Flying Close to the Sun

The Book of the Week is “Flying Close to the Sun” by Cathy Wilkerson, published in 2007.

Born in January 1945 in Hartsdale, a northern suburb of New York City, the author spent most of her childhood in Connecticut. At a young age, she was drawn to politics. At Swarthmore College, she joined the group, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and engaged in political activism for decades. Many young people were brainwashed into thinking that the revolutions in China, Vietnam and Cuba had been successful in creating a societal paradise.

In turbulent 1960’s America, the counter-cultural attitude was:

“If corporations were stealing from us and selling us products that killed, then we too could steal from them and support the movement.”

As is well known, during the Vietnam War, more than a few American companies were cooperating with the U.S. government to supply the U.S. military with napalm and agent orange, two chemicals toxic to vegetation as well as humans.

In June 1969, SDS held a convention for its chapters across the country. However, there was lots of infighting over ideology and the direction of the movement. Later that month, a few SDS members wrote a paper that said that the United States government should be overthrown because it was imperialist, and oppressed blacks and the poor. The plan was that the revolutionaries would impose Marxist-Leninist socialism so that Americans in the new world order could live happily ever after.

The paper inspired some SDS members, including Wilkerson, to form a new group which called itself the Weatherman. She began to think that the only way to change the world was through revolution. Weatherman started to provoke the local Chicago police the way the Black Panthers had been doing. The former became very focused on the Black Power movement, at the expense of the women’s movement.

Wilkerson gave talks that advocated working with women of all ages around issues of domestic violence and workplace harassment. She was bullied at a self-criticism meeting about not being more against racism. She was told she was being selfish; that blacks were being treated worse than women. SDS leaders said that’s why blacks deserved more attention. The group should focus on the blacks and when they achieved equality, then women’s equality would follow.

In summer 1969 in Columbus, Ohio, two dozen SDSers recruited high schoolers in their hangouts such as streets, beaches, bars, etc. In three not-so-great neighborhoods, they incited blacks to riot and commit violence against the police. Unsurprisingly, the mayor called in the National Guard.

That same summer, SDS member Mike Klonsky resigned. He had realized that violence was a childish way to resolve conflicts, and suggested that instead, people work through their anger about injustice by pressuring politicians to combat racism, and raise awareness in workplaces.

The late 1960’s and early 1970’s saw incidents of unrest that scarred the American psyche; the most well-publicized included: Columbia University in spring 1968, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August 1968, San Francisco State College beginning in late 1968, and Kent State in Ohio in May 1970. Wilkerson and others in the “movement” thought that these incidents indicated that activists were catching on and making progress.

As a low-level member of Weatherman, Wilkerson lived in the collective, and did what they did. She learned martial arts, exercised, and discussed and argued for hours about the agenda of the organization. The collective voted to do away with monogamy, as that would allow full participation of all members. The group wanted to have a collective sense of humanity– it was bigger than oneself.

Read the book to learn of a game-changing event that occurred in March 1970 involving Wilkerson, that radically changed her group’s and her circumstances, and of much more about her life and times.