Main Gallery


May Day and The People’s Art, New Haven’s Black Panthers @ 50

July 24—October 17, 2020

Installation view Revolution on Trial featuring work by Kwadwo Adae and Miguel Luciano, 2020. Photo credit Jessica Smolinski.

This group exhibition recognizes the 50th anniversary, local histories and lasting legacies of the trial of Black Panther Party chairman, Bobby Seale, New Haven chapter founder, Ericka Huggins, and seven other party members. While Seale and Huggins were acquitted of the murder of Panther member Alex Rackley, the 1970 case shook the city and exposed deep inequities in the legal system and wider social structures. Upon reflecting on this moment, Kingman Brewster, then Yale University President, questioned, “Is it possible for a “black revolutionary to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States?” REVOLUTION ON TRIAL: May Day and The People’s Art, New Haven’s Black Panthers @ 50 takes up this concern and more as it reveals critical threads across then and now. In concert with New Haven’s vast archives and Yale’s research facilities, community members and local-area historians serve as invaluable resources for the artists.

Related Event

Teaching as a Tool for Change: Angela Davis and Ericka Huggins in conversation

Artspace hosted a conversation between Angela Davis and Ericka Huggins. Davis and Huggins discussed the Oakland Community School and other ground-breaking educational work Huggins has been a part of since her early days as a member of the Black Panther Party’s New Haven Chapter.

Artspace invites listeners to learn about the history and legacies of New Haven’s Black Panthers. Featuring first hand accounts by Panthers, their lawyers and descendants, this 8-part series reflects on what the government was really after—an end to their Revolution.

Listen now

Artspace’s 20th Summer Apprenticeship Program for New Haven high school students will go digital to follow in the Panther’s footsteps. Led by artist/community-organizer Daniel Pizarro, students will co-create an artistic response effort to support the communities hardest hit by the Covid-19 crisis.

REVOLUTION ON TRIAL marks the 50th anniversary of the trial of Black Panther Party Chairman Bobby Seale, New Haven Chapter founder, Ericka Huggins, and seven other party members, Francis Carter, George Edwards, Rory Hithe, Peggy Hudgins, Lonnie McLucas, Rose Smith and Landon Williams. The defendants were tried for charges relating to the murder of Panther and suspected FBI Informant, Alex Rackley on May 20, 1969. Ericka Huggins and Bobby Seale’s trials received the most attention, as the courts sought the death penalty for conspiracy to murder.

From May 1-2, 1970, 15,000 people came together in support of their case in a rally on the New Haven Green named “May Day.” The protest was organized by Panthers, community members, internationally recognized activists and Yale students against the backdrop of increasingly mediatized racial unrest, the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and other social problems. By 1970, the Panthers were a political force with chapters in almost every major U.S. city, and links to North Vietnam, Cuba, and Algeria, the center of Pan-Africanism. Their practices resonated with leaders of the Black Liberation Movement, multiracial left leaning allies, international oppositional movements and opponents of American imperialism abroad who found common purpose in their ideologies and revolutionary struggle. As the Party gained strength, J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI, famously named the Party the greatest threat to homeland security, and began a war that involved excessive and sometimes illegal surveillance, wiretapping, policing and infiltration into the Black Panther Party by way of undercover agent provocateurs.

Anticipating violence, and up to half a million attendees, the FBI sent 4,000 National Guardsmen and 2,000 State Troopers to New Haven to maintain order during the May Day rally, with thousands of Marines and paratroopers on standby in neighboring states. As local businesses boarded up their storefronts, Yale President Kingman Brewster moved in a different direction. In secret coordination with Panthers, Yale students, Yippies and the New Haven Police Chief, he opened up the university campus to demonstrators, offering shelter, food, day care and first aid, setting the stage for maintaining peace. Days before the rally, Brewster asked in a televised interview, “Is it possible for a “Black revolutionary to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States?,” drawing government and media attention towards himself and propelling New Haven into an international spotlight. As evening fell on May 1, Panther Douglas Miranda drove around New Haven, playing an audio recording of Bobby Seale’s voice instructing protestors, “Now is not the time for violence.” Overall, the rally was peaceful, but things could have gone differently. Two days later, violence erupted on the campus of Kent State University, resulting in the National Guard’s murder of four student protesters, and fourteen days later, violence rose again at Jackson State University, resulting in the police murder of two student protestors.

On May 25, 1971, more than two years after the murder, Seale and Huggins were acquitted when the jury failed to reach a verdict, deadlocked 11 to 1 for Seale’s acquittal and 10 to 2 for Huggins’ acquittal. In his closing statements, Judge Harold Mulvey said, “I find it impossible to believe that an unbiased jury could be selected without superhuman efforts — efforts which this court, the state and these defendants should not be called upon either to make or to endure.” It had taken the court 4 months and over 1,000 interviews to find 12 “fair and impartial” jurors to try the first case, and Mulvey doubted that any Connecticut resident could serve as a juror not influenced by the borage of Panther-related media coverage, police press conferences and statements, or their own endemic racism. It is likely that Mulvey also wanted the Panthers, the press and the protesters camped out on the steps of his Courthouse out of Connecticut.

In the aftermath of the trial, Huggins and Seale left Connecticut almost immediately, as did many of the Panthers called in from other states. While Huggins left free, Seale was bound in handcuffs and extradited to Chicago, where he stood trial for another criminal charge. The media lost interest in the New Haven chapter and Yale students finished up their education, some chronicling May Day in its aftermath. Still, the New Haven chapter continued to serve the community, offering its free breakfast program for children, political education classes, the liberation school, day care and legal aid classes. They also initiated new services, including a Free Busing to Prison Program. In July 1972, many Panthers moved to Oakland California to support Bobby Seale’s campaign to run for Mayor, and the chapter eventually closed down in 1973, their final efforts led by Financial Secretary, George Edwards, and Elise Brown.

Works Cited

1.Paul Bass, Douglas Rae, Murder in the Model City: The Black Panthers, Yale, and the Redemption of A Killer (2006)

2.Joshua Bloom and Waldo Martin, Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (2013)

3.Jamie J. Wilson, The Black Panther Party of Connecticut (2014)

4.Interview with Paul Bass, Artspace, (November 22, 2019)

La Tanya S. Autry, Curator
La Tanya is the Gund Curatorial Fellow at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland. As a cultural organizer in the visual arts, she places social justice and public memory at the nexus of her work. In addition to co-creating The Art of Black Dissent, an interactive program that promotes public dialogue about the Black liberation struggle, she co-produces #MuseumsAreNotNeutral, an initiative that exposes the fallacies of the “neutrality claim” made by many museums.

Sarah Fritchey, Curator
Sarah is the Curator and Gallery Director at Artspace. Her research-driven practice focuses on the ideologies of place, desire, identity and belonging, especially as they are shaped by acts of colonization and privatization, and reclaimed by acts of creative storytelling, archiving and activism. She often collaborates with individuals in non-art fields to spur interdisciplinary conversations, driven by artistic practice, that visualize pathways between locally-anchored and globally-operating concerns.

Mercy Quaye and The Narrative Project, Podcast Co-Producer

Mercy is the narrator and editor of the “REVOLUTION ON TRIAL” podcast, co-produced by The Narrative Project and Artspace. Mercy founded The Narrative Project in 2015 to collaboratively improve individual and organizational race relations and normalize all intersections of identity. She is a New Haven native, columnist for Hearst CT Media Group, a professor of digital journalistm at SCSU and a communications specialist.

Joshua Aiken, Lead Researcher

Joshua is a J.D./Ph.D. student in History and African-American Studies at Yale, and his research broadly focuses on the relationship between race, displacement, and state-sanctioned violence in the 19th and 20th centuries, as configured by and through criminal legal and migration regimes. Joshua is a poet and the former Policy Fellow at the Prison Policy Initiative.

Nyeda Sam, Research Assistant
Nyeda is currently pursuing a B.A. at Yale University, and her work as a visual artist and playwright concerns the bridging of time, space and culture in order to create multi-layered, dynamic stories. African diasporic tales and experiences often form the core component of her creations.

Minh Vu, Research Assistant
Minh is pursuing a PhD to continue their studies in relational Afro-Asian literatures and histories at Yale. Their research focuses on 20th and 21st century African American and Asian American literatures with an emphasis on Afro-Asian intimacies and the troubling of solidarity as an aesthetic and political practice. Minh is a Fellow for the Yale Prison Education Initiative, and worked at the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture to research the relationship between Yuri Kochiyama and Malcolm X.

Devon Reaves, Project Intern
Devon is a graphic designer pursuing his undergraduate degree at Gateway Community College. He assisted Kwadwo Adae in the research and making of his artwork for the exhibition.

Community Advisors
Over the course of 9 months leading up to the exhibition, Artspace received counsel from local Panthers, community-organizers, activists, educators and scholars. We could not have mounted this exhibition without their direction, knowledge, rigorous critique and support, and are grateful for their time, advice and energy. These individuals include: Paul Bass, Jason Bischoff-Wurstle, Diane Brown, Elise Brown, Addys Castillo, Peter Cox, George Edwards, Kerry Ellington, IfeMichelle Gardin, Ericka Huggins, Mandi Jackson, Matt Jacobson, Germano Kimbro, Bill Landis, Michael Morand, Risë Nelson, Ala Ochumare, David Rosen, Elihu Rubin and Hanifa Washington.

This project is made possible thanks to a Planning Grant and a Quick Grant from the Connecticut Humanities Council, and support from the Public Welfare Foundation’s Art and Criminal Justice initiative. Additional support comes from the Grace Jones Richardson Trust and the JANA Foundation.

Exhibition Press