The Bill Ayers that Barack Obama and I worked with was no "domestic terrorist."

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 10 2008 7:10 AM

Barack, Bill, and Me

The Bill Ayers that Barack Obama and I worked with was no "domestic terrorist."

(Continued from Page 1)

They served on the boards of many organizations devoted to issues of juvenile justice and education. I worked, for example, with Dohrn—alongside judges, academics, and philanthropists—on a program to educate Chicagoans about their proud history of developing innovative public policies to provide opportunities to disadvantaged children, including those who had committed serious crimes.

The publication in 1997 of Ayers' book A Kind and Just Parent: The Children of Juvenile Court attracted much local and national attention. Drawing on his experience as a father and a teacher, he powerfully contrasted and compared the lives of his children, growing up in privilege, with those he had taught in prison. As he observed, "They are kids after all, and nothing they did can possibly change them into adults." That year, Chicago named Ayers its "Citizen of the Year." In November, Michelle Obama, who was then director of the university's community service center, convened a panel at the law school to discuss Ayers' book and the issues it raised.

Advertisement

Out of serious policy discussions of this sort emerged new and valuable ideas. One of them was the so-called "blended sentence," whereby kids, even though tried as adults, received suspended sentences and were then referred to juvenile programs instead of rotting away for years in adult prisons.

By the late 1990s, such ideas had become part of the national dialogue. Approaches that Ayers helped publicize were being adopted in several states—including Texas under then-Gov. George W. Bush. Juvenile justice was, in fact, a cornerstone of Bush's "compassionate conservative" agenda. In his 2000 acceptance speech, he spoke movingly of a 15-year-old African-American boy he had met at a juvenile jail in Marlin, Texas, who had committed a "grown-up crime" but was still a "little boy": "If that boy in Marlin believes he is trapped and worthless and hopeless—if he believes his life has no value—then other lives have no value to him, and we are all diminished." The passage could have come directly from Ayers' book.

But by then, Ayers was writing another book, Fugitive Days, which was published just before 9/11. This frank memoir offered no apologies, instead trying to reconcile his past and present. After 9/11, many angry Chicagoans called Ayers and Dohrn "unrepentant terrorists" and demanded that they be fired from their university jobs. They weren't, though it was a difficult time for them.

In the intervening years, things have changed yet again. Leading Chicagoans, including Mayor Daley, now commend Ayers for his service to the city. "I don't condone what he did 40 years ago, but I remember that period well," Daley said last April. "It was a difficult time, but those days are long over. I believe we have too many challenges in Chicago and our country to keep refighting 40-year-old battles."

I now include the Weather Underground in the history surveys I teach to undergraduates. I do my best to place them in the context of the radicalism of the late 1960s. I sometimes find it hard to believe that the Bill and Bernardine that Barack and I met in Hyde Park in the 1990s are the same people that my students are learning about in class. I know them better as the couple that invited me into their home in 2000 to meet their extended family, make gingerbread-cookie houses, and share Christmas dinner. Our conversation that night, as it almost always did, focused on the future, not the past.

Correction, Oct. 15, 2008This article originally misspelled the last name of Al Santoli. ( Returnto the corrected sentence.)

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

It Is Very, Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

The U.S. Is So, So Far Behind Europe on Clean Energy

Even if You Don’t Like Batman, You Might Like Gotham

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Politics

Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

A Woman Who Escaped the Extreme Babymaking Christian Fundamentalism of Quiverfull

Nobody Knows How Many Gay Married Couples Live in America—Not Even the Census Bureau

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 22 2014 6:30 PM What Does It Mean to Be an American? Ted Cruz and Scott Brown think it’s about ideology. It’s really about culture.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 22 2014 5:38 PM Apple Won't Shut Down Beats Music After All (But Will Probably Rename It)
  Life
Outward
Sept. 22 2014 4:45 PM Why Can’t the Census Count Gay Couples Accurately?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 7:43 PM Emma Watson Threatened With Nude Photo Leak for Speaking Out About Women's Equality
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 22 2014 7:46 PM Azealia Banks’ New Single Is Her Best in Years
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 6:27 PM Should We All Be Learning How to Type in Virtual Reality?
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 22 2014 4:34 PM Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.