William Charles "Bill" Ayers (born December 26, 1944) is an American elementary education theorist and a former leader in the movement that opposed U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. He is known for the radical nature of his 1960's activism as well as his current work in education reform, curriculum, and instruction. In 1969 he co-founded the Weather Underground, a communist revolutionary group that conducted a campaign of bombing public buildings during the 1960s and 1970s motivated by US involvement in the Vietnam War. He is now a professor in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, holding the titles of Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar. During the 2008 Presidential campaign, a controversy arose over his past contacts with candidate Barack Obama.
Ayers grew up in Glen Ellyn, a suburb of Chicago, Illinois. He attended public schools there until his second year in high school, when he transferred to Lake Forest Academy, a small prep school. Ayers earned a B.A. from the University of Michigan in American Studies in 1968. (His father, mother and older brother had preceded him there.) He is the son of Thomas G. Ayers, former Chairman and CEO of Commonwealth Edison (1973 to 1980), Chicago philanthropist and the namesake of the Thomas G. Ayers College of Commerce and Industry. Ayers was affected when Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) President Paul Potter, at a 1965 Ann Arbor Teach-In against the Vietnam war, asked his audience, "How will you live your life so that it doesn't make a mockery of your values?" Ayers later wrote in his memoir, Fugitive Days, that his reaction was: "You could not be a moral person with the means to act, and stand still. To stand still was to choose indifference. Indifference was the opposite of moral" In 1965, Ayers joined a picket line protesting an Ann Arbor, Michigan pizzeria for refusing to seat African Americans. His first arrest came for a sit-in at a local conscription board, resulting in 10 days in jail. His first teaching job came shortly afterward at the Children's Community School, a preschool with a very small enrollment operating in a church basement, founded by a group of students in emulation of the Summerhill method of education. The school was a part of the nationwide "free school movement". Schools in the movement had no grades or report cards, they aimed to encourage cooperation rather than competition, and the teachers had pupils address them by their first names. Within a few months, at age 21, Ayers became director of the school. There also he met Diana Oughton, who would become his girlfriend until her death in the Greenwich Village townhouse explosion in 1970.
Ayers became involved in the New Left and the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). He rose to national prominence as an SDS leader in 1968 and 1969. As head of an SDS regional group, the "Jesse James Gang", Ayers made decisive contributions to the Weatherman orientation toward militancy. The group Ayers headed in Detroit, Michigan became one of the earliest gatherings of what became the Weatherman. Before the June 1969 SDS convention, Ayers became a prominent leader of the group, which arose as a result of a schism in SDS. "During that time his infatuation with street fighting grew and he developed a language of confrontational militancy that became more and more pronounced over the year ", disaffected former Weatherman member Cathy Wilkerson wrote in 2001. Ayers had previously become a roommate of Terry Robbins, a fellow militant, Wilkerson wrote. Robbins would later be killed while making a bomb. In June 1969, the Weatherman took control of the SDS at its national convention, where Ayers was elected Education Secretary. Later in 1969, Ayers participated in planting a bomb at a statue dedicated to police casualties in the 1886 Haymarket affair confrontation between labor supporters and the Chicago police. The blast broke almost 100 windows and blew pieces of the statue onto the nearby Kennedy Expressway. (The statue was rebuilt and unveiled on May 4, 1970, and blown up again by other Weathermen on October 6, 1970. Rebuilding it yet again, the city posted a 24-hour police guard to prevent another blast, and in January 1972 it was moved to Chicago police headquarters.) Ayers participated in the Days of Rage riot in Chicago in October 1969, and in December was at the "War Council" meeting in Flint, Michigan. Larry Grathwohl, a Federal Bureau of Investigation informant in the Weatherman group from the fall of 1969 to the spring of 1970, stated that "Ayers, along with Bernardine Dohrn, probably had the most authority within the Weatherman".