Editor’s note: The following brief excerpt comes from a history of Yale Divinity School being prepared for publication in 2022, when YDS will celebrate its 200th anniversity as a distinct school at Yale.
By Ray Waddle
In late spring 1970, the nation focused its anxiety on New Haven and Yale. An upcoming Black Panther trial in New Haven attracted thousands of national activists—and the attention of the FBI and National Guard. For months, opposition had been intensifying against the Vietnam war, against the draft, against racism, against authority everywhere. Many believed Panther Bobby Seale, facing murder charges in New Haven, was falsely accused and could not get a fair trial in America. A May Day mass protest against the trial was planned for the Green on May 1st, and Yale leaders were worried the day would unravel in violent mayhem.
The May Day they will never forget: Read more.
YDS was caught up in it too. For years, YDS students had agonized about how best to respond to the protests gripping the country. Some stayed out, fearful of jeopardizing their budding denominational careers. Another cohort enrolled in the School as a haven from the draft. Other students demanded that YDS courses incorporate the crisis unfolding in the street. They wanted teach-ins, not classes. They looked to Yale Chaplain William Sloane Coffin as the voice of advocacy that singularly fused theological insight with political reform. Faculty, too, were trying to sort it all out. Some kept remote from the fray, others threw themselves into it.
“There was a continuing and lively series of discussions these years between students—faculty too—in the Common Room, often very visceral,” recalls Ronald Evans ’70 B.D.
“Whenever anything happened downtown, a lot of YDS students would grab a collar and get to the scene and be a presence in the hope that people would less likely turn violent—less likely get their heads bashed in—if clergy were nearby.”
As May Day 1970 approached, protest rhetoric heated up. But Yale President Kingman Brewster decided he would keep the University open during the May Day showdown and allow demonstrators space for sleeping. He met into the wee hours with Yale Black student leaders and with Coffin to ensure that police and protesters kept apart. On the eve of May Day, 4,000 National Guard poured into town. Tanks rumbled in the streets. Downtown stores boarded up. Several churches stayed open as shelters and aid stations in case violence broke out, with YDS students and faculty stepping in to help operate them.
When May Day finally arrived, skirmishes broke out. Protesters on the Green were met with police tear gas. Two bombs went off in the basement of the rink. Yet no one was killed. Credit goes to Brewster, Yale Black Seminarians, and other student leaders who kept nonviolent principles in their sights.
Everyone agreed it could have been far worse. Four days later, another showdown erupted in another town: National Guardsmen shot four students dead at Kent State.
April 26, 2021