More than 3,200 supporters -- most of them educators -- have signed a petition protesting what they say is the "demonization of Professor William Ayers," asserting that his violent actions as the co-founder of the Weather Underground were just "history."
Barack Obama's ties to Ayers have been questioned during the presidential campaign by critics who call the professor a "domestic terrorist."
Among the people who signed the petition are No. 5, Columbia University professor of Arab studies Rashid Khalidi, and No. 814, former University of Colorado at Boulder professor Ward Churchill.
Churchill made headlines when he called the victims of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center "little Eichmanns" and compared them to Nazis in an essay. He was fired from his job in Boulder for plagiarism.
Khalidi, a Palestinian activist, was a director of the Palestinian Liberation Organization's press agency in 1982, according to The New York Times, when the PLO was still designated by the U.S. government as a terrorist organization.
Obama spent time with Khalidi when the two were professors in Chicago, and paid him a special tribute during a farewell dinner for the firebrand professor in 2003, reminiscing about meals prepared by Khalidi's wife, according to the LA Times.
Obama has distanced himself from Khalidi, whom he called an academic acquaintance. "He is not one of my advisers. He's not one of my foreign policy people. He is a respected scholar, although he vehemently disagrees with a lot of Israel's policy," he said during a campaign event.
The petition, circulated online, asserts that Ayers is a well-respected, nationally-known figure in the education world, and critics who call him an "unrepentant terrorist" and "lunatic leftist" are "part of a pattern of 'exposes' and assaults designed to intimidate free thinking and stifle critical dialogue."
It is unclear who wrote the petition; its first signatory, Professor Gloria Ladson-Billings of the University of Wisconsin, could not be reached for comment.
The petition does acknowledge Ayers' participation in the anti-war movement, but makes no mention of his ties to Weather Underground or to the group's bombings of public buildings.
"It's true that Professor Ayers participated passionately in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s, as did hundreds of thousands of Americans. His participation in political activity 40 years ago is history; what is most relevant now is his continued engagement in progressive causes, and his exemplary contribution -- including publishing 16 books -- to the field of education," it reads.
Ayers' next book, "Race Course Against White Supremacy," will publish on June 1, 2009, according to Amazon.com.
George Leef, director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, Raliegh, N.C., said he isn't surprised so many academics have signed the petition.
"I don't think they know much about this. Most of them at least have not looked into exactly what it is that Ayers was proposing," Leef said.
"They're signing on to this because they think it will help their preferred candidate, which doesn't speak very well of their intellectual integrity," Leef said. "History should be important to teachers."
Ayers helped found the radical anti-war Weather Underground in the late Sixties. The group claimed responsibility for bombing the Pentagon, U.S. Capitol and a New York Supreme Court justice's home. Three of its members were killed when bombs intended for the U.S. Army base at Fort Dix, N.J., and Columbia University exploded in a New York City townhouse in 1969.
Obama has been criticized for refusing to elaborate on the extent of his relationship with Ayers and for claiming to have had no idea Ayers was involved with Weather Underground when the two served together on two education boards in Chicago.
The Obama campaign has noted that the Democratic presidential candidate was 8-years-old when Ayers and the Weather Underground were active, and that Obama has no link to their activities.
Ayers has said he has "no regrets" about his participation in the domestic terror group.