Weatherman was not the only armed revolutionary group; for a time in 1969 and ’70, some domestic political target was bombed nearly every day. If blowing up buildings was bad public relations, Wilkerson, by circumstance and fatal accident, became the movement’s negative poster child. But I’m getting ahead of the story.
The short version
For those of you who tuned in late . . . the organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) evolved from student socialist groups in the early 1960s. In pure form, it advocated the democratic principles of human equality, participatory democracy, and direct (i.e., outside electoral channels) action to address injustice — principally via community organizing or public demonstration. SDS played a key role in energizing Northern youth to assist the Southern civil-rights struggle.
By the mid ’60s, there were SDS chapters on campuses throughout America. The “national” leadership was so dedicatedly anti-authoritarian, and the information-based open-forum campus meetings so diversified, that the group lacked any unified goals or strategies. By around 1967, SDS was ripe for takeover by an organized doctrinaire faction, which it attracted in the form of the Progressive Labor Party (PLP, or just PL). PL overtly and covertly infiltrated SDS chapters, often dominated discussion, and did its best to bend the group’s agenda away from leftist democratic debate toward Leninist rhetoric. Where this happened, it weakened SDS’s influence on anti-war activism and encouraged the formation of a slew of alternative direct-action coalitions. PL couldn’t have done a better job at wrecking SDS if the FBI had paid them.
Still, through its national newsletter, New Left Notes, of which Wilkerson was editor for several years, SDS continued to serve as a somewhat toothless incubator and filter for political philosophy and tactics, which made the rounds of campus activists. Stymied by the determination of PL disruption, many local chapters, Boston-area ones included, devolved into mostly talk and little action. (At BU, classmates who took speed and ran at the mouth were frequently chided, “You sound like an SDS meeting.”) Other chapters continued doing good work aiding draft resistors, attacking community issues, and reaching out to the disenfranchised poor.
Enter [coast left] the Black Panther Party, a militant African-American activist group that chose to work totally outside the white establishment and, largely, apart from the student left. SDS leadership, philosophically at least, opposed all forms of elitism. They harbored lingering faith in a student-worker alliance. (Students themselves, after years of persecution by hard-hats, had abandoned that notion.) And they promoted white guilt, believing, accurately, that most social activists, including themselves, were white, middle-class, educated, and otherwise comparatively privileged. SDS longed to ally itself with the Panthers, even as the Panthers mushroomed out of central control and came under brutal attack by police and the FBI.
In the late 1960s, America was a physically dangerous place, to an extent no white citizen under 50 could imagine today. Progressive leaders were being assassinated by alleged nut cases with suspicious efficacy. Black communities reacted to economic injustice with self-destructive violence. Student protestors were clubbed and jailed; their leaders put on trial. Police seemingly declared open season on ghetto leaders. Years of massive anti-war demonstrations had thus far accomplished little beyond widespread disillusionment. Struggling to secure its place in the desperate and supercharged environment that followed from the nationally televised police riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, ever-loquacious SDS fell apart. It was inevitable that the activist left’s growing sense of powerless frustration inspire a more dangerous game — domestic terrorism.