Ayers, Wright meet at Friday speech

Nathalie Tadena

Correction appendedFor months, two figures dogged Barack Obama’s presidential campaign: the candidate’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. and his Hyde Park neighbor, 1960s radical William Ayers.

Three days after Obama gave his victory speech in Grant Park, the two appeared together in a venue other than a negative campaign ad.

Wright delivered the keynote address at For Members Only’s “State of the Black Union” event Friday night. Ayers was a VIP guest of FMO, joining 900 people inside a packed Cahn Auditorium.

Ayers, who now teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said he met Wright for the first time Friday.

“He has fought his whole life for justice, and I’ve just admired him,” Ayers said.

Northwestern offered Wright an honorary doctorate of sacred theology last year. University President Henry Bienen rescinded the offer after a number of Wright’s statements during sermons at Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago’s South Side drew negative attention.

In an interview Thursday, Bienen said he would miss Wright’s speech due to prior commitments but intended to meet the pastor at a VIP event before the speech.

In inviting Wright to speak on campus, FMO coordinator Zachary Parker said he hoped to “de-mystify stereotypes” surrounding Wright and his controversial remarks. He said inviting Ayers was “only fitting” because the media treated the two figures similarly.

In the 1960s, Ayers and his wife, Bernadine Dohrn, participated in the Weather Underground, an anti-Vietnam War group that bombed several government buildings, including the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol. Dohrn is a professor in NU’s School of Law.

After Friday night’s event, Ayers had harsh words for the administration. He said Bienen made a “critical, critical decision” in uninviting Wright from commencement.

“What possible reason could they have except pressure by alumni, pressure by others?” Ayers said. “It’s freedom of speech, freedom of thought. Without that, academics is dead.”

He said he felt a “huge connection” to Wright.

“Both Rev. Wright and I were brought up as cartoon characters in this campaign because of disinformation and dishonest news,” Ayers said. “I did not suffer as much as he did, but we both got out of it with a certain amount of dignity.”

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An earlier version of this story said University President Henry Bienen and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright met prior to Wright’s speech Friday. Bienen left a VIP reception for Wright before the pastor arrived and the two did not meet.