The students are already seated, quiet and polite in perfectly aligned rows of chairs, when Bill Ayers walks into the classroom.
It’s a Monday-evening political-science class at the University of Illinois at Chicago, a class devoted to the study of the “impact of the 60s on the 90s.”
“We’re very lucky to have Bill Ayers here,” says Victoria Cooper-Musselman, the instructor. “Bill was an active player in the 60s. You read about him in all the books.”
Ayers smiles, a boyish grin, and steps to the podium. He’s 45, but doesn’t look much older than most of the students. He wears his curly blond hair over his ears, with a rattail down the back. His T-shirt reads: “America is like a melting pot: The people at the bottom get burned and the scum floats to the top.”
He wears shorts.
“To me it’s funny that the 60s are studied,” Ayers begins. “I get rolled in like a Civil War veteran. I feel strange.”
The students laugh. As he continues, they fall quiet. His voice is raspy, sexy, a little mesmerizing. He’s completely at ease.
The story he tells, a condensed version of his life, is a tale of extremes. He wasn’t just any all-American, suburban-bred boy; his father, Thomas Ayers, ran Commonwealth Edison. And he didn’t just rebel; he was a leader of the Weathermen, the most radical of all 1960s revolutionaries, who among other things bombed the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol and sprung Timothy Leary from jail.
For three years Ayers’s wife, Bernardine Dohrn, was on the FBI’s list of ten most wanted criminals. They spent nearly 11 years as fugitives, living on the run “underground.”
“We were anarchists,” he tells the class. “We were willing to get thrown out of school. We were willing to go to jail. I make no apologies. There comes a time in your life when you face a moral challenge. You have to ask yourself: ‘Will I bow to conformity and accede to the world as it is, or will I take a stand?'”
These days, he takes his stands aboveground. He’s an assistant professor of education at UIC. He works in the university’s elementary teacher education program. His specialty is school improvement. He’s written one book on early childhood education, and he’s writing another about teaching. He publishes regularly in scholarly journals. Each year he trains dozens of would-be teachers for private, public, and parochial schools.
Beyond that, he has emerged as an influential thinker in the broad-based movement of activists and business leaders to “reform” Chicago’s public schools.
As Ayers sees it, teachers and students are victims of an oppressive schooling system that “manages and controls” instead of “opening possibilities.”
He’s optimistic though. He believes that the first step toward fundamental change was taken with the school reform act of 1988, which gives locally elected councils of parents, teachers, and community representatives control over budget, curriculum, and the hiring of principals (who also sit on the councils).
“School reform isn’t perfect, but it’s a beginning,” says Ayers. “It gives people some control, which is important; people have to take control of their lives. OK, the schools stink. They’re designed to separate people by class and race and then control them.
“Now what? Change them! Get involved in your school council. You’ve got some power, use it. Don’t tolerate lousy schools. Rebel! Be empowered! Take a risk!”
When he gets going he can be compelling; more than one audience has been moved to stand and cheer.
There’s only one problem. In a time not so long ago, during his fiery days as a Weatherman, Ayers was a different person.
I know, I know; it’s easy for someone like me (who was too young for the draft) to be judgmental about a heady, pressure-packed time 20 years ago. So many of us live our lives in quiet isolation, looking out mainly for ourselves. Ayers was willing to sacrifice his wealth and privilege for just causes–the end of war, the elimination of poverty. Maybe he got carried away, swept up by larger forces. He was only in his 20s. We all do dumb things when we’re young.
But Ayers was worse than dumb. He was arrogant, dogmatic, and unbearably self-righteous. He scorned his parents and turned on his friends. He was cruel.
And the question that’s bugging me–especially now, as I watch him effortlessly work his magic on these students–is when (or if) the old Bill Ayers ended and the new one began.
By all accounts, Bill’s father Thomas Ayers was one of those lucky, hardworking guys who find their place in a large corporation and rise to the top.
His first job with Commonwealth Edison (then called the Public Service Company of Northern Illinois) was digging ditches and stringing cable.
That was 1937, and 22-year-old Tom Ayers, the son of a Detroit salesman who had gone broke during the Depression, had just graduated from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. By 1964 he was Edison’s president–and the epitome of the corporate Good Samaritan. He sat on the boards of First Federal Bank of Chicago, Northwestern University, and the Tribune Company. He served on civic groups and preached voluntary integration.
In 1966 Mayor Richard J. Daley asked Tom Ayers to help city and real estate leaders negotiate an open-housing agreement with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Ayers steered both sides toward a remarkable settlement that enabled King to claim victory and Daley to preserve the segregationist status quo. Both sides hailed Ayers for his efforts.
“You get a hot issue, and you’ve got to get the temperature down to where you can begin to talk about what you can do about it,” Tom Ayers later told the Tribune about those talks. “In the first place you have to let people talk. Finally, you get to the point where some of the venom is out of it, and then you’re beginning to talk about what we ought to do.”
At an early age, William Charles Ayers, born on December 26, 1944, the third of five children, was deemed the sibling most likely to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“Bill was clearly the most talented in the family,” says John Ayers, the youngest Ayers child. “He was clearly the one my father had his eyes on. He was funny, warm, articulate, and outgoing. Everyone wanted to be with him. He had lots of friends.”
The family lived in a big house in Glen Ellyn, a commuter town in Du Page County. Ayers attended public schools until his sophomore year in high school, when he transferred to Lake Forest Academy, an academically rigorous private school for boys. There he got good grades, played football, wrestled, and ran track.
“I left Glenbard High School because my grades were going down the drain,” Ayers says. “It was an adjustment. Lake Forest was very insulated. I was aware that the country was changing, but my most radical act then was to get caught up in the writing of James Baldwin.”
In 1963 he enrolled at the University of Michigan, as had his father, mother, and older brother before him. He pledged Beta Theta Pi, the “jock” fraternity. He roomed with Jim Detwiler, star running back of the Wolverines football team.
“Bill was the best friend I had in school,” says Detwiler, now a dentist in Toledo, Ohio. “In those days, he considered himself a jock.”
During the summer, Tom Ayers got Bill a job with the Leo Burnett advertising agency. Most people figured Bill had found his path on the corporate track.
“Leo Burnett liked Bill,” says John Ayers. “He called my dad and said, ‘Tom, your son is unbelievable. He could be the greatest ad man who ever lived.’ We all believed Bill would be great at whatever he did. Even at the height of Bill’s protest days, I used to joke to my dad, ‘Hey, don’t take it bad, he rose to the top of his field.'”
The fact was, however, Ayers didn’t feel like following his father into business. He didn’t know what he wanted to do, but he decided “there had to be something more to life than grades, classes, and college.” And so, in 1964, he dropped out, hitchhiked to New Orleans, and joined the merchant marines. He worked two four-hour shifts a day painting, cleaning, and watching the deck of a grain ship that docked in Marseilles, Athens, and “all the sleazy port cities of Europe.”
“I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself,” says Ayers. “Then I had this moment of clarity. I was sitting in Constitution Square in Athens reading a newspaper and I read about the war in Vietnam. Vietnam was blowing up and I felt I had to do something.”
He returned to Ann Arbor in 1965, but this time he didn’t hang out with jocks. He ran with the civil rights crowd–the veterans of voter registration campaigns in the south who were the heart and soul of the fledgling antiwar movement.
Most of the other students knew that Vietnam was a small country in Southeast Asia, but that’s about it. They didn’t know that it had won its independence from France in 1954. That it was divided into a communist north and a U.S.-backed south. That free elections to unify the country under one government were supposed to take place in 1956. Or that civil war erupted when the U.S.-backed regime, fearing a communist victory, canceled the elections.
In those days, Americans were blissfully ignorant about Vietnam. President Eisenhower had sent the first U.S. “advisers” to assist the south in its fight with the north. Under President Kennedy the number grew to 16,000. By 1965, President Johnson had dispatched nearly 100,000 troops. Not once did the escalation spark widespread dissent. Only 2 of 100 senators voted against the infamous Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which essentially gave the president a free hand to wage war.
“People believed what their government told them,” says Ayers. “‘Stand up to communism,’ that’s what we were told and that’s what we were supposed to believe. A small but committed group of us weren’t being passive. We organized a teach-in and invited State Department officials to state their case. We challenged them: prove your actions are right. They couldn’t. They were wrong and we knew it.”
On October 15, 1965, Ayers and 38 other activists were arrested for demonstrating against the war at the Ann Arbor draft board. It was his first arrest, and he emerged from his ten-day jail sentence more committed than ever. He joined the local chapter of the radical Students for a Democratic Society and looked for “socially useful work to do.” Within a few weeks, he was teaching preschoolers at the Children’s Community School.
“I heard about the school from a guy I had met in jail,” says Ayers. “I visited the school and I was absolutely taken by the kids. Here was something I could do that was socially useful. Here was something I was good at. I felt at home with the kids.”
Within a year Ayers was director of the school, as it expanded to include kindergarten through second-grade.
“We felt that too many schools were highly competitive and destroyed people’s learning. We thought that students had an inclination to learn, but that most schools stifled their creativity. We believed in integration. There were as many blacks as whites. We wanted kids to learn to read and write, but we were not devoted to any specific timetable that said they had to read or write by a certain age.
“Our attitude was that learning should be organic, that children should learn subject matter in real-life contexts when they are ready. We had children write their life stories. One kid knew all the words to every Motown hit but he couldn’t read a word. So I typed out those songs and he had a primer.
“People came to our school with the attitude that it was an experimental free school in a free-school movement. What we did seemed revolutionary then, but it’s really somewhat tame.”
With the summer of 1967, Ayers was off to Cleveland, participating in a project, partly sponsored by SDS, that sent white and black activists to inner-city communities across the country.
He lived communally with a young fellow from New York named Terry Robbins and other activists in a house on Lakeview Avenue in Cleveland’s black inner city. Ayers was there to establish a “free” community preschool.
“I remember writing my brothers about how the world looks from Lakeview Avenue,” says Ayers. “I wrote that it looks much different than it does from Glen Ellyn. I began to question everything I had ever learned. I began to wonder: Who has wisdom? Who has knowledge? Who do you fear? Who do you trust? In Glen Ellyn, the police were our friends. In Cleveland, they were an occupational force.
“I began to realize that all my book learning to that point was inadequate. I realized that I was going to elitist traditional schools that ignored many of the greatest, most powerful ideas and experiences in the world. Finding James Baldwin on my own was only emblematic of what was missing from the curriculum.”
Toward the end of the summer, the community exploded into a riot. The mayor called an eight o’clock curfew and the governor dispatched the National Guard.
“We were in the middle of it,” says Ayers. “I had a big, ugly gold Oldsmobile, one of those land yachts, and I remember driving it to the hospital every day with people who were hurt.
“One night I took two young people to the hospital right on the cusp of the curfew. I was turning the block and–bam–there were ten young National Guardsmen with rifles aimed at me. I screeched to a halt. They made us get out of the car and they searched us. This was martial law. None of this ‘you can’t go into my car without a search warrant.’
“I remember they were so young. They looked like twerps. One day they were pumping gas, and now they were holding M-16s.”
His life-style upset his parents, but his younger brother was transfixed. To John and his friends, Bill was a hip, young radical in denim and shades (like Bill’s hero Bob Dylan), riding the crest of a powerful wave.
“Bill was on top of everything–the right music, books, and politics,” says John Ayers. “He knew about Aretha Franklin before she crossed over. He used to take me to south-side music clubs, where we saw groups like the Four Tops. He exposed me to a different world. I’d spend a weekend with him in Ann Arbor and I’d come home with a Jimi Hendrix album. No one had ever heard of Hendrix in Glen Ellyn; suddenly I was a big deal.
“When he told us stories about Cleveland, our mouths would drop. We wanted to know every detail. He brought us blues records that just blew our minds. He sang songs from the civil rights movement. He was really engaged. He was fighting for something great and important and he let us join in.”
After the Cleveland summer, Ayers returned to the community school in Ann Arbor. He moved into a small house with his girlfriend Diana Oughton, the daughter of Jim Oughton, a well-to-do farmer-lawyer-legislator from downstate Illinois.
They envisioned a school run according to the educational precepts of modern-day progressives like John Holt.
There was turmoil. Some parents demanded regularly scheduled reading periods; they wanted reassurance that their children would emerge from CCS on grade level. Ayers and Oughton believed in a spontaneous, unplanned curriculum. There was little room for compromise–both sides thought they knew best.
By June of 1968, the school was bankrupt. It never had much money to begin with. Staffers made do on salaries of $20 a week plus room and board (Ayers’s parents had cut off his allowance after he dropped out of college). When the school was evicted from its church basement and was denied a federal antipoverty grant, it closed.
“The school was a wonderful experience, but I was a little unfocused,” says Ayers. “My ideas were unformed. I wasn’t thinking things through. I have to admit I had other things on my mind. I was about to take a major furlough on education.”
After Ayers finishes his brief remarks, Professor Cooper-Musselman opens the floor for questions, most of which are friendly.
Then Ayers calls on a fellow whose white hair marks him as older than most of the other students.
“Being on the opposite side from you, I was in Vietnam, I want to say that we had them on the run,” he says. “We had them with their supplies cut off. If we had kept up with the bombing, we would have won that war. But the press said we were doing all that killing, and we backed off.”
He stops talking without asking a question, and the room is silent, all eyes on Ayers.
On the face of it, the vet’s comments are absurd. The U.S. dropped seven million tons of bombs on Vietnam (at least twice the tonnage dropped on Europe and Asia in World War II). But Ayers doesn’t say that. Instead he makes the point that things aren’t always what they seem. He tells about his friend Ernie, another Vietnam vet.
“There’s a picture of Ernie walking through a pile of bodies–all these Vietnamese bodies,” Ayers says softly. “At the time Ernie was convinced that was the turning point for the U.S. The view from the ground was that the Vietnamese had lost.
“Sometimes the view from the ground is misleading.”
The pivotal force for change in Bill Ayers’s life was something that took place in the wee hours before dawn on January 31, 1968. That’s when North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong guerrillas launched the Tet offensive, a bold attack on U.S. and South Vietnamese military bases, including the U.S. embassy compound in Saigon.
Eventually U.S. and South Vietnamese troops beat back the assault, but the attack exposed major weaknesses in the war effort. The war was costing $33 billion a year and by now 840,000 draftees had served there, yet it was obvious the U.S. was not winning.
Angered and humiliated by Tet, President Johnson dispatched more troops, but already the antiwar movement had grown into an international phenomenon. In February, Eugene McCarthy, an obscure antiwar senator from Minnesota, came within 300 votes of defeating Johnson in the New Hampshire presidential primary.
On March 31, Johnson announced he would not run for reelection. By now, even cold war liberals like Bobby Kennedy had turned against the war. Richard Nixon campaigned for president on his (undescribed) plan to end it.
In August, Ayers joined protesters in Chicago for the Democratic National Convention. “I was arrested twice–once in Lincoln Park and once on Michigan Avenue,” he says. “A cop hit me in the head with a billy club on Michigan Avenue by the Hilton Hotel. He bloodied my skull pretty bad. It was brutal. There was a guy in the holding cell who needed his asthma medicine and the cops denied it. We were afraid for him.”
Ayers emerged from the convention disorders convinced that the powerful force he and his friends confronted would concede nothing without violent struggle. He had seen peaceful protesters and bystanders beaten and gassed by Chicago’s police. In a year, police would shoot and kill Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. Already the department’s Red Squad spied on local civil rights and peace groups; the national movement was infiltrated by FBI saboteurs.
This was no time for peaceful protest, Ayers decided. For three years he and his allies had tried that, and for three years the war had escalated. It was time to take the fight to a different level.
“Everything was coming together in 1968,” says Ayers. “There was the student uprising in Paris and the takeover at Columbia University; people believed anything was possible. It was a time of war; thousands of people were being killed. The cities were in flames. It was time to put your life on the line. We thought we were winning. We thought the government was toppling. We felt Johnson’s resignation was a major victory.”
After the convention, Ayers took off in an old, beat-up Volkswagen with a young activist named Michael Klonsky to organize SDS chapters on college campuses throughout the midwest.
“We’d roll into town knowing two or three people, that’s all, it didn’t take much,” Klonsky recalls. “Bill would go to the student union, climb on a table and start rapping, and I’d hand out our fliers. We had some great times together, but we also had our fights. Once we were sitting in some student union and the Beatles’ song ‘Revolution’ came on the jukebox. Bill went berserk. He ripped out the cord to the jukebox. To him, ‘Revolution’ wasn’t radical enough. He wanted ‘Street Fighting Man’ by the Stones. Now that was revolutionary.
“I know it sounds crazy, but he wasn’t kidding. That’s the way it was. There was a lot of anger in the air.”
Some of Ayers’s friends traveled to Cuba, where they were hailed by North Korean, Chinese, Cuban, and North Vietnamese officials. It was no longer a question of ending U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Ayers and his comrades saw themselves as “third world allies,” waging revolution on the North American front.
In retrospect, it was madness, part of the lunacy of the times. If the military command had reduced Vietnamese to “gooks” who could be bombed and burned without remorse, the youngsters of the far left had idealized them as third world revolutionaries. They had also closed their eyes to repression in communist countries. They had absolutely convinced themselves that they were positively correct. Anyone who disagreed–particularly their parents, who were understandably distressed–they mocked.
“She wouldn’t come home for a very long time, and when she did, she would bring a coterie of radical friends to protect her,” Jim Oughton told journalist Tom Powers in 1970, for Powers’s book about his daughter Diana. “Her friends would counter my theories, if they listened to them at all, with a sarcastic ‘Oh wow, man.’ They surrounded themselves with an invisible barrier.”
In the summer of ’69 they turned on each other at the annual SDS convention, held at the old Coliseum on South Wabash.
By then SDS bore little resemblance to the original group of Ann Arbor radicals who had idealistically vowed to redistribute wealth and squash racial discrimination.
The men and women who gathered in Chicago preached violent class hatred and worldwide revolution. For three days and nights they traded insults, in what one reporter called a bewildering “ideological orgy of chanted slogans, brandished Red books, bitter factionalism, [and] walkouts.” Eventually, SDS split into separate camps: the Progressive Labor Party, headed by a student from Harvard, which intended to lead a rebellion of the working class, and the Revolutionary Youth Movement, of which Ayers was a member.
Then things got more confused, as RYM split into RYM I and RYM II. Klonsky, a leader of RYM II, tried to fuse a coalition with the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican street gang.
Meanwhile, Ayers and his RYM I cohorts–Oughton, Robbins, Dohrn, Jeff Jones, Ted Gold, Cathy Wilkerson, Kathy Boudin, and Judith Clark chief among them–retreated to a series of cells throughout the country to train for battle. They called themselves the Weathermen, the title taken from the line in Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” that says, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”
They lived in filth and denied themselves sleep and proper nourishment. They spent hours in bitter self-awareness sessions, denouncing themselves and their parents, and reassessing every aspect of their past, including monogamy.
They were trying to recast themselves as revolutionary beings. They were trying to create Weathermen.
“Having failed to arouse the vast support they had never really expected, they achieved the isolation their theory required,” historian and former SDS member Todd Gitlin wrote in the Nation. “God knows how much they had to maul one another and their former friends to bring themselves to the high pitches required for their ‘actions.'”
They wrote a manifesto, which the New York Times described as “five and a half closely printed pages with scholastically reasoned, practically unreadable rhetoric.”
Their goal was to “bring the war home” and enlist the white working class in the coming revolution.
“Every year there’s a geometrically greater number of kids watching television and rooting for the Indians,” Ayers told a reporter for the New York Times in 1969. “They hate their jobs, hate their schools, hate their parents, hate the authorities. We’re trying to show them there’s an alternative to hating themselves.”
They prepared to demonstrate their toughness and grit by invading high schools, raising a Vietnamese flag, and fighting the toughest white kids who objected–“the greasers,” as Ayers then called them. (They lost more fights than they won, though 12 women members did manage to beat up one high school teacher in Pittsburgh.)
Their ideology was rigid, their anger red-hot. “This was a time,” Gitlin wrote, “when many felt like the person who said, ‘I feel like turning myself into a brick and hurling myself.'”
They denounced those who disagreed with them, old friends and comrades included, as “running dogs” and liars.
“Their attitude was that if you weren’t a Weatherman–if you weren’t willing to go pick a fight with a cop–you didn’t have guts,” says Klonsky. “I walked out of one meeting. After that, Ayers and Terry Robbins wrote an article called ‘Good-bye, Mike,’ or ‘Good Riddance, Mike.’ I felt betrayed. But if I had told them that, they would have said, ‘Quit being a wimp.'”
The Weathermen were undeterred.
“There’s a lot in white Americans that we do have to fight, and beat out of them and beat out of ourselves,” Ayers said in a speech soon after his split with Klonsky. “We have to be willing to fight white privilege, racism, male supremacy–in order to build a revolutionary movement.”
Their revolutionary moment came at 10:30 PM on October 8, 1969, on the eve of the Chicago Eight conspiracy trial.
About 300 Weathermen convened in Lincoln Park near the intersection of Armitage and Clark. They wore white helmets, leather gloves, and thick boots; some carried pipes, sticks, and clubs.
One by one they gave angry speeches. A bonfire was lit. Someone shouted, “On to the Drake!” (They believed conspiracy trial judge Julius Hoffman lived there.) Then the group started running.
They ran south along Clark Street, smashing windows in cars and buildings along the way. At Division Street, they charged a line of police, then retreated, a little bloodied and bruised, east to the lake.
On Saturday, October 11, they initiated one final assault, smashing windows and fighting police at the intersection of LaSalle and Madison.
Altogether, nearly 70 people were arrested and two dozen were injured (including Richard Elrod, then a lawyer for the city, later the sheriff of Cook County, whose neck was broken as he tried to tackle a Weatherman in the October 11 melee).
The Weathermen called it the “Days of Rage.” Black Panther leader Fred Hampton called it a “Custeristic” charge. A Sun-Times headline called it “Terror in the Loop!” Daily News columnist Mike Royko dismissed the Weathermen as a bunch of rich, spoiled, tantrum-tossing brats.
“If the minirevolution proved anything it is only that the SDS doesn’t have many members left,” Royko wrote, “and those who remain couldn’t fight their way into a Polish wedding.”
For Ayers, those four days “behind enemy lines” in Chicago were the culmination of a powerful and personal revolution.
“The rush we got on the streets was unlike anything before or since,” he later told a reporter. “I can feel the physical sensation of it when I think back. It’s like the rush a soldier must get in the middle of a battle zone. I guess it’s our version of post-Vietnam syndrome.”
As for Tom Ayers, well, it’s hard to say what he made of the riot. He’s never openly spoken on the matter. (He chose not to be interviewed for this article.)
Tom and Bill saw each other just before the Days of Rage, but their meeting was brief and it ended in a quarrel. Undoubtedly their relationship was strained. Newspapers across the country had quoted Bill as saying that one Weatherman goal was to “kill all rich people.” Asked if his parents weren’t rich, Ayers replied: “Bring the war home. Kill your parents.”
Perhaps he was more honest in the 1969 interview he gave for Hard Times, Studs Terkel’s book on the Great Depression.
“My father is a good person,” he told Terkel. “The important thing to understand about a man like my father is that in a society like this, whether a person is a nice guy or a bad guy is irrelevant. People play certain roles. It’s not so much their attitudes as the roles they play. Although he’s the kind of guy you wouldn’t mind having dinner with, he plays a bad role in this society . . .
“He used to tell me that of all his kids I could have been the one to make it. Perhaps even his successor as president of the conglomerate. He always felt I had the brains and drive to be a ruler. I think he’s disappointed in me. I don’t think he’s quite given up hope that I’m going through a stage and will come out of it.”
In December the Weathermen met in Flint, Michigan, for a “war council,” and called for “armed struggle,” which they plotted in separate groups from different cities.
And so it was that on March 6, 1970, Oughton and Robbins were building a bomb in the basement of a Greenwich Village town house owned by Cathy Wilkerson’s parents. It was an antipersonnel bomb, intended for a detail of soldiers stationed across the Hudson River in Fort Dix, New Jersey.
Apparently they crossed the wrong wires. Oughton, Robbins, and Ted Gold all died in the explosion.
Three days later, Dohrn and Boudin missed a court date in Chicago, where they were wanted on several riot-related charges. Suddenly they were fugitives wanted by the FBI. After that the group changed its name to the Weather Underground, and its members (Ayers included) disappeared.
After Ayers’s exchange with the Vietnam vet, a young woman asks about various Weather Underground bombings.
Ayers looks confused. “What buildings did we bomb?” he asks.
She’s not so sure. “The Senate?”
Ayers raises his eyebrows. “Is that true?”
The woman stares straight at Ayers. “That’s what it says in the books,” she says after a pause. “Whether it’s true or not you would know better than I.”
Her classmates and Ayers break into nervous laughter.
“I’m like Reagan,” he says. “I forgot.”
The first word from the Weather Underground surfaced on May 21, 1970, when the group issued “a declaration of a state of war.”
“We will never live peaceably under this system,” the war decree read. “The twelve Weathermen who were indicted for leading last October’s riots in Chicago have never left the country. . . . [We] move freely in and out of every city and youth scene in this country. We’re not in hiding, but we’re invisible.”
After that came a steady stream of “communiques,” most taking credit for some sort of “action”: bombing police headquarters in New York City; bombing the courthouse in Marin County, California; springing Timothy Leary from a minimum-security prison in California.
“Dr. Leary was a political prisoner,” that communique read, “captured for the work he did in helping all of us begin the task of creating a new culture on the barren wasteland that has been imposed on this country by Democrats, Republicans, capitalists, and creeps.”
In the midst of these communiques they released “New Morning–Changing Weather,” which differed in tone and substance from the others.
In it they allowed themselves to reminisce about their fallen comrades. Teddy, Diana, Terry–these were flesh-and-blood human beings who had died, not make-believe robot revolutionaries.
“[After the explosion] we became aware that a group of outlaws who are isolated from the youth communities do not have a sense of what is going on, cannot develop strategies that grow to include large numbers of people, have become ‘us’ and ‘them,'” “New Morning” read. “People become revolutionaries in the schools, in the army, in prisons, in communes and on the streets. Not in an underground cell.
“We’re often afraid but we take our fear for granted now, not trying to act tough. What we once thought would have to be some zombie-type discipline has turned out to be a yoga of alertness, a heightened awareness of activities and vibrations around us–almost a new set of eyes and ears.”
They admitted no guilt and showed only a little remorse. But something had changed. Their old angry indifference was gone. They obviously cared about how other people saw them.
“The ‘New Morning’ was our attempt to go back to our early SDS roots, to go back to the youth communities, instead of trying to form an isolated armed vanguard,” says Jeff Jones, who is now a newspaper reporter in Albany, New York. “We had succumbed to the politics of anger and male competitiveness. We had to show we were going to be the toughest revolutionaries. We did too much; we did not think rationally.
“We had lost our touch with humanity, and now it was time to come back.”
Between 1970 and 1974, the group took credit for 12 bombings, released 22 communiques, and even published a book, Prairie Fire.
At first their communiques were hailed by newspapers as significant news events. But after a while even the alternative press didn’t seem to care. The Justice Department dropped its case against the Weathermen because most of its evidence was illegally obtained by tapping phones and breaking into homes. Most of the passion behind the antiwar movement dissipated with the end of the draft and the 1973 cease-fire agreement.
Even members of the Weather Underground were running out of steam. They were constantly changing their addresses, phone numbers, names, and identities. Ayers alone adopted at least a dozen different aliases and lived in about 15 different states, though he says he never left the country.
“The way not to get caught is to change the obvious things,” says Ayers. “I didn’t see my family for 12 years. You can’t go home, that’s the first place they’ll look. If you don’t set foot in Berkeley, you’ll do OK. And you have to be law-abiding. As Bob Dylan said, ‘Those who choose to live outside the law must be honest.’
“You learn to understand your environment and go with the flow. I learned the limits of free speech in this country. You can say anything you want so long as you’re ineffective. If I stand up in my union hall and say, ‘I’m going to overthrow the government,’ they’ll just tell me to shut up and sit down. But if I’m Fred Hampton–if I’m a Black Panther with a meaningful following–they shoot me while I’m sleeping in my bed.”
To support himself, Ayers took whatever jobs he could find.
“I worked as a migrant laborer, a cook, a baker, a truck driver, and on the waterfront; I cleaned offices, cleaned out garbage, killed chicken in a poultry processing plant, worked in a foundry.
“I’d go down to hiring halls and look for jobs that are marginal in the sense that they don’t require a good deal of background checking. If they asked for references, I made them up. No one ever checked.
“It was the 70s, the economy was fired up. There were jobs to get, not like today. Most important, I was middle-class and articulate. I wasn’t skilled at being a baker. But I was skilled at talking my way into the door. I remember I was in a hiring hall and we had to fill out a 20-page form. I filled out mine in three minutes. Some of the other guys were laboring for 20 minutes. I remember thinking, ‘This is what an expensive college education can get you.'”
Several times he was stopped by the police.
“It was for little things like traffic violations, nothing I couldn’t talk my way out of,” Ayers says. “Being a white man brings privileges. It’s a paradox. I was using those privileges to participate in a movement that was attempting to undercut the system that was allowing those privileges to exist.”
In 1976, Ayers, Dohrn, Jones, and Boudin were the subjects of Underground, a documentary directed by Emile de Antonio and filmed in a safe house somewhere in California.
“We’re not a terrorist organization,” Ayers says at one point in the movie. “Of course, we made mistakes. The process is everything and that’s what we’re involved in.”
His voice is calm and soothing, much like the one I heard talking in Cooper-Musselman’s classroom.
By then, he and Dohrn were living together. Their first son, Zayd, was born in 1977. That was around the time that the Weather Underground decided to split up.
“The war was over; there was no need for the Weather Underground anymore,” says Ayers. “We had served our purpose.”
Ayers and Dohrn settled in a two-bedroom apartment on the top floor of a five-story walk-up on Manhattan’s upper west side. She was a waitress; he was a baker.
“When Bill first came here he was just another parent looking for day care,” says B.J. Richards, who managed a day-care center in Manhattan called B.J.’s Kids. “He said his name was Tony Lee. I didn’t recognize him. I really didn’t know that much about the Weathermen. All I knew was that it was immediately clear he was good with children. He really listened when they talked. We wanted his family to be with us. We wanted him to work with us.”
Within a few weeks, Ayers started teaching at B.J.’s.
“I’d been away from education for so long it was good to get back,” says Ayers. “It was a great day-care center. Very humanistic, nonsexist, child-oriented. It was logical for me to return to teaching. It was socialism on a tiny but very real scale. There was something very humanizing and decent about it. I realized you don’t need to have a grand scheme; you don’t need to have all the answers.”
In 1980, he and Dohrn decided to go aboveground.
“Being underground was a hassle and it made no sense without a larger movement to be a part of,” says Ayers. “The only thing hanging over our head was the indictment against Bernardine in Chicago. We had our lawyer call the state’s attorney–Richard M. Daley, as a matter of fact. We were going to turn ourselves in quietly. But I guess that couldn’t be done.”
On December 3, 1980, they surfaced in Chicago for Dohrn’s arraignment, generating the biggest crowd of courtroom spectators since the trial of mass murderer John Wayne Gacy the previous February, according to the Sun-Times.
Dohrn was released on her own recognizance, and Ayers issued a statement saying: “The U.S. system hasn’t changed a bit. It is a system built on genocide and slavery and oppression, a system that poisons the earth and cripples future generations for profit.
“Now I am returning to an open life, leaving the shelter and freedom of the forest.”
Daley said he wanted to bring the case to trial, but after 11 years the evidence against Dohrn was weak. So a deal was made. On January 12, 1981, Dohrn pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of battery and bail jumping and was sentenced to three years’ probation and fined $1,500.
With that, Dohrn and Ayers moved back to New York City, and were not written about in the newspapers until October 1981. That’s when old Weathermen allies Kathy Boudin, David Gilbert, and Judith Clark, along with members of a revolutionary group called the Black Liberation Army, unsuccessfully attempted to steal $1.6 million from a Brinks truck in New York. Two Brinks guards and a policeman were killed in the shoot-out.
Ayers and Dohrn had nothing to do with the incident; they’d been out of touch with their old friends for years. Nevertheless, a couple of months later prosecutors called Dohrn to testify before a grand jury. She refused on principle to answer questions and was sent to prison for refusing to cooperate with the grand jury.
It was an agonizing moment for her and Ayers. They had taken in Chesa, Boudin and Gilbert’s infant son (and have since adopted him). With Dohrn in jail, Ayers was a single parent, raising two infants and a five-year-old boy. In the midst of the turmoil, he says he got a phone call from journalist David Horowitz, who was writing an article with Peter Collier on the Weathermen for Rolling Stone.
“I knew Horowitz; he’s a Reaganite now, but he used to be part of the radical crowd,” says Ayers. “I talked to him. I would have talked to anyone who I thought might help get Bernardine out of jail.”
The result was “Doing It–The Inside Story of the Rise and Fall of the Weather Underground,” which depicted the Weathermen as a gang of drug-crazed, sexually voracious savages. Ayers was portrayed as a tomcatting cad whose shameless, uncontrollable sexual proclivities drove Oughton to the brink.
“Billy was galvanized by the sexual freedom in the radical demimonde and tried to make Diana feel the same energy by encouraging her to bring other people home to sleep with as he often did,” the article read. “But it was hard for her to do and instead she tried to ignore the other women. When Billy and Terry [Robbins] became regional travelers for SDS, Billy’s sexual itinerary grew apace. (At one point he boasted to an SDS colleague that he’d gotten laid 100 times in three months, and friends, watching him insouciantly proposition one woman after another at SDS organizing meetings, inviting them to join him in his Chevy van during breaks, believed this was no exaggeration.)”
The article outraged Ayers.
“Their article is based on sheer fantasy, like a National Enquirer story that says Elvis is alive,” says Ayers. “They had an agenda to discredit anybody and anything progressive using any old scurrilous bullshit. They exaggerated our excesses to make us look like degenerates and keep people from listening to what we had to say. That stuff about Diana never happened. I’ve never known a woman who said, ‘Yeah, it’s OK, bring the other lady home.’ I did and do have a lot to learn about the women’s movement and sexual oppression. But Diana and I had a serious and real relationship. It was a young relationship but it was very real.
“We did talk about monogamy as a weakness and we did use drugs and have sex. But come on–getting laid 100 times! It never happened.
“We didn’t make all the right choices. But who knows what the right choices are? Most people go through their life adhering to the normal conventional routine. They’re neither good nor bad, they’re just going along. Then there comes an important moment when they face a difficult choice. In our case, we had to ask ourselves, do we follow our leaders to war, or do we take a stand?
“Are we supposed to believe everything our leaders tell us? Is there never time for dissent? Who was right in Hitler’s Germany: the soldiers who went to the front, or the freedom fighters who went underground? At least we weren’t like Dan Quayle. He said he supported the war, and then he hid behind his daddy and refused to fight. We took our stand; we faced the consequences. Some of us went to jail; some of us were killed. We tried in good faith to take seriously what we took as our responsibilities, which was to develop a militant opposition to the war. And remember this: the most we ever destroyed was some bricks and mortar. Compare that to Nixon and Johnson’s carnage in Vietnam.”
Ayers wrote an angry five-page rebuttal to Rolling Stone, but only a small portion was printed. Dohrn languished in jail for seven months before a judge ordered her freed.
After that, Dohrn, who had graduated from the University of Chicago Law School in 1967, passed the New York State bar exam, and worked in the New York offices of Sidley & Austin (a corporate Chicago-based firm with–coincidentally?–close ties to Com Ed). However, New York State’s Committee on Character and Fitness of Applicants denied her admission to the bar, despite support from Don Reuben, the Tribune’s well-connected lawyer.
The irony was blatant. Once again, Dohrn and Ayers were tapping into their powerful network to reap the benefits of a society they condemned.
“I have said all along we were the beneficiaries of white privilege,” says Ayers. “Like anyone else we deserve neither our privileges nor our oppression. The question is what you make of what you have.”
In 1984, Ayers began a graduate program in education at Columbia. Three years later, he earned his PhD.
“In the middle of the graduating ceremony, a group of black undergraduates started to walk out,” says Ayers. “I don’t know why, but my feet got up and walked out with them. I later learned it was a protest against racism on campus.
“I figured, big deal, so I’ve got a PhD. But the struggle never stops.”
With about 15 minutes left to go in the class, Ayers calls on a woman who asks: “What will you tell your children about drugs and your past?”
“Wow, that’s tough; what do you tell kids about anything?” says Ayers. “One day my middle son, Malik, says, ‘Daddy, tell me about that time you burned your credit card.'”
“I said, ‘Not my credit card, my draft card. I’m a revolutionary, but not that much of a revolutionary.'”
The students laugh and he pauses until they’re silent.
“I’d tell my kids to live lives of purpose, not simply to put in time on this earth. I’d tell them to respect themselves and other people. With drugs, it’s complicated. I would say, ‘You shouldn’t do things that hurt your body or get you out of control.’
“Have I ever been out of control? Yes. So, it’s tough. It’s hypocritical. I don’t like to be hypocritical. I like to think that I’ve been consistent in my life.”
Few members of the school reform movement can say for certain when it was that they first met Ayers. It was as though one day they looked and he was there.
That would have been late 1987, in the aftermath of a debilitating 21-day teacher strike that enraged parents and inspired them to demand immediate change.
By then Ayers had moved to Hyde Park and was working at UIC.
“I arrived just as the movement was picking up,” says Ayers. “I was immediately intrigued. I started attending different meetings. I couldn’t stay away.”
Some of his new allies knew nothing about his background; those who did didn’t care. He was friendly and personable. He was liked by virtually everyone he met.
In terms of his educational philosophy, he picked up where he had left off back in 1968 when he and Diana Oughton closed the school in Ann Arbor. Only this time he wasn’t a freak on the fringe. He was part of a swelling movement with ties to the corporate community.
He called for abolishing the central office bureaucracy and redistributing its funds to the classroom.
“I’m interested in expanding the democratic empowerment of downtrodden communities, and that means students, parents, and, yes, teachers,” says Ayers. “Especially teachers. Teachers teach because they love kids or they love some part of the world–math, music, whatever–that they want to share with kids. Then they go to colleges of education that beat that love out of them. You’ve got professors who tell the teachers, ‘I know you like kids but that’s mush and bullshit.’ By the time they’re five years into their careers that feeling of love is only a shadow of its original self.”
The system, he declared, smothers creativity and breeds complacency.
“Teachers in most big-city schools have lived so long in a bureaucracy that they look the wrong way; they look to the bosses, not at the kids. I went into a classroom recently and the teacher said, ‘I’m on page 350 of the text, just where I should be, according to the board guidelines.’ Meanwhile half the kids are climbing the walls and the other half are asleep. It made me sick.
“Teachers are swamped with tests; the bureaucrats always want teachers to make kids take tests. Ask just about any teacher, and they’ll tell you–there are too many damn tests!
“Well, the teachers should rebel. They shouldn’t give those tests. People have a responsibility to do the right thing. If the principal gets on their case, take the matter to the local school council. Tell the parents about the valuable class time wasted on tests. Stand up.
“There has to be some testing. But if I were teaching reading, I’d deemphasize the tests. I would throw out the work sheets and replace them with literature. I would have the kids reading and talking all the time. Forget about keeping them quiet. I would get them to write essays and I would publish their work. I would do the kinds of commonsense things we do with our own children. Then, sometime in March, I’d close all of that down and say, ‘Aside from the fun, you have to take these tests. They’re important because you are judged by them, and, being city kids, the tests are shaped to make you fail.’ I’d be cynical about the tests. I’d teach them to take the tests.”
And perhaps most reassuring to parents and community groups, he maintained that all children–no matter how poor, violent, or illiterate their backgrounds–can learn. If they don’t, the system is to blame.
“I don’t say that everybody has the potential to be exactly the same person. But how can we measure a child’s potential if they attend schools that refuse to allow them to learn? We don’t know their potential.
“It’s not that kids don’t want to read. That’s like saying a kid doesn’t want to walk. Did you ever meet a kid who didn’t want to walk? Of course not. The fact is that kids inherently want to be powerful; they want to be in control; they want to understand. But there are all kinds of obstacles. I was at a school where they had six-year-olds doing work sheets for six hours. You can’t do that; I can’t do that; we’d go out of our minds with boredom. Imagine what it does to a six-year-old kid.
“Teachers should be bridge builders, connecting the classroom to the world the kids already know. I resist the idea that there should be a hurry-up kind of preparation for school. Children learn by doing; they learn in all five senses. If we sit them in chairs and have them do ditto sheets on math instead of building blocks, we’re disembodying them from math. But if you allow children to play with blocks until the second grade, you are allowing them to experience math in their fingertips.
“I can give kids a lecture on primary colors or I can let them mess around with paint, mixing red and blue to discover purple. It’s the teacher’s responsibility to assist in such mind-blowing experiences and to be excited when they happen. That’s what teaching is all about–the interaction of child, environment, and adult–be it in Winnetka or the inner city.
“By and large, that’s not what we have in the public schools, and I don’t completely blame the teachers. They’re victims as well. They have a right to work in a place that honors their wisdom and skills. But in fact, they’ve become custodians of the system that despises and marginalizes them. They’re told to keep the kids quiet and in neat rows of chairs. It doesn’t matter if the kids learn to read, so long as they’re quiet. The teacher’s job is to teach children their place in the hierarchy of society.”
It was a message he preached to appreciative audiences throughout the city.
“Bill is so upbeat and inspirational, he gets you excited and enthused about teaching,” says Alice Brent, a computer teacher at the Sabin Elementary School, a predominantly Hispanic school on the near west side. “I finished a workshop he had this summer on teacher empowerment. When he was finished the class gave him a standing ovation. That’s how much he moved us.”
It was at Sabin that he met Lourdes Monteagudo, then the school’s principal. On the south side he met Coretta McFerren, leader of a group called the People’s Coalition for Educational Reform.
“I love Bill; I truly think of him as my brother,” says McFerren. “I don’t agree with everything he says. Unlike Bill, I think there are some kids who don’t want to learn, don’t want to pay attention to the teacher, don’t want to do anything but cause trouble. When I say that, Bill says, ‘You got to keep them in the classroom until you reach them and they start learning.’
“Well, what’s that going to do for my kid in the meantime? How’s it going to help her to have some troublemaker whooping and hollering and taking away the teacher’s time? I ask Bill that question and he doesn’t have a good answer. But I still love him. God knows, we could use 100 more like him.”
McFerren and others invited Ayers to meetings of the Alliance for Better Chicago Schools, a coalition that includes members of Hispanic, business, black, and civic organizations. He started attending the group’s monthly meetings, held over breakfasts of eggs, sausage, rolls, fruit, and coffee in a conference room on the 57th floor of First National Bank’s downtown headquarters.
In many ways, Ayers’s philosophy was ideal for ABCs. The targets of his criticism–central office bureaucrats and ineffective classroom teachers–were not members of the coalition. For ABCs’ members he had almost nothing but praise.
Within a few weeks, the group named Ayers convener, which means he runs their meetings.
“He plays a good role because he listens to what everyone is saying,” says Laurie Glenn, a member of the coalition. “That’s important with a group like ABCs, which has so many divergent interests and so many members who want to talk.”
“If necessary, I’ll let everyone talk until they are exhausted,” Ayers adds. “The meetings go on a little long, but it doesn’t matter so long as people feel they’ve had their say.”
Many of ABCs’ members are allies of Mayor Daley. (Monteagudo, for instance, is Daley’s handpicked $80,000-a-year deputy mayor of education.) ABCs never criticized the mayor, even though he angered other activists by failing to appoint members to the school board within the state-mandated deadline.
At one point, Ayers and others were ushered into Daley’s private City Hall chambers to brief the mayor on reform.
“I don’t think much about Daley, but I don’t have a lot of animosity toward him,” says Ayers. “I don’t know if he knows who I am. When I was in his office, he didn’t say, ‘I prosecuted your wife and you threw stones at my father.’ However, I must admit it was bizarre to be sitting there.”
Eventually, Monteagudo asked Ayers to put together a video and booklet on reform, a project financed by Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Some members of ABCs privately grumble that Ayers is a little too chummy with Monteagudo. But no one accuses him of selling out. Most note that he maintains his own style. Depending on the weather, he wears shorts or blue jeans to those 57th-floor gatherings.
“I particularly like his Guatemalan leather wristbands,” says Glenn. “Very hip.”
Under Ayers, ABCs released a manifesto calling for the abolishment of the central school office, and later gave general superintendent Ted Kimbrough a grade of D-minus for his first few months on the job. Most important, they avoided internal fights.
“Bill helped keep the group together,” says David Paulus, senior vice president of First National Bank and a member of the group. “He brings a wisdom and maturity that each of the other factions don’t have. He has a graceful way of handling diversity and calming people down.”
To a degree, he had come full circle. He had achieved the public prominence so many had expected of him long ago. He was on the inside now, dealing with power brokers, reminding old-timers of his father.
“My dad is just so thrilled to see Bill back,” says John Ayers. “It might be that Tom and the business community have come closer to Bill’s vision of education. The beauty is that Bill does it on his own terms. All the rest of us are locked in our ties and jackets, but Bill has the confidence to wear his shorts.”
I met Ayers shortly before the last school year ended. I watched him in action as he led a chatty class of 20 teenage would-be teachers (he never asked for quiet, but somehow it seemed all the kids were listening).
I interviewed him in his book-strewn office, decorated with drawings by his children and pictures of his family. One day he invited me to his house, a cozy garage house in Hyde Park. I noticed there was no TV.
“I’ve never had a TV,” he said. “They’re intrusive and loud. I’m not missing anything anyway.”
“But how do you watch the Bulls games?” I asked.
“I go to my brother’s house. He’s got a great TV.”
“And what about the Cubs?”
“I listen to them on the radio. Radio is better than TV for baseball, because the drama is heightened when you can’t see but only imagine what’s going on. It’s wonderful to listen to a Cub game on the radio with your kids.”
He was full of little observations like that, as well as suggestions of books to read and movies to see. He was very optimistic, almost cheery. I couldn’t shake his confidence, though I certainly tried.
I told him that too many of his school “reform” buddies licked the boots of corporate Chicago and kicked the butts of classroom teachers.
“I’m not antiteacher,” he said. “I think teaching is the world’s greatest profession. I think teachers are underpaid. I would give them all a raise; they should be making at least $40,000. I also want teachers to have more power and responsibility. How is that antiteacher?”
I told him that he and his ABCs cohorts come off like a bunch of closet Reaganites holding the public schools hostage to a bunch of silly, unrealistic demands. Like the goal to bring test scores in all public schools to the national average by 1995.
“That is a stupid goal,” he said. “Test scores are overrated. The reform bill isn’t perfect. I’m not even sure I know what reform means. Every backbiting politician and every greedy businessman says he’s for reform. It’s like being a patriot. It’s become an icon. We’re in a stage much like Eastern Europe where you have a clumsy authoritarian regime collapsing. The outcome is entirely uncertain, here as well as in Romania.
“But don’t compare me to Reagan! They want to punish the schools by denying them resources. I want more resources and money for public education.”
I asked how he could be considered a legitimate reformer when he and his wife send their own children to a private school.
“I’m not a leader of reform. I’m fortunate to be part of a movement that is led by parents like James Deanes, Ron Sistrunk, and Coretta McFerren,” Ayers said. “Reform is led by people whose children attend the schools; that’s the way it should be. My wife and I made a choice we thought was right for our kids. Is it unfair that some kids have choices and others don’t? Absolutely. But I’m not going to use my kids to make a point.”
I told him that the reform law was designed to keep people busy–talking, meeting, eating breakfast–while preserving the status quo. In that regard, it was pretty much like the much heralded Daley-King summit agreement Tom Ayers helped negotiate back in 1966.
“You’re so cynical,” he shot back. “What would you have us do: dismiss the system as hopeless and bury our heads?”
All in all, we talked for hours. He was always punctual and well organized. After each interview, he would immediately arrange the next one, neatly recording its time and date in the little black date book he kept by his side.
He must have worn me down. After a while my natural inclination to distrust education professors, whose sheltered university environment is a world apart from the reality of inner-city classrooms, began to weaken.
Then I started thinking about his past and I began to wonder: Am I being deceived? He had already demonstrated his ability to lie and maintain not one but several phony identities. How did I know he wasn’t lying now?
Sure, he talked a good game. He used the buzzwords of empowerment and democracy with apparent conviction. But this same fellow had once denounced independent thought, and belonged to a group that tolerated no dissent. How could I reconcile the two? How could he?
I raised my doubts with several of his friends. (I would have asked his wife but, like his father, she chose not to be interviewed.)
His brother John said: “In those days, a lot of people lived double lives. You had weekend hippies who did kooky things in Old Town on Saturdays, then went back to being lawyers and accountants during the week. Bill has always been pretty much the same, even if he changed his name.”
Jeff Jones, his Weatherman comrade, said: “Bill is genuine, he is what you see. There was that moment when he was diverted–we were all diverted. Except for that, he’s been consistent.”
Mike Klonsky, Ayers’s former SDS rival, said: “Give the guy a break. I did. When I heard he had moved back to Chicago, I looked him up. I didn’t ask for apologies. That was then, this was now. I figure we should just pick up the pieces.
“The thread in Bill’s life is education. He’s doing exactly what he did at that little school back in Ann Arbor. OK, he took a hiatus back in 1968. But now he’s back. If Bill was goofy at one time, blame it on Nixon. He should have ended the war when he promised. He screwed up a lot of people’s lives.”
Finally, I confronted Ayers. “Your ideas about education come so easy to you,” I said.
He got a little irritated. “This stuff doesn’t come that easy to me. I like to think of myself as a hard worker. I don’t sleep a lot. I get up early and often stay up late. I didn’t just sort of come up with these ideas–they evolved over years of reading, writing, watching, teaching, and learning from other people.”
“But how can I believe you? Since you lived a lie for so many years, how do I know you’re sincere?”
“I resent that question,” he said. “That’s a bullshit, stupid question. I had to live underground to avoid prosecution. It had nothing to do with my sincerity.”
“But don’t you think the way you treated your parents and friends was wrong?”
“I don’t think we were wrong to hate the American government; it was disgusting. It still is today. Were we dogmatic and willful? Yes. I would criticize us for that.”
“That’s not good enough; admit you were an asshole to your parents and friends!”
“OK, I was an asshole.”
“All right. I consider that a victory.”
“I didn’t mean it.”
“Christ, you’re stubborn.”
“OK, seriously, I was an asshole. People were hurt. I truly regret that. Mistakes were made; I won’t deny that. But hindsight is 20-20. It’s easy to sit here now and be judgmental. We aren’t under the gun. There’s no Vietnam war going on. My point is that the context of those times is impossible to re-create. That doesn’t justify anything; it only means that there are no scientifically correct formulas from which to make the right decisions.
“In some ways, radicals from the 60s can’t win. If we remain underground, you say we’re relics. If we adapt, you say we’ve sold out. You want to make us admit that what we did was wrong. I’m proud of what we accomplished. The changes we helped enact are fundamental. Reagan didn’t go into Central America when he was fighting the Nicaraguans. He did everything short of that, but he didn’t send in troops. That’s fundamental change.
“We helped stop a war. The school reform movement has its roots in the mass-based movements of the 60s. There’s a continuum; events flow from one into another. We build from the past. Change is inevitable. Everywhere you look–Poland, Romania, Germany–walls are coming down. I love it.
“Overall, I feel good about what I’ve done. If anything, we didn’t go far enough. If you put me in a time machine and sent me back to where I was 20 years ago–and if I knew nothing more or less than what I really did know back then–I wouldn’t act any differently.
“If you ask, I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Ayers has to leave soon, so Professor Cooper-Musselman asks if there’s something he’d like to say in closing.
He jokingly suggests that she dismiss the class early. Then he gets serious.
“I think we’ll come out of this all right,” Ayers says. “I think that sometime in the future we’ll see a moment that will dwarf the 60s. The issues that we raised–race, poverty, class disparity, pollution, education–haven’t been resolved. The 30s were something, the 60s were something, the 90s will be something, too. You’re gonna lead it.
“And you know something? I’ll be there. I’ll be an old graybeard, but I’ll be on the front lines, right there with you.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul L. Meredith.