- Leader of the Weather Underground, a domestic terrorist group of the 1960s and ’70s
- “Kill all the rich people. … Bring the revolution home. Kill your parents.”
- Participated in the bombings of New York City Police Headquarters in 1970, the Capitol building in 1971, and the Pentagon in 1972
- Worked as a professor of education at the University of Illinois from 1987-2010
Bill Ayers was born in December 1944 and was raised in a Chicago suburb. In the mid-1960s he taught at a radical alternative school — part of the “free school movement” — where students addressed teachers by their first names, and where no grades or report cards were given. By age 21, Ayers had become the director of that school. In 1968 he earned a B.A. in American Studies from the University of Michigan.
In the late Sixties, Ayers became a leader of the Weather Underground (WU), a splinter faction of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Characterizing WU as “an American Red Army,” Ayers summed up the organization’s ideology as follows: “Kill all the rich people. Break up their cars and apartments. Bring the revolution home, Kill your parents.” One of Ayers’ fellow WU leaders was Bernardine Dohrn, the woman who would later become his wife.
In a July 29, 1969 speech which he delivered at the University of Oregon, Ayers boasted of SDS’s role in the Venceremos Brigades, a project initiated by the Cuban intelligence agency to recruit and train American leftists as “brigadistas” capable of waging guerrilla warfare.
Ayers was an active participant in the 1969 “Days of Rage” riots in Chicago, which were led by WU’s antecedent group, Weatherman. In the mayhem, nearly 300 members of the organization engaged in vandalism, arson, and vicious attacks against police and civilians alike. Their immediate objective was to spread their anti-war, anti-American message. Their long-term goal, however, was to cause the collapse of the United States and to create, in its stead, a new communist society over which they themselves would rule. With regard to those Americans who might refuse to embrace communism, Ayers and his comrades — including Bernardine Dohrn, Mark Rudd, Linda Evans, Jeff Jones, and numerous others — proposed that such resisters should be sent to reeducation camps and killed. The terrorists estimated that it would be necessary to eliminate some 25 million people in this fashion, so as to advance the revolution.
In his 2001 memoir Fugitive Days, Ayers recounts his life as a Sixties radical and boasts that he “participated in the bombings of New York City Police Headquarters in 1970, of the Capitol building in 1971, and the Pentagon in 1972.” Of the day he bombed the Pentagon, Ayers writes, “Everything was absolutely ideal…. The sky was blue. The birds were singing. And the bastards were finally going to get what was coming to them.” He further recalls his fascination with the fact that “a good bomb” could render even “big buildings and wide streets … fragile and destructible,” leaving behind a “majestic scene” of utter destruction.
All told, Ayers and the Weather Underground were responsible for 30 bombings aimed at destroying the defense and security infrastructures of the U.S. “I don’t regret setting bombs,” said Ayers in 2001, “I feel we didn’t do enough.” Contemplating whether or not he might again use bombs against the U.S. sometime in the future, he wrote: “I can’t imagine entirely dismissing the possibility.”
In 1970, Ayers’ then-girlfriend Diana Oughton, along with Weatherman members Terry Robbins and Ted Gold, were killed when a bomb they were constructing exploded unexpectedly. That bomb had been intended for detonation at a dance that was to be attended by hundreds of Army soldiers at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Ayers himself attested that the bomb would have done serious damage, “tearing through windows and walls and, yes, people too.” Notably, Ayers’ fingerprints were found at the bomb-making site, along with an assortment of anti-personnel weapons, stabbing implements, C-4 plastic explosive, and dozens of Marxist-Leninist publications.
After the death of his girlfriend, Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn spent the rest of the decade as fugitives running from the FBI.
Years later, Ayers would claim: “We [Weatherman] made a decision while we were willing to engage in extreme tactics, we would not harm human life…. We never hurt or harmed anyone. We destroyed property.” But this claim was contradicted by Larry Grathwohl, a United States Army veteran and an FBI informant during the 1970s, who in 1974 testified before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Internal Security and reported that in 1970:
“Bill [Ayers] was the person who directed the ‘focle’ [a four-person task force, small in size to evade detection] that I was part of to place the bomb at the DPOA [the Detroit Police Officers Association] Building. He designed the bomb and told me that he would get the necessary materials, the dynamite, et cetera, and 4 days later Bill broke that focle that I was part of up … and we were directed to go to Madison, Wisconsin.”
Grathwohl talked about the case again at a 2012 conference sponsored by America’s Survival, where he said: “During the meeting with Bill Ayers [in 1970] we were told that our objective would be to place bombs at the Detroit Police Officers Association … and at the 13th precinct. Furthermore, Bill instructed us to determine the best time to place these explosive devices that would result in the greatest number of deaths and injuries….” When Grathwohl, at that time, pointed out to Ayers that a Red Barn restaurant next door would most likely be destroyed and the customers killed during the explosion, Ayers replied that “sometimes innocent people have to die in a revolution.”
In 1974 Ayers co-authored — along with Dohrn, Jeff Jones, and Celia Sojourn — a book titled Prairie Fire: The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism. This book contained the following statements:
- “We are a guerrilla organization. We are communist women and men … deeply affected by the historic events of our time in the struggle against U.S. imperialism.”
- “Our intention is to disrupt the empire, to incapacitate it, to put pressure on the cracks, to make it hard to carry out its bloody functioning against the people of the world, to join the world struggle, to attack from the inside.”
- “The only path to the final defeat of imperialism and the building of socialism is revolutionary war.”
- “Revolutionary war will be complicated and protracted. It includes mass struggle and clandestine struggle, peaceful and violent, political and economic, cultural and military, where all forms are developed in harmony with the armed struggle.”
- “Without mass struggle there can be no revolution.
Without armed struggle there can be no victory.”
- “We need a revolutionary communist party in order to lead the struggle, give coherence and direction to the fight, seize power and build the new society.”
- “Our job is to tap the discontent seething in many sectors of the population, to find allies everywhere people are hungry or angry, to mobilize poor and working people against imperialism.”
- “Socialism is the total opposite of capitalism/imperialism. It is the rejection of empire and white supremacy. Socialism is the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the eradication of the social system based on profit.”
The title Prairie Fire was an allusion to Mao Zedong‘s 1930 observation that “a single spark can start a prairie fire.” Ayers and his co-authors dedicated the book to a bevy of violent, America-hating revolutionaries — including Sirhan Sirhan, the assassin who had killed Robert F. Kennedy.
In 1980 Ayers and Dohrn surrendered to law-enforcement authorities, but all charges against them were later dropped due to an “improper surveillance” technicality — government authorities had failed to get a warrant for some of their surveillance. Said Ayers regarding this stroke of good fortune: “Guilty as sin, free as a bird. America is a great country.”
Next, Ayers embarked on a quest to radicalize America by working within, rather than outside of, the nation’s mainstream institutions. In particular, he sought to embed himself in a position of influence within the education establishment. In 1984 Ayers earned a master’s degree in Early Childhood Education from Bank Street College. Three years later he received a doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction from Columbia University‘s Teachers College.
In 1987 Ayers was hired as a professor of education at the University of Illinois, a post he would hold until 2010. As of October 2008, his office door at the university was adorned with photographs of Mumia Abu-Jamal, Che Guevara, and Malcolm X.
In 1994 Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn, and Michael Klonsky were among those listed on a “Membership, Subscription and Mailing List” for the Chicago Committees of Correspondence, an offshoot of the Communist Party USA.
In 1995, Ayers and Dohrn hosted a fundraiser at their home to introduce Barack Obama to their neighbors and political allies as Obama prepared to make his first run for the Illinois state senate. (This fundraiser was likely organized by the socialist New Party.) Also present at the meeting were Alice Palmer and Quentin Young.
In 1995, Ayers — whose stated educational objective is to “teach against [the] oppression” allegedly inherent in American society — founded a “school reform organization” called the Chicago Annenberg Challenge (CAC), which granted money to far-left groups and causes such as the community organization ACORN. Ayers’ teacher-training programs, which were funded by CAC, were designed to serve as “sites of resistance” against an oppressive social system.
Ayers also created, in collaboration with longtime communist Mike Klonsky, the so-called “Small Schools Movement” (SSM), where individual schools committed themselves to the promotion of specific political themes and pushed students to “confront issues of inequity, war, and violence.” A chief goal of SSM is to teach students that American capitalism is a racist, materialistic doctrine that has done incalculable harm to societies all over the world. One of the more infamous students to attend an SSM school (Mountain View High School in Arizona) was Jared Lee Loughner, the gunman who — on January 8, 2011 in Tucson — shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in the head, leaving her in critical condition. Loughner also sprayed gunfire at others in the vicinity, wounding thirteen and killing six.
Notwithstanding his radical past, Ayers in 2001 rejected the claim that he and his fellow Weather Underground members had ever been terrorists. “Terrorists destroy randomly,” he wrote, “while our actions bore … the precise stamp of a cut diamond. Terrorists intimidate, while we aimed only to educate.”
Also in 2001, Ayers expressed his enduring hatred for the United States: “What a country. It makes me want to puke.”
At a 2007 reunion of former members of the Weather Underground and Students for a Democratic Society, Ayers reemphasized his contempt for the U.S., asserting that the nation’s chief hallmarks included “oppression,” “authoritarianism,” and “a kind of rising incipient American form of fascism.” Moreover, he claimed that the U.S. was guilty of pursuing “empire unapologetic[ally]”; waging “war without end” against “an undefined enemy that’s supposed to be a rallying point for a new kind of energized jingoistic patriotism”; engaging in “unprecedented and unapologetic military expansion”; oppressing brown- and black-skinned people with “white supremacy”; perpetrating “violent attacks” against “women and girls”; expanding “surveillance in every sphere of our lives”; and “targeting … gay and lesbian people as a kind of a scapegoating gesture …”
In November 2007, Ayers spoke at a Movement for a Democratic Society (MDS) “Convergence” in Chicago. Though not officially listed as a member of MDS, he has referred to the organization’s activities as “our work.”
In March 2008 Ayers was elected (by a large majority of his peers) as Vice President for Curriculum Studies at the American Educational Research Association (AERA), putting him in a position to exert great influence over what is taught in America’s teacher-training colleges and its public schools. Specifically, Ayers seeks to inculcate teachers-in-training with a “social commitment” to the values of “Marx,” and with a desire to become agents of social change in K-12 classrooms. Whereas “capitalism promotes racism and militarism,” Ayers explains, “teaching invites transformations” and is “the motor-force of revolution.” According to a former AERA employee, “Ayers’ radical worldview, which depicts America as “the main source of the world’s racism and oppression,” thoroughly “permeates” AERA.
In a December 2012 speech at New York University, Ayers emphasized the importance of using the education system, among other things, to indoctrinate young people and thereby transform American society. Said Ayers: “If we want change to come, we would do well not to look at the sites of power we have no access to; the White House, the Congress, the Pentagon. We have absolute access to the community, the school, the neighborhood, the street, the classroom, the workplace, the shop, the farm.”
Author and longtime English professor Mary Grabar explains how Ayers has exerted a very large influence on the American education system:
“[Ayers] was successful in helping to transform and destroy education. And he did it at taxpayers’ expense. He has trained hundreds of teachers. He worked closely with Obama and [U.S. Secretary of Education] Arne Duncan in Chicago in funding programs aimed at radicalizing students. One of his closest colleagues, Linda Darling-Hammond, was on Obama’s education transition team, and was in charge of developing one of the two Common Core tests. And Bill Ayers has appeared at conferences with Duncan and other officials in organizations that devised Common Core.
“Education has always been the gateway for the smart and ambitious to get into the middle class. Ayers aims to destroy that opportunity, especially in the ‘urban schools,’ which is what the University of Illinois at Chicago, where Ayers taught, specializes in….
“Bill Ayers likens a traditional school to prison because it requires students adhere to dress codes, schedules, and rules of discipline. But he has had captive audiences and has used his power as a professor to indoctrinate future teachers. His education philosophy is based on anarchism, progressivism, and Marxism. It’s all about radicalizing children in social justice lessons, and making them see themselves as victims of an evil capitalistic system.
“It’s a toxic mixture, especially for the most vulnerable children who benefit the most from a traditional education, as studies show. His philosophy then filters down to practices and policies. Obama’s Justice Department order on racial quotas for school punishment parallels Ayers’ calls for eliminating discipline of inner-city students.
“The last thing that Ayers and his fellow Marxists want is for inner city boys to become middle class husbands and fathers. What they are producing is more Trayvon Martins, more rioters in the streets of Baltimore. The black community should be outraged that these upper-class white radicals are using their children in this way.
“Sadly, Ayers’ books are among the most widely used in education schools. Future teachers study them. He speaks at education conferences, and as I saw in 2013 at one major conference, is revered as a legitimate academic and mentor…. What Bill Ayers would have in the classroom extends the 1960s agenda of smashing monogamy, ending the bourgeois family and its values, destroying the work ethic, patriotism. So what we have is kids indoctrinated with lessons about the police—the 1960s narrative about the ‘pigs’—fatherless, rootless, joining gangs, and looting in the streets. It’s a Marxist’s dream come true.”
Ayers’ influence in education is not limited solely to his work in the United States. Indeed, he currently sits on the board of the Miranda International Center, a Venezuelan government think tank dedicated to bringing Cuba-style education to Venezuelan schools. (Ayers greatly admires Venezuela’s Marxist President Hugo Chavez.)
At a May 18, 2009 rally organized by the Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine, Ayers joined Rev. Jeremiah Wright in addressing a crowd of more than 400 people at the First United Church of Oak Park (a Chicago suburb) just prior to participating in an annual walk designed to call attention to Israel’s alleged crimes against the Palestinian people. Today Ayers is an affiliated activist of the anti-Israel organization Free Gaza, along with such luminaries as Bernardine Dohrn, Jodie Evans, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, and Adam Shapiro. Ayers is also an endorser of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. To view a list of additional notable endorsers and supporters, click here.
In August 2010, Ayers announced that he was retiring from his teaching post at the University of Illinois. However, he continues his work with AERA and serves also as an editorial-board member of In These Times, a Chicago-based socialist journal.
Beginning in the fall of 2011, Ayers was a strong supporter of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, which he described as a “North American Spring,” akin to the “Arab Spring.” Said Ayers: “These kinds of movements expand our consciousness of what’s possible.” On October 19, 2011, Ayers led a “teach-in” for members of “Occupy Chicago” (that city’s OWS contingent) on the tactics and history of “non-violent direct action.” He lauded the Chicago activists for their “brilliance”; condemned America’s “violent culture”; and derided the Tea Party movement as a bastion of “jingoism, nativism, racism.”
In March 2011, Ayers addressed an Occupy Wall Street contingent in New York City and told them: “I get up every morning and think, today I’m going to make a difference. Today I’m going to end capitalism. Today I’m going to make a revolution. I go to bed every night disappointed but I’m back to work tomorrow, and that’s the only way you can do it.”
In November 2011, Ayers was a keynote speaker at the National Association for Multicultural Education‘s (NAME) international conference in Chicago, along with critical race theorist Patricia Williams and several others. In December 2012, Rick Ayers, a teacher-education professor at the University of San Francisco, was elected as NAME’s co-president.
In September 2015, Ayers expessed support for the presidential campaign of socialist U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders. “I believe,” wrote Ayers, “that among the Sanders supporters there are thousands who are dissatisfied, who are disgruntled, but who do not have a coherent left analysis, who therefore are open to our ideas as they weren’t before they got involved in the Sanders surge. These seekers will be open (certainly many of them) to ideas from the Left of Sanders…. So, why don’t we joi[n] a Sanders local campaign or go to a mass rally? If it seems right, we could have leaflets about participatory democracy compared to the top down structure of the campaign. We could have lists of places and projects where anarchists and others are working with people in projects that are using anarchist and community participatory ideas and vision. Places where Bernie supporters might get involved once they knew about them.”
Bill Ayers has authored a series of books about parenting and educating children, including: A Kind and Just Parent; The Good Preschool Teacher; Zero Tolerance: Resisting the Drive for Punishment in Our Schools; and Teaching Towards Freedom: Moral Commitment and Ethical Action in the Classroom.
Ayers and Bernardine Dorhn raised three children. One is named Malik (the Muslim name of Malcolm X). Another is named Zayd (after Zayd Shakur, a Black Liberation Army revolutionary who was killed while driving the cop-killer JoAnne Chesimard — a.k.a. Assata Shakur — to a hideout). The third, a boy named Chesa Boudin, was raised by Ayers and Dohrn after his natural parents, Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, were sentenced to lengthy prison terms for their roles in the 1981 Brinks murders, a joint Weatherman and Black Liberation Army operation that resulted in the killing of two police officers and an armed guard.