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Ann Arbor 200

AADL Talks To: Bill Ayers

When: February 19, 2024

Bill Ayers
Bill Ayers, director of the Children's Community School in Ann Arbor, May 1968

Bill Ayers is a retired Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. During his time in Ann Arbor during the 1960s, he served as director of Ann Arbor's experimental Children's Community School; Education Secretary for the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS); and co-founder of the militant Weather Underground organization, which originated in Ann Arbor in 1969 as a far left-wing revolutionary party. 

Ayers traces the path of his political awakening from wide-eyed college freshman to seasoned student organizer and educator. He reflects on the tumultuous moral dilemma he and many activists faced as the Vietnam War raged on in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He discusses the factionalism within the SDS leadership that resulted in the formation of the Weather Underground; how the strands of student activism during this turbulent time were rooted in the moral agenda outlined by Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.; and his lifelong pedagogic commitment to education.

Bill Ayers, 1993
Bill Ayers at a Borders book signing, 1993

Historical articles and photos of Bill Ayers

Transcript

  • [00:00:09] AMY CANTU: Hi, this is Amy.
  • [00:00:10] ANDREW MACLAREN: This is Andrew. In this episode, AADL talks to Bill Ayers. Bill is a retired distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He came to the University of Michigan in the 1960s, where he was radicalized by the New Left Movement, participating in sit-ins, teach-ins, anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, and other protests. While in Ann Arbor, Ayers was involved in the Free School Movement and briefly led the Children's Community Experimental School. He rose to a position of leadership within the Students for a Democratic Society, but broke with the group in 1969 to co-found the violent militant organization, the Weather Underground. Bill talks with us about his time in Ann Arbor and the people and events that shaped his life. You grew up in Chicago, but then you decided to come here. Your introduction to Ann Arbor was coming to the University of Michigan. Why the University of Michigan?
  • [00:01:05] BILL AYERS: My father was the head of the electric monopoly, Commonwealth Edison, and I had gone to public high school in the suburbs. In my junior year, I transferred to a prep school because I was kind of a juvenile delinquent by suburban standards. I went to a prep school called Lake Forest Academy, which was 200 boys in a wooded area of Lake Forest, Illinois. My graduating class was 39. My parents both went to Michigan. My older brother went to Michigan and I didn't want to give it any thought. I just applied to Michigan. It was when early admission was first coming around and I applied early and then I dropped out of school just because I knew I was going to Michigan, and I was just following my older brother that wasn't any thought involved. One of the things I thought as I get older is that, we're very lucky that there are 400 or 500 places to get a good undergraduate education. What really matters is fit and interest and all that, but it really is so arbitrary. There are so many good places and I was just lucky I got to Michigan and it really blew my mind. As I say, my graduating class was 39 privileged boys. I got to Michigan and my freshman class was several thousand and it was just an absolute bath, it was just so exciting. I couldn't sleep for about a year and a half because I had to do everything. Going from a place where every movement was constrained and controlled to a place where you could walk out in the middle of the night and get a hamburger or, meet up with folks was just exhilarating to me.
  • [00:03:00] ANDREW MACLAREN: Did you ever consider not going to college at all, or was that ever in the cards or just?
  • [00:03:04] BILL AYERS: Again, I was I guess a fairly conformist teenager and I just was doing what was expected of me. When I went to Michigan, for example, they ask you to put down your major and I put down economic/business. Nothing could be further from me then or now, but it just didn't occur to me that there was anything else. One of the great things about going away to college, and for those who are privileged enough to do it, is that worlds open up to you. In my case, it was quite dramatic because I was coming from this soft, cushy 1950s privileged enclave, all white, all upper class, and suddenly thrown into a milieu which was exciting, exhilarating, diverse, multi-layered, a million things I'd never thought of, were suddenly on the agenda and most important, in terms of where I found my passions. Most important, I blinked my eyes open to a world on fire, and that was not the world I knew. I was hidden safely behind some well-tended shrubs and suddenly holy cow, There's not only a big world out there, but it's in flames and that was Ann Arbor did that for me.
  • [00:04:29] AMY CANTU: Were your brother or your parents activists at all? Or was this brand new for you and your whole family?
  • [00:04:37] BILL AYERS: Brand new for me and there was no politics in my family at all. My father he grew up in Detroit, my mother grew up at Houghton in the Upper Peninsula, and they met at Michigan. She was the head of the independent women, the non-Sorority Women. His father had lost a lot in the Depression, and he was making his way through college. He, for his entire life, the Depression left an imprint on him that was unmistakable. He was always looking for a bargain. He was always hard-working, he was always straight ahead. It was really the Depression that marked him. But he was in a fraternity, I think it was called Trigon. She was an independent woman. My brother joined the fraternity Beta Theta Pi, and I followed him into that as well.
  • [00:05:31] AMY CANTU: Was that a good fit?
  • [00:05:32] BILL AYERS: It wasn't a good fit and it didn't last long, but it was the only thing that occurred to me. I don't think I was an attractive pledge from anybody's point of view. The only place I got invited back, was to the Betas because I wasn't really cut out for that and I wasn't that interested in it. Again, I was going through the motions and an automatic pilot when I got to Ann Arbor, and Ann Arbor disrupted all that you asked. You asked, Did I ever thought of not going to college? I didn't, I thought about just marching along without much thought. There were a couple of things that intruded on my consciousness. One was at Lake Forest Academy, I had begun to read James Baldwin. I read all of James Baldwin, and by the time I graduated from high school that he had published by then. That was eye-opening for me, quite moving to me that when the opportunity came along in Ann Arbor to join hands with the Friends of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which there was a little group in Ann Arbor that was raising funds and interest for the students in the South. I hooked into that pretty quickly. I remember going on a picket line. I believed it was the second part of my freshman year, they were picketing Thompson's Pizza because they were either, I believe they weren't seating black kids, it was on the other side of town but there was some incident that had happened and they set up a picket line and I joined the picket line and late at night, one of my fraternity brothers came along and pushed me down. He said, "What are you doing here? What an idiot." Pushed me down, and I felt very proud that I was there but it was little things like that that Ann Arbor opened me up to. But again, I went there without much thought and without much plans of what I was going to do. Then my sophomore year after my first semester of my sophomore year, I did drop out of college and I hitchhiked to the South, hoping I could find a civil rights organization to work with. I landed in New Orleans and I met with a couple of people and there was really nothing happening. It was the middle of winter and so I joined the merchant Marines and I was a Merchant Marine for six months.
  • [00:08:10] ANDREW MACLAREN: But then, what pulled you back from that? I mean, that seems like one of the possible, I don't want to say off ramps, but things that could have drawn you away, that you could have pursued, and so you went in a different direction but didn't end up following it, you ended up back here again. What pulled you back?
  • [00:08:30] BILL AYERS: Well, except that it was a different direction because I was in Ann Arbor and I dropped out and joined the Merchant Marines. But I was in a cafe in Athens, Greece and I was reading the International Herald Tribunes, that's the first time I heard about Vietnam. I read a lot then about Vietnam and I came back to Ann Arbor in the summer of '65 because I wanted to hook back up with people I had begun to get to know. The first thing I did when I got back to Ann Arbor was meet up with some of these kids, I'd been around the SNCC work with and went to my first anti-war meeting. I didn't know anything, I had no real background, but I was pretty easily convinced that the United States was wrong. The war is just beginning. The American War is just beginning, and we had in Ann Arbor the first of what became an institution which was a teach-in. We had the first teach-in ever in Ann Arbor in the fall of '65. A group of people, I believe, had tried to get the faculty to go on strike. The faculty took the position, probably correctly, that faculty don't go on strike on issues like this, but they're willing to talk about it. I think many classes in that one week took up questions of Vietnam, literature, history, geography, whatever and so young professors in particular were open to focusing on Vietnam, but we had several. There was a Marine recruiter who was sitting in the Fish Bowl with all kinds of other tables. He was tabling a Marine table and a student named Stan Nadel who became a friend.
  • [00:10:28] BILL AYERS: I didn't know him, and he was out of a very political family and he drew up a giant poster with a quote from the Nuremberg trials about individual responsibility for your government. With a big arrow pointing at the recruiter saying, this man is a war criminal and it caused pandemonium in the Fish Bowl and they were not just between classes, but during classes there were gigantic debates, arguments, and so on. I think was the Trotsky's student group, what was it called? Socialist Workers Party, put out a fact sheet called 100 Facts about Vietnam. The thing that was so great about it was that it really was a primer on the War and I didn't know anything. My younger brother had come to Michigan by then he was my older brother and I had gone different ways, but my younger brother was very much I had an apartment he was living with me and we patrolled the fish bowl for about three days or something. We had the fact sheet, I remember once we were arguing and debating and learning the fact sheet had things like fact Number 1. Dwight Eisenhower said that if there had been a free election in 1956 Ho Chi Minh would have gotten 80% of the votes. That was a fact. That was a quote. We were learning about what had happened and why, and the French mission and so on. But I remember my brother and I were arguing with some people, we heard two students nearby say, don't talk to those two guys pointing at us. There are a couple of Jews from New York who've memorized the fact sheet and we thought, damn, do we sound that good? That's so good. We were really proud of ourselves, because it seemed preposterous to us that we sounded even mildly articulate. But that was a huge turning point for me and my brother and I debated the whole week about whether we were going to be involved in a civil disobedience. It was planned for the end of the week, I think we were in Haber Hall or someplace like that. That's a place, right?
  • [00:12:53] AMY CANTU: Haven maybe?
  • [00:12:57] BILL AYERS: Haven Hall, that's right. Haber was the Dean and now Haber still in Ann Arbor character, I talked to him just the other day. But Dean Haber, I remember so many confrontations with him. He was a really decent guy. The man, he was over his head when this stuff was happening. But in any case, I remember having going to a thing in Haber Hall, maybe, I don't know, maybe 100 students, maybe less and Paul Potter, who was the President of SDS, National President of Students for Democratic Society, talked a lot about Vietnam and then to us undergraduate students, he said, you have to find a way to live your life that doesn't make a mockery of your values. That phrase stuck with me so, so powerfully, I still reference it in my own thinking about what I'm doing today. Because it assumed that we had values or we could access values or we could construct values and then we could fall short, but we could try to live up to them. I met with my brother a day later and we were considering should we get arrested, should we go over to the Draft Board. There was going to be a rally on the campus and then we're going to march through the Draft Board, which for those who don't know, is the selective service system where they select young men at that time, young men to go to war. We debated and debated it. That morning we got up and he had decided not to get arrested and I had decided to get arrested, he had the harder job. He had to go to Chicago and explain to my parents that I had gotten invested. It was much easier to get beaten by the police than to talk to my parents but there was a rally that I don't remember what day, maybe a Friday, but there was a rally at the end of that week. Maybe there were 300 students, maybe a few more, maybe less and we were surrounded by students who wanted to see us arrested, kicked out of school. It's easy in retrospect to say, oh, the '60s, how glorious everybody believed everything. Everyone was on the right side, and nothing could be further from the truth. It was a minority position, it was a difficult position to take, but at that time, probably 20% of Americans opposed the war. But we did rally, we did march to the draft board, we did, some of us went in. When the police told us to leave, we didn't and we wrecked some property, but they dragged us out and put us in jail and we were bailed out fairly quickly. But then we had to go to trial and we went to trial in Washtenaw County Courthouse, I believe. We had a lawyer named Ernest Goodman from Flint, Michigan, who was a National Lawyers Guild lawyer, a communist lawyer. He had the idea that absolutely lit us up. The idea was that we would admit that we'd broken the law, but that we had broken the law in the interest of opposing a bigger crime and that our crime was so small compared to the bigger crime that we were trying to stop, that we shouldn't be punished. The judge, of course, wasn't having that, I love the way the judge sentenced us. He sentenced us to, the undergraduates got 10 days and I was an undergraduate, the graduate students got 15 days and the professors got 20 days. There were two professors remember, we laughed about it forever because it seemed to us so funny, we were corrupting them. They weren't corrupting us. It was so unfair to have them be punished more seriously. But that's what happened. Then over the next several years in Ann Arbor, Vietnam became my calling and my full-time work, going to school was relatively irrelevant to me and it took me five years to graduate but I did organize on campus a lot. There's other things, but just to finish this piece, I organized on campus a lot and I became a regional traveler for students for a Democratic society. I went all over Michigan to Michigan State, and to Ferris State and every college University of Detroit and I built SDS chapters in all those places. I had films and newspapers and leaflets and stuff that I carried around and just went to a random campus and sat in the center of campus still I found somebody who looked like they were one of us and then we're all wearing the uniform of some kind. That's what I did for the next several years.
  • [00:17:53] ANDREW MACLAREN: You said that, that Vietnam was a turning point for you. When you came back from Greece did you see that that had been a turning point for other people? On the left-hand side of the political spectrum as well. Was the Ann Arbor you came back to different noticeably from the one you left?
  • [00:18:10] BILL AYERS: I don't think so. I mean, or at least I didn't notice that I wasn't conscious of it and I wasn't even so much thinking in terms of left and right. I mean, those are categories that I came to understand but remember I was really, really naive. I wouldn't say innocent, I'm not innocent of anything, but really naive and what attracted me to the movement was the moral force of it. Clearly having read Baldwin and having witnessed the Black Freedom Movement and the other person who spoke at that teach, and besides Paul Potter who influenced me a lot was Bob Moses from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee he spoke that night and he was an absolutely electrifying, soft spoken, but quietly charismatic guy.
  • [00:19:03] BILL AYERS: I saw myself as acting in the tradition of the Civil Rights movement, the Black Freedom movement and the Anti-war movement. We not only copied tactics and strategy from the Black Freedom movement but we copied the entire litany of nonviolent direct action, of trying to raise political questions in a moral framework and not allow it to be cheapened. We started off speaking of naive or idealistic. We all had an opportunity to address the judge who was going to sentence us and I think I said something like, "As Shakespeare says, 'Action is eloquence'" and you can see the judge just ugh, "Christ, what an idiot" and that's where we were. The thing that happened to me, I think happened to many people. Not the entire generation and say a word about that. But certainly what happened to me is the more I understood, the more radical I became and the more I opened my eyes, the more shocking the reality around me was. The more I learned, the more I wanted. I might have started off and I did start off thinking, we need to end this hideous terrible war. Our country goes 10,000 miles away to drop bombs incessantly on a country the size of Florida. It's just wrong. I went from there very quickly to thinking we needed to also end the causes of war and we needed to end the invasion of Santo Domingo and it just became a rolling thing. Frankly, I think that happened to a lot of people and I think a true reading of Martin Luther King's political trajectory. He was only an activist for 13 years but he became more radical every year and he went from wanting to desegregate the Montgomery buses to wanting justice. It was a really tremendous, tumultuous American journey. A lot of people went on that journey.
  • [00:21:19] AMY CANTU: I read somewhere that they would send State Department hacks. I think that's the word you used, to these teach-ins to argue the government's position and that it was fairly easy to cut your teeth both intellectually and morally on these interactions?
  • [00:21:35] BILL AYERS: It was a great thing early on, they haven't done it ever since. They learned some things. They learned that the draft is not a good idea because then everybody has a stake in understanding it. But yeah, one of the thing is they did is they sent State Department officials out to debate people and so we would have Hans Morganthau or we would have Noam Chomsky on campus debating some 25-year-old twerp from Washington who didn't know shit. It was a phenomenal experience because this is the culture of the moment. That somebody who represents authority, an authoritative view of an issue turns out not to know what he's talking about and so you begin to develop an instinct towards criticality. You don't read the New York Times and say, yeah, well it's in The Times. You begin to read it and say, who are these people? You begin to think there's an author here and so on. I was a full-time anti-war organizer. I made it to class intermittently and I was very lucky to graduate at all. I was not interested. I remember taking a history exam. It was one of these moments where, you're taking a biology exam and they say, the question is about birds but you haven't studied birds. You say birds eat worms, and then you say everything you know about worms, that's an analogy. But the history test was American history. I didn't know anything so I wrote an exam that basically said anyone who understands American history knows that Vietnam is at the center of what's going on now. Let me tell you about Vietnam. Of course, I flunked the course appropriately. Anyway, I was a traveler everywhere. I'll just tell you one other piece about the anti-war stuff because there's many more dimensions to time in Ann Arbor. But one other, by 1968 I think 55% or 52% of Americans opposed the war. That's a huge shift from 1965 when I'm first arrested, to 1968. Millions and millions of people turned against the war. There are many many reasons for it but I always think in my mind of three things. One was that people like me became full-time organizers and went to cities like Detroit, knocked on doors, passed out leaflets, demonstrated, got arrested, did civil disobedience. That was important. Much more important than that was the Black Freedom Movement turning against the war. When SNCC said, "No black man should go 10,000 miles to fight for a so called freedom he doesn't enjoy In Mississippi," the country shook. When Muhammad Ali refused to fight, saying, "No Viet Cong ever called me the N word. They're not my enemy. They're colored people." That shook the country up. Then when Martin Luther King gave his January, when was his speech? April 4th, 1967. Was April 4th, I believe so. He gave his Beyond Vietnam speech at Riverside Church. Parenthetically, it's worth noting that the venue that he wanted to speak and he couldn't get because the universities wouldn't let him speak. It's worth noting today because people have a hard time finding venues at universities to speak now. But that's such a famous speech and such a famous person, he couldn't get a venue to speak. He ended up at Riverside Church and it was the speech where he called America the most violent country on Earth. He called the three evils: racism, militarism, and materialism. It was really a profoundly rocking the establishment moment. By the spring, the country had turned against the war, and the world had been against the war for a couple of years. It takes about three years, but there we were. We were about to get the war ended. The end of March 1968, Lyndon Johnson announced that he would not run for President. He would spend the rest of his time ending the war in Vietnam. We were elated because we felt like all these three years of work--yes, a million people were dead--but it was now going to end. We had a spontaneous rally in Ann Arbor. Nobody planned it, nobody thought about it. But Johnson gave his speech and people poured out of their apartments and their dorms and we swirled around South University, North University everywhere. We landed on the President of the University of Michigan's lawn. We were trampling his roses. What was the president's name then?
  • [00:26:40] ANDREW MACLAREN: Was it Fleming at the time?
  • [00:26:42] BILL AYERS: Robben Fleming. Exactly. Robben Fleming, who then became Dean of the Law School. We landed on Fleming's steps.
  • [00:26:52] BILL AYERS: He said to me later that one of the great difficulties of being present at that time was he was trying to explain to the Board of Trustees, the heavies and the alumni and so on, that these are your kids. You think they're a bunch of outside something or others, but they're not. They're your kids. That I can't actually I'm not going to and I can't call the police and have them all beaten up and arrested. But in any case, there we were on Fleming's front yard, and I had a bullhorn and he had a bullhorn. I was basically saying, fuck you, you mother fucker. I can't remember something like that. Later in his memoir he said, Bill Ayers and I often disagreed, but he was always articulate and determined, and I thought that was pretty articulate for 1968. That is the best I could do. But in any case, he says something about that in his memoir, but what he said that night was interesting. He said, congratulations, you've won a great victory now, the war will end. He believed that night, and I believed it, I thought we were done with it and we were moving on to other things and hooray for us. Four days later, King was murdered. Two months later, Kennedy was murdered. A few months after that, Nixon ascended to the White House with Henry Kissinger in tow. It was clear the war was not going to end, but it was going to expand. It was going to expand in all kinds of hideous and unpredicted ways. That every week that the war went on, 6,000 people would be murdered every week. This was absolutely stunning to us, and it was a crisis for us. It was a crisis for democracy because people didn't want the war. It was a crisis for the anti-war movement, it was a crisis for Students for a Democratic Society. It was a crisis for me. We'd done everything we thought we were told to do, to stop the war. We'd written letters, we'd lobbied, we'd showed up, we'd organize, we'd mobilized, we'd been arrested. We've done all this. Now, three years later, the war is just going to get worse and every week that it goes on, 6,000 people will die. In my own family, I was the middle of five kids in my birth family. One of my siblings went to the Northeast, to the commune, one went join the Democratic Party to build a peace wing. One went on the great migration to Canada to get away from the killing, one went to the factories of the Midwest, to organize the industrial working class. I did what I did, but none of it seemed either the perfect thing to do, the right thing to do, or the crazy thing to do. Even though my choice stands out as weird to some people. To me it was just one choice of many. We organized, what we did was organize a clandestine movement. Many folks from Man Arbor were part of it that could take the war to the war makers and it was armed propaganda, that's what we called it. Other people called it, in fact some people call it terrorism, but other people called it vandalism. Extreme vandalism. It was our attempt to issue a screaming cry about what we saw going on, a genocidal war that our government was conducting. That's why we did it. It is not the only thing about Ann Arbor but that's where I spring off in the anti-war stuff.
  • [00:30:47] ANDREW MACLAREN: In your days recruiting for SDS, did you see benefit in the left being a united front under SDS, that if SDS could be the largest organization and could be organizing everything, that that would be the most effective way to do things? Or did you think that small groups doing whatever they wanted, doing protests and sit ins wherever, was the most effective way of making that change?
  • [00:31:14] BILL AYERS: I don't know if I ever made, I don't know if I ever thought of it in those frames. First of all, as I said earlier, I didn't think of it in terms of the left, even though that's a sensible framing. But it wasn't my framing. My framing was youth will make the revolution, youth will make it and keep it stay strong, stay beautiful. It was much more cultural and that but I think that within SDS, I'll tell you, one debate, I remember very strongly in Michigan was a debate between those who thought we should be participating in national demonstrations and those who thought we should just be organizing. My feeling was that one didn't cancel out the other we could do both. We should be organizing day to day activities, protests, demonstrations, civil disobedience, collecting signatures, writing cars. We should do all that. But it didn't hurt to show up at a national mobilization where we could bring 100,000 people and really make a mark in that regard. But I felt very strongly, and still feel strongly that you walk toward fundamental change on two legs. One being mobilization and activation and organization of millions of people. The other is traditional, real politics. That second leg has never interested me much. But when my anarcho-commie friends, of whom I have many, disdain voting, I always object because I feel I've voted my whole life and people die to vote. Voting is important, it's singly important. I always say to young people today you have 365 days. You can organize. Organization takes five minutes to half an hour to vote. Do it because it won't hurt. Of course, we're in Illinois, our votes don't count. But in Michigan I would vote. I vote in Illinois anyway. But Michigan your vote counts and I'm afraid your vote. We'll talk about that later. We're talking about history now, the other thing that was happening, it wasn't so much a debate about, that was the debate I remember. Big demonstrations, local organizing, and I took the position that they don't cancel each other out. I want to do both end. But the other thing that was happening was there were little groups that I was friendly with the head of Young Americans For Freedom. I was friendly with him because this was a conservative group. We were friendly because he was gay, and he liked to smoke dope, and we agreed on those two issues. I'm a left anarchist, he was a right anarchist. We were kids, we were all of dynamic in motion. But the other thing I remember is that at one point the university outlawed the Du Bois clubs. I don't know if you've ever heard of that, but the Du Bois clubs were a Communist party front group and there was a chapter at the University of Michigan, I don't know, four people or something. As soon as they outlawed it, their rank swelled to 75 people because we all joined. That was another exactly our cultural politics. You're going to outlaw the Du Bois Club. We're the Du Bois Club then and try to outlaw us. That's going on again today. It's going on at Columbia, it's going on at Harvard. It's not untypical.
  • [00:35:02] AMY CANTU: Bill, through this period, you were rising to leadership in the SDS. At some point, I think it was in 68 or 69, you were the education secretary, and education has been a huge theme obviously through your whole life. Can you talk a little bit about what you were doing at the time and then maybe transition into the schism within the SDS and what that looked like at those meetings?
  • [00:35:26] BILL AYERS: Well, I became a regional traveler for SDS, and my region was Michigan, Ohio. I did a lot of traveling and organizing chapters. But at the convention, SDS had moved from having a president and a treasurer and vice president to having three national secretaries. The inter-organizational secretary, or sometimes called the International Secretary, the National Secretary, and the Education Secretary. I was elected in the summer of 69 to be the Education Secretary. Bernadine Dohrn and Mike Klonsky had just stepped down from being the leaders. It was now Jeff Jones and myself, and I can't remember the third person's name. He was in progressive labor, but we were ready SDS was already employed in the beginnings of what became very deadly factional fights. This is not unusual in political movements, but it was painful to live through. Why were we fighting? I go back to what I said a minute ago. We had focused our energy on really two giant goals. One was ending segregation, and one was ending the war in Vietnam. As the movement rolled on, we didn't want to just end segregation, we wanted to end white supremacy. We didn't just want to end the war in Vietnam. We wanted to end the cause of war, which increasingly we saw as imperial capitalism, racial capitalism.
  • [00:37:03] BILL AYERS: We were getting more radical, but the intransigence and the counter-revolution of the state and the ruling class was such that we were thrown into turmoil, which way forward. There were many groups doing many things. There was a group called Progressive Labor, which was an organized communist formation that was in SDS, and increasingly not only active but effective in recruiting people in SDS so that whole chapters, like the Michigan state chapter became progressive labor. For some of us, that was unacceptable because we thought their politics were not going to move us forward. A group of us, 12 of us I think initially, began to meet to write a statement, a paper that would define our faction's politics. This paper ended up being called, "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." I was like Carl Oglesby, who was a leader of SDS and a great Ann Arborite. Carl at one point critiqued the paper and he said, ''A close reading of the weatherman statement would drive you blind.'' It's true, it was tiny print. It was this thick, it was really absurd on that level. The politics of it weren't bad, and in my view they still stand up. But the point is that we were splintering, not because of our personalities or because we were bad people or because we were just naturally competitive. We were splintering because the world was resisting us in ways we hadn't imagined. What I mean by that is the war ground on. We thought we had won that battle, and the war ground on, and the urgency of it was overwhelming to some of us. The urgency of 6,000 people a week being murdered, our government being the murderers. The urgency of watching B52s take off from California, fly 10,000 miles or 8,000 miles, drop their ordinance on what was called a free fire zone and then come back. It was just shocking, and frankly, I think one of the dangers, and I think this was a huge danger then, is that what is shocking one day becomes normal the next day. I didn't want it to become normal, I wanted to be shocked every time, and I wanted to make it shocking for other people. We were splintering, but we were splintering on some principled political grounds. But also we were splintering because we couldn't get a purchase on what we had to do to end this war. Now I think there are many people of goodwill who are in progressive labor. In certain fact, some of my very good colleagues at the University of Illinois were in progressive labor back then, then we see eye to eye on 90% of things. Mike Klonsky who was the leader of a faction called Revolutionary Youth Movement Two, which became the October League, which became the Communist Party, Marxist Leninist. Mike and I 12 years later reunited, he became a doc student of mine. We did many things in education together and I would get phone calls from old friends say, ''How can you work with Klonsky?'' I'm like get a grip, it's 15 years later and we're all in the same boat. But at the time, it's hard to describe I'll tell you. In my view, one of the hardest things to describe is why factions are fighting. What are they fighting over? It feels like that much looking back on it, but it did have consequences. I'll just give you one example. We were organizing in the dorms and everywhere in Ann Arbor. We were arguing that the US had to get out of Vietnam, and we were arguing that the Vietnamese had a right to self-determination. Progressive labor would come into our organizing spaces, and they would say, ''Ho Chi Minh is selling out in Vietnam by going to Paris.'' We would say, ''You mean you want to fight the Vietnam War to the last Vietnamese life? Are you nuts?'' Interestingly, this debate is going on on campus right now. Should you call for a cease-fire? Yes, you should call for a cease-fire, but there's a lot of ultra-leftists who are like, ''No way. Cease-fire is liberal, we want an end design or whatever.'' It seems crazy sometimes, but on the other hand, it does have consequences. To me anybody who's to the left today and saying a cease-fire is a dumb position, is dumb because what would you want? Of course you want a lot more, but minimum united program: stop killing people. Anyway, it was like that. That was the same debate we were having.
  • [00:42:27] ANDREW MACLAREN: Do you think there was something different about Ann Arbor that led to Ann Arbor being a center for some of this movement? You traveled around to a lot of different campuses, a lot of different cities. Were there differences in the conversations you would have in different places from the conversations you were having with people on the Diag?
  • [00:42:45] BILL AYERS: Yes and no. It's funny that you put it that way because my older sister went to Stanford, my brother to Ann Arbor, I went to Ann Arbor, my younger brother went to Ann Arbor. When the youngest brother came along, my dad said, ''You can go anywhere but Michigan.'' My younger brother was why? He said, ''There's something in the sociology department. I don't know what it is.'' There was this sense that Ann Arbor was a particularly radical place like Berkeley and Colombia. How do you explain it? I don't know. For me, coming out of a very naive place, politically with no political background, everything was new and I was learning all the time. There were silver kids in Ann Arbor, in Berkeley, and at Columbia who came out of the left, and they were red diaper babies. They had a political grounding and a theoretical understanding. The rest of us were struggling to keep up, but Ann Arbor was a very intellectually alive place. The arts were alive, music was alive, culture was alive. What I loved about it coming out of a tiny little school, was that there were a thousand groups you could get involved with and be interested in. I got involved with the Michigan Daily when I was first there. That there was another thing that made my fraternity brothers suspicious of me is the Michigan Daily. Wait, what? Has a bunch of liberal Jewish kids from New York. In fact, the Michigan Day is a funny thing about the Michigan Daily. I think it was my freshman year, they wrote a news article in which they used the word a goy, G-O-Y. In parentheses the news article said, ''If you don't know what this is, you are one.'' I didn't know what it was. It was an intellectual place, it was a place of culture. I think the troglodytes, the authoritarians, are right from their perspective when they want to suppress the arts, because the arts is a place where you can light yourself up. You can learn there's a different world, they could be or should be. You learn it when the arts challenge you. My younger brother Rick, was really my best friend for so many years, but Rick became the head of the Cinema Guild, and he was arrested for showing, it was called "Scorpio Rising." Ever hear about that film, an independent film? It's a picture of a guy's face as he's being sexually serviced. It's just his face, and the red squad came and busted my brother and a couple other people. That was the world we're living in, experimental films, George Manupelli, Tom Mayer, Charlie Moscow's. They're really interesting professors. Donald Hall was my English professor. These were really giants of just thinking. Frithjof Bergmann was one of my professors. It was an intellectual bath, but then again, coming from a very enclosed narrow space, it was phenomenal. Just a phenomenal experience in a sense because we were adolescents, young adults, and young adults in adolescence want to always put the adult world on trial no matter what, and everything was on trial from our point of view. We were demanding to end the hypocrisy, to see things as they were, and that was an impulse to really do new things. But was it generalized everywhere? It was everywhere. Also, the Civil Rights movement, the black freedom movement was setting the moral agenda for the country. People could see that whether they were at Ferris State or Michigan State. One other thing though, Andrew just put in here is that, as I said earlier, we were never a majority. The idea that it was a majority that we were somehow represented, everybody is just not true in many stories of us being a teeny tiny minority in Ann Arbor, and surrounded by people who really didn't like us at all. But the other thing that I often find myself objecting to is the idea that there was such a thing as the '60s, because nobody on December 31, 1969 looked at their watch and said, ''Shit, it's about to end.'' That's not how anybody lives, that's all reconstructed in retrospect. The reality is the '60s started in the '40s and extended till today. There is no '60s, and so I don't believe I'm of the '60s generation. I think I was born in '44 and I'm of this generation right now, because I'm still living and still doing what I do, including getting arrested. It's still happening.
  • [00:48:00] ANDREW MACLAREN: That actually leads me to one of my questions which is: A lot of people when they think of Ann Arbor and they think about the '60s in Ann Arbor as being Ann Arbor's Hey Day. They'll think about John Sinclair and the White Panther Party. A lot of that Rainbow People's Party stuff, a lot of that actually happened in the '70s, not in the '60s. You were not really living in Ann Arbor at the time that they became really active, I don't think. Were you already gone by the time they had moved into the Hill Street houses and bombed the CIA...?
  • [00:48:28] BILL AYERS: No, they were in the Hill Street house when I was there and I was friends with particularly Skip Taube was my roommate. Skip Taube lived with Diana Oughton and I and me, but John Sinclair was and is a friend and Pun Plamondon was a friend.
  • [00:48:46] BILL AYERS: We knew the Hill Street house and Skip was the main connector between Felch Street where we lived and Hill Street. But I was involved also in teaching. The White Panthers and the music scene was very much our scene. We were part of that scene too. But I was now teaching and I was in Hill Street a lot because our school had moved into the basement of the Friend Center. I was just to back up a little bit, when I was in '66, I was in jail and one of my cellmates, his wife had just started the children's community school. I went out of that jail after 10 days, walked over to the children's community and I was absolutely smitten. I had no idea, I wanted to be a teacher, but from that day onward, working with kids was going to be a huge priority for me and I really loved that school. It was near the Panther headquarters and we mixed and matched all the time.
  • [00:49:56] AMY CANTU: Can you talk a little bit more about that, its origins in the Free School Movement, and what it was like working there?
  • [00:50:02] BILL AYERS: Well, it was an amazing place. It was started with the idea that the public schools, the schools as they were inadequate to what was demanded of an education for full participation in life for freedom, for democracy. The two women who started it were Carl Oglesby's wife, Beth Oglesby was one of the founders. Nancy Frapier, John Frapier's wife was a founder and Toby Hendon was a founder, so three women founded it. And I ended up living with John and Nancy Frapier. Nancy passed away a couple of years ago and she had changed her name to Barrett, but she remained a friend for life and Beth Oglesby was a friend for life. But these three young mothers decided that they wanted something better for their kids. They hooked up with people like Z Gamson, Zelda Gamson, and Bill Gamson, who were legendary sociology professors. I think they went to Harvard and they all had little kids and they wanted to do something that would be three things, I guess three principles. One is they wanted a school that was racially integrated. They didn't want their kids to go to a segregated school. They wanted a school that was consciously anti-racist. Second, they wanted a school which was not a school built on the ideals of obedience and conformity. That's why they called it a free school. Third, they wanted it to be that the parents had real control over the school. They started this little thing. I went over there not knowing a damn thing, and I absolutely fell in and loved it. Within a year, they hired me to be the director of the school. That tells you how shabby and spontaneously constructed it was. But then a year or so later, Diana Oughton started graduate school in Ann Arbor and she began volunteering in the school and we fell in love and became partners right around that time. But she was actually older and more experienced and had teaching experience that had been in Guatemala with the Visa, the Quaker Peace Corps. She brought a lot of, I don't know, seriousness to it in a sense that we were now more recognized as more of a real school and not just a fly-by-night project. Diana was really important in that. There was one other change that happened there I'm trying to think what it was. I ended up running for school board in Ann Arbor with Elise Boulding. We were on the Peace and Freedom ticket and Elise was running for Congress and I was running for school board with a mother named Joan Adams. What we thought was that there's another context for all this, which is it wasn't just that there was this alternative school, but there was alternative food buying co-ops and there was alternative farming projects. In other words, counter institutions was a politics. And it wasn't a politics in contradiction with militancy or mass organizing, but it was a politics in itself and we were part of the insurgent counter-institution idea. Not just in schools, but in everything. The theory of change with those things, if they took themselves seriously too seriously, was that we can build up an entire practice and experience of education, food, housing, safety that's all cooperative and all the seeds of the new growing inside the old. The only debate I remember which we all were pretty clear about, although it wasn't true with every counter institution, is we felt that our little school, the children's community, had to be insurgent if it was to be valuable. That is, it couldn't just be a little project off to the side that just took care of these 22 kids, but it had to be in relationship to the teachers union, in relationship to the school board, and that's why I ran for school board because our idea was that we should be not just providing a model, but providing a thorn in the side of the oppressive system. That's what we did.
  • [00:54:40] ANDREW MACLAREN: I have a question about education. At the same time that you were educating kids at that school, you were learning how to be a teacher. You were also still a student yourself. You were also going to campuses and educating people about the Vietnam War. You were also educating yourself about the Vietnam War. How do these things intermingle?
  • [00:55:01] BILL AYERS: I had a lot more energy then. I'm still a little bit like that. The thing that made it all coherent was a desire for peace and freedom. Wanting to be part of a movement for peace and freedom and that each of these was an iteration of that. Skip Taube, as I mentioned, was our roommate. Skip was the organizer of the free food projects in Ann Arbor of the co-op buying food projects. I ran into Skip 30 years ago, I was a visiting professor in Hawaii. I've seen Skip since, but he had moved to Hawaii and he was the same guy doing the exact same stuff, organizing counter-institutions, doing voting rights and this and this, but still very much the same guy he'd always been, just 30 years older. We saw it as pieces of a hole. Frankly, I'm who I am today, is still built very much on that model. If I knew the right thing to do, I'd be a lot happier because I could just do one thing, but I don't know the right thing to do. All I know is that we need a million experiments right now for trying to build a world that's more balanced, more sane, less racist, less warlike. I'm involved in a dozen projects right now that are leaning in that direction. I don't know where or how we'll ever make a breakthrough. I do know that after doing 80 revolutions around the sun, I'm still waiting for the one big revolution that I think we need. I've always thought this and that has always been in my whole adult life. I felt that we actually needed a revolution and I'm willing to say a revolution the way King talked about it. Revolution values in order to have a revolution in fact, and I think that the values we need to foreground are participatory, anti-white supremacy, pro-humanity, no leaning toward any selective humanization. All of us all in non out and a world at peace and imbalance. This is still the demand to go back again to your earlier points, I said that our early goals could be defined simply in segregation and the war in Vietnam. We failed at both. I don't say that in despair. I just say it because we have to note that while 80 years might be a long time in the life of a human being, it's not so long in the life of a struggle. I do feel there's an urgency now, that is greater to me than the urgency I felt in 1965. But it's still urgent and we need to commit to those same values even as they take different political iterations and different political strategies.
  • [00:58:12] ANDREW MACLAREN: Could you talk a little bit about some of the other groups that were active in Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County at the time? Were you aware of the local Black Panthers and any other groups that were trying to create these counter-institutions?
  • [00:58:28] BILL AYERS: I don't remember the Black Panthers and I think I would have known it if they'd been there. But Friends of SNCC was a group. The Peace and Freedom Party was a group that Eldridge Cleaver ran for president on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket. I think Ben Spock was his Vice President. I was on that ticket and Joan Adams was on it and Elise Boulding was on it. As another person, Kenneth Boulding was a professor who brought so much life to the campus and so much intellectual fervor.
  • [00:59:00] BILL AYERS: I remember the Peace and Freedom Party, SDS. Then there were smaller groups that were more or less operating within the existing peace and student groups. There was a small group of communist party people, but we thought of the Communist Party as right-wing because they were not activists. The Communist Party had been through what it had been through and they weren't organizers or activists. They were just the red marks, which was okay. Then there were several Trotsky groups, some of them very, very active Socialist Workers Party and the youth group of that, I can't remember the name of it, but you know, SDS was the youth group of the Democratic Socialists of America, or the lead for Industrial Democracy. It was called then. SDS was initially called the Student League for Industrial Democracy SLID, and that was what Tom Hayden and Alan Haber and those people were attracted to and then split from. But that was early, that was '61, I think before I was there.
  • [01:00:09] AMY CANTU: Can you talk a little bit about some of those personalities? Tom Hayden, a little bit more about what it was like?
  • [01:00:16] BILL AYERS: Tom was a really terrific student leader, and he was able to speak to a group and move a group. When he was organizing for the Democratic Convention demonstrations, he came through Ann Arbor, and of course, Ann Arbor had been his home, and he had lived with the for piers as well. I was always around when he was around, but Tom Hayden was I think he had a lot of cache, partly because he'd been South, and Casey Hayden and his wife, they both were veterans of the Southern Civil Rights Movement, and that gave them a lot of credibility and a lot of experience that was valuable to us. Carl Oglesby was much older than the rest of us, but just a tremendously warm and gentle and smart guy. Also able to give a great rousing speech, but in person, a very gentle and sweet man. Alan Haber, I still love him. He's still around and still doing the stuff that Alan Haber does. But one of the funniest things about Alan and Barbara Haber too. Barbara was fantastic. But one of the funniest things about Alan was his dad was the Dean of the Liberal Arts School. When we took over the Angell Hall, I think we took over Angell Hall, or maybe it was the administration building, and there was Dean Haber coming out to try to calm us down, and Alan Haber not having it. They were nice to each other, but they were also fierce with each other and Alan said, you've got to be on the right side of history and this is the right side of history. Skip Taube was from the part of Michigan where they made a palm. I'm forgetting where that was, but he was very militant and the Pun and Skip and John Sinclair and several other people, they were anarchists. They had thought through their anarchism. They were ideologically anarchist. They were both fun to be with culturally, but they also really did not bow down to authority. Genie Plamondon was part of that group, and so many of them, you're all coming back to me slowly. I felt very close to them. I spent time in their house listening to music, smoking dope, because that was a big part of the culture of the world we were swimming in. John of course got sentenced to 10 years for two joints.
  • [01:03:08] ANDREW MACLAREN: What about the other side of that, you're talking about the great people and this great scene, and all of these counter-institutions. But what about the actual institutions and the non-arts part of Ann Arbor. The Ann Arbor News and the Sheriff's Department, and the police department. How were your relationships with those groups?
  • [01:03:32] BILL AYERS: Well, we called them the Red Squad. I doubt that it was really a red squad, but was the cop's name Staudenmaier? Was that his name?
  • [01:03:43] AMY CANTU: Eugene. That was his name.
  • [01:03:45] BILL AYERS: How can I remember that? I had been arrested. I had been involved in a couple of demonstrations in East Lansing that were pretty serious and had been involved in some street fights there, and I was back in Ann Arbor and Staudenmaier had a warrant for me. I remember him arresting me on the Diag, putting me in handcuffs and driving me to East Lansing. But we thought that these guys were agents of the state, backward dinosaurs enforcing the, they were the enforcers of the dying system. We could get along with them in the sense of chatting with them on the street, but we had no respect for them and they didn't really have any respect for us either. That was neither here nor there. I was very close to some people on the football team. I'd known them in South Quad and in the Beta house. I've seen some of them since in the last 10 years. David Fisher, who was the fullback for Michigan's championship team, Jim Detwiler was my roommate. Carl Ward was a football genius. I knew these guys also. It's a college town and you're all 19 years old. It's not so in retrospect, you can think of it as a bunch of very separated feet. That's not true. I said next to the legend of Hazel Losh. The astronomy, you had a science requirement as an undergraduate, and the. Big easy was Hazel Losh's Astronomy 101. She was an older woman who always wore Michigan Match. She always wore her flag and wore her T-shirts and stuff and she was old and small, and we packed an auditorium every term for Hazel Losh's lectures. The myth or the reputation is she gave A for athlete B for boy and C for Cod. That's how she graded. I sat next to Cazzie Russell, who was the Michigan basketball star in those years, and he came out of the south side of Chicago. I knew Cazzie, but I sat next to Cazzie in the first row of Hazel Losh's lecture. He got an A, I got a B. Neither of us did anything. It was an easy grading system, it was just ridiculous. But what I'm saying is, you can think of it as organizations and factions, as if they lived sealed off from each other, but they didn't. Everybody went to the movies and everybody went to concerts, and everybody went to football games. We were together as well as apart.
  • [01:06:51] ANDREW MACLAREN: What are some of the other places that you went? What were your hangouts? Bars and restaurants.
  • [01:06:57] BILL AYERS: That's testing me. There was a bar on the north side in town. Ann Arbor looks so different to me now. I go back there quite often. My sister is a librarian there. My brother-in-law is a retired professor. My younger brother lives in Kalamazoo, so I get to Michigan a lot, but the town is so different, we rarely went downtown. We rarely left the campus area. We were either South University where the Little Brown Jug was in places like that. Where we would go a little South of that, there was pizza, but there were a couple of pizza places we hung out. There was an art school and next to the art school was a cafe. I knew a lot of kids in the art school. Alan Loving. There was a professor of education named Loving who was Alan Lovings father and Alan had a kid at the children's community. African American artist made quite a splash in New York for a few years. Alan was an interesting case because when the FBI was searching for us and when they were searching for us for real, and they really wanted to get us, they would go to people like and bully them a little bit. They go to my father, who was a ruling class Titan of industry and also a very nice guy. But they go to my father, they make an appointment to meet him in his office. They go to Bernadine's father, lower middle class, working class Jewish guy, and they show up in the middle of the night and say, we have a body, we'd like you to identify. That was harsh, but with Al, they absolutely threatened to shit out of him. They'd go to New York and we were in touch with Al. Al made a couple of pieces of art about us. I think one was a collage with all of our fingerprints or something like that, I can't remember. But, yes we crossed a lot of boundaries and borders. I think everyone did, and I don't think it was as balkanized as you might think.
  • [01:08:59] AMY CANTU: Well, a lot of the people we interview say, Ann Arbor isn't as liberal as it thinks it is, or it never really was. It sounds like it was for you. You felt that it was really, at least during the '60s and when you were coming to school, that it was definitely a catalyst for your ideas and your intellectual development. But what are your thoughts about that?
  • [01:09:22] BILL AYERS: Well, I think both can be true. First of all, I'll again say, I don't think there is such a thing as the '60s, but okay, I did come in 1963 and I left graduate school in '68, and I left in '70. But with that caveat, I think that both can be true. On the one hand, it can be an absolute hothouse for ideas and new ways of thinking and for somebody like me coming from my background, absolutely mind-blowing, just so exciting and so propulsive. I think that was certainly true for me and true for many people. Again, remember we're late adolescence. We're leaving home, way before us, way after us. You leave home, suddenly you reinvent yourself. What a great, exciting moment I've often thought through the years. I did some teaching with teach for America, and I kept saying to myself, have 500 19-year-olds meet on a Quad and have breakfast at 6:00 in the morning. What could go wrong? It's just too beautiful to believe. All stumbling in there from various hookups and so on. It's just great. But that could be true, and it could also be true that Ann Arbor is not as liberal as the world paints it to be. That's true too. They had a police department, they had the all-American jail.
  • [01:10:47] BILL AYERS: They weren't all pulling in one direction. The board of trustees was a lot of Ford Motor and General Motors people, and they were a bunch of troglodytes. But these can both be true. It can be true that it's not as liberal as its reputation, certainly not as left as it was purported to be by the right. But at the same time, it's still an exciting generative environment. It was that for many students and still is. I'm confident that Ann Arbor is still a generative place to be for lots and lots of kids who are coming from the Upper Peninsula or Benton Harbor or someplace. They come to Ann Arbor, and it's a world opens up. That's what college is supposed to do, and if you're fortunate enough to go to college, that's what it should do. I remember my son going off to Brown, and we were talking on the phone somewhere in his freshman year. He said, "Pops, you never told me about Kierkegaard." I thought, oh shit, I knew I forgot something. I mean, Kierkegaard, right? But that's what college does to you. My friend Rashid Khalidi and Mona Khalidi, I took their daughter Enzy to visit Ann Arbor and Enzy wanted nothing to do with it because he thought it was too close to Chicago and he was right. But I found a way to get to Rhode Island anyway. But Lenny Khalidi decided to go to Ann Arbor and her little sister went also. She went to major in art. When she got to Ann Arbor she discovered archaeology. She ended up getting a PhD in Archaeology. She's now a tenured archaeologist for the French government doing work in the Middle East. Who would have known? You wouldn't know if you stayed in your little high school and never blew up. But that's the exciting thing. Right now I'm wearing my Parsons hoodie because my oldest granddaughter just started art school, majoring in illustration. And now she considers herself a Greenwich Village beat nick artist. What a great thing because she's no longer the quiet, introverted, eccentric high school kid. She's now one of thousands of introverted of eccentric high school kids who are all being artists in New York. But that's the great thing. Ann Arbor's, I'm confident, is still that even though it's also got its establishment things. Berkeley the same way. Berkeley, it's not a socialist nirvana, I hope nobody would think so.
  • [01:13:31] ANDREW MACLAREN: Do you think you would have become politically conscious or politically conscious in the same way if you had landed someplace else? Was it inevitable for you to some extent?
  • [01:13:41] BILL AYERS: It's impossible to know. I feel absolutely lucky to have been thrust into the world. When I was thrust into the world, I feel lucky that I came of age with the Black Freedom movement, setting the moral tone for the country. That's just chance, that's just luck. Who knows what would have happened if I had gone somewhere else. I could never get in anywhere else anyway, so that was okay. I was a legacy at Michigan. The other thing, that's crazy when you think about it. I was an out-of-state student. I think my tuition was $350, something like that. It was a state-run school and the State paid for the school and the auto taxes paid for the school. You say, is it liberal? Isn't it liberal? The CIA had a whole research project in Ann Arbor which Skip Taube disrupted. The auto industry had all kind of public relations bullshit coming out of Ann Arbor. These universities are what they are. They're the great thing about them when they're functional is that they are conservative institutions in the sense that it takes a lot to change them. But they are also sites of propulsive energy and especially having that many kids around can't be bad.
  • [01:15:09] AMY CANTU: You've taught so many students over the years and in a variety of venues. Are you encouraged by their level of political engagement? And how do you talk to them about activism and protesting?
  • [01:15:23] BILL AYERS: I retired from the University of Illinois 15 years ago. I teach as an adjunct. In the last two years, I've taught at Colby College, Lake Forest College, Depaul University, Ola University, University of Chicago. My absolute jam these days is teaching at Stateville Prison, where I teach memoir writing. I teach oral history at the University of Chicago. I teach ethics at Depaul. (Parentheses, hats off to a Catholic university that hires an atheist, anarcho-communist to teach ethics. I think they deserve credit for that.) But the thing that's so brilliant about teaching and I don't teach people to protest. In fact, funny story: You remember that my name got caught up in the Obama election of 2008 and all that. But the way me and my students found out about it is I was having a doctoral seminar where we were going over dissertations and I had a potluck at my house the night that Hillary Clinton was debating Barack Obama with George Stephanopoulos at the helm. We finished our potluck and some kid who thought of himself as a political junkie turned on the debate. Just Stephanopoulos asked Obama, what about Jeremiah Wright? What about your relationship with him? Obama explained that it was a different age and blah, blah, blah. Then he said, well, what about your friend Bill Ayers, who bombed the Pentagon and never apologized? Obama went on to say, he's a guy around the neighborhood and whatever he said. But my students fell on the floor. They were absolutely flabbergasted. I was amazed too, but they were just stunned. One turned to me and said, that guy has the same name as you. Another student helpfully said they're the same guy. But the reason that that's worth noting is that it wasn't like I was proselytizing in my classes about my history. I know it's of interest to you, you're doing an oral history of Ann Arbor, but in my normal teaching, I'm teaching ethics or I'm teaching oral history, and yes, I want my students to be engaged in the world. Yes, I want them to find a way to have their eyes opened about the world. One of the themes of my teaching is you need no one's permission to interrogate the world. You don't need mine, your parents, the governor of anywhere. You don't need anybody's permission. You guys are librarians. We had Tracy Hall over the other night for dinner, who was the head of the American Library Association, just retired. I should go get it. She brought us all shoulder bag that says, "Free people read freely." That's what I believe. I believe free people read freely. I think librarians are one of my top professions, my sister's a librarian, and she was a librarian at the University of Michigan. But I think what I love about librarians, even though the stereotype of how they look and so on is funny, the reality is, I've never met anybody who's so militant about the First Amendment. When I was on book tour after 911 and I've been canceled everywhere, I've been canceled at universities, I've been canceled at humanities festivals, not one library canceled me. When I spoke in Baltimore, the head librarian was supposed to be on a fundraising trip. She called it off because there were so many threats that she wanted to introduce me, a Black woman who became the librarian of Congress later. But I respect that. I think that that's brilliant. My teaching isn't about, this is how you should protest. It's really about let's look at the world and see it for what it is. Let's tell the truth. Let's engage the world. As Marx said, the philosophers up until now have described the world but the point is to change it. You should be able to look at the world, see what's wrong with it, and put your shoulder on history's wheel. That's my teaching. But the reason that teaching is such a powerful lifelong experience is because, if you don't become that teacher who puts it on an automatic pilot and just delivers the lectures, if you're a teacher who has to build relationships with students, every year is different, every group is different. Last year when I taught 18- and 19-year-olds at the University of Chicago, mostly international students, I taught 30- and 40-year-olds at Depaul who were mostly professional teachers. I taught 50- and 60 year olds at Stateville Prison who really wanted to learn how to write because they wanted to learn how to write their memoirs because no one else would write that for them. They'd already been written off society as the worst of the worst and monsters and they all saw their work as de-monstrafication. Just think of those three groups of people. I admired all of them, and I respected all of them, and I learned from all of them. But here I am, 79 years old, still learning from 18-year-olds and from 50-year-olds, from kids with enormous privilege, the folks who had no education at all, no first chance, and are trying to catch up. It's exhilarating and it's an honor. It's the best profession ever.
  • [01:21:01] AMY CANTU: Wow, that's great.
  • [01:21:02] ANDREW MACLAREN: Thank you very much.
  • [01:21:09] AMY CANTU: AADL Talks To is a production of the Ann Arbor District Library.