48 Years Later… The 1964 Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley

This is the original sign I carried in the Free Speech Movement during the December 1964 police occupation of UC Berkeley and arrest of 800 students participating in the Sproul Hall Sit-in.

I’ve been rooting thorough my old Free Speech Movement files, digging for treasure. Buried between aging, yellow copies of the Daily Cal and mimeographed handouts calling for action, I found the picket sign I carried when the police invaded UC Berkeley and arrested 800 students on December 3, 1964.

There are numerous sources covering FSM and its impact including an excellent book, “The Free Speech Movement,” edited by Robert Cohen and Reginald Zelnik. FSM even has its own website, fsm@a.org. I visited the site and found pictures of aging white-haired men and women looking remarkably like me. 1964 is now ancient history.

In preparation for this series of posts I also returned to UC Berkeley. Sitting on the edge of Ludwig’s fountain under a fine mist, I stared at the steps of Sproul Hall while searching my memory for ghostly reminders of past demonstrations.

I actually found one. A long-haired African American was distributing protest arm bands. His effort would have been illegal in the fall of 1964.

A stroll down Telegraph Avenue brought me to the Café Med, one of my favorite student hangouts. I stopped for an obligatory cup of cappuccino. I wrote notes in my journal and listened in on conversations. It seemed that neither the coffee house nor my behavior had changed much.

Back on campus I visited the Free Speech Café in the Moffitt Undergraduate Library. Every seat was full so I wandered around and looked at photos. Mario Savio, who died in 1996, was there in spirit. A picture captured him in a characteristic pose, haranguing a sea of upturned faces. It was a fitting memorial.

In hindsight, the Free Speech Movement has become an important part of Berkeley’s history, honored even by an Administration that once characterized it as a Communist inspired plot. And what about my hindsight; have the years blurred or substantially modified my vision of what took place?

I tried, in writing this series on UC Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, to be faithful to what I felt and experienced at the time. I feel now, as I did then, that it didn’t have to happen. The attitude the Administration demonstrated in the 1963 student leadership meeting I attended and described in an earlier post went beyond naïve to dangerous.

If the more radical students found ground for ‘revolution,’ it was a ground fertilized and plowed by the Administration. The desire to protect the campus from outside influence became a willingness to limit the rights of students to participate in the critical issues of the day and, in so doing, take the side of powerful elites whose vested interest was in maintaining the status quo on civil and other human rights issues.

What changed as a result of the Free Speech Movement?

Certainly the concept of in locus parentis took a major hit. Students at Berkeley and other colleges across America would have much greater freedom in the future, on both a personal and political level. We had graduated from being older teenagers needing guidance to young adults capable of and responsible for our own decisions.

While we were still a part of the future so popular with Commencement speakers, we were also a part of the now, helping to shape that future. Human rights and equality including women and gay rights, the anti-Vietnam campaign, and the environmental movement would all benefit. Berkeley students had participated in one of America’s great transformations.

The New Left considers the Free Speech Movement as an important source of origin. A similar claim might be made for the New Right, the so-called Neo Cons.

The outer fringes of liberal and conservative politics are two cats of the same color, feeding off of the same plate and necessary to each other’s success. Each functions with the tunnel vision of being right and with the belief that the ends of their particular vision justify whatever means necessary to get there. Not surprisingly, both the Left and the Right saw the unrest on the Berkeley Campus as an opportunity waiting to happen.

The message was not lost on Ronald Reagan. Following the Free Speech Movement, he would exploit the student protests at Berkeley and other California colleges as a launching pad for his career in politics. One of his first moves as Governor was to fire Clark Kerr for being too soft on the students. There is a picture from the early 70s of Reagan turning around and flipping off student protestors at a U.C. Regent’s meeting. It was a clear message of intent.

It may be somewhat instructive that his future Attorney General, Edwin Meese, was the Deputy District Attorney in Oakland at the time of the Free Speech Movement. Meese’s role had been to oversee the Sproul Hall arrests and serve as liaison with the FBI.

There is a story, which may be apocryphal, that it was Meese who persuaded Governor Pat Brown to send in the troops on the night of the Sproul Hall sit-in by claiming students were tearing up the Dean’s office. If so, it was a deliberate lie or at least an exaggeration. The worst vandalism I witnessed was my standing on the Dean’s desk in my socks so I wouldn’t scratch the surface.

My speculation is that the forces on the right, like the forces on the left, wanted a confrontation. Kerr was planning to address the sit-in the next day in an effort to persuade the students to leave the building. A peaceful solution would not have served the agenda of Meese, Knowland, Hoover, etc. Serious head bashing leading to a full-scaled riot was called for. If it took lies to bring it about, so be it.

Or am I just being paranoid?

Later, when I chaired a committee for the Free Student Union, I witnessed a similar attitude on the part of the Left. A confrontation with students getting their heads bashed was good. It would radicalize moderates and lead to further violent confrontations.

While both the Left and Right worked to subvert what happened at Berkeley for their own objectives, I believe that the Free Speech Movement was what it claimed to be: a fight for free speech, the right to assemble, and the right to participate in the critical issues of the day. It was a fight that still rings true today.

3 thoughts on “48 Years Later… The 1964 Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley

    • Thanks Jane. The value and frustration of history is that we can see progress on the positive side. We have inched forward in the area of human rights and equality. The frustration is that it is so hard and so slow and that we have to keep fighting the same battles, over and over.

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