That Barack Obama and William Ayers knew each other during the 1990s may tell us something about the two men. But it says much more about a particular time and place: Hyde Park, Chicago, more than a decade ago.
Obama first moved to Chicago in 1985, when he worked as a community organizer. But his career got on its current course when he returned to Hyde Park in 1991 to practice law and teach constitutional law at the University of Chicago. Four years later, he met Ayers at a lunchtime meeting about school reform.
As it happens, I was on the scene, too. In 1990, I began my graduate studies in the history department at the University of Chicago, focusing on the legal history of the city's juvenile-justice system. As I result, I was destined to spend many hours at the law school and eventually to meet Bill Ayers and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn.
I'm embarrassed to admit that when I first met this couple, I had not heard of the Weathermen, let alone its militant offshoot, the Weather Underground, famous from 1970 to 1975 for advocating violent protest against the Vietnam War. I had no idea the group had planned and carried out bombings of the Pentagon and the New York City police headquarters and that its members, including Ayers and Dohrn, had appeared on the FBI's Most Wanted list.
Some of this was naiveté on my part. But it was also generational. Vietnam belonged to history by the time I got around to studying it in college. The books I read were either social histories of soldiers' experiences, such as Al Santoli's *Everything We Had, an oral history, or accounts of the decisions that led to the war's disastrous conclusion, like Larry Berman's Planning a Tragedy. The culture of protest and dissent, particularly fringe groups like the Weather Underground, was not part of the curriculum.
To meet Ayers and Dohrn, as I did in 1995, was to encounter a middle-aged couple in their early 50s who seemed at ease in the vibrant academic community of Hyde Park. Bernardine arranged for us to have breakfast to discuss my dissertation research. When I arrived at the restaurant the next morning, she had just completed a letter to her son, who was away at college.
Like Obama's dealings with Ayers and Dohrn, mine centered on local issues. At the time, my research centered on the punitive turn in juvenile-justice policy. Scholars like William Bennett, John Walters, and John DiIulio were warning about a new generation of "superpredators" who were "feral pre-social beings" and posed a grave threat to safety in the nation's urban areas. Between 1990 and 1996, 40 states passed laws to make it easier to try juveniles as adults. In response to this spate of lawmaking, the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation began funding research on adolescent development and juvenile justice. The goal was to restore rational policymaking to this area of law.
The world's first juvenile court was established in Chicago in 1899, and since the 1920s, Hyde Park had been at the center of the national discussion about educational and juvenile-justice policy. In the 1990s, Ayers was a professor of education at the University of Illinois and also taught poetry in the classrooms of the juvenile court to children, mostly African-Americans and Latinos, who might spend the rest of their lives incarcerated. Dohrn directed the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University.