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

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Oct. 10 2008 7:10 AM

Barack, Bill, and Me

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

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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.

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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.)

David S. Tanenhaus teaches history and law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and is the author of Juvenile Justice in the Making.

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