The May Day rally, in words and pictures

Henry “Sam” Chauncey may not have been the most radical character associated with the 1970 May Day rally on the New Haven Green, but the Yale-blue gentleman certainly had some far-out ideas.

Unlike most of the 20,000 to 30,000 hippies, yippies, and Yalies at the rally, Chauncey was not on a mission to protest or speak truth to power. His charge was to implement a bold idea that kept a peaceful demonstration from becoming a violent, national spectacle.

In the spring of 1970, protesters from around the country talked of converging on New Haven to decry the arrest of Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, who was being put on trial for allegedly ordering the murder of fellow Panther Alex Rackley. Yale would provide a focal point for demonstrators who were angry about the ongoing Vietnam War and about societal institutions that were slow to act on matters of racial and gender inequality.

“We suddenly became aware, by the middle of March, that this was a national explosion in the making,” said Chauncey, who was a special assistant to former Yale President Kingman Brewster. “All the leaders of the radical movement were coming together with the idea of going to New Haven and burning down Yale.”

Chauncey has written the text for a new book, “May Day at Yale, 1970: Recollections,” which features photographs by John T. Hill and Thomas Strong, and a foreword by noted scholar and author Henry Louis Gates Jr. ’73.

In part, the book details the unusual approach Yale took in planning for the rally. Officials at other universities had tried to avoid similar situations by closing their campuses and beefing up police presence. Yale leaders kept the campus open during the rally. Furthermore, Chauncey noted, Yale maintained an honest, open dialogue with student groups, protest groups, community leaders, and law enforcement officials.

In particular, African-American student leaders had been talking with Brewster for weeks and wanted to ensure a peaceful, meaningful protest — something Chauncey said was a key factor in the way events unfolded. Yale also went so far as to allow visiting protesters to stay in residential college courtyards for two days and fed them lettuce, rice, granola, and water.

“This was, on the part of Yale, a radical departure from what every other university had done. They’d thrown police at the protesters,” Chauncey said. “Of course, we didn’t think our idea would work. But we didn’t have any other choice.”

Indeed, Chauncey said, Yale fully cooperated with local police and supported New Haven Police Chief James Ahern’s decision to bring in National Guard troops, just in case things went badly. Chauncey also gave credit to several individuals who offered advice and expertise, including Yale Corporation member and former Defense Department official Cyrus Vance, and former Harvard law professor Archibald Cox.

Suspicion and criticism came from all directions. Activists loudly railed against the political establishment and Yale; the FBI tapped Brewster’s telephone; some of the residential college masters complained the campus would be destroyed.

But the strategy worked, and the rally proceeded without erupting into chaos. Chauncey didn’t attend the rally; he remained in a building on Temple Street where he could monitor events through a pair of binoculars. “It was the single most stressful period of my life,” he said. “We were navigating a difficult road between faculty, students, community leaders, police, and radicals, while trying to always tell the truth.”

“May Day at Yale, 1970: Recollections,” is available at Barnes and Noble, Atticus Bookstore Café, and Amazon. The 120-page volume is published by Prospecta Press ($30).

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