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William Charles "Bill" Ayers (born December 26, 1944) is an American elementary education theorist and a former leader in the counterculture movement who opposed US involvement in the Vietnam War. He is known for his 1960s radical activism and his current work in education reform, curriculum and instruction. In 1969, he co-founded the Weather Underground, a self-described communist revolutionary group with the intent to overthrow imperialism, that conducted a campaign of bombing public buildings (including police stations, the US Capitol Building, and the Pentagon) during the 1960s and 1970s in response to US involvement in the Vietnam War.
He is a retired professor in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, formerly holding the titles of Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar. During the 2008 US Presidential campaign, a controversy arose over his contacts with candidate Barack Obama. He is married to Bernardine Dohrn, who was also a leader in the Weather Underground.
- 1 Early life
- 2 Early activism
- 3 Involvement with Weather Underground
- 3.1 Later reflections on underground period
- 3.1.1 Fugitive Days: A Memoir
- 3.1.2 Statements made in 2001
- 3.1.3 Views on his past expressed since 2001
- 3.1 Later reflections on underground period
- 4 Academic career
- 5 Civic and political life
- 5.1 Political views
- 5.2 Obama–Ayers Controversy
- 6 Personal life
Ayers grew up in Glen Ellyn, a suburb of Chicago, Illinois. His parents are Mary (née Andrew) and Thomas G. Ayers, who was later chairman and chief executive officer of Commonwealth Edison (1973 to 1980), and for whom Northwestern's Thomas G. Ayers College of Commerce and Industry was named. He attended public schools until his second year in high school, when he transferred to Lake Forest Academy, a small prep school. Ayers earned a Bachelor of Arts in American Studies from the University of Michigan in 1968. (His father, mother and older brother had preceded him there.)
Ayers was affected at a 1965 Ann Arbor Teach-In against the Vietnam war, when Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) President Paul Potter, asked his audience, "How will you live your life so that it doesn't make a mockery of your values?" Ayers later wrote in his memoir, Fugitive Days, that his reaction was: "You could not be a moral person with the means to act, and stand still. ... To stand still was to choose indifference. Indifference was the opposite of moral".
In 1965, Ayers joined a picket line protesting an Ann Arbor, Michigan pizzeria for refusing to seat African Americans. His first arrest came for a sit-in at a local draft board, resulting in 10 days in jail. His first teaching job came shortly afterward at the Children's Community School, a preschool with a very small enrollment operating in a church basement, founded by a group of students in emulation of the Summerhill method of education.
The school was a part of the nationwide "free school movement". Schools in the movement had no grades or report cards; they aimed to encourage cooperation rather than competition, and pupils addressed teachers by their first names. Within a few months, at age 21, Ayers became director of the school. There also he met Diana Oughton, who would become his girlfriend until her death in 1970 after a bomb exploded while preparing the bombs for Weather Underground activities.
Further information: Weather Underground (organization)
Ayers became involved in the New Left and the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). He rose to national prominence as an SDS leader in 1968 and 1969 as head of an SDS regional group, the "Jesse James Gang".
The group Ayers headed in Detroit, Michigan, became one of the earliest gatherings of what became the Weathermen. Before the June 1969 SDS convention, Ayers became a prominent leader of the group, which arose as a result of a schism in SDS. "During that time his infatuation with street fighting grew and he developed a language of confrontational militancy that became more and more pronounced over the year ", disaffected former Weathermen member Cathy Wilkerson wrote in 2001. Ayers had previously been a roommate of Terry Robbins, a fellow militant who was killed in 1970 along with Ayers' girlfriend Oughton and one other member in the Greenwich Village townhouse explosion, while constructing anti-personnel bombs intended for a non-commissioned officer dance at Fort Dix, New Jersey.
In June 1969, the Weathermen took control of the SDS at its national convention, where Ayers was elected Education Secretary. Later in 1969, Ayers participated in planting a bomb at a statue dedicated to police casualties in the 1886 Haymarket affair confrontation between labor supporters and the Chicago police. The blast broke almost 100 windows and blew pieces of the statue onto the nearby Kennedy Expressway. (The statue was rebuilt and unveiled on May 4, 1970, and blown up again by other Weathermen on October 6, 1970. Rebuilding it yet again, the city posted a 24-hour police guard to prevent another blast, and in January 1972 it was moved to Chicago police headquarters).
Ayers participated in the Days of Rage riot in Chicago in October 1969, and in December was at the "War Council" meeting in Flint, Michigan. Two major decisions came out of the "War Council". The first was to immediately begin a violent, armed struggle (e.g., bombings and armed robberies) against the state without attempting to organize or mobilize a broad swath of the public. The second was to create underground collectives in major cities throughout the country. Larry Grathwohl, a Federal Bureau of Investigation informant in the Weathermen group from the fall of 1969 to the spring of 1970, stated that "Ayers, along with Bernardine Dohrn, probably had the most authority within the Weathermen".
Involvement with Weather Underground
Further information: List of Weatherman actions
After the Greenwich Village townhouse explosion in 1970, in which Weatherman member Ted Gold, Ayers's close friend Terry Robbins, and Ayers's girlfriend, Diana Oughton, were killed when a nail bomb being assembled in the house exploded, Ayers and several associates evaded pursuit by law enforcement officials. Kathy Boudin and Cathy Wilkerson survived the blast. Ayers was not facing criminal charges at the time, but the federal government later filed charges against him. Ayers participated in the bombings of New York City Police Department headquarters in 1970, the United States Capitol building in 1971, and the Pentagon in 1972, as he noted in his 2001 book, Fugitive Days. Ayers writes:
After the bombing, Ayers became a fugitive. During this time, Ayers and fellow member Bernardine Dohrn married and remained fugitives together, changing identities, jobs and locations.
In 1973, new information came to light about FBI operations targeted against Weather Underground and the New Left, all part of a series of covert and often illegal FBI projects called COINTEL. Due to the illegal tactics of FBI agents involved with the program, including conducting wiretaps and property searches without warrants, government attorneys requested all weapons-related and bomb-related charges be dropped against the Weather Underground, including charges against Ayers.
However, state charges against Dohrn remained. Dohrn was still reluctant to turn herself in to authorities. "He was sweet and patient, as he always is, to let me come to my senses on my own," she later said of Ayers. She turned herself in to authorities in 1980. She was fined $1,500 and given three years probation.
In 1973, Ayers co-authored the book Prairie Fire with other members of the Weather Underground, which they dedicated to close to 200 people including Harriet Tubman, John Brown, "All Who Continue to Fight," and "All Political Prisoners in the U.S." The list includes Sirhan Sirhan, convicted assassin of Robert F. Kennedy. Ayers himself has denied personally dedicating the book to Sirhan.
Later reflections on underground period
Fugitive Days: A Memoir
In 2001, Ayers published Fugitive Days: A Memoir, which he explained in part as an attempt to answer the questions of Kathy Boudin's son, and his speculation that Diana Oughton died trying to stop the Greenwich Village bomb makers. Some have questioned the truth, accuracy, and tone of the book. Brent Staples wrote for The New York Times Book Review that "Ayers reminds us often that he can't tell everything without endangering people involved in the story. Historian Jesse Lemisch (himself a former member of SDS) contrasted Ayers' recollections with those of other former members of the Weathermen, and claimed that the book had many errors. Ayers, in the foreword to his book, stated that it was written as his personal memories and impressions over time, not a scholarly research project. Reviewing Ayers' memoir in Slate Magazine, Timothy Noah said he could not recall reading "a memoir quite so self-indulgent and morally clueless as Fugitive Days." Studs Terkel called Ayers' memoir "a deeply moving elegy to all those young dreamers who tried to live decently in an indecent world."
Statements made in 2001
Chicago Magazine reported that "just before the September 11th attacks," Richard Elrod, a city lawyer injured in the Weathermen's Chicago "Days of Rage," received an apology from Ayers and Dohrn for their part in the violence. "[T]hey were remorseful," Elrod says. "They said, 'We're sorry that things turned out this way.'"
Much of the controversy about Ayers during the decade since 2000 stems from an interview he gave to The New York Times on the occasion of the memoir's publication. The reporter quoted him as saying "I don't regret setting bombs" and "I feel we didn't do enough", and, when asked if he would "do it all again," as saying "I don't want to discount the possibility." Ayers protested the interviewer's characterizations in a Letter to the Editor published September 15, 2001: "This is not a question of being misunderstood or 'taken out of context', but of deliberate distortion." In the ensuing years, Ayers has repeatedly avowed that when he said he had "no regrets" and that "we didn't do enough" he was speaking only in reference to his efforts to stop the United States from waging the Vietnam War, efforts which he has described as ". . . inadequate [as] the war dragged on for a decade." Ayers has maintained that the two statements were not intended to imply a wish they had set more bombs. In a November 2008 interview with The New Yorker, Ayers said that he had not meant to imply that he wished he and the Weathermen had committed further violence. Instead, he said, "I wish I had done more, but it doesn't mean I wish we'd bombed more shit." Ayers said that he had never been responsible for violence against other people and was acting to end a war in Vietnam in which "thousands of people were being killed every week." He also stated, "While we did claim several extreme acts, they were acts of extreme radicalism against property," and "We killed no one and hurt no one. Three of our people killed themselves."
The interviewer also quoted some of Ayers' own criticism of the Weathermen in the foreword to the memoir, whereby Ayers reacts to having watched Emile de Antonio's 1976 documentary film about the Weathermen, Underground: "[Ayers] was 'embarrassed by the arrogance, the solipsism, the absolute certainty that we and we alone knew the way. The rigidity and the narcissism.' " "We weren't terrorists," Ayers told an interviewer for the Chicago Tribune in 2001. "The reason we weren't terrorists is because we did not commit random acts of terror against people. Terrorism was what was being practiced in the countryside of Vietnam by the United States."
In a letter to the editor in the Chicago Tribune, Ayers wrote, "I condemn all forms of terrorism — individual, group and official". He also condemned the September 11 terrorist attacks in that letter."
Views on his past expressed since 2001
Ayers was asked in a January 2004 interview, "How do you feel about what you did? Would you do it again under similar circumstances?" He replied: "I've thought about this a lot. Being almost 60, it's impossible to not have lots and lots of regrets about lots and lots of things, but the question of did we do something that was horrendous, awful? ... I don't think so. I think what we did was to respond to a situation that was unconscionable."
On September 9, 2008, journalist Jake Tapper copied to his ABC News "Political Punch" blog and opined on a four-panel comic strip by Ryan Alexander-Tanner from Bill Ayers' blog site. In the comic strip, the Ayers cartoon character says: "The one thing I don't regret is opposing the war in Vietnam with every ounce of my being.... When I say, 'We didn't do enough,' a lot of people rush to think, 'That must mean, "We didn't bomb enough shit."' But that's not the point at all. It's not a tactical statement, it's an obvious political and ethical statement. In this context, 'we' means 'everyone.' "
After the 2008 presidential election, Ayers published an op-ed piece in the New York Times giving his assessment of his activism. Feminist critic Katha Pollitt criticized Ayers' opinion piece as a "sentimentalized, self-justifying whitewash of his role in the weirdo violent fringe of the 1960s-70s antiwar left." She says Ayers and his Weathermen cohorts made "the antiwar movement look like the enemy of ordinary people" during the Vietnam War era. Ayers gave this assessment of his actions:
He also reiterated his rebuttal to the description of his actions as terrorism:
Ayers is a retired professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, College of Education. His interests include teaching for social justice, urban educational reform, narrative and interpretive research, children in trouble with the law, and related issues.
He began his career in primary education while an undergraduate, teaching at the Children's Community School (CCS), a project founded by a group of students and based on the Summerhill method of education. After leaving the underground, he earned an M.Ed from Bank Street College in Early Childhood Education (1984), an M.Ed from Teachers College, Columbia University in Early Childhood Education (1987) and an Ed. D from Teachers College, Columbia University in Curriculum and Instruction (1987).
Ayers was elected Vice President for Curriculum Studies by the American Educational Research Association in 2008. Writer Sol Stern, a conservative opponent of liberal education policies, has criticized Ayers as having a virulent "hatred of America", and said, "Calling Bill Ayers a school reformer is a bit like calling Joseph Stalin an agricultural reformer." William H. Schubert, a fellow professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, wrote that his election was "a testimony of [Ayers'] stature and [the] high esteem he holds in the field of education locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally."
He has edited and written many books and articles on education theory, policy and practice, and has appeared on many panels and symposia. On August 5, 2010, Ayers officially announced his intent to retire from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
On September 23, 2010 William Ayers was unanimously denied emeritus status by the University of Illinois, after a speech by the university's board chair Christopher G. Kennedy (son of assassinated U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy), containing the quote "I intend to vote against conferring the honorific title of our university to a man whose body of work includes a book dedicated in part to the man who murdered my father, Robert F. Kennedy." He added, "There is nothing more antithetical to the hopes for a university that is lively and yet civil...than to permanently seal off debate with one's opponents by killing them". Kennedy referred to a 1974 book Prairie Fire: The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism, written by Ayers and other Weather Underground members, which includes a dedication to a list of over 200 revolutionary figures, musicians and others, including Sirhan Sirhan, who is currently serving a life sentence for Robert Kennedy's assassination in 1968. Ayers said he has never dedicated any book, including Prairie Fire, the book in question, to assassins.
In an October 2010 Chicago Sun Times editorial Attacks on Ayers distort our history, former students of Ayers and UIC Alumni, Daniel Schneider and Adam Kuranishi, responded in opposition to the University of Illinois Board of Trustees' decision to deny Ayers Emeritus status. They write, "We juxtaposed the image of him painted by the media with the teacher we saw in class; and the two could not be more distinct. The Ayers in the media was frozen in time; he never left the 1960s, never aged out of his 20s, and never grew in perspective. As his students, we see through this representation ... Ayers is still committed to movements for peace and justice. His worldview and tactics are evolved and elaborate, thoughtful and wise, making him unrecognizable to the media's caricature. Should we not expect someone to evolve after 40 years? One may disagree with his activism, but it is impossible to ignore his hard work and contributions to urban education, juvenile justice reform, the University of Illinois and Chicago."
Civic and political life
Ayers worked with Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley in shaping the city's school reform program, and was one of three co-authors of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge grant proposal that in 1995 won $49.2 million over five years for public school reform. In 1997, Chicago awarded him its Citizen of the Year award for his work on the project. Since 1999, he has served on the board of directors of the Woods Fund of Chicago, an anti-poverty, philanthropic foundation established as the Woods Charitable Fund in 1941. Wall Street Journal columnist Thomas Frank praised Ayers as a "model citizen" and a scholar whose "work is esteemed by colleagues of different political viewpoints."
According to Ayers, his radical past occasionally affects him, as when, by his account, he was asked not to attend a progressive educators' conference in the fall of 2006 on the basis that the organizers did not want to risk an association with his past. On January 18, 2009, on his way to speak about education reform at the Centre for Urban Schooling at the University of Toronto, he was refused admission to Canada when he arrived at the Toronto City Centre Airport although he has traveled to Canada more than a dozen times in the past. According to Ayers, "It seems very arbitrary. The border agent said I had a conviction for a felony from 1969. I have several arrests for misdemeanors, but not for felonies."
In an interview published in 1995, Ayers characterized his political beliefs at that time and in the 1960s and 1970s: "I am a radical, Leftist, small 'c' communist ... [Laughs] Maybe I'm the last communist who is willing to admit it. [Laughs] We have always been small 'c' communists in the sense that we were never in the Communist party and never Stalinists. The ethics of communism still appeal to me. I don't like Lenin as much as the early Marx. I also like Henry David Thoreau, Mother Jones and Jane Addams [...]".
In 1970, The New York Times called Ayers "a national leader" of the Weatherman organization and "one of the chief theoreticians of the Weathermen". The Weathermen were initially part of the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) within the SDS, splitting from the RYM's Maoists by claiming there was no time to build a vanguard party and that revolutionary war against the United States government and the capitalist system should begin immediately. Their founding document called for the establishment of a "white fighting force" to be allied with the "Black Liberation Movement" and other "anti-colonial" movements to achieve "the destruction of US imperialism and the achievement of a classless world: world communism."
In June 1974, the Weather Underground released a 151-page volume titled Prairie Fire, which stated: "We are a guerrilla organization [...] We are communist women and men underground in the United States [...]" The Weatherman leadership, including Ayers, pushed for a radical reformulation of sexual relations under the slogan "Smash Monogamy". Radical bomber and feminist Jane Alpert criticized the Weatherman group in 1974 for still being dominated by men, including Ayers, and referred to his "callous treatment and abandonment of Diana Oughton before her death, and for his generally fickle and high-handed treatment of women."
Larry Grathwohl, an undercover FBI agent who infiltrated The Weather Underground, says Ayers told him where to plant bombs. He says Ayers was bent on overthrowing the government. In response to Grathwohl's claims, Ayers stated, "Now that's being blown into dishonest narratives about hurting people, killing people, planning to kill people. That's just not true. We destroyed government property,"
On June 18, 2013, Ayers gave an interview to RealClearPolitics' Morning Commute in which he stated that every president in this century should be tried for war crimes, including President Obama for his use of drone attacks, which Ayers considers an act of terror.
Main article: Bill Ayers 2008 presidential election controversy
During the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, a controversy arose about Ayers' contacts with then-candidate Barack Obama, a matter that had been public knowledge in Chicago for years. After being raised by the American and British press the connection was picked up by conservative blogs and newspapers in the United States. The matter was raised in a campaign debate by moderator George Stephanopoulos, and later became an issue for the John McCain presidential campaign. Investigations by The New York Times, CNN, and other news organizations concluded that Obama does not have a close relationship with Ayers.
In an op-ed piece after the election, Ayers denied any close association with Obama, and criticized the Republican campaign for its use of guilt by association tactics.
Bill Ayers and wife Bernardine Dohrn speaking to audience members following a forum on education reform at Florida State University in 2009.
Ayers is married to Bernardine Dohrn, a fellow former leader of the Weather Underground. They have two adult children (including Zayd, who was featured in the book A Hope in the Unseen as the college friend of the main character Cedric Jennings) and shared legal guardianship of Chesa Boudin, son of Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert. Boudin and Gilbert were former Weather Underground members who later joined the May 19 Communist Organization and were convicted of felony murder for their roles in that group's Brinks robbery. Chesa Boudin went on to win a Rhodes scholarship. Ayers and Dohrn currently live in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago.