"Cathy Wilkerson: The Evolution of a Revolutionary"
By: Margot Hornblower (Roosevelt)
Date: July 15, 1980
Source: The Washington Post, a daily national newspaper based in Washington, D.C.
About the Author: Award-winning journalist Margot Hornblower was a staff reporter for the Washington Post for 13 years, and later, known as Margot Roosevelt, became a national correspondent for Time magazine.
The Weather Underground, also known as the Weathermen, was a leftist terrorist group that grew out of the student radicalism of the late 1960s. Most of its members, including Cathy Wilkerson, were white, middle class, well educated, and formerly members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the major student activist organization of the 1960s. Agreeing that traditional political protest had done little to end the civil rights problems of American society, Weather members advocated the violent destruction of the capitalist system. In the years between 1969 and 1975, the Weathermen bombed seventeen targets, mostly government buildings. Pursued by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), much of the group went underground in 1969. In the 1980s, the members began to reappear to face trial.
The Weathermen emerged in June 1969, during an SDS conference. Eleven SDS members had authored a June 18, 1969, New Left Notes statement entitled "You Don't Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows," calling for a white fighting force to support the black liberation movement. The title of the statement came from folksinger Bob Dylan's lyrics. At a national SDS meeting a few days later, the group split between people who advocated violence and those who did not. The violent members became the Weathermen (later changed to the nonsexist Weather Underground).
The Weathermen saw themselves as the vanguard that would ignite a revolution. They proposed acts of armed propaganda aimed at pitting anti-Vietnam War protesters against the police. During the Days of Rage Vietnam protests in Chicago, they bombed a statue of a policeman on October 7, 1969. Arrested for disorderly conduct during a riot later that week, the Weathermen decided to go underground and failed to appear for their trials. They became fugitives, with several appearing on the FBI's Most Wanted list.
As terrorists, the group proved notoriously inept, though persistent. On March 6, 1970, three Weather members died when they blew up their own hideout in a Greenwich Village, New York City townhouse. On August 1, 1970, they bombed the exterior of the New York branch of the Bank of Brazil with a pipe bomb. On October 8, 1970, they bombed the ROTC building on the University of Washington campus, the Santa Barbara National Guard Armory, and a courthouse in San Rafael, California. On March 1, 1971, they bombed the U.S. Senate wing of the Capitol Building. Other targets included the Pentagon and the State Department.
The daughter of a wealthy advertising man and a graduate of a proper New England prep school, Cathlyn Platt Wilkerson traveled the well-worn path of many children of the '60s, through civil rights movement and the antiwar protests.
But perhaps because she was angrier, tougher or more desperate, she went one step further and became a leader of the Weather Underground, a group of several dozen youths who advocated armed struggle to overthrow the U.S. government.
A half-dozen Weathermen have turned themselves in the past few years, but Wilkerson is the first to face homicide charges. Three of her friends were killed in an explosion in her father's fashionable Greenwich Village townhouse in 1970. Police said the basement was being used as a bomb factory.
Wilkerson, who fled the scene of the accident, has pleaded not guilty to charges of criminally negligent homicide. For years, she and other Weathermen were sought by the FBI in one of the most massive manhunts in history.
The years underground were turbulent. Osawatomie, a magazine that Wilkerson and others published briefly in 1975, said, "We are . . . a revolutionary organization of communist women and men . . . responsible for over 25 armed actions against the enemy. Eight of these were bombings directed against imperialist war and in support of the people of Indochina. This includes the attack on the Capitol in 1971, on the Pentagon in 1972 and on the state Department in 1975."
The second of three daughters of James Platt Wilkerson, Cathy grew up in the placid suburbs of Connecticut and attended New Canaan Country School and Abbott Academy in Andover, Mass. Her parents divorced before she went to Swarthmore College, outside Philadelphia.
In her college freshman year, 1962, she went to a picket line in front of a Cambridge, Md., Woolworth's and heard a civil rights leader speak. "That was the beginning of realizing that there was a struggle going on that had deep importance for everybody's life, including mine," she said in the movie.
In 1964, she added, "I remember distinctly the day that I walked down a hall at school and there was a poster on the bulletin board. It was a leaflet that had been put out by a black community group in Chester [Pa.] that was fighting for integrating the schools. The word was around that people were going to be arrested and I remember standing and staring at that leaflet and knowing absolutely that this was the time when I had to make a decision. If I got arrested I knew what the consequences were. I knew in terms of everything I had been programmed to do for the rest of my life. One of the people arrested besides me was Kathy Boudin."
By 1966, Wilkerson was organizing against the Vietnam war as the regional Baltimore-Washington coordinator for the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Reporters who covered demonstrations here remember her as a commanding figure with penetrating eyes and a powerful, magnetic voice. She would frequently grab a bull-horn and shout exhortations to marchers. She was arrested at least once here, for occupying George Washington University's Sino-Soviet Institute in April 1969.
During those years, she lived in a commune at 1779 Lanier Pl. NW, and was friends with many of the radicals of the day, from Tom Hayden to Mark Rudd. Friends recall a young man who was in love with Wilkerson and followed her into the movement. But she had little time for personal life and the Weathermen adhered to a strict communal code in which monogamy was frowned upon and sexual freedom encouraged.
In a 1969 article in New Left Notes, Wilkerson wrote, "Within the movement it is crucial that men and women both begin to fight against the vestiges of bourgeois ideology within themselves, to break down existing forms of social relationships. Only by developing forms in which we can express love in nonexploitative and noncompetitive ways will men and women develop their full human and revolutionary potential for struggle."
One antiwar veteran remembers Wilkerson as militant and strong willed, but also thoughtful.
Another, a former SDS member, is less charitable."She was driven by guilt about being born white and privileged," he said. "Any doubts about radical theory were thought to be signs of weakness, so she would draw herself further and further into a fantasy world about the way the world works. You could never have an intellectual discussion with her. She was mainly a tactics and strategy person."
This source remembered Wilkerson as "always trying to steel herself, to harden herself, as if it was in conflict with her nature. She was always trying to be tough. It was not easy to develop a close personal relationship with her."
At a demonstration outside Western High School in late '67 or '68, he recalled, "some greasers started fighting with the demonstrators. People were pushing and shoving and punching. I said, 'This is terrible.' Cathy looked at me, surprised, and said, 'Oh, no, this is terrific. People are communicating.'"
Wilkerson was among several dozen SDS leaders who splintered off in June 1969 to form Weathermen, taking their name from a line in a Bob Dylan song, "You don't need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows."
The Weathermen demanded total commitment to revolution, with an almost religious fanaticism. They believed that if they proved, through violent acts, that they were not wimpy middle-class intellectuals, but "guerrillas fighting behind enemy lines," working-class youths would rise and join them.
"But it didn't work out so hot," recalled one Weatherman later. "We talked about racism and imperialism and the greasers talked about motorcycles and girls." Weathermen carrying Red flags into working-class neighborhoods were beaten up.
Barely a year passed before the townhouse explosion made national headlines and forced the Weathermen, already under surveillance by the FBI, to go underground. Wilkerson was one of 13 indicted by a federal grand jury in Detroit in July 1970 on charges of setting up a terrorist underground.
The indictment charged Wilkerson with making dynamite bombs on the day of the townhouse explosion.
The federal charges have since been dropped. (The current charges were brought by the Manhattan district attorney.) "The feds have dirty hands and they know it," said one of Wilkerson's attorneys, Elizabeth Fink. "They are afraid of what might be disclosed."
The Justice Department is prosecuting several top FBI officials who allegedly authorized an extensive illegal spying campaign on the Weathermen and on their friends and relatives.
Underground, the Weathermen, numbering perhaps two or three dozen, began by setting up several largely autonomous cells and according to one radical who kept in touch, "they assimilated themselves into the middle-class even to the point of forging IDs and using credit cards with false names . . . They were not hiding out. They were walking the streets, driving cars . . . They cut their hair, took off their jeans and started wearing double-knit suits and dresses."
Another friend said that since the Weathermen "came from well-heeled middle-class families . . . they had high-level contacts above ground. When they went underground, they used above-ground friends—you know, everything from 'Do you have a place for me to stay?' to 'Can you lend me a few dollars?'" Several held conventional above-ground jobs.
But the Weathermen spent as much time fighting among themselves as fighting the outside establishment. Revolutionary activity petered out after 1975, as they argued over feminism and "male supremacy," over whether to come above ground, or whether to limit violence to selected political targets without harming people or whether to venture into assassinations and kidnappings like the Red Brigade in Italy.
Some of the men reportedly felt the feminism was overbearing and bailed out, leaving a larger part of the leadership in the hands of the women, including Wilkerson, Boudin and Bernadine Dohrn. There were also arguments over whether the group was too rigid and elitist, or whether, as the "vanguard" of the coming revolution, it should be small, highly disciplined and exclusive.
All of these struggles must have taken their toll on Wilkerson. Moviemaker De Antonio, who spent two days with five Weathermen leaders in a house outside Los Angeles in 1975, remembers her as "a person of quiet intelligence. You thought more of Brook Farm than the Weather Underground. She was very intense and strong and extraordinarily attractive.
"If one were to say this person were accused of throwing bombs, I'd have laughed. Of course, I could be wrong."
In the slender, well-dressed, even demure figure of Cathy Wilkerson as she faced the judges in two court hearings last week and fended off dozens of reporters and television cameras, there was little to suggest a revolutionary. Her mother and sister have come to stay with her in New York and a bevy of lawyers is advising her.
Her statement, defiant by establishment standards, was mild in comparison with usual Weathermen rhetoric—no references to "armed struggle"—a concession perhaps to the belief that fighting words might not help her defense.
Attacking the FBI, the CIA, the police and the courts for "waging bitter battles" against Puerto Rican revolutionaries, blacks, native American radicals and Caribbean countries, Wilkerson said social conditions have not improved. "I have the same commitment to struggle ... It is 1980, but the conditions still exist which caused colonized peoples to fight for liberation . . . "
But there was a hint of humility and a suggestion that a rejection of Weathermen machismo may have been what led her out from underground. "We've made many mistakes," she said. "Male supremacy undermined us, our arrogance led us to act as white supremacists even while we denounced it. However, national liberation struggles continue to teach us and inspire us and we must change and move forward . . . "
"Women's liberation has challenged the legitimacy of physical brutality, exploitation and oppression in all spheres of life."
In the end, Cathy Wilkerson was still struggling with the irony of being a well-bred revolutionary. "I am here today and able to talk to you because I am white, middle class and free on bail," she told reporters. "Others who are black and brown do not get this opportunity and therefore it is my responsibility to say these things. In the end, I must be judged by how I act and what I do during this, the next stage of my life."
Despite being dedicated to working class and African-American rights, the Weather Underground never attracted significant numbers of workers and blacks into the organization. The organization remained small, overwhelmingly white, and predominantly middle class throughout its existence. Additionally, the decision to go underground in 1970 left the Weathermen isolated from society at large.
With the gradual withdrawal of the United States from the Vietnam War in the early 1970s amid increasing internal conflicts, the New Left split. Some leftists focused on racism and sexism, while others pursued a range of causes. The aboveground support network of the Weather Underground, known as the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee, faulted their hidden comrades for lagging behind in their commitment to combating sexism and racism. Weather Underground members then turned upon each other in internal ideological debates and purges of the members judged insufficiently committed.
The founding members of the Weather Underground who were forced out of the organization in the mid-1970s eventually surrendered to law enforcement authorities. Mark Rudd gave up in 1977, while the married couple of Bernadine Dohrn and William Ayers surfaced in 1981. With the surrender of Jeffrey David Powell on January 6, 1994, the last of the six Weatherman wanted by the FBI had surfaced. Dohrn's life after surfacing is typical of the fate of the Weather Underground leaders. For her crimes, Dohrn received three years probation and a $1,500 fine. By 2000, she had become a noted advocate for children's rights and a professor of law at Northwestern University.
The ideological hardliners within the Weather Underground went on to create the May 19th Communist Coalition, which created the Revolutionary Armed Task Force (RATF) by merging the Weatherman remnants with the Black Liberation Army. May 19th established contacts and ties with other terrorist groups, such as the Puerto Rican FALN separatists and the Palestine Liberation Army. Members of May 19th attempted to recruit in prisons by presenting themselves to prison authorities and prisoners as providers of free legal services and counsel for indigent inmates. Once they gained access to potential recruits, they undertook consciousness-raising sessions to convert prisoners to the revolutionary cause. May 19th collapsed when the FBI arrested the leaders of RATF in 1985 and 1986 on charges stemming from their participation in criminal activities.
Jacobs, Ron. The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground. London: Verso, 1997.
Audio and Visual Media
Green, Sam and Siegel, Bill. The Weather Underground. The Free History Project, Inc., 2003.