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.
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.
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.