“And you are there.”
(Fluffy and Flossy have the long weekend off)
Older readers may remember a 1950s television program, You Are There. According to Wikipedia it “blended history with modern technology, taking an entire network newsroom on a figurative time warp each week reporting the great events of the past. “ Hosted by Walter Cronkite, it dramatically recreated historic events as if they were recorded “live” for television --- and each program ended with the host saying: "What sort of day was it? A day like all days, filled with those events that alter and illuminate our times... all things are as they were then, and you were there." I remember being fascinated by the show as a kid and maybe that explains my enduring fascination with history to this day --- this Mayday, 2020. As I flipped our calendar from April to May this morning, I noted that I had written “Parker 25th Anniversary Celebration” for this long weekend. Indeed, it was 25 years ago --- a quarter century --- that we started our Charter School in Devens, Massachusetts. While a quarter century is a good stretch of time, a half century is historic. And one half-century ago this weekend (and its following Monday) marks a time in U.S. history that has, indeed, made the high school textbooks.
In the Spring of 1970 the United States was in turmoil --- severely divided by big issues: the Vietnam War, Earth Day, Feminism, Gay Rights. Nixon’s Cambodian incursion starting on April 29th ignited a rash of protests and “strikes” on college campuses around the nation --- several of which brought incidents of government violence against peaceful protesters that went above and beyond the “police riot” at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in August of 1968. Noted in most history books today is the Kent State Shooting, which occurred on Monday, May 4, 1970 --- 50 years ago Monday. And here’s where history and my life intersect in a big way.
If you are familiar with that period of time you will remember The Chicago Eight (later, The Chicago Seven) --- the group of left-wing “radicals” who were charged with conspiring to incite the riots at the Democratic Convention in August 1968. The seven Conspirators were: Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines, and Lee Weiner. The 8th Conspirator, whose charges were dropped, was Bobby Seale --- the co-founder, with Huey Newton, of the Black Panthers in 1966. It was clear that the U.S. government, led by F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover, was intent on eradicating the Panthers. Once the charges against Seale were dismissed in Chicago, the government hit him with a murder conspiracy charge in New Haven, Connecticut. It was obvious to the local New Haven Black Panther Chapter, as well as the college students in New Haven (particularly those at Yale), that the case against Seale was bogus --- and Yale went on “strike” by April 15th, in support of the Panthers and Seale. According to the New Haven Museum website:
the president of Yale, Kingman Brewster, and his staff decided that they would best avoid violence by opening the campus to all of the potential protesters. Local, non-local, Black, White, it didn’t matter. What mattered was a gathering that was peaceful, honest, open to all opinions and not allowed to be dragged into a violent conflict threatening the safety of the Elm City. (newhavenmuseum.org)
Brewster was brilliant throughout this crisis and, when asked at a Press Conference, how long he anticipated Yale being on “Strike” he said: The duration of this hiatus is intentionally ambiguous,” thanked the reporters and left the podium. Brilliant! As significant, in mid-April, was the decision by the Panthers, with strong support from the striking Yale students, to hold a “Free Bobby! Free the Panthers!” rally in New Haven over Mayday weekend (a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday).
The week prior to Mayday, many of us prepared for thousands of protestors arriving in New Haven by the weekend. The Chicago Seven committed to coming, along with Dr. Benjamin Spock and Jean Genet (if you don’t know them, use “the Google”). Brewster and Yale Chaplain William Sloane Coffin made statements in support of the student strikers and the Black Panthers (angering many Yale alumni!). According to Wikipedia:
As tensions mounted, Yale officials sought to avoid deeper unrest and to deflect the real possibility of riots or violent student demonstrations. Sam Chauncey has been credited with winning tactical management on behalf of the administration to quell anxiety among law enforcement and New Haven's citizens, while Kurt Schmoke, a future Rhodes Scholar, mayor of Baltimore, MD and Dean of Howard University School of Law, has received kudos as undergraduate spokesman to the faculty during some of the protest's tensest moments. Ralph Dawson, a classmate of Schmoke's, figured prominently as moderator of the Black Student Alliance at Yale (BSAY).
Kurt and Ralph were members of the Class of 1971, reflecting the significant role our class played in organizing and facilitating the “strike” as well as the Mayday weekend protests. “We were there.” And so was the National Guard --- in full battle gear, including carbines. We never believed they would use those guns --- and then Kent State happened. It suddenly dawned on us: Those guns were loaded! Despite being tear-gassed and pepper-gassed, I never thought those National Guard troops would ever open fire on protesting students. But there it was --- on the 6 o’clock news Monday night, May 4, 1970 --- 4 dead. As shocking to us was: A Gallup Poll taken the day after the shootings reportedly showed that 58 percent of respondents blamed the students, 11 percent blamed the National Guard and 31 percent expressed no opinion. (Wikipedia) Such was the division in our country 50 years ago.
It was “interesting”(?), then, to see armed protestors charging into the Michigan legislature yesterday. Here’s a quote to reflect on from the Sacramento Bee (note the date):
May 2, 1967: Two dozen armed Negroes entered the state Capitol at noon today and 10 made their way to the back of the Assembly Chamber before they were disarmed and marched away by the state police.
None of the (white) armed citizens in Michigan were “disarmed and marched away by the state police” yesterday. And it doesn’t seem that the F.B.I. or any other federal agency is investigating who these agitators are (possibly because they were encouraged by the Chief Executive to “Liberate Michigan!”?). There are no campus protests, of course, in our current sheltering-in-place --- but we haven’t seen the kind of large-scale protesting against Trump’s administration like those we saw against Nixon --- and who is the more corrupt, more immoral person?
It’s 50 years since the Mayday strikes and protests. I’m about to turn 71 and realize I was only 21 then. We were aware of living in a significant historic period in the moment --- just as we are today. Extremely different circumstances, to be sure, but historic, nonetheless. Those of us who remember the Mayday weekend won’t be around in 50 years to discuss the pandemic --- but hopefully others will be around to relate some first-hand, primary source accounts of what happened --- and why.
Stay home. Stay safe. Wash your hands!