Revolution on trial: looking back at New Haven's Black Panthers at 50

Nadja Sayej
·5-min read

In 1970, a polarising trial in New Haven captured the attention of the nation, including the Yale president, Kingman Brewster, who said at the time: “I am appalled and ashamed that things should have come to such a pass in this country that I am skeptical of the ability of black revolutionaries to achieve a fair trial anywhere in the United States.”

The New Haven Nine, as they were known, were Black Panthers accused of murdering another member, Alex Rackley, a suspected FBI informant. The group – which included co-founder Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins – was on trial for over a year, which exacerbated racial tensions in the US leading to protests.

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Seale and Huggins were acquitted, along with four others and 50 years on, Artspace New Haven has been inspired to create a new group exhibition exploring a difficult time.

“The prompt was, ‘How have the events of 50 years ago inspired you today, and what does it look like today to be a part of a liberation movement?’” says Artspace New Haven’s executive director, Lisa Dent, of Revolution On Trial: May Day and The People’s Art, New Haven’s Black Panthers @ 50. “There’s also talk about the need for artists and the idea to reveal the joy in liberation, and what that looks like.”

Co-curated by La Tanya S Autry and Sarah Fritchey, the exhibition traces the fight for racial justice over the past half-century, leading us to now, as Black Lives Matter protests have stormed the country, fighting back against police brutality since the killing of George Floyd in May. “A lot of black curators are thinking about other moments of liberation, action and protest,” says Dent. “It made us understand how timely it could be.”

The work of six artists is shown alongside one youth organization called Ice the Beef, and though this exhibition was supposed to open on May Day, it was pushed back due to the pandemic. Some artists used archive material as inspiration, while others draw a parallel to protests today, showing how art is a form of action.

There are colorful, empowering paintings of local protesters standing proudly, created by the New Haven artist Kwadwo Adae, who has been active in anti-police brutality marches over the past five years. “I consider these people powerhouses and the champions of the movements against injustice, racism and state-sanctioned violence that black and brown bodies have been subject to by law enforcement for generations,” says Adae.

The works include paintings of protesters, like Addys Castillo, an anti-racist organizer; Norm Clement, who works for the CT Bail Fund; and Vanesa Suárez, an organizer with Connecticut Immigrant Rights Alliance. “We are at an unprecedented time in history where we are unable to ignore the systemic racism and discrimination inherent in every facet of life for people of color in America,” adds Adae.

The New York artist Melanie Crean looks to the New Haven courthouse where the trial went down in 1970. She couldn’t help but notice the murals in the hallway, which feature only white figures, “including Moses, meant to represent ancient law, and a young white woman, symbolizing modern law, freeing a young white man from bondage”, says Crean.

“The disconnect of presenting a vision of justice that never existed, in a city where the majority of the population are people of color, in the court where the Black Panther party trials were held, is an unfortunately common example of everyday violence that needs to be addressed.”

Crean, in a way, is updating the age-old symbol of Lady Justice. “If justice is commonly represented as a woman, how would female-identifying people, working with the justice system in New Haven, choose to represent it?” she asks.

The answer was a group of nine local women, who nominated other women who have been affected by the justice system.

“We chose four themes: power, struggle, resistance and hope or healing, and compiled stories from the women’s lives with those themes to inspire compositions for four new murals,” says Crean. “These would feature the women in tableau, to be photographed inside the courthouse.”

The Northampton-based artist Alex Callender shows a collage-based wallpaper that highlights the patterns of systemic racism in New Haven’s property laws and urban design. “Looking through state and local New Haven archives, I wanted to assemble a longer spatial narrative to connect these histories of community displacement, state surveillance, land speculation and resistance that have been formed from the colonial era to the present day luxury condo real estate industry,” says Callender.

“I wanted to create a de-colonial pattern, drawing on local histories of land and housing development interwoven with community resistance to tell a narrative through time.”

Among the archival material in the exhibition, there are photos by David Fenton, a former photojournalist who followed the Black Panthers in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He shot protests, rallies, Black Panther clothing donation gatherings, book sales and food drives. “I photographed the Black Panthers a lot,” recalls Fenton. “They were disciplined, organized, focused on their community programs. They were a positive force.”

He remembers the Black Panther demonstrations in New Haven being filled with hippies, university students and intellectuals. “It was a demo and it was also Woodstock; I have photos of hippies with long hair smoking pot, rubbing each other’s backs on the grass, playing guitar – it was celebratory,” he said. “Young white people were really supportive of the Black Panthers.”

But nothing compared to the power of the party rallies as he remembers them. “There was a lot of chanting, singing, it was unifying,” he says, “it was hopeful.”