It’s difficult for those who weren’t around to experience the 1960s first-hand to fully understand the controversy that swirled around radical parties such as the Black Panthers. Certainly many Americans viewed them as representing the very worst of that era’s political movements: a group of hate-filled militant thugs who felt their disaffection with the existing social and political systems justified anything required to achieve their aim of “revolution by any means necessary” (such as smuggling guns into a Marin County courtroom in an attempt to free Panther George Jackson, resulting in a shoot-out that killed a judge, two inmates, and Jackson’s brother). Others at the time, however, believed the Panthers were the only political group that truly represented a downtrodden and marginalized group of people who had been enslaved, discriminated against, and denied civil rights protections for hundreds of years; that sought to improve the condition of the poor by operating schools, opening medical clinics, and providing free breakfasts for ghetto children; and that had the courage to stand up to the brutality visited upon them by law enforcement acting in the service of a government and a society that sought to “keep them in their place.”
In May of 1969, Black Panther founder and national chairman Bobby Seale (who had already been indicted for his alleged participation in demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August 1968) made a trip from Oakland to
The subsequent murder trials of Black Panthers that took place in New Haven beginning in 1970 was a cause célèbre, the latest “trial of the century” that pitted the “establishment” against the “radicals”: the former supposedly valiantly defending the values of mainstream American society, while the latter were supposedly being framed and railroaded by government powers determined to destroy them at any cost. Upwards of 12,000 Black Panther supporters made their way to New Haven, and many of them were housed and fed in and around the campus of Yale University. Classes at Yale were made optional for the last few months of the term as Panther supporters swarmed the campus in protest and the president of Yale University, Kingman
From that maelstrom came the 1999 political piece reproduced above, which claims that two 1990’s political figures, Hillary Clinton (then First Lady) and Bill Lann Lee (former acting head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division whose appointment by President Bill Clinton was controversial because of Lee’s support for affirmative action programs), defended the Black Panthers, helped “shut down” Yale University, and aided the accused Panthers in going free or serving lenient sentences. But all of that is gross exaggeration: neither Clinton nor Lee did any of those things, and any involvement they had with the New Haven Black Panther trials was extremely minor and tangential.
We’ll begin with the last part, the claim that “These two people actually went so far as to shut down Yale University with demonstrations in defense of the accused Black Panthers during their trial.” This statement is ridiculously far-fetched: Yale University went to a “voluntarily optional” class schedule (it did not “shut down”) for a few months at the end of the term in mid-1970 because thousands of Black Panther protesters had flooded the campus and its environs, not because of anything Hillary Clinton or Bill Lee did. And while the Panthers made have found many sympathetic supporters among the student body at Yale, neither Hillary Clinton or Bill Lee led or participated in student demonstrations in support of the Black Panthers, or spoke up in their defense.
The above-quoted article also asks “How in the world do you think that these killers got off so easy? Well, maybe it was in some part due to the efforts of two people who came to the defense of the Panthers.” But neither Bill Lee nor Hillary Clinton “defended” the Panthers, either in a public or a legal sense. Bill Lee wasn’t a lawyer, or even a law student; he was simply another Yale undergraduate who had no involvement in the Black Panthers’ trial. Hillary Rodham (as she was known then) wasn’t a lawyer then, either: She was a Yale law student, and like many of her politically-minded fellow law students who saw the latest “trial of the century” taking place just outside the main gate of their school, she took advantage of an opportunity to be involved in the case in a minor, peripheral way by organizing other students to help the American Civil Liberties Union monitor the trials for civil rights violations. Her tangential participation in the trial in no way helped “free” Black Panthers tried for the murder of Alex Rackley
In fact, the killers of Alex Rackley didn’t “go free”: Lonnie McLucas was found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder and sentenced to twelve to fifteen years in prison, and Warren Kimbro and George Sams turned state’s evidence and pleaded guilty to second degree murder, serving four years in prison. Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins (who were accused not of killing Rackley, but of being present during his captivity and boiling water to torture him with) went free not due to any efforts on the part of Hillary Clinton or Bill Lee, but because the state failed to sufficiently prove its case against them: the jury deadlocked in favor of acquittal for both defendants, and the trial judge dismissed the charges against both of them. And, of course, neither Hillary Clinton nor Bill Lee had anything to do with the post-trial lives of Seale and Huggins.