A large celebration is taking place at the University of California, Berkeley on October 4th to mark the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, one of the world’s most important student revolutions. From 1963-65 I was a student at Berkeley and had a front row seat. Unfortunately, I can’t attend the celebration this weekend due to prior commitments. To honor the event and share my perspective, however, I will use earlier writings I have done on the Free Speech Movement to post three blogs over the next three days.
In the fall of 1963, I transferred from Sierra College, a small community college in the Sacramento Valley of California, to the University of California at Berkeley. Sierra was like driving down a country road on a lazy summer day; Berkeley was like being caught on a six-lane Los Angeles freeway during rush hour.
Telegraph Avenue became my mecca. Exotic smells emanated from a dozen different ethnic restaurants while numerous languages assaulted my ears. I quickly discovered the Café Mediterraneum. In an era before Starbucks made coffee houses safe for middle-class America, Café Med was an original. It was a microcosm of the Berkeley I would come to love, filled with offbeat characters, esoteric discussions and great coffee. I became addicted to both the cappuccino and atmosphere. I would grab my coffee and climb the narrow wooden stairs in back for a coveted balcony seat where I would watch the ebb and flow of the city’s unique flotsam.
A quick jaunt across Telegraph produced another treasure, Cody’s bookstore. Started on a shoestring by the Cody family in the 50s, it had become one of America’s premier bookstores by the mid-sixties. I saved my explorations for Saturdays when there was time to indulge my passion for books. I would disappear inside and become lost to everything except the next title.
I was equally fascinated by the ever-changing kaleidoscope of soapbox oratory provided at the south entrance to the campus on the corner of Bancroft and Telegraph. During any given hour, a dozen speakers could be found there espousing as many causes. I considered it high entertainment and would sit on the steps of the Student Union and listen during breaks from my studies. Over one lunch period, I reported in a letter home, I listened to a student who had spent her summer working in the South registering voters, a black South African talking about apartheid, a socialist railing against the evils of capitalism, a capitalist railing against the evils of socialism, and a Bible thumper detailing out the many paths Berkeley students were following to hell.
Many of the speakers urged that there was more to college life than studies, football and parties. Change was in the wind and we should be part of it. Work for fair housing in Berkeley; oppose the unfair hiring practices at Safeway; sign up to help on a political campaign. Join CORE, SNCC, SLATE, SDS, YAF or a world of other acronyms. I struggled to take it all in, absorb it through my pores. It certainly wasn’t Kansas, Dorothy, nor was it Sierra College or the small Sierra foothill town of Diamond Springs where I was raised. I attended classes at Berkeley that had more students than the total population of Diamond and were close in size to matching Sierra’s full student body.
To simplify my first year I opted to live in a college dorm. I would have a room, a bed and regular meals. The University assigned me to Priestly Hall, which was ideally located a block away from campus and a block away from Telegraph Avenue. As for life at Berkeley, I wanted it all. There were student politics to jump into, classes to master, a love life to support, bookstores to explore, cappuccino to consume, and a thousand causes to sort out. Moderation was not an option.
It was easy to be overwhelmed. I was assigned 15 books in one class and actually thought I was expected to buy and read each one in detail. I was a fast reader but not that fast, nor that wealthy. It would take a year to master the art of skimming, buying old books, using commercially prepared notes and pursuing all of the other tricks of the trade that getting a higher education entailed. For all of that, there was an excitement to the classes. I might be sharing my professor with a thousand other students but he or she might also be a person who was a confidante of Presidents.
I had been student body president at Sierra and gamely jumped into student politics at Berkeley. The dormitories were new, so the residents were new. They hadn’t had time to get to know each other. The fact that I was a community college transfer made little difference. Within a week of my arrival, I was president of Priestly Hall.
Student politics seemed dull and almost frivolous compared to the real thing, though. What truly fascinated me about Berkeley was the palpable sense of being involved in the events of the day. I was drawn toward these issues and the call to action tweaked my interest. Limiting the future of a person because of his or her skin color, sex, or religion went beyond being counterproductive. It was stupid; we all lost. But I wasn’t ready to take up a picket sign. This was my first year at Berkeley and my hands were full with studying.
I did strike one tiny tap hammer blow against Berkeley’s depersonalized approach to undergraduate education, however. Our dorm was expected to participate in the annual Ugly Man Contest. Its purpose was to raise money for charity by having someone or thing really ugly as the dorm’s representative in competition with other dorms, fraternities and sororities. People would vote by donating money (normally pennies) to their favorite ugly man. In addition to being pure fun, it was on the top of the Dean’s list as an acceptable student activity.
I proposed that our ‘Ugly Man’ be an unfortunate Joe College Student whose computer card had been lost by the Administration. Consequently, he no longer existed. Early computers used punched cards to contain data and had become ubiquitous in our lives. They came with the warning “do not fold, spindle or mutilate.”
We made up a casket and wandered about campus in search of poor Joe. It was a small thing but it reflected a growing unease I had about the alienation that happens when numbers became more important than individuals. Apparently the student body wasn’t ready for the message. A popular bartender, selected by a fraternity as its ugly man candidate, walked away with the prize.
While my concerns about assembly line education were evolving, the administration was monitoring off-campus student activism with growing concern. The University perceived its primary objectives as carrying out research and preparing young people to become productive members of American society. There was little room in this view for students seeking social and political change— in Mississippi, in Oakland or on campus.
But the world was changing. A young President in Washington was calling on the youth of America to become involved and had created the Peace Corps to encourage involvement. Racial equality seemed attainable in the United States, and people the world over were yearning for and demanding freedom. It was easy for idealistic young Americans to believe we were at the dawning of a new age and natural to want to be involved in the transformation.
Had the students restricted their political efforts in the early and mid sixties to the far off South, the eruption of conflict on the Berkeley Campus may not have taken place. But they chose local targets as well. When the students marched off campus to picket the Oakland Tribune, Sheraton Hotel, United Airways and Safeway over discriminatory hiring practices, they were challenging locally established businesses with considerable power. Not surprisingly, these businesses felt threatened and fought back. Rather than deal with the existing discrimination, they demanded that the University, local authorities, the state government and even the federal government do whatever was necessary to reign in the protesters.
Their arguments for the crackdown were typical of the times. A few radical off-campus agitators with Communist connections were working in conjunction with left leaning professors to stir up trouble. The participating students lacked mature judgment and were naively being led astray. The vast majority of students were good law-abiding kids who just wanted to get an education, party, and get a paycheck.
The University was caught between the proverbial rock and a very hard place. The off-campus political activism was creating unwanted attention. Public dollars could be lost and reputations tarnished. There was a justifiable fear of reprisal from the right. The ugliness of McCarthyism was still alive and well in America. Only a few years before the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) had held hearings in San Francisco in its ceaseless search for Commies. UC had been a target.
HUAC created a deep paranoia and distrust within society and may indeed have constituted the most un-American type of activity ever perpetrated on the American public. Clark Kerr and others had worked hard to protect and restore the academic freedom on campus that loyalty oaths and other McCarthy-like activities had threatened. Student activism might refocus right-wing attention on the Berkeley Campus.
My greatest insight into the mindset of the Administration was when the Dean of Students called student leaders together to discuss the growing unrest on campus. Our gathering included members of the student government and presidents of the resident halls, fraternities and sororities. Noticeable in their absence were student representatives from off campus organizations such as CORE, SNCC, Young Democrats, Young Republicans and other activist groups. We sat in a large room in a huge square; there must have been at least 40 of us. I was eager to participate and imagined an open discussion of the issues.
The Dean welcomed us, thanked us for agreeing to participate, and then laid the foundation for our discussion. A small group of radical students was disrupting the campus and organizing off-campus activities such as picketing and sit-ins that were illegal in nature. While the issues being addressed were important, there were other, more appropriate means available for solving them that did not involve Berkeley. The Administration had been extremely tolerant so far but was approaching a point where it might have to crack down for the overall good of the University.
The Administration wanted our feedback as student leaders. What did we think was happening, how would our constituencies react to a crack down, and how could we help defuse the situation? We were to go around the room with each student leader expressing his or her view. I expected a major reaction— hopefully a protest or at least a warning to move cautiously, to involve all parties in seeking some type of amenable agreement.
The first student leader stood up. “The radical students are making me extremely angry,” he reported. “I resent that a small group of people can ruin everything for the rest of us. The vast majority of the students do not support off-campus political action. I believe the student body would support a crackdown by the Administration. You have my support in whatever you do.”
I could not believe what I was hearing. Was the guy a plant, preprogrammed by the Administration to repeat the party line and set the tone for everyone else? If so, he was successful. The next person and the next person parroted what he had said. I began to doubt myself. Normally, I am quite good at reading political trends and sensing when a group leans toward supporting or opposing an issue. My read on what was happening at Bancroft and Telegraph was that the majority of the students were empathic with and supportive of the causes the so-called radical students were advocating.
The Martin Luther Kings of the world were heroes, not bad guys, and their tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience were empowering the powerless. Sure, the majority of the students were primarily concerned with getting through college. To many, an all night kegger and getting laid might seem infinitely more appealing than a sit-in. But this did not imply a lack of shared concern. Or so I believed. Apparently, very few of the other participants shared in my belief. Concerns were raised but no one stopped and said, “Damn it, we have a problem!”
As my turn approached I felt myself chickening out. I was the new kid on the block, wet behind the ears. What did I know? Acceptance in this crowd was to stand up and say, “Yes, everything you are talking about is true. Let’s clamp down on the rabble rousers and get on with the important life of being students.” And I wanted to be accepted, to be a part of the establishment. I stood up with shaking legs.
“Hi, my name is Curt Mekemson and I am the president of Priestly Hall,” I announced in a voice which was matching my legs, shake for shake. This was not the impression I wanted to make. As others had spoken, I had scribbled some notes on what I wanted to say. “I believe we have a very serious problem here, that the issues are legitimate, and that most students are sympathetic. I don’t think we should be cracking down but should be working together to find solutions. Now is not the time to further alienate the activists and create more of a crisis than we presently have. I believe it is a serious mistake to not have representatives from the groups involved in organizing off campus activities here today.”
I was met with deadly silence. A few heads nodded in agreement, but mainly there were glares. “Next,” the Dean said. No yea, no nay, no discussion. I was a bringer of bad tidings, a storm crow. But it wasn’t ‘kill the messenger.’ It was more like ‘ignore the messenger,’ like I had farted in public and people were embarrassed.
After that, my enthusiasm for student government waned. I should have fought back, fought for what I believed in, fought for what I knew deep down to be right. But I didn’t. I was still trying to figure out what to do with 15 books in Poly Sci 1. I had a relationship to maintain on campus and a mother fighting cancer at home. The dark, heavy veil of depression rolled over my mind like the fog rolling in from the Bay. Finally I decided that something had to go and that the only thing expendable was my role as President of the dorm. So I turned over the reins of power to my VP and headed back to Bancroft Library. Politics could wait.
Without student government concerns, Berkeley became more doable and even fun. I disappeared into the library for long hours whipping out term papers, devouring books and becoming a serious student. The end of my first semester approached. Christmas vacation was coming. There would be a break in the endless studies and a time for long walks in the woods. Maybe I could get my head around what was happening on campus and where I fit into the scheme of things.
One crisp fall day in November I came blinking out of the library to a brilliant sun and a hushed silence. Students and faculty were emptying out of classes; a young woman with long dark hair was standing on the library steps, tears streaming down her face.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“They’ve shot the President in Dallas,” she replied as her voice broke.
John F. Kennedy was dead. It was November 23, 1963. The young president who was standing up against racism in the South, the man who had created the Peace Corps, who called for international justice and inflamed people’s hopes worldwide, had been shot down in the streets of Dallas. And with his death, some of the hope he had created died with him; it died on the Berkeley Campus that day and it died in me. Each of us lost something of the dream that things could be better, that we as individuals could be better. School stopped and we headed for the nearest TVs, newspapers and radio stations. Time and again we watched the car speeding away with the wounded President, watched Walter Cronkite announce that the President was dead and watched as Lyndon Johnson was sworn in. It was a day etched into the collective memory of our generation.
Thanksgiving arrived and Christmas followed. The battle between the Administration and the student activists continued during the spring semester while I focused on studies. On March 3, 1964, I turned 21 and became, according to law, an adult. Soon I would have to decide what I was going to do with my adult life.
NEXT BLOG: 1964: On the edge of radicalism