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.

The poverty in our neighborhood hit me at first like a cruel blow. I'd read about poverty in books, seen pictures of poor people everywhere, but I was not poor and so I knew nothing of the smell of hardship, the taste of want, the enveloping feel of need. I saw what it was to be broke, really broke with no backup, and what it was to be hungry, not just ready for lunch. My third-floor walk-up in an anonymous brick building on Lakeview Avenue was one of a long line of shabby buildings that stretched as far as the eye could see. Basic things didn't work—heat for long stretches, electricity, water, and plumbing—and the landlord was around only rarely. Neighbors sat on the stoops in the summer, half-naked children in patched pants made games of pitching stones or chasing mangy stray dogs. Knots of men gathered on corners and in the vacant lot next to our building, smoking, passing a bottle or a skinny joint.

My roommates were Alex Witherspoon and Terry Robbins. Terry, eighteen years old, short with a shock of sandy hair, had the flitting energy of a nervous bird. His attention was unsteady, everywhere at once and at the same time nowhere, and his slight body was wound so tight that the smoldering Camel stuck between his teeth might have been a fuse. Any sissy can quit smoking, he would say, mocking his habit. It takes a real man to face lung cancer. He was in a hurry to experience everything, it seemed, even the inevitable. I watched the restless agitation of his hands as Terry spread his arms and flapped like a penguin running across the ice heading for deep water. Cleveland is too sunny a name for this place, he announced when he arrived. Now that the Jew from Flushing is here, I've got to rechristen you. . . . In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, I dub thee Clevesburg.

Alex was thirty-three, a veteran of the Korean War and several years of SNCC campaigns in the South. Alex laughed easily, his wide mouth cutting across his narrow dark-brown face, and he joked about everything, especially the everyday dangers of a world with racist crackers in it, but often, when I came home, I'd find him sitting alone in the dark, smoking in silence. Wherever he was in his mind, he'd always smile and come animatedly to life, flipping on lights, talking and joking as he put on the coffee.

Alex was back in Cleveland to be close to his aging mother who lived in the neighborhood. He worked three days a week as a fireman for the city, a real job that paid for his mother's care and still allowed him to be a full-time organizer and activist. We were each paid $2 a week spending money, and our rent and food was covered by the Community Union. Always strapped, we subsisted on small handouts from church groups and labor unions.

Our job, Alex said, is to organize ourselves out of a job, and he meant that though we might be catalysts for change, we could never substitute for indigenous community leadership. We wanted to create organizations of, by, and for the poor people of the east side, and we were deeply critical of professional service-oriented poverty workers—poverty pimps, Alex called them, making money on someone else's misery.

We worked earnestly to become part of our community, listening to what people told us and being as respectful as we knew how to our new neighbors. We wanted to become good citizens of our block first. Don't make a big thing of it, Alex said, but pick up litter on your way to the bus stop.

Soon we knocked on doors, talked around kitchen tables, hung out on stoops, and went to picnics in the park. We were identifiable outsiders, living here by choice. As we went door-to-door we tried to engage people in conversations that might reveal the obstacles they faced in their lives; in naming those barriers, that act itself might enable them to come together with others to struggle, to repair, to overcome. Or so we hoped.

When Alex first knocked on Dorothea Hill's door, she opened it with a big welcoming smile. Oh, you're the civil rights kids from down the block, she said. I've been waiting for you, come on in. They talked into the night about children, welfare, schools, crime, rent, gangs, the problems and the life of the neighborhood—it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Later when I asked Mrs. Hill why she told Alex she'd been waiting for us, she laughed and said, "I saw the movement on television for years fighting for justice; as poor as I am, I figured after a while it would have to reach my door."

Dorothea Hill was a natural leader. Perceptive, articulate, respected, she had grown up on the block and was now raising her own children there. Active in her church and PTA, she was a person others looked to for guidance and help. When a child was hit by a car on Lakeview Avenue, it was Mrs. Hill who called a meeting in her living room to press the city to install a stoplight; when a back-to-school welfare allowance was cut, Mrs. Hill organized the protest; when a rat bit a youngster while she slept in her apartment, Dorothea Hill thought up the dramatic tactic of taking dead rats with us downtown to the demonstration and piling them on the front steps of the government offices. Get the rats out of Lakeview and City Hall, Dorothea Hill shouted into a bullhorn, leading the chants.

Mrs. Hill opened meetings with devotions, part prayer, part politics: Thank you Lord for Your many blessings, for Your mercy, and please, Lord, help us out on this demonstration next week. Then we sang several songs—"May the Circle Be Unbroken," "This Little Light of Mine," "Oh, Freedom"—to bring us together as a group, reminding us of our common purpose and making us all feel a little stronger. When she began to set the agenda, Mrs. Hill would always interject her own words of wisdom as introduction: Tonight we'll be talking about welfare rights and the Welfare Workbook we'll be publishing soon. Now remember, just because you're poor and on welfare doesn't mean you're not a citizen, and citizens have rights. Or: Now we'll move on to figuring out about starting that Children's Community school. Our children are poor, true, but that doesn't mean they don't have fine minds, right Bill? We have to think about how to stimulate those fine minds.

The first of the month was a celebratory time on our block, everybody with a little money jangling in their pockets. The Community Union began to host First of the Month potlucks. Mrs. Hill would often provide the mustard greens and chitlins. Don't eat just anybody's chitlins, Bill, she would warn me with a sly smile. Now, my chitlins are a rare delicacy, she said, but you never know what you might be eating next door.

Slowly the East Side Community Union grew a large, dynamic welfare rights project; a housing and rent strike committee, organizing building by building demanding fair rents and reasonable upkeep and repairs; a community health project led by two young doctors; a storefront office where people could drop in for coffee and conversation; a preschool operating out of a church basement; and a community newsletter. Each activity was an attempt to open a space for participation, the daily enactment once again of democracy, everything built intentionally with the energy and intelligence of the people of Lakeview—energy and intelligence largely invisible and ignored from afar, but, we thought, robust and fierce up close. Dorothea Hill never missed an opportunity to underline the point: I'm poor because I haven't got any money. I'm not mentally ill! I'm not lazy! I'm not stupid!

The immense panorama of waste and cruelty was overwhelming. Mom sent me a package of chocolate chip cookies and fruit, and it felt like an anachronistic gift sailing in from another world, a different time. Wanting simply to help, the job would be unending. But I did want to help. And I thought the Community Union was on to help of a different type, help that would enable people to help themselves, help that was strengthening and enlarging, help that would give people the courage to forever resist the casual disregard of their humanity.

Lofty, true, but down to earth as well. For example, after school every day for weeks I worked with half a dozen neighbors on a research project. We bought five pounds of hamburger from the supermarket on our street, and then traveled all over the area on different days buying five pounds of hamburger from every branch store we could find—in other Black communities, the hillbilly neighborhood, working class and wealthy suburbs. We cooked the meat under controlled scientific conditions—in Dorothea's kitchen in her big black cast-iron frying pan over medium heat while we all watched. When we poured off the grease, bingo. The hamburger sold in the Black neighborhoods was twice as fatty as that sold in Shaker Heights; the white burger always leaner than the Black burger. After carefully charting our findings, Dorothea added tomato paste and beans and we all joined in to eat the research results—fat or lean—over fluffy white rice.

When we presented our findings to the city council they didn't believe it, but everyone on the block knew we were right—hamburger tactics ruled.

Mrs. Hill was growing, too, as a leader in the city and then in the state. She led a march of "poverty warriors" from Cleveland to Columbus and spoke at church rallies every night. She was tireless, drawing energy, she said, from God and my children.Here come the poverty pimps, Alex said, shaking his head in disgust as agents of the government-sponsored poverty programs began to appear. This was the competition, hard to acknowledge as genuine, although several social workers became friends of ours over time.

Mainly we thought of them as working to derail the kind of radical transformations we had in mind, dishonest agents of co-optation. They surveyed neighborhood people for a "community needs assessment" using a "scientifically" developed questionnaire that could be quantified to scale and rank. Dorothea Hill was, in their eyes, a vast collection of ills. She had dropped out of high school, become pregnant at nineteen, and was a single mother with three young children, one of whom needed expensive glasses. She had been arrested once as a teenager for shoplifting and had hung out at that time with a group of Lakeview Avenue youngsters who called themselves the Street Demons. Now she was on welfare, and she occasionally worked cleaning white people's houses while her oldest boy watched the children. She also took cash from the children's father, a long-distance truck driver who sometimes spent the night at her apartment. In other words, Dorothea Hill, by their account, represented the whole litany of behaviors that added up to a tangle of lower-class pathologies: welfare cheat, gang member, criminal, unwed mother, neglectful parent, pregnant teen, high school dropout. Dorothea Hill, they said, represented the culture of poverty, and they were fairly drooling over her.

Lakeview Avenue in Cleveland was a whole world, my world. The men on the corner every morning had names. Eddie Robbins was called Thunderbird, a bottle of cheap wine in his pocket, a friendly greeting each day—What's the word? Thunderbird. What's the price? Forty-four twice. James Thompson was Little Bit, four feet eleven in shoes, an oversized sports jacket bulging with scraps of material, needle and thread, bottle caps, and other found items he used to make dolls he sold to the mothers on the street. Willie Jones was now Ismael Akbar, but he allowed people to call him simply Bar. He was the father of three little girls with their own recent name changes—they were now Mali, Kenya, and Ghana.

The corner men were all street characters, all fixtures on our block, well known, reliable, and oddly reassuring each day. Their parleys were part news bulletins—Big Bob's rig's parked at Dorothea's; he's off to Baltimore later today—part scandal sheet—Louis saw Alice sneaking home at three A.M.—part debate, part Q and A, part bull session, part ongoing dominoes tournament. Soon they allowed me in; I paid for my admission by being the first teacher any of them knew who lived right here on the block with them, and because Akbar, who said that all white people are devils, said that nevertheless I was a good teacher for his girls. I gave myself an hour every morning to stand with the men, drinking coffee from a paper cup.

There was a whole education to be had on the corner: You hear Henry Allen beating up on that gal's been staying with him?

Yeah, it got plenty loud about midnight.

And when she was shrieking there at the end, and he threw her out the window?

Man, I saw her fall, don't know how she lived.

Yeah, and the cops was here in thirty minutes, ambulance took a hour, she could a died.

Black people don't mean a thing to them, man. Whenever you want them, you can't get them for a prayer, but when you don't want them, man, they're everywhere.

The buzz was sometimes bitter, sometimes complaining, sometimes boasting, always shot through with a quick line of laughter. The subject of white folks was never far away: Man, Akbar said one day, you see what they doing now? They talking about making kayaking and synchronized swimming Olympic events. Everybody knows Black people don't like the water. Just another racist scheme to keep us from those medals.

Yeah, man, replied Little Bit. You right. Why don't those white people make double Dutch jump rope an Olympic event?

Exactly, and I'll tell you why. Akbar again. Because Mali and Kenya and Ghana'd be up there on that stand, little Black angels giving a black eye to the festival of whiteness.

Yeah, man. Thunderbird now. Or, why not Olympic dominoes? Then you'd see my sweet ass up on that stand, saying, What's the word?

Your sorry ass could not climb the stairs.

Pride, rebellion, laughter.

In the middle of that long, hot summer, something red and violent swept through our neighborhood—to some it was an urban uprising, a rebellion, to others Black anarchy, a ghetto riot. I had an ancient gold Oldsmobile we called the Boat, and I drove a daily shuttle to the hospital with the injured, or to the grocery outside the blockaded area to buy staples to distribute free from our office. Everything was smoke and fire, rumor and incitement.

Stories swept up the street faster than fire: cops on Superior Street beat a woman on her way to church, and on St. Clair a cop shot a boy point-blank and called him "nigger." But on Euclid two cop cars were burned to a crisp, a bank was trashed, and money was blowing in great gusts down the street. True or not, each story was embraced and passed along, each somehow true simply because it was believed.

The strange thing was to live in an atmosphere simultaneously terrifying and deeply energizing. The mood was festive one minute, like a giant community picnic, everyone laughing and sharing and handing things around—although the things being handed around weren't hamburgers but stolen goods, passed through broken windows—and the next minute there was the sound of shots fired from somewhere, or the sight of flames leaping suddenly to life, and we would all turn and scatter. One afternoon I saw thirty or forty people—young and old, men and women, the respectable as well as the neighborhood characters—together pulling to tear a grate off the large plate-glass window of the supermarket. No one urged caution, no one objected.

And that night Donald Hall, a kid who worked with the Community Union but would, in a year, join a Black nationalist group and change his name to Jamal Daoud, showed up at our apartment, singed and smoky, and took a shower and left with fresh clothes from Alex.

There was talk of pigs and honkies, yet the action was still in some ways selective, in some sense restrained. When a dozen storefronts were smashed in, it was remarkable that Tony's Pizzeria was untouched—Tony had lived with his family upstairs for years and was well known and well liked, and he was poor like everyone else.

Returning from the hospital one night after curfew, Alex and I were surprised at a checkpoint on Lakeview Avenue, stopped at gunpoint, spread-eagled on the pavement, searched and released. The baby-faced Ohio National Guardsman who, sweating and breathing heavily, searched me, looked wide-eyed and terrified. So was I.

Anger at racial oppression had bubbled beneath the surface calm of the fifties and had burst forth as the civil rights movement, shattering the illusion that America was all right. I thought that the civil rights movement embodied everything that was right about America—its idealism, its urgent yearning for democracy, its belief in simple fairness and the courage and power of ordinary people to shape their lives. It brought home what was profoundly and perhaps fatally wrong about America—lynchings, murders, all manner of inhumanity, American apartheid, the ugly stain on our soul, slavery and its legacy the open wound, festering, infecting the whole body politic.

American innocence blew up. Moral concerns became political issues; the search for personal meaning joined a pursuit of public responsibility.

The Cleveland project drew its strength and its focus from the civil rights movement, and it was drawn into its complexities again and again.

When Stokely Carmichael raised the banner of Black Power on a march in Mississippi that summer it roared into our neighborhood full-up. Stokely spoke to hundreds of people at a church down the street a few weeks later—we can't wait for white people to decide whether we're worthy of our freedom, he said. We must take our freedom. We can't allow others to do for us. We must do for ourselves. We can't accept white standards of beauty or intelligence. We must rid ourselves of self-hatred. This much is crystal clear, he said. We're one hundred percent human, and like other humans we need the power to run our own lives. We're Black, and we want power. Black . . .power. Black Power. The church vibrated with the excited chant.

I knew the implications of Stokely's words included the requirement that I get out of the way and that I organize "my own people." It felt both necessary and false, and I was hurt to think I might never have friends like Alex or Jackie again.I returned to Ann Arbor in the fall. Jackie was off to Tuskeegee, but by now she had changed her name—she was Afeni Shabazz.

The Community Union had been founded shortly after Reverend Bruce Klinger was run over by an earth-mover and killed during a sit-in at a construction site for what would become another segregated Cleveland public school at one end of Lakeview Avenue. It was gone by the time Ahmed Evans and a group of young Black nationalists engaged in a deadly shoot-out with the Cleveland police in an apartment at the other end of Lakeview. In between there was some struggle and much hope; there was even occasional heroism. It was the most loving attempt I would ever see to change so much of what was glaringly, screamingly wrong. And now the riot.

Night after night, day after day, each majestic scene I witnessed was so terrible and so unexpected that no city would ever again stand innocently fixed in my mind. Big buildings and wide streets, cement and steel were no longer permanent. They, too, were fragile and destructible. A torch, a bomb, a strong enough wind, and they, too, would come undone or get knocked down.

But I so loved the unity of those times. I loved Lakeview Avenue, my street—and it was my street—and I loved the Community Union. I mostly loved everything I was seeing, and especially all that I was learning.I thought Stokely made perfect sense. But by that time I also thought I was Black.