New Haven Black Panther Trials
Backstory and Context
History of the New Haven Black Panther Trials
The Black Panther Trials in New Haven began on May 21, 1969, when a farmer in Middlefield, Connecticut, came across the body of Alex Rackley, a member of the New York chapter of the Black Panther Party who was suspected of being an FBI informant. Rackley had been shot in the head and the chest. The following day, acting on information from an unidentified informant, New Haven police raided the local headquarters of the Black Panther Party. Black Panther party founder and national chairman, Bobby Seale, was already in New Haven, at Yale University, giving a speech. Seale, Ericka Huggins (who was heard on tape during Rackley’s interrogation), and nine other party members were arrested.
A year later, the murder trial began with Lonnie McLucas, the only member who physically took part in Rackley’s murder that refused to plead guilty (he had confessed, but he was also facing the death penalty). The State also charged Seale and Huggins with conspiracy to kidnap and murder Rackley, and prosecutors sought the death penalty as well. Party members feared the charges were designed to destroy the Party.
Under national media attention, some 15,000 Panthers, as well as others, gathered on the New Haven Green to protest the trial. Even the President of Yale, Kingman Brewster, claimed:
“I am skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States.”
In addition to the trial, protesters were voicing concerns about FBI director Hoover’s Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), in which Hoover ordered agents to disrupt, discredit, or otherwise neutralize radical groups like the Panthers.
Three Panthers, Warren Kimbro, Lonnie McLucas, and George Sams were given prison sentences while Seale and Huggins eventually had their charges dismissed after months of controversy. The New Haven trial was significant across the country, and as with the Amistad case over 100 years prior, the trial presented a certain apex of racial tensions. This time, however, it was between groups like the Panthers and the FBI (and inherently the U.S. Government). However, the trial had a two-pronged, negative effect on both the Panthers and the FBI; other African-Americans sought to distance themselves from the Panthers while the FBI’s COINTELPRO was put under heavy scrutiny for its unsavory activities.
The trial also played a role in the eventual downfall of the Party. After a string of confrontations with law enforcement, along with the jailing of Party leaders, the Black Panther Party was essentially inactive by the mid-1970s.1