When Bobby Met Eli
Radical Chic on the streets of New Haven.
Dec 11, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 13 • By DAVID ADESNIK
Murder in the Model City
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:
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."