When Sarah Palin said then-presidential candidate Barack Obama “was pallin’ around with terrorists,” 1960s radical William Ayers was focused in her sights.
In October 2008, with the presidency hanging in the balance, the University of Illinois professor and elementary education reformer suddenly found himself thrust into the middle of a political and ideological firestorm.
“The whole experience was surreal. I’ve been a public figure since I was 20 years old. That wasn’t the weird part. The weird part was getting caught up in a presidential election. There’s nothing to prepare you for it,” Ayers said in a recent phone interview.
Ayers, who turns 70 this year, will be in Buffalo at 7 p.m. Wednesday to speak in Burning Books, 420 Connecticut St.
A rumor also spread through the conservative blogosphere like a prairie fire, claiming he ghostwrote Obama’s “Dreams From My Father.”
“The whole attempt to tie me to Obama, I mean there is a true tie. That’s all known, that’s all public. But then to try to make it more intense, and make me the author of his book, is so nuts it’s right out there with the birther movement,” Ayers said about those who think the president was born in Kenya.
What happened to him wasn’t entirely unexpected. Ayers and wife Bernardine Dohrn were conditioned to having their antiwar past from the late 1960s and ’70s referenced, and not only by the right-wing fringe.
In 1969, the couple helped found the Weather Underground, a militant faction of Students for a Democratic Society. The group called for the violent overthrow of the U.S. government, and in the early 1970s bombed government buildings and police stations to protest the Vietnam War.
Decades later, the couple would have a friendly, if not close, relationship with Barack and Michelle Obama, and host a fundraiser for him in their home before the Obamas exchanged their Hyde Park address in Chicago for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Dohrn, a former law professor at Northwestern University, said the couple’s radical politics have been an issue dating back to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s tenure.
“It is a recurring theme in our lives that nobody can decide: Were we freedom fighters, or were we terrorists? It’s kind of a dilemma for the powers that be, a dilemma for universities, our children, our students, people who know us as ordinary activists,” said Dohrn, who was on the FBI’s “Most Wanted List” for three years in the 1970s.
Ayers grew up in an upper-class Chicago suburb. His father was later chairman and CEO of Commonwealth Edison, for whom Northwestern’s Thomas G. Ayers College of Commerce and Industry is named.
His early political involvement included joining a picket line in 1965 to protest an Ann Arbor, Mich., pizzeria that refused to seat blacks, getting arrested while participating in a sit-in at a local draft board and teaching children in the short-lived “free school” movement.
The Weatherman – as the Weather Underground was first known – took its name from a verse in Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” The group took control of SDS, which had 100,000 members at its peak, at a turbulent national conference in June 1969, which proved to be SDS’ death knell. Four months later, the group organized the “Days of Rage” riots on the streets of Chicago.
While some in the movement were attracted to the Weather Underground’s militancy, others on the left blasted them as sectarian, self-righteous, arrogant and reckless – and turning off the very working class they hoped to inspire.
Ayers participated in the bombings of New York City Police Department headquarters in 1970, the U.S. Capitol building in 1971 and the Pentagon in 1972. No one was harmed, but three members of the Weather Underground died – including Ayers’ girlfriend, Diana Oughton – when a bomb they were making went off in a Greenwich Village townhouse in 1970.
Ayers and Dohrn, as well as other members, went into hiding the same year following their indictment by two federal grand juries. While underground for 10 years, the couple changed identities, jobs and locations. They also married.
The two turned themselves into federal authorities in 1980. They avoided prosecution when government attorneys requested dropping all charges because of illegal actions committed by the FBI against New Left activists.
Ayers and Dohrn settled in Chicago’s Hyde Park district, embarked on successful careers, raised three children and continued to be active – above ground, this time – in social justice movements. Ayers wrote about those years on the run in the 2001 “Fugitive Days: Memoirs of an Anti-War Activist.” He updated his life in the 2013 memoir, “Public Enemy: Confessions of a American Dissident.”
Ayers is both circumspect and defiant when discussing the bombs that went off some 40 years ago.
“Do I recommend it? No, I do not. I think what makes a revolution is masses of people rising up and committed to a more just and fair social order. We saw what we did as sabotage, we did not see it as terror. We saw it as raising an alarm publicly against the genocidal war in Vietnam,” Ayers said.
“Was it crossing lines of legality? Yes, it was. Do I regret that? Not a bit, not for a minute, because every week the war went on, 6,000 people were being killed and there was nothing we could do to stop it.”
At the same time, Ayers, who does regret being “dogmatic and sectarian” during a span of years, said he thinks how easy it could have been for someone to have died.
“We took great risks. We could have hurt somebody, we could have killed somebody, and that’s something that still haunts me, frankly,” Ayers said.
Ayers is critical of Obama’s presidency, but not disappointed, since he had low expectations to begin with.
“Barack is a kind, decent and lovely human being. He’s compassionate, and super intelligent, and as he described himself all through the campaign, he’s a moderate, pragmatic, middle-of-the-road politician. If you add ambitious to that description, that’s exactly who he is,” Ayers said.
“I have all the criticism of this administration as you can imagine. Where I stop short, and where I get off the train completely is, when the criticisms are clearly aimed at him as an African-American.”
Ayers said Obama once told an interviewer that Martin Luther King would have been more concerned about building a movement for social justice than supporting him or his opponent for president.
“That tells us what our job is,” Ayers said. “While there is power in the White House, the Congress and the Pentagon, there is also power in the street, the community, the classroom and the factory. That’s our power.”