Excerpt: William Ayers' 'Fugitive Days'

Check out a chapter From William Ayers' "Fugitive Days."

ByABC News via logo
November 14, 2008, 10:10 AM

Nov. 14, 2008 — -- William Ayers, the 1960s radical who was linked to Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential election, sat down with "Good Morning America" today for an exclusive interview.

Along with defending his actions as a member of the Weather Underground group and fighting back against what he called a "dishonest narrative ... to demonize me," Ayers discussed the reissue of his book "Fugitive Days: Memoirs of an Anti-War Activist."

Read Chapter 11 from the book below, then check out some other books in the "GMA" library.

Whenever I hear the thwack-thwacking of a helicopter overhead or the frantic approach of sirens in the night, I think back to Cleveland, 1966.

I remember a solemn line of troops early one morning marching noisily up Euclid Boulevard in full fantastic battle gear, bayonets fixed, rubber gas masks mutating each soldier into a monster from space, their tall black boots stomping on the pavement, their tin canteens and ammunition belts beating out a syncopated response. I remember a panicky patrol of police advancing toward a flaming building—pop! pop! pop! in rapid bursts—as the hook and ladder trucks idled nervously in reserve. I remember John Davis, a nineteenyear-old from the neighborhood, twitching and clawing at the concrete in the middle of Lakeview Avenue, his left leg bent to an impossible angle, before slumping forward kissing the street absently as blood pooled around his head and ran toward the gutter. And I remember lying facedown on a hard, hot street, gas in my eyes and smoke in my mouth, an M-16 poking into my ribs. It was off the scale, and something came unhinged then.

It was August, the end of a long, hot summer, and, improbably, I was swept up into a big city riot. But the story of any life includes a parade of non sequiturs.

I had come to Cleveland months earlier, recruited to the East Side Community Union to set up an alternative school for young children, on leave from the Children's Community.

The Community Union was part of a joint national strategy of SDS and SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), the beginnings of a shift away from attacking the legal barriers to integration largely in the South, now mostly in retreat, toward organizing around de facto segregation and economic injustice everywhere. Our focus was on building a powerful force of poor people in big northern cities—the grassy grass roots, we called them—who could not only change their own lives but could change the world.

Our slogan was "Let the People Decide," and our plan was to live among the poor, to share their travails and their triumphs, then to build action and organization around issues of broad and shared concern: tenant and welfare rights, for example, safety and police brutality, education and schools, racial discrimination. We believed fervently that any legitimate and just change should be led by those who had been pushed down and locked out, and we were certain that struggling in the interest of these forgotten people crushed at the bottom held the key to social transformations that would shake the whole world to its core and ultimately benefit everyone. We saw our political work—to build a mighty interracial movement of the poor—as ethical work. Organizing as righteousness.

There had been a national gathering of community organizers in Ann Arbor the previous winter, and I'd met folks from Newark and Paterson, Chicago and L. A., but the Cleveland group was special to me. For one thing, Paul Potter, the president of SDS and someone I revered, had moved to Cleveland with other movement veterans, including SNCC activists. Also, the Cleveland representatives at the conference were mostly grassroots community folks and not organizers. I was impressed with each of them—welfare mothers, day laborers, cooks and maids and janitors—with their earnestness and determination and clarity, and I supposed that each was more honest, more decent—indeed, like the Vietnamese, more human—than other people I knew. And finally, I fell in love with one of the delegates at once.

One night I met with five of them, two from the West Side Community Union centered in the largely Appalachian hillbilly section on the near west side, and three from the East Side community Union, organizing in the Black neighborhoods on the far east side. Three of the five were welfare mothers with young children at home—Lillian Craig, who was destined to become a national leader as a militant antipoverty warrior and welfare rights activist; Carol King, the president of the East Side Community Union; and Dorothea Hill, who once smitten with the notion of a school like the Children's Community for her own kids became radiant with the dream and began to work me with all she had—and she had a lot. She was easy to love; they all were. But Jackie Morrison, a Black eighteen-year-old and already a movement veteran, was the one who captured my heart that year.

Jackie had grown up on the east side in a beautiful apartment overlooking a park. Her father was a doctor, her mother a teacher, and she and her younger brother were infused with soaring expectations. You're wonderful, you're beautiful, you're extraordinary, their parents had informed them in every way and with every breath, and anyone who thinks less is ignorant or bigoted or wrong. In high school she had played every sport, joined every club, maintained an A average—she was raised for the Ivy League. But at eighteen and not yet out of the house, she'd also organized a high school civil rights club, and now she had a different idea—she would carve herself into a freedom fighter with her own capable hands.

Jackie walked with perfect posture, something beyond what could be taught or learned, and she came into a room the way a flyweight boxer might enter the ring, a tough little guy expecting victory. She wore blue jeans or denim overalls and a crisp pressed white T-shirt every day, her small face framed by big horn-rimmed glasses and a full Afro. Her hair was a political statement, of course, lost on no one. My dad says I look "country," she told me as I walked her home late one hot night. And my girlfriend from high school says I look "ragged." But, hell, this is the natural me. Screw the world.I think you're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen, I said.

You're the first boy to call me a woman, she said. But clearly, I thought, many had called her beautiful. She took my hand and she felt warm and moist, our hands fitting together perfectly. We stopped talking then, and she kissed me on the mouth. When I touched her face I began to tremble. I was wonder-struck. She whispered something, but I don't know what.