Education Opinion

The Ayers Petition

By Diane Ravitch — October 15, 2008 3 min read
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Editor’s note: Bridging Differences is publishing today because of the timeliness of Diane Ravitch’s comments on Prof. William Ayers, whose association with Sen. Barack Obama has become a prominent campaign issue. Deborah Meier’s reply will be published shortly.

Dear Deborah,

I expect we will both watch the last presidential debate. Maybe the Bill Ayers issue will come up, maybe not. Last night I received online a petition on behalf of Ayers, and I saw that you signed it. It says that he “participated passionately in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s, as did hundreds of thousands of Americans.” One of my sons told me that some of the names on the petition were bogus so I was not sure whether you really did sign it. But if this is not an Internet hoax, I have a few questions for you.

I don’t think that it is accurate to describe the activities of Professor Ayers in the 1960s as nothing more than passionate participation in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the times. Or to say that hundreds of thousands of others did the same things. As I recall, Ayers has boasted about bombing the Pentagon, the New York City police headquarters, and several other public places. My question is, if you did sign this statement, do you think that bombing public facilities is an accurate reflection on those who did participate passionately in the civil rights and antiwar movements?

I don’t think that the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement of the 1960s were known for violence against others. Bombs kill people. Bill Ayers is the son of a very wealthy family. He grew up very privileged. He was setting bombs in places where working-class kids—policemen and soldiers—were likely to be killed. I don’t know if he actually killed anyone; maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. No one knows but him how many bombs he exploded and where. Certainly three of his friends—members of the Weatherman group that Ayers led—blew themselves up while constructing a bomb in a luxurious Greenwich Village townhouse. The bomb was intended to inflict massive damage on other people. They intended to kill and maim dozens or hundreds of people, but only killed themselves. I don’t think they advanced the causes of civil rights or of the anti-war movement one iota.

Ayers has not denied being a bomber and a terrorist. He seems to relish the notoriety. I recall reading an interview with him in The New York Times, unfortuitously published on September 11, 2001, when he boasted of his life as a terrorist. Is it accurate now to describe his activities in the late 1960s as a part of the civil rights movement and the antiwar movements? I recall that the civil rights movement—in which I participated—was devoted to nonviolence, to respect for others, and to the promotion of democracy and equality among peoples, not the rule of force. That was certainly the message of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Setting bombs was not characteristic of the civil rights movement, nor was it characteristic of the antiwar movement, which was mainly pacifist, except for its lunatic fringe.

One of the qualities that we have tried to demonstrate in our exchanges is civility and a passionate belief in the value of discussion and debate and intellectual exchange. I would say that these values stand in sharp contrast to those who espouse violence. If we hope to keep a civil society, we should all stand against violence, against those who would maim and kill others in pursuit of what they perceive as a higher good.

If you did sign the petition, this is your right. It is part of the exercise of discussion and dissent that we value in our democracy.

But I do wonder whether you endorse the petition’s effort to associate the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement with the domestic terrorism of the 1960s. I lived through that era. I lived in New York City. I recall worrying about my children’s lives when we went to public places. I don’t regard anyone who set bombs in public places as a hero or, now, as a victim of bad press. Professor Ayers has never apologized for his crimes. That is his choice. I make mine not to forgive his cruel actions and his indifference to the lives of others when he remains unrepentant.


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