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Investigative Classics is a weekly feature spotlighting past masters of the reporting craft. 

This Week: The Making of a Homegrown Terrorist, 1970

Homegrown terrorism is a familiar problem in the United States. Especially during the 1960s and '70s, some radicals – often young whites from affluent families – used bombs and other weapons to foment social change.

One was Diana Oughton, a leader of the Weather Underground (logo, above) and longtime girlfriend of Bill Ayers, later an associate and supporter of Barack Obama. She lives on through Lucinda Franks and Thomas Powers’ Pulitzer-winning 1970 profile, reported after she died when a pipe bomb she was building to murder army officers exploded in a Greenwich Village townhouse.

Franks and Powers describe a woman born into an old and wealthy Illinois family: “Townsfolk still talk of the 1869 visit to Dwight by King Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, who shot wild turkey and planted a tree on the Oughton estate.”

After attending the Madeira School in Greenway, Va., where “she mixed with the daughters of rich and prominent families, and often spent weekends at the homes of the Rockefellers,” Oughton entered Bryn Mawr. They write:

In the fall of 1959 she was a tall, bony girl with short blonde hair and long aristocratic hands. A midwestern Republican, she was against Social Security, Federal banking regulations and everything else which smacked of "liberalism" or "big" government. In 1960, she supported Richard M. Nixon against John F. Kennedy. She ardently defended her father’s ownership of tenant farms in Lickskillet, Ala., since sold, arguing that he treated his tenants well and fairly.


Oughton’s politics changed, of course – especially when worked for two years in Guatemala, among extremely poor people in a nation whose government had been overthrown with American support.

Remarkably, the writers portray a person who became radically different while remaining, in many ways, the same:

Diana’s upbringing made her an asset to the movement. Naturally gracious and tactful, she was used as a negotiator in disputes with other left groups, and with the university administration. As one non-SDS student put it, "She was the only one in the gang you could talk to without wanting to punch her in the nose.”

As they detail Oughton’s life and times, Franks and Powers reveal the possibilities, both dark and light, of the mind and soul.

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(Images: Wikipedia Commons) 

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