Weather Underground co-founder and education theorist Bill Ayers said he finds it interesting when people call him a “former activist.”
Although his days with the antiwar organization he started are over, Ayers, in a lecture to about 40 Knox College students and faculty Thursday night, explained his ideas about what makes a good activist. Asked about the Weather Underground, which took responsibility for a series of bombings, he did not deny his past, but he did ask not to be singled out.
“I have plenty of regrets. But what I don’t regret is opposing the murder of 6,000 per week,” Ayers said, referring to his opposition to the Vietnam War. “It always strikes me as ironic that I’m asked about it, but John McCain is not asked about it. John McCain, by his own admission, flew mission after mission over civilian targets and bombed them.”
Ayers devoted the bulk of his talk to what a good activist should be. He referred to the “rhythm” of what it means to be an activist: “Pay attention, be astonished and tell about it.”
Ayers drew a parallel between the anti-slavery, universal suffrage movements (describing the political climate then as “everyone’s against it, but no one’s doing anything about it”) and Occupy Wall Street movements, referring to the goal of getting money out of the political system.
“Let’s imagine 40 years from now, and your niece … says to you, ‘Is it true that you were around when the first African-American president was elected?'” Ayers said. He imagined the response, “Yes, I was in Grant Park the day he was elected.”
“‘And is it true that it cost him half a billion dollars to buy the election in 2008?'” he imagined her next question.
Ayers addressed the nature of political debates in the United States, drawing on his experiences as an education activist, highlighting his ideas about the rights of public school teachers.
“Every time any cheap politician from our mayor to our city council people to our presidential candidates gets to a microphone and says, ‘We need to get the lazy, incompetent teachers out of the classroom,'” he loses the argument, Ayers said.
But when he gets the microphone, he says “‘Every kid in our public schools deserves a well-educated, intellectually grounded, morally committed, passionate, caring, thoughtful, engaged, well-paid and well-rested teacher in the classroom.'”
Knox’s Alliance for Peaceful Action, or APA, brought Ayers to Knox as part of its annual symposium, and it was Ayers’ second lecture at Knox in recent years. He was introduced by APA President Netsie Tjirongo, a Knox junior.
“We, as college students, are taught to believe that now is the time for activism,” Tjirongo said in her introduction.