Yesterday morning, professor Douglas Rae finished his lecture on race and the city early in order to introduce a guest who would speak for the closing 10 minutes of our “New Haven and the American City” class. The guest had worked for an organization discussed in class: former Mayor Richard Lee’s Community Progress, Inc. He has been a model community worker for most of his life — he was, as a member of the Black Panther Party; then he shot fellow Panther Alex Rackley, was tried in the famous 1970 Black Panther trial and was sent to prison.
I wasn’t sure whether to clap as Warren Kimbro stepped up to the podium in LC 102. Until time ran out, he spoke on the role of the community in city redevelopment, his time working for Community Progress, Inc. and his work over the past 25 years as CEO of Project MORE, a re-entry program for released prisoners.
As I listened to Kimbro speak, I kept thinking of vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s remarks over the past few days.
In speeches Saturday and Monday, she spoke of presidential candidate Barack Obama’s “paling around” with “a former domestic terrorist who targeted his own country” as evidence that Obama was untrustworthy and dangerous for Amercia. She was referring to Bill Ayers, a member of the now-dissolved Weather Underground, which, in the 1970s, set off bombs in public spaces and on government property to protest the Vietnam War.
Both Ayers and Kimbro, then, are men who have committed crimes associated with and sanctioned by radical organizations. In fact, Kimbro could be painted as the worse of the two. Except for the time it accidentally blew up its own headquarters, the Weather Underground has never taken responsibility for or been proven to be behind any bombing that took human life. Kimbro, by contrast, has admitted to murdering another man.
But there is more to the story. Both Ayers and Kimbro would go on to careers in public service. Kimbro worked as a drug counselor and began his college education while still in prison, was released on parole after four years, completed a graduate degree in education at Harvard and has been running Project MORE since 1983.
If I listen to my politicians, I learn that heeding (let alone working with) a man such as Kimbro makes me unfit for public responsibility — I, too, could be a radical criminal. According to Palin, I shouldn’t be listening to Kimbro. And considering that Professor Rae not only serves on the board of Project MORE but also invited Kimbro to speak in front of his class, I might consider him suspect as well and dismiss the arguments he makes in class as out of hand.
But if I listen to the university, I learn that in the realm of ideas, association doesn’t mean agreement. I learn that repentance and service count for something. And I learn, most of all, that I can listen to a man like Kimbro and make up my own mind about what he has done and stood for.
This election cycle, politicians have taught us to close our ears and distrust; education has taught us to open our minds and judge for ourselves. The university aims to make us better citizens; the politicians have no such noble goal.
I suspect Ayers himself would agree. He is, after all, a distinguished professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Sarah Nathan is a junior in Ezra Stiles College.