Despite a lack of attention from both major presidential candidates in last fall’s election, Ann Arbor won’t go completely unnoticed by controversial political figures this school year.
University alum and 1960s anti-war activist Bill Ayers will be addressing the Ann Arbor community tonight at 7 p.m. at the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library.
Ayers, who is a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, will be presenting from his book, “Fugitive Days: Memoirs of an Anti-War Activist,” and will be joined by his wife, Bernadine Dohrn, who co-authored the book “Race Course Against White Supremacy” with Ayers.
Ayers co-founded the Weather Underground organization, which claimed responsibility for bombings on the Capitol Building, the Pentagon, and several other government buildings in the early 1970s. Charges against Ayers in connection with the bombings were dropped after prosecutorial misconduct.
The event is being co-sponsored by Shaman Drum Bookshop and the Graduate Library.
Karl Pohrt, owner of Shaman Drum, said Beacon Press, the publisher for Ayers’s book, approached him about holding the event.
Pohrt said he then approached the Graduate Library to host the event, in part because of its esteemed Labadie Collection of anarchist and social protest literature.
“Hatcher has the finest collections of radical literature, the Labadie Collection. That’s a good sight for the event,” Pohrt said. “Also, the mission of the University is to discuss controversial issues, as is (that of) bookshops.”
Pohrt said he expects Ayers to draw a large crowd, like the last time Ayers spoke at the University in 2003.
“That was before the controversy during the last election, and everybody is very curious about who he was and what his ideas are,” Pohrt said.
During last year’s presidential campaign, Ayers became the subject of much political attention as Republicans tried to make the case that President Barack Obama’s connection to Ayers, which involved them serving on an education board together, made him a poor choice for president. In early October, Republican vice presidential-nominee Sarah Palin said, “Our opponent though, is someone who sees America it seems as being so imperfect that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country?”— an indirect reference to Ayers’s time as a leader of the Weather Underground, a radical anti-war group.
Tom Hallock, associate publisher and director of marketing, sales and subsidiary rights for Beacon Press, said he expects Ayers to talk about his book, his role in last year’s presidential campaign and the recent events in national politics.
“The right wing launched a multi-million dollar campaign, so Bill was kind of unwillingly thrust into the 2008 campaign,” Hallock said. “That’s what gave us all the publicity for the new paperback edition.”
“He will talk about the book, what it’s like to be manipulated by the right in that way,” Hallock added. “He and his audience will want to talk about the current shift in American politics and progressive approaches to politics under the Obama administration.”
Melissa Levine, University Library exhibits and outreach librarian, said the events of the 2008 presidential election echoed the political affairs of 1968, a time in which Ayers was at the forefront of social and political activism.
“Ayers had a significant role in national events in 1968 and again in 2008,” Levine said. “It’s important for students today to realize how the recent presidential election is proximately related to events in 1968.”
Levine said despite Ayers’s controversial history as a member of Students for a Democratic Society and the Weather Underground, his upcoming talk is an educational event in which students will get a glimpse into a divisive time in the nation’s past.
“What makes Ayers controversial today is the violence associated with his viewpoint,” Levine said. “It is worthwhile for us to hear directly from the source — from Ayers himself — what it was he was doing in the ’60s and early ’70s, why he adopted the militant position that he did and how he regards those positions and actions a generation later.”
Many people on campus, including students and faculty, support Ayers’s right to speak at the University.
“We completely support his freedom to speak on this campus,” said Nathaniel Eli Coats Styer, chair of the University’s chapter of College Democrats. “He’s a notable figure in history.”
Others on campus, including Brady Smith, chair of the University’s chapter of College Republicans, disagreed with Ayers’ upcoming presentation.
“Shaman Drum is certainly entitled to invite him to speak,” Smith said. “I think what’s more troubling is the University’s willingness to collaborate on it.”
Smith said that Ayers’s history as a “violent activist” makes him a questionable figure to address the University.
“What’s very disappointing to me is that the University would invite someone who’s unrepentant for his violent actions against the U.S., to use its space to promote his demagography and his violence and illegal course of action,” said Smith, who compared Ayers’s speech to Columbia University inviting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak in 2007.
Vincent Hutchings, associate professor of political science, said he believes Ayers is trying to restore his public persona and defend his point of view by addressing members of the University community.
“The effort of the speaking tour is to rehabilitate his image because of the negative comments that were expressed about him during the presidential campaign,” Hutchings said. “He’s seeking ultimately to tell his side of the story.”