Berkeley Free Speech Movement, 1963-64:
a narrative summary by David Burner

brief excerpt from David Burner's
Making Peace with the Sixties (Princeton University Press, 1996)

Between 1963 and 1964 the number of entering freshman at the University of California at Berkeley increased by 37 percent. In the previous decade students majoring in the more socially conscious humanities and social sciences had jumped from 36 to 50 percent. Clark Kerr, president of the multicampus University of California system, had planned for the arrival of masses of new students. But he failed to see the attendant problems. He presided over an institution, committed to acting in loco parentis, that in this new time of student ferment and enormous growth could no longer do so. Academic conservatives complained that administrators and faculty members were no longer supervising their young charges' thought and behavior; students were soon complaining of the vestiges of that supervision.

Kerr, a liberal Quaker and a Democrat, had helped squelch a faculty loyalty oath imposed by the California legislature back in the McCarthy era. Yet he often compromised. In 1961, he refused to allow Malcolm X to appear on campus; his grounds were that Malcolm was a sectarian religious leader. But he did not block the less controversial Billy Graham, the prominent evangelical preacher. On another occasion he kept Herbert Aptheker, editor of the American Communist party's theoretical journal, from speaking. In 1963 Kerr lifted a ban against communist speakers, but to get the university Regents' approval he instituted a yardstick he himself disliked: spokesmen for traditional views would have to follow controversial speakers. In all, he was a prototype of the liberal who would be caught in the conflicting demands of his time. That is likely a fair description of much of the administration at Berkeley. The maneuvers, at times ham-handed and at others conciliatory, of Berkeley officialdom in 1964 and 1965 attest to the dilemmas of liberals confronted by a radicalism that they had neither the wish to stifle nor the will to embrace.

By the late fifties a new student left, some of it led by children of liberal and radical professionals, had begun to emerge on campuses. At Berkeley a student party named SLATE, dedicated to ending nuclear testing, capital punishment, Cold War rivalries, and other off-campus ills, began in 1957 to run candidates for student affairs elections. SLATE then incorporated civil rights into its agenda. Soon after, at the University of Wisconsin, students in history and the social sciences with a similar social and political profile launched an ambitious journal, Studies on the Left, committed to the "radicalism of disclosure." A visit to Berkeley in 1960 by Tom Hayden, editor of the Michigan Daily, the student newspaper at Ann Arbor, led on the University of Michigan campus to the formation of VOICE in imitation of SLATE. And there were stirrings of dissenting politics on other campuses as the Red-baiting era wound down in the late 1950s.

As early as 1960 Berkeley students delivered a blow for dissent when several hundred protested the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in San Francisco. No group during that Cold War era more vividly represented than HUAC the general disregard for civil liberties. Police arrested many of the protesters or simply washed them down the steps of the city hall with fire hoses. The next day thousands of demonstrators returned to chant, "Sieg Heil!" and to bear witness that in California the days of unchallenged Red-hunting were over. Operation Abolition, a film put out by HUAC to show that these demonstrations had been the work of subversives, was so addlebrained that it strengthened the case of liberals against HUAC. Operation Abolition ultimately became a cult movie among campus sophisticates and dissenters.

In September 1964 Mario Savio, the son of a Roman Catholic machinist proud of his son's commitment to social justice, returned to campus after teaching at a freedom school in McComb during that greatest of Mississippi summers. Savio discovered that the campus authorities had declared off limits for advocates of civil rights and other causes a stretch of Telegraph Avenue, the Bancroft strip, just outside the main gate to the Berkeley campus. For years the strip had been accepted as a place where students could hand out pamphlets, solicit names for petitions, and sign people up. But recently it had become identified with demonstrations against Berkeley and Oakland businesses that practiced discrimination. One of the demonstrators' chief targets was the Oakland Tribune, the East Bay newspaper published by William Knowland, the conservative United States Senator. The students' activities antagonized conservative university Regents and they pressured Berkeley to close the campus as a recruiting ground for activists and restrict student agitation in adjacent areas.

The ban set off a firestorm. Students who had taken on HUAC, Mississippi racists, Senator Knowland, and the East Bay business community were not about to be denied their rights by the likes of Clark Kerr. Groups representing SLATE members, anti-HUAC demonstrators, civil rights militants, and ordinary students, some of them conservative, protested the university's actions.

On September 29 the demonstrators defiantly set up tables on the Bancroft strip and refused to leave when told to do so. The next day university officials took the names of five protesters and ordered them to appear for disciplinary hearings that afternoon. Instead of five students, five hundred, led by Mario Savio, marched to Sproul Hall, the administration building, and demanded that they be punished too. Three leaders of the march were added to the list of offenders, and all eight were suspended.

The event that converted protest into rebellion occurred on October 1. As students arrived for classes that morning they were greeted by handbills declaring that if they allowed the administration to "pick us off one by one. . . , we have lost the fight for free speech at the University of California." Soon after, CORE, SNCC, the Du Bois Club, Students for a Democrat Society (SDS), and six or seven other groups set up solicitation tables in front of Sproul Hall, the administration building. At 11:00 A.M. the assistant dean of students went up to the CORE table and asked Jack Weinberg to identify himself. Weinberg refused, and the dean ordered campus police to arrest him. A veteran of the civil rights movement, Weinberg went limp in standard civil disobedience mode when the guards carried him to a waiting car. Bystanders and observers quickly came to his rescue. In minutes hundreds of protesters, singing the civil rights anthem, "We Shall Overcome," and chanting, "Let him go! Let him go!" surrounded the car, preventing it from leaving to cart Weinberg off to security headquarters.

For the next thirty-two hours Weinberg and his police escort remained captive in the car while speaker after speaker climbed atop the vehicle to address the growing crowd. Savio, here and later the most civil of militants, removed his shoes so as not to damage the police car. He compared the protesters to Henry David Thoreau, who had briefly defied the authorities to protest the Mexican War that would enlarge United States slave territory. He was followed by other speakers, who were pelted with eggs and lighted cigarettes by about one hundred fraternity brothers and athletes.

The standoff ended with an agreement between Kerr and the warring parties that submitted to a committee of faculty, students, and administrators all issues of campus political behavior and turned over to an academic senate committee the question of suspending the eight students. Weinberg would be released without charges.

But the rebellion had only begun. A new organization, the Free Speech Movement (FSM), was formed with a large executive committee representing its constituent campus organizations. Despite the FSM's growing fear that the administration was not dealing with the students in good faith, the next few weeks were relatively quiet on campus. Yet incidents were accumulating that would provoke the students and help trip off another confrontation. Berkeley's chancellor Edward Strong refused a request that he reinstate the eight suspended students while the senate committee deliberated their fate. Kerr, who dismissed the FSM as "a ritual of hackneyed complaints," failed to realize that faculty, graduate students, teaching assistants, and undergraduates alike would perceive the issue as amounting not to how many restrictions had been removed but how many remained. Here the liberalism of the Berkeley administration, disposed to compromise, crashed head-on into the moral objectives of the student movement, as the liberalism of Kennedy and Johnson collided with the visionary purity of the civil rights activists.

The FSM proposed that the freedom defined in the First Amendment be considered the only guide to political activity on campus. Savio denounced a compromise reached by the senate committee for imposing prior restraint on student actions. On November 9, in defiance of the administration, Savio and his allies once again set up literature and Solicitation tables. As a preliminary to disciplinary action, campus police took the names of seventy-five students supervising the tables. Now the student movement had antagonized not only the administration but also many of the more conservative student groups. On the other hand, it was gaining support among graduate students, many of whom, were poorly paid, overworked teaching assistants. The graduate student organization declared that it would preside over tables. The administration, the TAs said, would not dare suspend them since their role was vital to the university's functioning. They were right. When almost two hundred graduate students set up tables nothing happened. Many undergraduates, deciding that the administration was choosing to pick only on the weak, shifted back to the FSM. What the incident really proved was that in a university essentially liberal in structure, students who were also teachers could undermine administrative authority.

On November 13 the dilatory liberals on the faculty senate committee finally made a report. Six of the eight suspended students should be reinstated; Savio and Art Goldberg should be kept on suspension for six weeks. By what one administrator described as a "mealy-mouthed liberal nondecision," Savio and Goldberg's sentences, however, should be made retroactive to the incident, more than six weeks in the past. With that problem out of the way, focus returned to the question of campus advocacy and solicitation for off-campus causes. The FSM leaders decided to confront the university's Board of Regents, who were scheduled to meet on the campus on November 20. To assure a good turnout, movement leaders prevailed on Joan Baez, the popular folk singer and a sympathizer with the FSM, to give a free concert during the meeting.

Baez brought out the crowd. Three thousand students gathered near Sproul during the Regents' meeting to listen to speeches. They then snake-danced their way to the west gate of the campus and sat on the grass to hear the singing and await the results of the meeting. The results disappointed most of Berkeley's students. No campus facilities could be used to further causes deemed "unlawful," and the Regents overruled the faculty and increased the punishments on Savio and Goldberg. The student militants could have wondered, like the SNCC workers in Mississippi in their dealings with liberal Democratic party forces in Washington: just what did the establishment want?

In the few remaining weeks of the semester, the FSM won increasing support on the Berkeley campus. Among administration blunders that brought the militants success was Chancellor Strong's against Savio and his associates for unlawfully hindering campus police from performing their duties. The graduate students decided to go on strike. On Wednesday, December 2, from four to five thousand people, spectators as well as FSM partisans, gathered around Sproul Plaza.

In his indictment of the alienating, impersonal machine that he believed the university had become, Savio found his own authentic eloquence. Martin Luther King in the "Letter from a Birmingham jail" had spoken of "direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the. . . community." Now Savio announced:

There's a time when the operations of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part. And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to indicate to the people who own it that unless you're free, the machines will be prevented from working at all.

This is poetry that combines the exaltation of the civil rights movement with the splendor of the existential vision. It moved the listeners. And it placed the Free Speech Movement at about the point in the spectrum that much of the student left then spoke from: with no suggestion of violence, thinking of concrete change, its discourse as yet unthickened by dogmatic pseudorevolutionary verbiage.

Soon after the demonstration in the plaza, student supporters began to fan up and out across four floors of Sproul Hall singing "We Shall Overcome" and Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are-a Changin'." Savio, Weinberg, and others urged people on the plaza to join the sit-in. From one thousand to fifteen hundred went inside the building.

For a time it looked as though the administration would not act. Late that afternoon, university officials declared the building closed and sent employees home. As hours passed and nothing further happened, students inside Sproul relaxed. The FSM leaders designated separate areas and floors for special activities. There was a room for movies, another for a Spanish class, an area for quiet study, and a spot for square dancing.

But off campus the forces of the establishment began to stir. To some observers the Berkeley rebellion seemed a heinous violation of the rules of university decorum, an outrageous defiance of rules and procedures by a privileged group of young people, beneficiaries of a generous taxpaying public. Around midnight the deputy district attorney of Alameda County told Governor Pat Brown in Los Angeles over the phone that "temporizing would only make the eventual blow-off more dangerous." Brown gave permission for the police to move in. Shortly after 2:00 A.M., six hundred California highway patrolmen and Alameda County sheriff's deputies cordoned off Sproul Hall. In the middle of the night Chancellor Strong appeared with a bullhorn admonishing students to leave the building. The Free Speech leaders now began spreading the word that students should go limp to slow down the removal process. That way, the bust would still be going on at the time classes resumed in the morning, and uncommitted students, on the way to lectures and labs, would observe the cops manhandling their fellow students.

The police charged with resisting arrest any student who went limp. At first removals were gentle. Then, as the police tired, they became less careful. They twisted some arms and banged some students' heads on the stairs as they were dragged out. Such treatment by police of students was still an unfamiliar experience. In all it took twelve hours to clear the building, but by midafternoon 773 of the occupiers had been arrested and booked for trespassing. Most were shipped off to the county prison farm at Santa Rosa, where a Black Muslim prisoner, Huey Newton, looked on in amazement; all the students were released on bail the following day to return to Berkeley. It had been the largest mass arrest in the history of California.

The bust electrified the campus. By noon, when the police were still busy loading demonstrators into vans, as many as ten thousand people jammed the plaza, craning to see what was happening. It was a "sea of outraged faces," a witness noted. The crowd spilled over onto the roof of the Student Union across from the plaza and onto the adjacent playing fields. As they watched, many found FSM handbills thrust at them proclaiming a universitywide strike to protest the tactics of the authorities.

That afternoon eight hundred faculty met at the invitation of Professor Seymour Lipset of the sociology department to consider the sit-in, the strike, and the police action. Much of the Berkeley faculty, especially in the humanities and the social sciences, was liberal, prepared to react against heavy-handed authority backed by the police. And faculty members were quite genuinely appalled at the violation of the haven for scholars to do their research, teaching, and learning. Students belong on campus; police do not.

The faculty recommended that all action pending against the students be dropped, that a faculty committee hear appeals from administration disciplinary decisions connected with political action, and that these appeals be final. It also approved a statement that no student be cited by the university for participating in off-campus political action. When a member of the bacteriology department condemned "the presence of the State Highway Patrol on the Berkeley campus," and demanded "tile prompt release of the arrested students," the assembled professors cheered. After the meeting, many of the faculty headed for Alameda County Court House to post bail for the arrested students. For all the hesitancy of liberalism in the presence of agitation to its left, liberal faculty now acted in solidarity with their young academic offspring, and not least in parental solicitude for them.

Over the next few days the Free Speech leaders proved that they were capable not only of arousing strong feelings but of channeling them effectively. A Strike Central coordinated all strike activities and churned out thousands of flyers and handbills, many of them run off on the mimeograph machines of academic departments with friendly chairmen.

Support of the strike was not total. In the engineering, technical, and business fields, the turnout was weak. But in most disciplines teaching assistants and many faculty canceled classes to express support or to free themselves and their students to work for a solution of the crisis. Perhaps three-quarters of Berkeley's twelve hundred professors contributed to the strike by choosing not hold classes.

Hoping to end confrontation, Kerr proposed a "new era of freedom under law." All Monday classes, he announced, would be canceled so that students, faculty, and administrators could meet at the Greek Theater to hear the proposals. Free Speech supporters came to the meeting in force along with many students sympathetic to the administration's tone of moderation. In all, by noon, sixteen thousand people filled the amphitheater.

Kerr read to the crowd a statement that dozens of department chairman had approved. It endorsed "orderly and lawful procedures" and condemned the sit-in as "unwarranted" and as likely to obstruct "fair consideration of the grievances brought forward by the students." The department chairmen then recommended against imposing further penalties on the arrested students and urged the resumption of classes forthwith.

During Kerr's reading, sections of the stands most sympathetic to the Free Speech Movement sometimes booed and jeered. Its leaders had demanded more: that the university intercede with the courts in favor of the arrested students. This display of feeling was a mere foretaste of what came at the end. Professor Robert Scalapino, chairman of the political science department, adjourned the meeting. Savio, who had been sitting in the press section just in front of the rostrum, walked onto the stage and attempted to speak. He never made it. Two campus guards immediately stopped him, pulled him from the rostrum, and dragged him backstage to an empty dressing room. Before a mass gathering in an open-air Greek theater, the free speech leader was being physically denied free speech. Even the most dogged parliamentarian might have allowed that granting brief access to the microphone would not have threatened good order at the event that was about over. There was nothing Kerr could do to remedy the situation. Pandemonium broke out. "Let him speak! Let him speak!" the crowd demanded. Savio was allowed to return to the stage, where he merely announced that his organization had scheduled a rally to follow immediately at Sproul Plaza. The students, he shouted, should leave "this disastrous scene and get down to discussing the issues."

The academic senate meeting the next day, December 8, was the zenith of the FSM arc. It was the largest turnout within memory for a body much given to routine discussion of courses, rules, and minor university policy. Outside, several thousand students gathered to listen to the deliberations carried from the room by loudspeakers.

The discussion revolved around the proposal of the senate's academic freedom committee endorsing the Free Speech Movement's basic positions on the disciplinary proceedings and the time, place, and content of speech and advocacy. In effect, it left the university authorities with only minimum traffic-cop powers to prevent physical disruption of the campus. A group of faculty moderates and conservatives led by Lewis Feuer of philosophy and Nathan Glazer of sociology opposed the committee’s proposal. Feuer offered an amendment that committed the university to nonintervention in matters of speech and advocacy only when they were "directed to no immediate act of force and violence." He observed to his colleagues that the failure of the German universities in the early 1930s to insist that students be disciplined for off-campus attacks on Jews, liberals, and socialists had enabled Nazi students to destroy German freedom and prepared the way for the rise of Hitler. The liberals counterattacked. Owen Chamberlain, a physics Nobel Prize winner, deplored the paternalism implicit in the Feuer amendment. Others endorsed the right to mount boycotts, stage sit-ins, and establish picket lines to protest injustices in the outside community without university interference. Several noted that the students were watching them, a view that struck Feuer's party as a threat of mob violence if the faculty did not accept the original proposals.

The Feuer amendment was defeated 737 to 284; the vote on the original proposals carried 824 to 115. As the faculty filed out of the building the masses of student spectators greeted them with cheers and loud applause.

Within hours the Free Speech Movement called off the strike and issued a statement headed "Happiness Is an Academic Senate Meeting." Apparently Jack Weinberg's pithy slogan warning against trusting anyone over thirty had been proven wrong. The next day the movement won another victory. At the annual student government elections, SLATE, a part of the Free Speech coalition, swept into student government offices. Every SLATE candidate won. With double the usual voting turnout, the student government's existing conservative leadership was totally repudiated.

The eagerly awaited Regents' meeting on the 18th did not turn out well for the Free Speech supporters. The Regents refused to accept the academic senate's assumption of ultimate disciplinary authority over the students. The group did not pass on the substantive proposals of the senate's December 3 resolutions and promised only to appoint a committee from among its members to consult with students, faculty, and others to make recommendations at some later date. Pending completion of this process the existing rules would remain in force. But then fortunes shifted. On January 2 the Regents fired Chancellor Strong and as acting chancellor in his place appointed Martin Meyerson, dean of hide College of Environmental Design. Meyerson had been a supporter of the Free Speech Movement, while Strong had been responsible for the Sproul bust. The Regents were clearly offering the student activities peace. Meyerson’s first act was to accede almost totally to the Movement's fundamental demands. Henceforth students would be allowed to set up tables on the Bancroft strip and at other designated places on campus. Student organizations using these tables could receive donations, distribute literature, recruit members, and sell such items as buttons, pins, and bumper stickers.

Mario Savio's Pages compiled by


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Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:42:45 EDT