One of the email lists I belong to is made up of a few former students at the University of Maryland. All of the members were involved somehow in the radical student movement at the university in the 1960s and 1970s. Much of the listserv discussion is over political questions of the day and the members arguing equipped with a variety of viewpoints across the spectrum. More interesting in terms of history, however, are the names that occasionally pop up when one or the other member is recalling their glory days. Some of those names include local heroes and renegades while others are the names of nationally known scholars and political figures.
One name that pops up regularly is Cathy Wilkerson. For those that don’t recognize her, Wilkerson was among the leadership of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) during its heyday. She was the head of the Washington DC region for SDS and editor of the organization’s newspaper New Left Notes. She was also a member of Weatherman/Weather Underground. It is because of that membership that she was living in her father’s townhouse in Manhattan on March 6, 1970 when the building exploded as a result of a wiring mistake during the building of a bomb by fellow Weatherman members.
Wilkerson is also the author of a new memoir titled Flying Close to the Sun. This book is less about the Weather Underground and the bombing than it is the story of how a young person from a well-off family from the United states develops a political conscience. It is a personal look at how one’s political growth is also part of one’s personal development; how the development of a moral standard can drive one to accept and commit actions that seem contradictory to that conscience. It is also a uniquely personal take on the history of the radical movement in the United States from the early 1960s until the mid-1970s.
When I am invited to classes to talk about the Left radical movements of the aforementioned period, there are always those in the audience who seem to be looking for some kind of psychological flaw in the members of those movements. It’s as if they are unwilling (or unable) to accept that people in the United States can become political radicals for moral and political reasons. This is especially the case when groups like the Weather Underground are discussed. While Wilkerson’s narrative is strictly her narrative, it relates a trajectory not very different from most middle-class and wealthy members of U.S. radical movements. It is the story of hopes dashed by elected leaders preaching democracy, frustration with supposedly democratic channels that do more to prolong war and racism than end those ills, and the growing awareness of the power of the people. Furthermore, it is the story of the moral dissonance created upon realizing your family’s financial wellbeing depends on other families’ misery. It’s a tale of frustration with the fact that power in the United States is directly related to wealth and the amorality of that wealth and the pursuit of ever more wealth it requires to exist.
At times, exciting and at other times reflective, Flying Close to the Sun is always captivating. Her descriptions of undercover police activities against SDS show the seriousness of the government’s fear. The discussions of her internal emotional and intellectual conflicts complement the descriptions of the political discussions within the movement while simultaneously providing the reader with a different understanding of how the personal does become intertwined with the political. Like most activists of her age, Wilkerson’s radical politics were directly related to the discovery that racism was not only entrenched in U.S. society, but essential to its development. This realization came through her observation , then participation in the civil rights movement that eventually ended legal apartheid in the country. In the minds of many activists that came of age around the same time as Wilkerson, there was nothing that white skinned people could do that would be enough to end racism’s bloody and terrible legacy.
While this perception is crucial to understanding the nature of the U.S. economy and its accompanying governmental policies, the guilt-driven desperation this analysis often brought was part of what fueled the decision by many white activists to reject anything having to do with that legacy. It is a decision that Wilkerson acknowledges helped place her fellow revolutionaries in Weather outside of the movement. It’s not that many in the movement didn’t agree with the essential nature of Weather’s argument that ending racism was core to ending oppression and creating a new world, it’s that they didn’t share Weather’s frustrated rage that tended to go nowhere. Wilkerson takes a look at Weather’s macho posturing and examines her reasons for going along with it despite her misgivings. She writes critically about the results of the lack of a structure in SDS and the resultant hierarchical relationship between the Weather leadership and the various cadre. In addition, she examines the nature of revolutionary violence and its validity in the long term.
There are several books out now that look at the legacy of the Weather Underground Organization. Some are histories by outsiders and some are memoirs (including the recently republished With the Weatherman by Susan Stern). All of them are good reads and useful to the serious and casual historian. In addition, they provide several relevant insights to today’s radicals regarding the pitfalls of organizing in the belly of the beast. Wilkerson’s stands out among all of these books for its thoughtfulness, carefully worded discussions and the fact that it is the narrative of a woman’s involvement in this most interesting period of history. For those that don’t like straight history but want to know more about this particular period, Flying Close to the Sun might be your best bet.