lonnie McLucas in the first, and what proved to be most important, trial of a Panther, respectfully disagrees. He sees the case as a sort of test by fire for the decade. Early in the proceedings of the McLucas trial—which lasted several months—it became apparent to Judge Harold Mulvey and State’s Attorney Arnold Markle, as well as the Koskoffs, that more than just a defendant’s fate was at stake. The jury selection took six weeks (a record at the time), and the final verdict was rendered after six days of deliberation (another record for a state trial).

Indicative of the tinderbox turbulence of the time, McLucas' was also the first trial in state history to feature metal detectors by the courthouse door, a practice carried over to Seale's trial. "Lines would form and the first 35 would get in," recalls Koskoff. "The guards seized anything metal and emptied the basket at the judge’s table. I remember there was a long discussion one day whether a metal Afro comb was a knife, a sponge cake cutter or a comb, which ended when the judge said, ‘Whatever it is, it looks dangerous,' and confiscated it."

"The scene on the New Haven Green during the Alex Rackley murder trial was spectacular," continues Koskoff, whose Bridgeport law office today is dominated by a mural-sized collage of images from the McLucas trial. "The May Day 1970 uprising coincided with pretrial proceedings, and the shootings at Kent State occurred a few days after that. The National Guard were waiting and to [New Haven Police Chief] Jim Ahern’s credit, they were kept out of sight. The overall sense was that the country had gone insane and that a black man was about to be railroaded again. The Panthers wanted it to be a straight political trial, and when [Yale President Kingman] Brewster made his comment, it was like throwing the gauntlet down to my dad and I. As trial lawyers, we wanted to disprove that. And, because of the tension and scrutiny, the court worked at its best during those weeks. That trial reaffirmed the viability of the jury system. With all its cumbersome inefficiencies, it worked."

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