William C. Ayers had originally been expecting a cozy crowd of about a dozen people to sit around a circle with him and talk about education and his books on urban schools.
But the event here yesterday was set up six months ago—a lifetime in election season—before Mr. Ayers became a central figure in this year’s presidential campaign, with ads labeling him an “unrepentant domestic terrorist” and saying his connection with President-elect Barack Obama showed the Democrat was dangerous and couldn’t be trusted to lead America.
Mr. Ayers came to speak as a University of Illinois at Chicago distinguished education professor, and longtime school reformer.
But many in the audience of about 400 who filled All Souls Unitarian Church in the nation’s capital also came curious about the man they’d seen on TV, denounced for his role as a co-founder of the Weather Underground, a radical leftist group formed during the Vietnam War era that carried out nonlethal bombings of the Pentagon, the U.S. Capitol, and other targets.
“I’m a little overwhelmed,” Mr. Ayers told the crowd. But he said the “unwitting and unwilling celebrity” that the campaign afforded him was “welcomed” on nights like last evening, because it gives him a larger audience with which to have a “conversation about something meaningful.”
Mr. Ayers and Mr. Obama both worked on the Chicago Annenberg Challenge school reform project. Mr. Ayers was one of the primary writers of the grant application for the project and Mr. Obama served as the board’s chairman for the majority of the six-year period that the project was active. (“Backers Say Chicago Project Not ‘Radical,’ ” Oct. 15, 2008.)
They also both served on the board of the Woods Fund of Chicago charity for a few years. But both men say they don’t know each other well.
‘Full Development of All’
If the signs carried outside by protesters who called Mr. Ayers a murderer and compared him with Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh bothered him, the Chicago professor never showed it during the course of two hours holding court with an adoring audience inside the church, where his talk had been moved by the local bookstore and restaurant, Busboys and Poets, that originally arranged the appearance because of intense interest by the public and national media.
Instead, Mr. Ayers told the audience that education at its best has social justice as a key tenet, which allows educators to treat those in the classroom as students, not subjects, and allows those students the opportunity to “think about the circumstance of their lives and how it might be otherwise.”
“We have not reached that plateau where we can say every kid has a fair shake in this great democracy,” Mr. Ayers said. A democracy, he said, can’t be truly free if all of its citizens are not being given full access to a quality education that empowers them to lead society.
“The full development of each is the full development of all,” Mr. Ayers said.
He received loud cheers from the audience, which included a number of educators, when he said teachers deserved better pay, more resources, and manageable class sizes, and that all students deserve well-rested teachers who worked in those conditions.
Using Mr. Obama’s campaign slogan of “Yes We Can,” Mr. Ayers told the audience that it is movements of citizens, not politicians that bring true change.
“Let’s remember that no president takes us to the Promised Land,” Mr. Ayers said. “Another world is possible and we have to be the people we are waiting for. We have to transform ourselves.”
Questions on Education
Most of the questions were about his education work, not politics. He was asked his opinion on teacher evaluations and the effectiveness of groups like Teach For America, among other subjects. Mr. Ayers, a prolific writer and editor, has two new or updated books on the market. One is City Kids, City Schools: More Reports From the Front Row, an education book of which he is a co-editor. The other is Fugitive Days, a new paperback version of his memoir about his Weather Underground days, first published in 2001.
Mr. Ayers said he had avoided most TV during the campaign and was kept apprised of some of what was said about him by his sons, who followed the political horse races closely.
His name was brought up in Democratic presidential primary debates by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, and later in the presidential debate by Republican nominee John McCain. Sen. McCain’s running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, said Mr. Obama was “palling around with terrorists” in her stump speeches that featured his connection to Mr. Ayers as a chief example of why Mr. Obama’s leadership would be dangerous. She has continued to bring up Mr. Ayers in post-election interviews.
“I think it’s a great credit to the American people that guilt by association was rejected,” Mr. Ayers said last night.
In an interview after his talk, Mr. Ayers said he doesn’t allow the criticisms to bother him, and said that his work, which includes more than a dozen books he has written or edited, speaks for itself.
“I don’t take it that seriously,” he said of the criticism, including a Wall Street Journal op-ed column that accused Mr. Ayers and Mr. Obama of indoctrinating Chicago schoolchildren with radicalism. “I do my work, and let it have the impact that it has.”
Indeed, his self-deprecating humor included joking with a college student she was “palling around with terrorists” and inviting people to have coffee at his house—as Mr. Obama did in 1995 when he was beginning a campaign for the Illinois senate.
“I don’t practice radical indoctrination,” Mr. Ayers said. “They haven’t read my work.”
A version of this article appeared in the December 03, 2008 edition of Education Week