This post is the third in a five-part series, originally published by United Press International on September 16, 1970, for which Lucinda Franks and Thomas Powers received the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. (Click here for PART I or PART II)
The Diana Oughton who returned from Guatemala in the fall of 1965 was not the same young woman who had graduated from Bryn Mawr two years earlier.
Her family was bothered by her seriousness and a new air of melancholy in everything she did. She seemed to have lost some of her sense of humor and her taste for clowning around.
After living in a single room with a dirt floor and no plumbing for two years, Diana found it hard to adjust to the luxury of the Dwight Estate. Her family’s way of life made her uneasy. She preferred to wash dishes herself instead of using the dishwasher. She would rummage through the attic and pull out an old sweater or a wool skirt instead of buying new ones.
Her college German professor, whom she visited upon her return, found her deeply distressed at the poverty she had seen in Guatemala. Others said she had become disillusioned with her country’s role in Guatemala and increasingly critical of its policies elsewhere, particularly in Vietnam.
Diana moved into the Bohemian Powelton quarter of Philadelphia when she returned from Guatemala and deliberately lived an acetic life. Her apartment contained a bed and a table and nothing else. Her cupboards were generally empty except for a stock of caviar, smoked oysters and other gourmet food sent by her mother.
She took a job teaching in a federally-financed adult literacy program but soon became disillusioned with the other teachers. She said they were tired professionals who had little interest in their pupils and were “just trying to pick up an extra 100 bucks a week.”
In the spring of 1966, Diana left Philadelphia for Ann Arbor to enroll in the University of Michigan Graduate School of Education to get her master’s degree in teaching. She was adamant about being on her own and at times tried to conceal her family’s wealth. When asked what her father did, she often said, “Oh, he’s a farmer,” and quickly changed the subject.
In Ann Arbor, she again lived frugally, ate little, and refused to let her father give her money.
“I don’t want you to give me an allowance,” she said in a letter in March 1967. “It is important to me to be on my own and to feel I can support myself and have responsibility for my own life…I think by age 25, I have the right to live the way I want without feeling guilty that my way of life upsets you.”
A variety of influences played on Diana in Ann Arbor. It was a time when opposition to the Vietnam war was growing, when many young people began to feel despondent about the failure of mass peaceful demonstrations to change American policy. At home, there was a feeling that Bob Dylan’s prophecy of “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” was coming true; beginning in 1964 there were riots in the urban ghettos, senseless, freak violence like the murder of eight nurses in Chicago and the massacre of 14 persons by a deranged gunman from a tower at the University of Texas. A darker vision of America was emerging in the minds of many young people, but most still believed the way to combat war and violence was through non-violence and reform.
After she arrived at the University of Michigan in 1966, Diana joined the Children’s Community School, a project based on the Summerhill method of education and founded a group of students the year before. It was there that Diana met Bill Ayers, the son of the chairman of Commonwealth Edison Co. of Chicago and one of the Weathermen later indicted on bomb conspiracy charges. Ayers probably exercised the single most powerful influence over Diana until her death.
The school, a kindergarten in the basement of the American Friends Committee building, was based on the premise that something had gone wrong with America’s schools. Its goals were to create an integrated student body where black and white children would be treated alike, and an unstructured classroom where the children would choose what they wanted to learn. There were no classes or grades and the kids were allowed to come and go as they pleased. They wandered from room to room, free to choose from among sand tables, clay, blocks and books. A child was taught to read or write only if her expressed a desire to learn.
Diana was loved by the children, and, as she had in Guatemala, plunged herself totally into the effort to make the school a success. She wrote promotional brochures and designed a button with the slogan, “Children are only newer people.” Three years later, some of her children were to place that same button, pinned to a bouquet of flowers on the site of the bombed-out New York townhouse where she was killed.
At the Children’s Community School the students spent more time on outings than in the classroom. They visited supermarkets to learn the value of money and when one child asked what a dead person looked like, they all went off to visit a morgue. They had Sunday picnics and a huge party at Christmas, 1967, where the children gave each other presents. Bill gave Diana a long Indian dress and she gave him a pair of leather pants.
Bill and Diana grew closer and eventually began to live together in an attic room near the university. Like most of the men Diana had been attracted to, Bill was charming, manipulative, and a bit cruel. Diana was always at his side and when she went home to Dwight, she talked about him frequently, quoting things he had said and talking about their plans for the school. Members of her family felt her ideas, which were becoming steadily more progressive, were a reflection of his.
In March, 1967, Diana’s sister, Carol, got her a job offer to work for the crusading, liberal Washington journalist, I.F. Stone, who was looking for an editorial assistant fluent in Spanish. Diana considered it seriously for several months, but finally decided to stay in Ann Arbor with Bill. The relationship deepened and a year later, she and Bill tried to have a child but failed.
The Children’s Community School had begun to attract considerable attention by the end of 1967, and had expanded to include first and second grade levels. Ayers, who had become somewhat of a figure in Ann Arbor, ran for the town’s school board in April, 1968, on a joint ticket with a Negro woman, Joan Adams, the mother of one of the children in the school. Both were defeated.
Despite its early acclaim, the school began running into severe problems in the spring of 1968. The American Friends Committee complained that the kids were running wild, marking up the walls, and damaging property in their basement. Two professors withdrew their children, saying that the black students were dominating the school and terrorizing the white children and that, in fact, the school was teaching their children to become racists.
In June, the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) Board in Ann Arbor turned down a request for funds by the school, which had previously been self-supporting. It was a double blow for Bill and Diana because members of the black community in Ann Arbor, including some with children at the school, were among those who argued most heatedly against the grant.
Most troubling to Bill and Diana was the fact that Joan Adams, a member of the OEO Board, abstained in the voting at a moment when the board was split 5-5 on the issue of the grant. The bitterness of the attack on the school partly centering on the fact that Bill and Diana were living together, stunned both of them.
When the school ran into still other problems because of state zoning regulations, Bill and Diana, too disappointed to go on, looked elsewhere for involvement and became more active in the Ann Arbor chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
Ayers had been a member of the SDS radical education project for several years at a time when SDS was still a loosely-organized group of students who believed in experimental schools and community projects as vehicles for change.
In June, 1968, they attended an SDS convention in East Lansing where a sharp split was emerging between the Progressive Labor Party (PL) and the cultural revolutionaries who naturally attracted Bill and Diana. PL was a dour, highly disciplined but distinctly old-fashioned Marxist-Leninist party which frowned on marijuana, sexual freedom, long hair and anything else which would offend the American working classes.
After the convention Diana and Bill spent part of the summer in Chicago working in the SDS national office where they had intense political discussion with Mike Klonsky, an SDS national officer, and Bernadine Dohrn, a later leader of the Weathermen. Diana and Bill became convinced that direct action rather than education and peaceful reform were the way to change society.
Diana was deeply affected by the demonstrations at the Democratic Party convention that August and what she and the SDS and eventually the Walker Commission felt was a “police riot.” At the peak of the violence, she called her sister, Carol, in Chicago for $150 to help bail Tom Hayden, one of the founders of SDS in 1962, out of jail. A day or two later she called again and said she and Bill were leaving the city because “it’s getting too rough.”
It was also during that summer that Bill and Diana turned full-scale toward the cultural revolution. They developed a taste for “acid” rock at ear-shattering volume. They cut off their hair and began to wear hippy headbands and wire-rimmed glasses. They took LSD, sometimes with another couple. On one occasion one of the group ran out into the street naked but was coaxed back inside before the police came.
They returned to Ann Arbor that fall in an activist mood. At the first meeting of the Ann Arbor SDS on Sept. 24, 1968, a sharp division in the group was apparent. Diana and Bill along with some 40 other radicals banded together against the moderates and formed a faction which they called “The Jesse James Gang.”
The gang declared themselves revolutionary gangsters. They held peaceful methods of reform in contempt. They urged direct action instead of talk, individual violent confrontations instead of big peace marches. Contained in their still half-formed ideas about the role of America in the world and white radicals in America, was the germ of the Weatherman analysis which would later call for violence.
The gang disrupted SDS meetings and made vicious personal attacks on their opponents. The meetings frequently degenerated into brawls. The gang shouted and heckled and even threw eggs and tomatoes at moderate speakers. They often let it be known that their opponents were running the risk of physical beatings.
Bill Ayers, Diana at his side, spoke against the failure of education to change people and described the gang as “the arms of liberation inside the monster.”
“We are tired of tiptoeing up to society and asking for reform. We’re ready to kick it,” he told one opponent.
The behind-the-scenes leader of the Jesse James Gang was a mysterious, 31-year-old man named Jim Mellen who appeared out of nowhere in Ann Arbor that Fall. No one knew where he had gone to school or why he had come to the University of Michigan. Although he was the major intellectual force behind the gang, Mellen carefully avoided any position of formal authority. A rumor began circulating among his critics that Mellen was an agent provocateur sent by the Central Intelligence Agency to destroy SDS and the radical movement in Michigan.
Ten months later, after helping to write the Weatherman manifesto and playing a part in the June, 1969, SDS convention which destroyed the organization, Mellen faded from the Ann Arbor radical scene as mysteriously as he had arrived.
Within a period of a few weeks the Jesse James Gang triumphed within the SDS chapter at Ann Arbor. Early in October, 1968, the moderates decided they had had enough and walked out to form their own group. Through psychological warfare and vague threats of violence, the gang had captured the single most important SDS chapter in Michigan, which automatically gave them a powerful voice in the national organization.
The gang carried out few actions, but when they did the entire University of Michigan campus generally knew about them. On one occasion they held a demonstration outside a campus building while the University’s president, Robben Fleming, was giving a speech inside. Armed with a portable public address system, records and loaves of bread they attracted a crowd. Diana spoke during the demonstration while other gang members handed out slices of bread, shouting, “here’s the bread. Get the baloney inside.”
Ayers rose to a position of strength with the gang because of his ability to dominate groups through a combination of charm and the volume of his voice. Handsome and brash, he was a notorious lady’s man who did not hide his promiscuity from Diana.
Diana told friends that although she was hurt by Bill’s infidelity, it made her redouble her efforts to be a true revolutionary. Stung by frequent jibes that she could afford to be one because her daddy was rich, Diana struggled to make her own mark in the movement.
In November, 1968, Diana became a regional organizer for the SDS in Michigan, not fully aware that the appointment was an attempt by national SDS to head off criticism by the just-born Women’s Liberation Movement that SDS was “male chauvinist.” Diana’s status as a token woman brought her into conflict with other women radicals, but she eventually earned acceptance as a genuine liberationist.
Early in 1969 she organized a “Cuba Month” on campus, a series of films and seminars on the Cuban revolution. Gradually she became known less as Bill Ayers’ sidekick than as a radical “sister” in her own right.
Diana’s upbringing made her an asset to the movement. Naturally gracious and tactful, she was used as a negotiator in disputes with other left groups, and with the university administration. As one non-SDS student put it, “she was the only one in the gang you could talk to without wanting to punch her in the nose.”
As Diana deepened in her political commitment, her relationship with her father, which had always been close, began to break down.
During December, 1968, Bill and Diana both began to emerge as leaders in the national SDS at a conference held in Ann Arbor. At about the same time, on Dec. 9, 1968, she wrote in one of her last letters home:
“It gets harder and I get more reluctant to justify myself over and over again to you–I feel as if I’ve gone through a process of conscious choice and that I’ve thought about it a lot and people I admire agree with me, educationally important, recognized and respected people.
“I feel like a moral person, that my life is my values and that most people my age or even younger have already begun to sell out to materialism, status, hypocrisy, stepping on other people, etc…I feel like part of a vanguard, that we speak of important change to come…”
In October, 1968, Diana and Kathy Boudin, believed to have been one of the two girls who ran from the house after the bomb explosion which killed Diana, went to dinner at the Chicago apartment of an old college friend of Diana, Karin Rosenberg.
The pair were astonished at the “bourgeois, middle class” way in which Karin and her husband, Merrill, lived.
During dinner Diana got into a long, heated argument about politics with Merrill, a liberal who said he agreed with some of SDS’s goals but not with its methods.
“How can you think that way and then do nothing?” Diana asked. Merrill became angry and defensive. “If you’re serious about bringing on a revolution,” he said, with a strong implication he did not think she was, “then you are going to have to throw bombs.”
This post is the third in a five-part series, originally published by United Press International on September 16, 1970, for which Lucinda Franks and Thomas Powers received the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. (Click here for PART I or PART II) Read PART IV here.