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When Bobby Met Eli

Radical Chic on the streets of New Haven.

Dec 11, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 13 • By DAVID ADESNIK
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Murder in the Model City

The Black Panthers, Yale,

and the Redemption of a Killer

by Paul Bass and Douglas W. Rae

Basic Books, 304 pp., $26.00

Alex Rackley lay strapped to a bed, his body covered with second-degree burns that had begun to fester. Rackley had endured three days of interrogation, beatings, and torture in the basement of a New Haven townhouse. Rackley was 19 years old and a Black Panther, a member of the revolutionary party committed to the overthrow of America's white establishment. Rackley had been tortured by other Black Panthers who suspected him of being a police informant. The precise details of Rackley's interrogation and torture survive to this day because the Panthers' chose to tape Rackley's travails.

On the night of May 20, 1969, Rackley's fellow Panthers took him out of bed, forced him into a car, and drove him out to the muddy banks of a small river in rural Connecticut. Then they shot him once in the back of the head and once in the chest. For the FBI, Rackley's murder was not an isolated crime. It was a chance to destroy the organization that J. Edgar Hoover had described as "the greatest threat to the internal security of the country."

The police and FBI quickly apprehended the two men who shot Rackley. Both men confessed and then agreed to testify on behalf of the state. Now the Feds were ready to bring in Bobby Seale, the Panthers' national chairman, and charge him with murder.

Set for May 1970, Seale's trial became a national sensation. Protesters from across the nation planned to descend on New Haven in order to protect their black champion from the injustice of the white judicial system.

For Yale president Kingman Brewster, the protests were a potential nightmare. A march at Harvard on Seale's behalf quickly turned into a riot. The campus suffered considerable damage and more than 200 hospitalizations were required. Whereas 1,500 protesters marched in Cambridge, Brewster expected anywhere from 10 to 100 times that number in New Haven, where both Yale and the courthouse were adjacent to the central green.

Murder in the Model City is the story of Rackley's murder and the trial that followed, told primarily from the perspective of Warren Kimbro, the Panther who shot Rackley in the back of the head. Paul Bass and Douglas Rae sat down with Kimbro on 29 separate occasions to record his life story. Bass, Rae, and Kimbro are all prominent figures in New Haven. Bass served as an editor for 15 years at the New Haven Advocate. Rae has been on the faculty at Yale for almost 40 years. And for more than 20 years, Kimbro has served as the head of Project MORE, a rehabilitation program for ex-cons. Rae serves on the board of Project MORE.

Kimbro spent less than five years in prison for Rackley's murder. Kimbro was a model prisoner. He published an award-winning prison newspaper and persuaded his fellow inmates to improve their behavior. He got a bachelor's degree from a local college and even enrolled in a master's degree program at Harvard, from which he graduated shortly after his release from prison.

Kimbro, now in his seventies, has clearly led a remarkable life. But what is the broader significance of both his crimes and his accomplishments? Bass and Rae sometimes write as if they were telling the story of one man, sometimes as if they were telling the story of a generation.

On occasion, they draw broad lessons about American history and politics from an incident in Kimbro's life. Yet they never develop their analysis beyond the depth of a few sentences. Indeed, they conclude their very first chapter by writing that the details of Alex Rackley's death and Warren Kimbro's life are important because:

The facts would prove central to the story of how America lost its innocence at the end of the sixties . . . An idealistic youth powered movement that helped stop a war and rewrite civil rights laws succumbed to fratricide and exhaustion. The facts were relevant to how liberalism became a dirty word and how questioning people in power became
un-American.

In spite of their nostalgia for the age of protest and for the "innocence" of the era, Bass and Rae never hesitate to show how the radicalism of the left helped make liberalism a dirty word. Even to those familiar with the Panthers' history, the violence of their rhetoric is striking. As momentum built in the weeks before the New Haven protests, Panther chief of staff David Hilliard told 2,000 students at the University of Connecticut, "not only will we burn buildings, we will take lives. We will blow up buildings. We will kill judges." If Seale went to prison, Hilliard said, "we're going to unleash a race war on the pigs of America, and it's up to you, as white revolutionists, to support the struggle of black people."

These are the words of a terrorist organization. To a certain extent, it is not surprising that slavery and Jim Crow infected their victims with some of their own depravity. Far more puzzling, however, is why untold thousands of young, white, well-educated, middle-class protesters identified more with a violent revolutionary front than with an established order that protected their right to speak, assemble, and protest. It is imperative to understand the motivation of such white radicals because it was they, and not other blacks, who provided the Panthers with their political clout.

As Bass and Rae take care to point out, black New Haven resented the threat of violence and property damage that Panther-led protests brought to their city. In addition, black New Haven ruthlessly criticized the white radicals whose allegiance made the Panthers so dangerous. The community's leaders wrote that "the white radical, by frantically and selfishly seeking his personal psychological release," effectively exploits blacks in an essentially racist manner. So were the black leaders right? Was white radicalism a perversion of white middle-class guilt? And why did it affect almost exclusively the young? Kingman Brewster, an arch-liberal, rejected all that the radicals stood for--although he handled them with a light touch in order to defuse their penchant for violence. The New York Times editorialized that support for the Panthers had "plunged campus activism into new depths of irrationality."

Admirably, Bass and Rae never let their fond memories of the past cloud their judgment of the Panthers' young, white fellow travelers. "Panther mania," they write, "crossed the wires of normally lucid young people's brains." But why did such wires get crossed? Given their extensive research and intimate familiarity with the radicals of the era, Bass and Rae might have given more consideration to the ideas that animated their protests, rather than focusing so much on the details of their actions. Although the story of the Panthers in New Haven is undoubtedly worth telling, the reader may want to know what its lessons are for today.

One potential lesson to take away from the story of Alex Rackley's murder is that America today is not nearly as polarized as journalists and politicians often say it is. In spite of furious disagreements about the war in Iraq, the tepid antiwar movement of today doesn't march under the insurgents' banner, the way that the protesters described by Bass and Rae carried the flag of the Viet Cong.

Yet in some quarters, the American left still glorifies the Panthers and what they stood for. In June 2001, an arts festival in New Haven brought together a panel of former Panthers and Panther supporters to reflect on the events of May 1970. Bass and Rae report that "the mostly white, Yale-affiliated young audience cheered [the panel] as they presented a portrait of a heroic party destroyed by an evil government." Even one of Kingman Brewster's erstwhile lieutenants told the audience to follow the example set by the Panthers. The only panel member who spoke out against this return to irrationality was Warren Kimbro. He told the audience, "I don't want you to pick up a gun like me. I want you to do this revolution by getting into Yale Law School."

Should we be concerned that America's best students are educated at institutions where Bobby Seale (who was on the panel that day) is welcomed as a hero? Probably not. Ignorant nostalgia is very different from true radicalism. These days, Seale is hawking books about his prowess at barbecue--or, as he calls it, "BobbyQue." The enterprising chairman has even composed a "Barbeque Bill of Rights." And campus leftism today has mostly lost out to the kind of well-behaved liberalism that King man Brewster would have en dorsed. It may give students some strange ideas, but election day 2006 notwithstanding, it hasn't prevented conservatives from winning elections, either.

David Adesnik, a policy analyst in Washington, is the editor of OxBlog.com.