“Free Bobby, Free Ericka”: The New Haven Black Panther Trials
In 1969, New Haven, Connecticut became the focus of national attention, when Black Panther Alex Rackley was killed by fellow Panthers Warren Kimbro, Lonnie McLucas, and George Sams, Jr., after being held and tortured for two days. Rackley was suspected of having become an FBI informant.
The Black Panther Party, formed in 1966 in Oakland, California by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, was a revolutionary socialist organization that strove to end the oppression of black people in the United States. It adopted a ten-point plan that called for autonomy, employment, free healthcare, decent housing, financial reparations for slavery, the end of police brutality against black people, the release of black prisoners from jails, fair trials, and black nationalism. In practice, the Panthers focused much of their attention on policing the police, often resorting to violence. The FBI had taken notice. J. Edgar Hoover said in 1968 that the Black Panther Party was “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country." By 1969, the Black Panther Party was well known nationally and had spread across the country.
National party chairman Bobby Seale was visiting New Haven at the time Rackley was murdered and was implicated in the crime. Ericka Huggins, founder of the New Haven chapter of the Black Panther Party, was also indicted. Her voice was heard on a taped recording of the interrogation of Rackley before he was killed. In total, nine people were indicted.
The trials attracted enormous attention. Kimbro, McLucas, and Sams were all found guilty and received prison sentences, but the Seale and Huggins trials were problematic from the start. It took four months for a jury to be selected. After hearing the evidence, the jury remained deadlocked. Judge Harold M. Mulvey, who was expected to call for a retrial, instead dismissed the charges against Seale and Huggins. The Black Panther trials were over.
Kimbro, McLucas, and Sams were all released from prison after serving only a portion of their sentences. Erica Huggins went on to become a human rights activist, a poet, and a college professor. Bobby Seale ran for mayor of Oakland in 1973. He wrote two books, an autobiography and a cookbook, and continued to work with young activists.