The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 12, 2018

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You Don't Need a Weatherman to Write the History of the Weathermen
Daniel J. Flynn - 02/18/08

Wilkerson and her Weatherman comrades imagined themselves as possessing superior morality, vision, and leadership. The super-rich Hessians fighting the class war on behalf of the world’s poor and oppressed, however, lobbed friendly fire early on and never paused to correct their aim. At Bryn Mawr College, Boudin protested to the school’s president, “The maids are grotesquely underpaid and are an extension of the slavery system.” Bryn Mawr responded by dispensing with maids altogether. In Ann Arbor, where as a young teacher she poured herself into an experimental school, Oughton was stunned when local blacks—the very people the school embraced—persuasively urged a Great Society board to deny it funds. “The single most important failing of the school,” Oughton biographer Thomas Powers noted, “and the one on which it foundered in the end, was the fact that no one ever learned to read there.” Similarly, Wilkerson recounts instigating black tenants in Chester, Pennsylvania, to conduct a rent strike, only to pull back support once her own group of activists decided upon another course. “I had led people to go out on a limb, to take risks, without being able to back them up,” she recalls, noting that angry landlords responded by seeking to evict rent-withholding tenants. The trio never learned how precarious the connections are between intentions and results. 

From Swarthmore’s SDS chapter, Wilkerson became editor of the group’s national publication, New Left Notes. She made headlines in 1967 by meeting with representatives of the Vietnamese Communists in Phnom Penh and Bratislava. As Wilkerson ended her tenure as editor that year, New Left Notes demeaned Martin Luther King’s “Vietnam Summer” as “liberal cooption,” urging students to steer clear. “King is purposely diverting our attention from the real purposes of that foreign policy,” New Left Notes charged. While Wilkerson mentions SDS participation in Vietnam Summer, she neglects to mention her publication’s harsh criticism of King and its hair-splitting opposition to his antiwar activities. Some facts are better left in the past.

In 1968, when SDS jeered the campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy, urging young people to “vote in the streets” instead, Wilkerson was among the SDS troublemakers who descended upon Mayor Richard Daley’s Chicago during the Democratic National Convention. Though other movement histories place her at the scene of hotel stink-bombings, graffiti assaults, and telephoned bomb threats, Wilkerson ignores all that to bemoan the “largely unprovoked violence” by the police.

In 1969, after the Nixon “counter-inauguration,” where SDS alum Marilyn Webb’s speech for women’s liberation elicited sexist catcalls from fellow protesters, Webb received a phone call: “If you or anybody else like you ever gives a speech like that again, we’re going to beat the shit out of you. SDS has a line on women’s liberation, and that is the line.” Webb believed the voice sounded a lot like Wilkerson’s distinctive transatlantic accent. According to Wilkerson it is likely that not only were the catcalls the product of an FBI conspiracy, but the ominous phone call was too. “It’s more likely, however, that this too was part of COINTELPRO’s [the FBI Counter Intelligence Program’s] dirty tricks, and it is probably not a coincidence that the caller sounded like me,” Wilkerson maintains thirty-eight years later.

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