Two former 1960s Weather Underground activists brought their message of radical politics Wednesday to the downtown Enoch Pratt Free Library - and to several hundred kindred spirits who vastly outnumbered a small band of critics who stood outside.
William Ayers and his wife, Bernadette Dohrn, both advocates of social justice in education, focused on the needs of at-risk students and faced an overwhelmingly receptive audience. Many of their remarks were directed at what they described as "the stain of white supremacy."
Both thanked the Pratt for the invitation to speak. "In a free republic, you have to have a free library," Dohrn said.
Ayers said he stood in Chicago's Grant Park and cried the night Barack Obama was elected president, adding that Obama's move to the White House "is a blow against white supremacy."
Both Ayers and Dohrn, who have been university professors in recent years, were drawn back into a national political squabble in the last presidential election when Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin accused Barack Obama of "palling around with terrorists," a barb aimed at a reported Obama connection to Ayers.
At Wednesday's talk, both Ayers and Dorhn played down the connection and said that their connections to Obama had more to do with the fact that they and the president lived on the South Side of Chicago.
Ayres and his wife drew murmurs of agreement from their audience when they discussed issues of race and criminal justice.
"We're creating a gulag of prisons across the U.S. holding people who are nonviolent offenders," Dohrn said. "We have two systems of justice for young people ... white kids are protected by an invisible system and will not go into the prison system, while kids of colors will be arrested again and again."
Ayers and Dohrn were critical of U.S. foreign policy and said the country was waging wars against Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Dohrn described the U.S. as a declining global power, both in political and economic terms.
"The U.S. is 4.6 percent of the world's people but consumes the majority of world resources and wealth," Dorhn said.
Ayers, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was soft-spoken. While he no longer resembles the 1968 Chicago Police Department mug shot of him, his hair is still tousled. He's lost his drooping mustache and wears two earrings. He arrived at the Pratt's Wheeler Auditorium with a plastic tumbler of Starbucks iced coffee.
"We're not apologizing for being leftists," Ayers said. "We have never hidden our beliefs. We never were terrorists."
Ayers was a co-founder of the Weathermen, a group of Vietnam-era radicals who bombed government property to protest the war.
"He has an interesting story," said Gail Mumford, who attended the lecture and is an Annie E. Casey Foundation employee. "Bill Ayers is all about transformation and the 1960s. I watch him and his wife now work with children. I believe that people should be defined as they unfold."
Others did not agree. Phil Wilk, an Olney resident who carried a protest sign, stood at the Pratt entrance. "We need to educate people [about] what Bill Ayers has done in the past."