Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences
Minutes of the CAAS 1447th Meeting
November 11, 2015
Whitney Center, Hamden, CT
Minutes of CAAS Meeting 1447: Kai Erikson
Professor Emeritus: Yale University
Introduction: Gregory Tignor, the President of the Academy introduced the speaker, Kai Erikson, an eminent scholar, a friend, and a former long-time neighbor.
Speaker’s Prologue: I’ve had a number of discussions of May Day over the years. My most recent talk was at the Koerner Center for emeritus faculty. The most recent talk I’ve heard was by Sam Chauncey at Yale Class Reunion talks. How does one talk about that one day so many years ago?
Having been there means a lot of different things to different people. There are lots of differences in emphasis and focus depending on where one was.
This is the end of my prologue. Now I begin my talk. I want to turn this into a discussion as soon a possible.
Bobby Seale was a prominent figure in the 70’s. Bobby Seale was accused of conspiracy in murder of another Black Panther. Not much of a trial. He was acquitted very quickly. Students from all over came to assemble, not so much for trial but for the cause of civil rights. Many were using language like “Off the Pigs.” Words formed the threat.
Faculty voted to suspend classes. I want to refer to Kingman Brewster who said that he doubted that a Black revolutionary could get a fair trial in the US. Of course, this aroused many alumni. There was a large meeting at the hockey rink. David Hilliard gave a talk. Sloan Coffin said the microphone was back in the hands of the people.
Nixon used this day to announce the invasion of Cambodia.
Now, back to New Haven. I was master of Trumbull College. I’m going to talk about the epicenter of action.
I once wrote it up as a means to come to terms with it. But, I gave it up after others wrote about it. Those writing were focused on different things. That shows how sensory apparatuses differ. John Hersey wrote. I reviewed it. I found a line that he must have written. Hersey was asking me to sit on a panel. I didn’t want to talk about May Day because it took part in everybody’s head. Looking back, I like what I wrote.
My sensory apparatus informs me that the Council of Masters was very important. There were 12 colleges.
Yale opened its gates. But the only open gates were around colleges. Masters held the keys figuratively as well as literally. Students were there to protect colleges. Open windows at Trumbull posed great threats. Students had patrols.
I’m not trying to magnify the role of Masters. But, I’m trying to point out from my perch what it was like. Brewster’s actions came from meeting with Masters and others like Sam Chauncey. It’s hard for me to imagine other universities that lack the college system surviving so well as Yale did. It’s sort of self-serving for me to say that but so be it. There was variation among the Masters. But, most showed real gallantry.
So from now on there will be stories of recollection with personal anecdotes. I remember a student of Trumbull who was a member of the SDS. He asked me not to close gates. I gave the student a key to gates. I thought about it afterwards. I felt I made a mistake. So, I went to a local bicycle shop and got a chain and lock. I showed the student my chain and lock. The student came back with an acetylene torch.
One parent told me that he held me personally responsible for his child’s welfare and safety. I sent the child home. I have some regret maybe. A handful of students were near the gates of all the colleges. Police came by Trumbull with a black prisoner. Nearby were a group of Black students who complained to me. I called the chief of police, and the culprit was ordered to be uncuffed. Now, how was I to talk to this policeman in the future because he never forgot this episode because he believed in what he was doing?
There were lots of barricades around the green. Students knocked them over and police promptly restored them. I called a few Black Panthers and asked them to guard the barricade. I went out and shared some cookies with the Panthers. The scene on the green on Saturday was full of foul language, but not menacing at all.
Now, for my epilogue. My prologue had two parts. My epilogue has two parts.
Students went out and did great things. I’m sort of disappointed at what they have done. I thought they were going to make a change. But, reunion classes have not been so radical. I feel sort of embarrassment and regret. Privilege has returned to those former students. Who knows how I would have become if I were in their shoes.
In summary, a huge combustible crowd came to town, ready to stir up trouble. National sources were ready to be dangerous. The air was full of sparks. But, there was not so much combustible material. Sheer luck was the overwhelming factor. So many people worked for peace including the student marshals and Sam Chauncey. Were we lucky 45 years ago? This is the end of my discussion.
Question: (Unidentified) I was 4 years old. Speak a language for those who weren’t there.
Answer: Black Panthers were an organization from Oakland that became an enemy of sorts to police organizations. They were armed to the teeth. Theirs was a posture of deliberate counterbalance to the mood of the time. The organization spread east. Death of one Panther provoked all this. There were conspiracy charges. But, the people coming to town were diverse, Weathermen among others. New Haven was the place of the trial. This had nothing to do with Yale or New Haven. These were feelings about the political atmosphere at that time.
Comment: (Joanna Erikson) A graduate affiliate made a DVD of the students at Trumbull. “Bright College Years, a Documentary.”
Question: (Cecelia Bucki) I was a freshman at UConn, protesting the Vietnam War. Coincided with May Day at Yale. Do you have a sense of coalition building at Yale?
Answer: I’m no more of an expert than anyone else here. But, the draft was still in effect at the time. So, anti-war and civil rights were big issues. Trial of Seale was a rallying point.
Comment: (David Pettigrew) I want to thank your for a fascinating recollection. Follow up on the fact that they were multifaceted. I was about 18-19. The rally on the green was informative. Reflect on how they kept the National Guard out of sight, police were low key. One person was Alan Ginsberg. Air was heavy, hard to breathe.
Comment: Jim Niederman spoke of plans from Hospital. Not really had been working in the area. Started a first-aid station near Pierson College. Representatives from Time and Life Magazine were around to see if something happened. Worst episode was a man who gave me a knife because he didn’t want to use it. Remembers Saturday morning when John Hershey was out cleaning up trash. On Sunday morning, one drowsy man asked where he could get coffee and New York Times.
Comment: (Sam Chauncey) Everyone has a different perspective. Kai was out there. I was working phones. I’d like to suggest that there are things happening today that are similar to then. Kingman Brewster said: Never let this disagreement fester into disrespect. Presumption of innocence is a belief in goodness of person. Radical was a person who believed in something that no one else believed in. What radicals believe in becomes the principle of today.
Question: (Ernest Kohorn) Most belligerent speaker came from Paris.
Answer: He wasn’t making a particle of sense according to Peter Brooks and others who knew French.
Comment: Peabody Museum was guarded using the wrong frequency that belonged to the National Guard.
End of Discussion: the President of CAAS thanked the speaker. Dinner followed.
Minutes by Monica Aspianto
Photographs by Robert Green