A New Informal, Unfinished History of the United States


If most folks were asked to explain the development of a radical student movement in the ‘60’s, they would point to the Vietnam War. Surprise. The movement started before Vietnam or the draft had become campus issues. It all started in Berkeley (a.k.a. “Bezerkeley”) California, which was actually not a great surprise, as that most famous branch of the renowned University of California long had a radical tradition going back to the 1930’s.

            What happened was this: In September 1964 students returning to campus were greeted with some new rules from the Administration (and the University trustees). It turned out, students would no longer be able to set up tables for their favorite political causes on Bancroft Way, a small area in front of Sather Gate, the official entry way to campus. After some protests, the administration relented on the tables, as long as no money was collected and there was no signing up of students for off-campus illegal activities. This might sound reasonable, but back then “off campus illegal activities” meant civil rights demonstrations in the South. Berkeley, in fact, had been a major recruiting ground for volunteers for Freedom Summer. Well, students felt these rules were an infringement of their free speech. A few students set up a table, and their names were taken by the dean. Soon 500 other students sent the dean a note saying they had been at the table too. A movement began to grow in defense of the right to conduct political activity on the campus. It represented a genuine coalition (never seen before there) of left-wing, liberal, and right-wing groups (though the conservatives later dropped out, unwilling to engage in civil disobedience).

            In short order, the free speech issue came to dominate the campus. There were round the clock meetings, as the administration seemed determined to punish the original student violators (after promising not to).  A young, leftist philosophy student came to be the recognized leader of the FSM; his name: Mario Savio.

            Events began to move quickly. A former student, Jack Weinberg, set up a table, and began to collect money and to recruit people. A police car came to arrest him. They got him into the cruiser but the police looked up to find that their car had been surrounded by hundreds of students. The police and Weinberg remained in the car for almost 24 hours (The historical moment when a can was passed into the car so that poor Weinberg could relieve himself has been frozen into immortality on the famous L-S “60’s Mural--check it out!). As darkness fell on the campus, the crowd around the car swelled further.  A night of epiphanies followed. Student after student got up on the cruiser, as perfect democracy reigned, and addressed fellow students about what the FSM meant to them. For the first time, ideas seemed really important, not just on exams, but in life itself, and people spoke with passion and urgency. The political apathy and fear of the 50’s began to dissolve as students sought, for the first time, to take charge of their lives. A generation was awakening and the New Left was leading the way.

            Between September and December the struggle intensified. There were more demonstrations, each larger than the last. The effort to stamp out political activity on the Berkeley campus had had, decisively, the opposite effect. In December, 800 students filed into Sproul Hall, the main administration building, for a sit-in. They were led by Joan Baez singing, “We Shall Overcome.” Mario Savio gave a short speech, destined to become the most famous words of the student movement of the 60’s. An analysis of the speech (the text follows) teaches a lot about the nature, sensibility, and outlook of the early New Left.

            In the building, students held their own classes, and celebrated Christmas and Chanukah.  Late at night, the police came, arrested, and removed the students from the building--none too gently, it might be added. The 800 students represented the largest number of Americans arrested at one time, in one place, ever, in the U.S. This record would stand until 15, 000 anti-war protesters were arrested in Washington in 1970.

            The arrests just caused the FSM to swell more in size. There was one dramatic scene remaining. President Clark Kerr decided to address the student body at Berkeley’s enormous outdoor “Greek Theater.” After the President spoke, Savio ambled onto the stage to say a few words. Police rushed out from the wings, clasped their hands over his mouth and wrestled him to the ground. The scene ironically and tragically punctuated the issue of Free Speech.

            The Faculty had had enough. They voted to demand that the rules restricting political activity be revoked, And they were. The FSM was over. By organizing together and demanding the right to participate in the decisions effecting their own lives, the students had won.

            Well, folks, that’s what happened, but the meaning of what happened went far beyond securing the right to free speech.

            When the students had embarked on their fight for speech, they were completely unaware that three other issues would arise from their struggle that would shape the student agenda and consciousness of the 1960’s--and beyond. They were:

1. The Nature of Education

            The more students got involved in the excitement of FSM, with its meetings, debates, and discussions, the more they became aware that their university education was boring, irrelevant, and often outright meaningless. Participation in FSM gave them perspective on the dull, assembly-line lectures that passed for their college education. FSM led to many struggles in Berkeley and elsewhere to make college classes more meaningful to students and more shaped by their own choices. The way college programs are designed today owe something (for the better or the worse) to what started in Berkeley. At any rate, “relevance” became the watchword in education for the rest of that decade, and of course the period witnessed a large “Free” (or alternative) School movement. Lincoln-Sudbury itself, with its emphasis on elective choice, was touched by that spirit of educational reform. Up until 1969 we were a very traditional school. Like the times, however, we were a changin’.

2. The Nature of the University.

            Berkeley students went off to school sharing a sentimental idealism about universities, seeing them as “ivory towers” in the best sense, centers of learning that were in the world but not of it. The students had a rude awakening. AS FSM intensified, they had occasion to do research about the Board of Trustees that had issued the anti-free speech rules. It turned out they all came from large corporations. They were bigwigs.  In fact the rule changes came when the publisher of the Oakland Tribune complained to his friends on the Board that his paper had been picketed by Berkeley students protesting the fact that he didn’t hire blacks and that he provided poor Civil Rights coverage. He wanted these protesters shut down, and his friends obliged. Thus, students came to see universities as political institutions which served the needs of corporate America and the political/ economic establishment. Later, students would come to see colleges as part of the Vietnam war machine, after discovering secret military research being conducted on many campuses.

3. The Issue of Bureaucracy and Democracy

            After participating actively in the FSM students felt for the first that they were people rather than just computer numbers on a large, impersonal campus.  The struggle made them think about democracy--or the lack  of it on campus. What right did some faceless bureaucrat have to tell them whether they could conduct political activity or not. They were students, citizens, if you will, of the university. They would participate in the decision-making that affected them. Democracy was not just something to be admired in books but to be practiced in every day life. So on another level FSM was a giant “No!” to bureaucracy and an affirmation of the humanity of the students. In fact the symbol of the FSM were buttons that said, “I am a human being--do not bend, spindle, or fold,” the last five words being the very same as those found on the oak tag punch cards that were used to program computers back then. (Below an actual relic of the Berkeley struggle sent by my brother’s girlfriend--then studying in Berkeley--to him.)

            An ironic postscript: the issue of “depersonalizing bureaucracy” began as an issue on the New Left. The right-wing, however, successfully took this issue over. It helped elect Ronald Reagan president in 1980 when he promised Americans “to get the government off their backs.” Many old FSM’ers must have smiled ruefully on hearing those words.



All written material © Bill Schechter, 2016
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