Jim Mellen, a Marxist former college professor and ideological firebrand who in the 1960s became a founding member and philosophical leader of the Weathermen, the headline-grabbing brigade of far-left revolutionaries, died on Feb. 17 at his home in Zirahuén, Mexico. He was 87.
His wife, Terry Baumgart, said the cause was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Mellen’s rise within the so-called New Left began when he lost his job teaching political science and international affairs at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, in 1965 after a speech at a teach-in in which, he told a television reporter, he “didn’t fear or regret the impending Viet Cong victory in Vietnam,” adding, “In fact, I welcomed it.”
Taking up the cause of young radicals nationwide, despite the fact that he was a decade older than many of them, he eventually became a vocal supporter of Students for a Democratic Society, an anti-war activist organization with chapters on college campuses around the country, and one of the original members of the militant SDS faction that came to be known as the Weathermen.
The group took its name from its famous 1969 manifesto, “You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows” — the title taken from a line from the Bob Dylan song “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” It called for white and Black revolutionaries to band together with other insurgent groups to bring about “the destruction of U.S. imperialism and the achievement of classless world: world communism.”
Mellen was one of the 11 Weathermen members who signed the manifesto. Bill Ayers, one of the group’s principals, said in a phone interview that Mellen was a principal author, although Mellen himself, in a 2016 video interview about his radical activist days, said that he had written only an earlier, less extreme paper that was rejected by the group.
With his grounding in Marx, Lenin and Mao, Mellen became a resident philosopher and historian for the Weathermen. “He brought gravitas, seriousness and Marxism with him, and we didn’t have that,” Ayers said. “We brought experience from the streets, but he brought experience from the academy, and from books.”
But the seasoned professor was left behind as the decade turned when Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn (who is now married to Ayers) and other members took a more violent turn, re-christening themselves the Weather Underground.
Operating as furtive cells in safe houses scattered around the country, the members of the Weather Underground did their best to disappear from society, even as they declared war on it. “Our intention is to disrupt the empire” and “to incapacitate it, to put pressure on the cracks,” according to one of its communiqués.
The Weather Underground claimed responsibility for 25 bombings, according to the FBI, including at the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, the California attorney general’s office and a New York City police station. No one is known to have been killed in those bombings.
Ayers later said that bombs were intentionally planted at times when they believed no one would be hurt.
Perhaps its most famous bombing was self-inflicted. On March 6, 1970, members were building pipe bombs in the basement of a Greenwich Village town house belonging to the father of one member, Cathy Wilkerson, when an explosion killed three of them. By that point, Mellen had drifted from the group.
“Jim was never part of our group of guerrillas,” said Ayers, who eventually became a distinguished professor of education at the University of Illinois Chicago. “Those of us who went underground changed our names, got fresh IDs and were on the run from the police, whether we were wanted or not.”
James Gerald Mellen was born on Aug. 13, 1935, in Inglewood, California, the youngest of two children of Dennis Mellen, who sold tools and machinery to aircraft plants, and Helen (Higgins) Mellen, a drugstore clerk. His parents split when he was around 3, and he later said that the hardship the family experienced living on his mother’s meager salary helped feed his left-wing politics.
In the late 1950s, he began studying politics at San Francisco State College (now University), where he fell in with a small left-wing campus group protesting the proliferation of nuclear weapons. He further honed his anti-establishment leanings by mingling with the beatniks at the coffee houses of North Beach in his off hours.
After his years in the 1960s revolutionary vanguard, Mellen earned a law degree in the mid-1980s and opened his own practice in the San Francisco area, where he focused on economically challenged clients fighting employers and insurance companies. He also studied Buddhism and often set out on long solo motorcycle and hiking journeys throughout California, Mexico and Australia, before retiring in Mexico with his wife in 2008.
In addition to his wife, Mellen’s survivors include two children from an earlier marriage, George and Emily Mellen; his sister, Jackie Kendall; a brother, Donald Simonet; and a grandchild. His brother Dennis Jr. died in 1994.
Near the end of his life, Mellen recalled his falling-out with the Weathermen: “I said to Bill one time, ‘I think I’m going to quit.’ He said, ‘You can’t quit, you’re in it for life.’”
“He meant it,” Mellen continued. “He figured we were going to go out and do all this stuff, do it and do it, and then we’re all going to go to prison and be in there for years and years, then come out and we’ll be veteran revolutionaries. I had no intention of going to any prison, and I certainly didn’t have any intention of continuing to be a part of a group that was going off in a direction that I didn’t want to be a part of.”