Pulitzer-winning UPI reporter recalls domestic terrorism of '70s

By Yvette Hammett Hull  |  Sept. 7, 2016 at 8:03 AM
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NEW YORK, Sept. 7 (UPI) -- Domestic terrorism is not a new concept in the United States. It didn't start with the Boston Marathon bombing, the Unabomber or even Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City.

Lucinda Franks, at 24, would tell the story more than 40 years ago with her Pulitzer Prize-winning five-part series for United Press International on the Weathermen, an underground group of radicals – mostly rich, white, college-educated young people – whose goal was to create a clandestine revolutionary party to overthrow the U.S. government. It was born from outrage over the Vietnam War.

Franks was the only self-described hippy on the staff at UPI in 1970 when domestic terrorism was closer to its infancy. She had connections with the radical Vietnam protest movement and she was about to put them to work.

UPI Vice President and Editor in Chief Roger Tartarian called her in London to come back to the United States to cover the story of how a member of the Weathermen came to accidentally blow herself up while making bombs in a New York City townhouse.

Franks, in a series of stories UPI would soon nominate for a National Reporting Pulitzer Prize, told the story of Diana Oughton, what led to her radicalization and what drove the Weathermen to commit violence against police and the government.

Her colleague Thomas Powers worked as her researcher, digging out the broader picture of the anti-war movement. She would insist his name be added on a double byline. "I felt he deserved it. He gave me the context I wouldn't have had otherwise," Franks told UPI in a recent interview to mark the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prizes.

Some of the words she wrote about the Weathermen then could be used to describe today's radical terrorists who blow up buildings with suicide bombs, spray gunfire into a crowded nightclub, barricade fellow employees, then randomly shoot them. Radicals back then detonated bombs in New York, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Omaha, Neb., and Madison, Wis., among other places, causing death and destruction across the country.

"During the late fall of 1969, the Weathermen had few illusions about their ability to spark a revolution in the United States, but their fanaticism only seemed to increase as a result," Franks wrote in her series.

Long before the Internet brought widespread accessibility to propaganda designed to radicalize, Oughton got caught up in the exhilaration of the anti-war movement by participating in it.

"Diana Oughton, fundamentally gentle, had nevertheless been exhilarated by the violent days of rage in Chicago in October," Franks wrote. "In spite of their fear, their fewness and the hopelessness of their cause, the Weathermen had gone into the streets to fight the police and had not found their courage wanting. When Diana went to Washington for the massive Nov. 15 demonstration against the war, it was in an almost buoyant mood."

When asked why the Weathermen do what they do, Oughton's boyfriend, Bill Ayers, answered it like this: "Kill all the rich people. Break up their cars and apartments. Bring the revolution home, kill your parents, that's where it's really at."

Franks began her reporting by interviewing Oughton's parents in rural Illinois. They were desperate to know what had turned their privileged, genteel daughter into a domestic terrorist willing to die for the anti-war movement.

It was a movement started, Franks said, by a generation who believed the government was sending their brothers to a war the United States had no business being involved in, a war that was killing off thousands of young men.

"There was a rage in our generation that was making people crazy," Franks recalled in a recent interview. "It's hard to explain to people who were not in that generation just how emotional it was. All we talked about was Vietnam. We read all the books. We were versed in the political history of Vietnam. I had been to many of the protest movements. Even in London, I was part of the London anarchist movement that was also marching against the Vietnam war."

Before she even went to visit the Oughtons, Franks put out the word that she wanted to meet with members of the Weathermen to tell their story.

She returned from Illinois and went to a suburb of Boston to visit her parents. It was then she got a call from a man who wouldn't give his name, but urged her to meet him under the clock tower at Grand Central Station at 10 p.m. that night.

The man, with red eyes, a red nose and long hair, showed up and warned her that while he could take her to the Weathermen, it would be dangerous. She might be hurt. "And if this doesn't matter to you, man, follow me."

"We got on a train and went to a certain city and were picked up in a pickup truck. We rode in the back for about two and a half hours, finally stopping at a very isolated, very neatly painted house in the woods."

It was there she would meet up with an acquaintance she knew had gone underground. Susie, as Franks refers to her – she never revealed her true identity -- laid down some ground rules. No names, no places. They talked about how Franks would write their story and she spent several days there talking one after another to these young people bent on revolution.

She and Susie recalled a time when they'd participated together in an anti-war march during which they threw blood on draft files in a government office. "One thing led to another and she had others come talk to me all afternoon and all night. In the end, they started smoking pot and that was an indication to me that they were warming up."

They were all wanted by the FBI after one of the explosions they had detonated.

"Why they ever thought they'd get away with it, I don't know," Franks said.

On one of those days in the woods, Susie and another woman who had warmed up to Franks left the house. A member of the Black Panthers, returning from "an action," as the bombings were called, eyed Franks suspiciously as she took notes, then slammed her against the wall and pulled a switchblade. "Who the [expletive] are you?" he demanded to know. "That was a tough one," she said. "I had to start talking fast. That was the scariest thing."

Franks told the radicals she would describe the house, how the group lived, why they did what they did.

"The policy of the Weathermen was that every member would participate, so far as possible, in every illegal act, whether obtaining, making or planting explosives," Franks wrote. "They knew their chances of a normal life were being irretrievably put behind them. They knew they might have to die. Of the 400 people who attended the Flint council, (a war-organizing council for the movement) fewer than 100 went underground. For those few, committed to the revolution above all else, it was a matter of logic. Community organizing had failed. Mass demonstrations had failed. Fighting in the streets had failed. Only terror was left."

Later Franks wrote, "In the end, Diana Oughton relinquished her humanity in hopes of creating a new world where she thought people could be more human. She denied her own nature and everything she loved. She grew more and more distant from her family; she gave up teaching children, the thing she loved to do best; she gave up her relationship with Bill Ayers when he argued the revolution came first. Willingly, she became an instrument of the revolution. She stopped asking questions to make bombs."

"I knew after spending those days in the woods that I had a hell of a story," said Franks, who lives in New York City with her husband, Robert Morgenthau, who served as New York County's district attorney for 34 years. (She wrote a book about their marriage, Timeless, Love, Morgenthau and Me in 2014).

"I never, ever dreamed it was a story that would win a big prize," she said. "And particularly at my young age, I didn't think there was any chance of any jury voting to give me the prize. I really didn't think I deserved it. I kept it quiet for a long time until I finally went back and read the series and realized it was a damn good story and I deserved to win."

Franks was the youngest person ever to win the National Reporting Pulitzer Prize and the first woman to win it.

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