Shaking Off the Dust of the Underground
Once she was on the FBI’s top 10 wanted list. Today Cathy Wilkerson’s a grandmother standing just feet from where she once cheated death at 18 West 11th Street. The notorious 1960s political activist and member of the Weatherman Underground looks elegantly innocent, in stark contrast from her 25-year-old self, who raced to the 6th Avenue subway in pink knee-high patent leather boots on March 6, 1970.
While on her recent book tour, Wilkerson spoke with me and several others about her new memoir, Flying Close to the Sun, which follows her life protesting with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a leftist student activism group in the 1960s. She later joined an offshoot of the SDS called the Weatherman Underground, named after the Bob Dylan lyric, “You don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows.”
Her involvement was influenced by her pacifist Quaker education and her travels to Europe and Vietnam. And since women were destined to become wives or secretaries, she enjoyed the activist life—drugs and alcohol included. “How could the movement not be fun? It was heavenly,” she said.
Wilkerson’s notion was to live freely and tear down old structures of society that impeded equity, democracy and civil rights. Racism, sexism and the war in Vietnam were at the top of her list of offenders. Other bombshells that exploded at every turn included the murders of forward-thinking leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., President Kennedy and Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. “If you had a 9/11 day after day,” she said, “that was the ’60s.”
The climax of the Flying Close to the Sun comes as Wilkerson was cleaning her father’s house where she crashed with her activist friends. The group built a pipe bomb filled with nails and dynamite, which they planned on detonating at a Fort Dix officer ball to protest the Vietnam War.
The bomb prematurely exploded, leaving charred skeletal walls. Not even the stone staircase remained. “That’s the part that fell on Teddy,” she said somberly, recalling her friend. Inexplicably, Wilkerson escaped with fellow activist Kathy Boudin. Three other Weathermen died in the blast.
After 10 years evading the FBI on the West Coast, and a baby born in 1978, Wilkerson emerged in 1980. She turned herself in and faced 11 months in jail for illegal possession of dynamite. After her release in 1981, she settled in Brooklyn where she lives with her daughter, Bess and her partner, lawyer Susan Tipograph. She has taught at high schools in the Bronx and Brooklyn as well as at the New School. “Being educated about math and science is the most important thing for democracy,” she explained.
Her greatest motive for writing the memoir, according to her, was to debunk the romanticism of the Weatherman organization, a revolutionary group that used violence to elicit social and political change. But she didn’t deny any personal motives. “I’m so tired of reading my story from the mouths of fiction writers,” she said, insisting that she was not naked when escaping the 11th Street townhouse, as many believe.
For many, the ’60s may be a distant, unfamiliar and sexed-up era, but Wilkerson hopes readers will embrace the idea of change, hope and possibility of the generation. “Young people are the greatest resource in any country,” she said, “and that we treat them so poorly is a travesty.” While she didn’t want to generalize about the current generation’s political positions, she cites issues like the environment, education and the economy as major problems.
Her hope is that youth will focus on this conversation about democracy, social change and equity.
As she wrapped things up, Wilkerson did not loiter in front of this new townhouse. Looking around 11th Street, she said some of the buildings are higher, but essentially it’s the same. Likewise, Wilkerson has shown through her book and interview that she’s not entirely changed either. Instead of fighting injustice with bombs, she educates children and, now, her readers, urging them to fight the ignorance that leads to injustice. It was with pride that she announced: “Yes, I am an activist.”
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