Murder, Mayhem, Mayday: Mark Masselli Recounts Civil Rights in the 70s

Mark Masselli’s Recollections of Murder in a Small Town; A Trip to Woodstock with Abbie Hoffman; Covering the Black Panther’s Trial; Civil Rights in the 70s

Murder in a Small Town

I’m coming home from high school it’s May 23, 1969 and out on the kitchen table is the Middletown Press and on the front page  the headline reads “Man Killed, left in Middlefield” and above the headline in bold letters :Black Panthers held”.

OMG – the hair on the back of my neck rose – sitting in our family home in Middlefield. I had this strange and eerie sensation that this story was going to bigger than the headline for me – I wasn’t sure why – but with great interest I read the story.

The story started out with what I thought was either great detective work or something more devious was at hand, as a point of reference.  By this time in my life as a senior in high school our household was firmly steeped in the beliefs that  questioning the work of authorities in matters around race was fundamental to our family values.  My mother had us early in life traveling down South to see the conditions people lived in  and attending Civil Rights marches – my brother was the aide/ worker/ speech writer to Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign and in attendance at the 1968 Democratic convention held in Chicago, which after the riots there,  brought the FBI to our house.

My mother wisely never let them in the door and she raised us with a firm suspicion of their efforts to keep us safe from radicals.

The lead paragraph of the Press  article  tells it all – “An intensive investigation by New Haven and state police following the discovery of a mutilated body in the Coginchaug River in Middlefield yesterday evening led to the arrest early this morning of seven members of the Black Panther Party.”

Wow, On Many Levels

WOW – on a couple of levels. First of all this happened in my town and I had been to the exact spot where they found the body. I sometimes walked home from that area. I quickly drifted into a day dreaming about walking that route and seeing the entire murder happen, worried about how I was going to respond.

I wanted just to get home. That didn’t happen. Eighteen year olds have crazy fantasy’s – usually not about the Black Panthers shooting someone in the head twice. In fact, the article went on to say that “a fisherman discovered the body which police said bore signs of mutilation, including ice pick wounds and burns due to scalding water. In addition to the torture there were two bullet wounds to the head and chest.”

Interesting Neighbors

These things don’t happen in Middlefield. Much of the next few weeks found the entire town talking about the story in gruesome details. Middlefield was a small country town, and back then had  more cows than people. Some would say it was conservative but at 18 it seemed pretty racist to me, certainly a view passed on from my mother’s perspective. My parents had moved out here in the mid 50s and they had or more likely my mother had cultivated an interesting set of friends, two of whom stood out: Lou Zemel – the owner of the Powder Ridge Ski resort. Lou was famous for his 1965 United States Supreme court case – Zemel vs Rusk – the Rusk was Dean Rusk Secretary of State and he was refusing to give Lou, a devout Communist, a passport to Cuba which the U.S. had cut off diplomatic relationship with in 1961.

Cuba, Castro, Thelma Dickerson Civil Rights Leader

But Lou wanted to go see for himself if the Castro brothers were something all Americans should fear; unfortunately he never got there. But times have changed and even our President 50 years later is traveling to Cuba and the Castro brothers were still in control.

The other friend was Thelma Dickerson who was my mother’s closest friend and  one of her children was my best friend. Thelma wouldn’t  stay long in Middlefield and over the years her work grew in stature and she became a very distinguished educator and Civil Rights leader in Hartford. Outside of that  there was thin pickings in Middlefield.

Well after lots of conspiracy theories and daydreaming about what happened that evening. Time moved on and yet this event still stuck in my head with the strange feeling that I would learn more.

Trip to Woodstock

The year finished up well. High school was over and another one of my mother’s strange but interesting friends –  Mary Diamond – had a  current boyfriend who was a local teacher. He called up our house sometime early in August and said he had some tickets to a concert and did I want to come with him. Sounded good.

He said he had to get their a day or two early, so on August thirteenth we headed out to Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Woodstock New York. This concert was going to start on the fifteenth  but he knew some of folks in a group called the Hog Farm and was going to help them out.

Drive with Abbie Hoffman

By the time we got to Woodstock… Let me say his VW mini bus was billowing with smoke and it seemed to attract a lot of folks  on the way into the farm.

Little did I know that one of the visitors  who jumped on board that day was Abbie Hoffman who had recently be indicted along with 6 others by a grand jury in Chicago and charged by the federal government with conspiracy, inciting to riot and other charges related to anti-Vietnam War and counter-cultural protest that took place in Chicago, Illinois  on the occasion of the 1968 Democratic National Convention–the same convention that the FBI came to talk to my brother about.

While Hoffman was on the bus he powered through a number of joints. “I never inhaled” somebody famously said, by the time all of this came clear he was gone in a cloud of smoke but my paths would cross with a number of the Chicago Seven defendants over the next few years.

Half a Million Strong

Woodstock Nation  was the intersection of music, sex and drugs and  a defining moment for the baby boomers generation.

Little did I know it was good to have arrived  early;  the Hog Farm, a hippie commune, founded in the mid- sixties by peace activist and clown “Wavy Gravy”  had a string of buses that feed those helping to put together the event and  the Hog Farm was there to be the “please force” and their tools would be “cream pies and seltzer bottles”.

It was serene experience to be walking the grounds early the next morning without a clue about what was about to occur in a few days – and to watch a slow steady stream of  people come and by the time they got to Woodstock, they were a half a million strong.

When the smoke cleared and the music faded it was 1970 and  I couldn’t help daydreaming back to Middlefield and the events at the Coginchaug River – still wondering what had really happened.

Hitching Road Trip

But I was also restless and I spent the first part of 1970 on the road, hitching across the country. It wasn’t a Jack Kerouc 1947 hitch hike across America, but it was my attempt to understand  what a majestic country we live in and as hitchhiker you get to see and experience America in way not accessible by any other means – it’s generosity,  craziness and hilarity are all on display – one ride after another.

I came back through Canada and ended up back in Middletown in April just as the nation was heating up; earlier in the year the Chicago Seven defendants had been found not guilty of conspiracy.

Black Panther Trial in New Haven

April saw my band split up – well not my band – The Beatles, the First Earth day took place, and I’m heading to New Haven for a demonstration in late April at Yale in support of the Black Panther trial in New Haven.

Yes, I was drawn to that like a moth to a flame. The trial was about the murder that took place in Middlefield, and by this time the defendants had expanded to included Bobby Seale who at this point was a professional defendant.

Student Reporter for Wesleyan Argus

Eager to find out what was going on in the trial  and not so much a crowd person, I approached a friend of mine who was the editor of the Wesleyan Argus (the student campus paper).

I suggested that I might make a great reporter for the The Argus.  He and I both realized that I had no intention of writing for the Argus but he understood my desire to be a witness to this event. So I filled out the  application for Press Credentials with the New Haven Police Department had my photo taken and was fingerprinted and sent  off multiple 8 x 10 color glossy photos.

Jerry Rubin and Allen Ginsburg March

I arrived in New Haven on Thursday night, April 30, and stayed with some friends that  evening. We listened with alarm as the news came that Richard Nixon had ordered the invasion of  Cambodia on the eve of MayDay. What was he thinking? Timing is everything in politics and theater, and this action ignited the student protest movement across the country.

That evening folks were out in the street and the next day 15,000 would gather on the green for what organizers had promised Yale’s president Kingman Bruster would be “peaceful demonstration and it was until around ten that evening when youth against War and Fascism pushed Jerry Rubin from the stage and over the chanting of OMMMM by Allen Ginsburg.

Thousands of young people marched on the courthouse where violence broke out and teargas filled the air. On the other side of town at the Yale rink a rock concert had two bombs explode inside the arena. No one was hurt. On those two days May First and second of protest a miracle happened: no one was killed and disaster was avoided.

Grateful Dead at Wesleyan

I trekked back up to Wesleyan where a different type of gathering of young people was happening on Foss Hill on May third The Grateful Dead was going to play a Free Concert. Rumor had it that John Barlow class of ’69 was close with Bob Weir – or a much more likely scenario of why the Dead came was that my father’s best friend, a brilliant young chemist Peter Leermaker whose reputation for  making the best ‘orange sunshine’ in the east coast, really attracted the Grateful Dead to Wes.

As an aside, Peter Leemakers died too young, but I remember him fondly as he and my dad where close friends and Peter employed me at thirteen to be his lab rat stocking shelves for his chemistry class.

The Concert attracted  a couple of thousand students who gathered on Foss Hill while the Dead played. It was in stark contrast to the two nights before because for the most part, very few political speeches where given on stage – mostly folks seemed pretty high and content.

That wouldn’t last for long.

Tin Soldiers and Nixon Coming

The Next day was May fourth and in Ohio on the campus of Kent State, students who were protesting the Cambodian Campaign, were shot by the National Guard as they protested peacefully, “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, we’re finally on our own.” This summer I hear the drumming, “Four dead in Ohio.”

Within days over four million students in hundreds of college campuses would go on strike. Fivedays later, I was in Washington D.C., protesting along with 100,000 other people against the war.

Again riots broke out. Police attacked with tear gas and marchers broke windows and it was Mayhem. I returned home to Middletown a few days later and found in my mail my press credentials for the New Haven Black Panther trial.

Black Pathers Court House Coverage

I rented a small cold flat on Orange Street in New Haven about a block and a half away from the Court house and remember clearly my first day walking through a phalanx of police and National Guard who surrounded the Courthouse seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Going into the court house I was stopped a few times as my hair and dress were shaggy at best and I must have been confused with those protesters they wanted to keep at bay.

My photo ID worked wonders as I was able to move freely throughout the Courthouse  with the others in the Press Corps. I started to attend the Voir Dire process  – or jury selection. But let me introduce some key figures in this trial.

The first is the black panther party which was founded in 1966 in Oakland  California. They  had a 10 point plan which interestingly doesn’t sound much different from the Black Lives Matter movement of today. They wanted freedom, housing, employment , education an end to Police Brutality , and black people tried by a jury of their peers.

Original Chicago Eight Bobby Seale; Link to My Town

Bobby Seale, who along with Huey P. Newton, formed the Black Panther Party.  Seale  was part of the original Chicago Eight  charged with conspiracy and inciting to riot. He was bounded and gagged by Judge Hoffman for his outburst he was he was severed from the case and sentenced to four years in jail. During that time he was also charged with having ordered the killing of Alex Rackley whose body was found in Middlefield.

FBI and Hoover’s COINTELPRO

The FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, born in 1895, and  named the head of the FBI predecessor agency in 1924 and the Bureaus  first director in 1935.  He was controversial and in 1956 Hoover launched COINTELPRO (counter intelligence program) because he was overwrought that the Supreme Court ruling had limited intelligence gathering on citizens who disagreed with the government. Who knows what is being done today after Apple refused to be a servant of the intelligence department.

The counter intelligence program was designed to disrupt domestic political groups and when the program was finally uncovered, the US Senate committee on intelligence would say that the program was aimed at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights, and most techniques used by the FBI would be intolerable in any democratic society. Hoovers agents regularly broke into the homes of black civil rights leaders to seek evidence of law breaking.

This program was shut down in 1971 after ruining the lives of countless Americans.

Black Panther Trial in New Haven

The New Haven courthouse, built in 1917, is an imposing pillared building with tall stone steps and broad double wooden doors facing the New Haven Green, the site of regular demonstrations.

It’s now known for two major trials held here and representatives of both would be at this trial. The first was Griswold v Connecticut, a historic trial involving women’s rights to birth control and the trial of Black Panther Bobby Seale.

The trial would be in court room B. The Judge sat front in center. On his right side was the jury and on his left side  was the press . Directly in front on him to his right near the Jury was the Prosecutor and his team and to his left on the Press side was the Defense team and the Defendants. The court room had room for about 60 members of the public in the rear of the Court room.

The Judge: Harold M. Mulvey

The presiding judge was Harold M. Mulvey. Born in New Haven in 1914 and appointed by Governor John Dempsey to be a superior court judge in 1968, Mulvey ruled his court with an iron hand during the pretrial motions.

One example was when students came for Hill High School to the courthouse chanting slogans as they entered the courtroom. Mulvey had two of the leaders arrested and  given 25 day sentences. But my personal experience with Mulvey was far different, but that a little later.

The Attorneys: Charles Gary, Catherine Roraback

The  attorneys for the two key defendants. For Bobby Seale was the California-based attorney Charles Gary,  a famous 1950-70s American civil rights attorney who represented the National Black Panther party, and other high profile civil rights clients . Gary was famed for his courtroom theatrics and flair.

The other defendant was Ericka Huggins, who at twenty years old had headed the Los Angeles and now the New Haven Black Panther party headquarters. She was heard on tape during the Panthers interrogation of Alex Rackley the night of his murder. Her attorney was Catherine Roraback best known for her representation of Estelle Griswold in the Griswold v CT case. She graduated Yale law in 1948 and was the only women in that class.

The FBI prepared background memos smearing all of the attorneys representing the black panthers which were leaked to papers around the country.

Brush With Hillary Rodham

There were lots of interesting people on the sideline, including a group of Yale Law students who formed a committee to advise the demonstrators of their rights during the trial – the committee was co-chaired by Hillary Rodham, who would later go on to be pretty famous in her own right along with her husband who was just about to enter Yale Law School class a little later in 1970. I should note that my brother David would also enter in that class.

Long Jury Selection

I sat through what was one of the longest jury selections in Connecticut history. The selection lasted six weeks. In our court system attorneys have a limited number of peremptory challenges which allows them to eliminate potential jurors without stating a reason. They are used when they think a juror might harbor prejudices that could adversely impact their case. Each side had twenty Peremptory challenges.

The jury pool contained many problems for both sides. Arnold Markle, who is the States attorney and prosecuting the case, had tried to get the venue changed to a whiter  community outside of New Haven. That was overruled by Judge Mulvey. Charles Gary knew that many of the potential jurors would be more inclined to believe the police and not the militant Black Panthers.

Jerry Rubin in VIP Box

During the jury selection the press seats were not regularly filled during this phase of the trial. It was often just a handful of us in the press box. The Defendants could have a VIP’s sit near them in the press box. On  one memorable day I remember a man with pretty wild hair come sit next to me. He was a friend of Bobby’s Seales. It was Jerry Rubin the founder of the Youth International party  (Yippees) and a co-defendant in the Chicago Seven trial. He spent the day there so I got to spend time with him.

Jury Selection Complete–After Attorney Sees his Aunt in the Stand

During the questioning of one very wilely juror whose name was Zelda Ruben. It appeared that she was not someone that Charles Gary wanted on the stand but also didn’t want to waste one of his dwindling peremptory challenges. Jerry muttered sotto voce to me, “that’s  my aunt”.

The Judge clearly heard the declaration and the court erupted in laughter. Glaring at Mr Rubin, Judge Mulvey kindly dismissed the baffled women who clearly was offended.

During the jury selection other members of the Chicago seven like David Dillinger came and lent their support to Bobby Seale. The jury selection was completed and the trial was about to begin.

No Room for Alternative Press

I came to the court just before the trial kicked off only to be told by the High Sheriff that I’d have to go out and join the waiting line with the other spectators because the Press seats had all been assigned to the traditional media outlets.

The international media buzz on this trial brought everyone in the national media.  There was an outcry by those of us in the alternative press, although my hold on that group was tenuous at best.

That afternoon the alternative papers gathered to develop a strategy of requesting two seats to be shared. I knew I would never be in that pool and went back into the court room later that day a little dejected, and the High Sheriff who I had not had a pleasant relationship with. He made it known to me that he didn’t have much use for our type, whatever our type us.

He gleefully said you need to get out of this court room now.

Scuffle with Sheriff

At that point the two of us ended up into what the St. Louis Dispatch reported as a scuffle inside the court house.

We were broken up by a phalanx of police. About five minutes later, the judge’s law clerk came out and pulled my press credentials and said sit down here and wait. About thirty minutes later, he came out and said the judge wants to see you in his chambers.

This couldn’t be good.

I had watched carefully Judge Mulvey and knew he was not someone to get on the wrong side of but also was fair . Upon arriving in his chambers he told me to sit down and tell him exactly why there was a scuffle in his courthouse. I told him the truth and the whole truth. I think he already knew everything that happened, he had many eyes.

Now Sitting Between New York Times and Le Monde

He looked me straight in the eyes and told me to never ever to disrupt his court house and asked if I  understand. “Yes your honor I do”. He said go back to and wait. I went out there and waited in the middle of the court room without any press credentials  sitting with the glare of many of the local court officers.

His clerk returned and said handing me my credential back that you have a seat in the Press box. The next day I arrived and found my name on a chair–he had placed me in the front row between the New York Times and Le Monde, the French newspaper.

It was a catbird seat on a historic trial.

Both the Black Panthers and FBI’s Reputation Tarnished

The trial went on for months the story that unfolded was quite grizzly.

Alex Rackley had been tortured in New Haven by the black Panthers for many days. It’s difficult to say who did what except this young 19-year-old caught up in the movement and maybe had become tangentially a police informant..

But whatever. He was a small bit player who ended up tortured and murdered. Bobby Seale was in New Haven the night of his murder giving a speech to a gathering of students at Yale,but no credible evidence was found that he ordered Rackley be killed.

Erica Huggins played a role in the torture of Rackley but was not there at his killing. The other Black Panthers who had been charged with murder had turn states evidence but their testimony was not trustworthy.

Both the Black Panthers and FBI’s reputation were tarnished in this trial.

Hung Jury

The jury after one of the longest deliberations could not reach a verdict. The hung jury had voted ten to two to acquit both Seale and Huggins. The state requested a retrial.

But Judge Mulvey stunned courtroom spectators and the Nation who had all expected him to order a retrial. He 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.”

Black Panthers Set Free

Erica Huggins and Bobby Seale were set free that day.

The three Panthers that pleaded guilty: Kimbro, McLucas and Sams were all released from prison after serving only a portion of their sentences.

Erica Huggins went on to become a human rights activist, a poet and college professor.

Bobby Seale ran for mayor for Oakland in 1973. He wrote two books, an autobiography and a cookbook, and continued to work with young activist.

Mark Masselli Starts Community Health Center

And I went on to form The Community Health Center on Mayday 1972, were we believe “that Health Care is a right and not a privilege.”

Paul Bass’s Book

For more information on  this trial – you’ll find great information as I did — in Paul Bass’s book Murder in the Model City.

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