The UC Admin Marches Blindly into Confrontation; I Urge Otherwise

In my last blog-a-book post about my time at Berkeley in the 60s, I concluded with a meeting of student leaders in the fall of 1963 to discuss the growing unrest on campus over Administration efforts to shut down off-campus protests by UC students in support of Civil Rights. As the president of one of the dorms, I was invited to attend along with some 40 others. The groups organizing the protests were not invited. I expected a thoughtful discussion on the issues facing the University.

In 1963, the UC Berkeley Administration argued that a small group of radical students was organizing off-campus protests in support of Civil Rights and threatened to crack down, which it did. The ultimate result was the massive student uprising in the fall of 1964 known as the Free Speech Movement.

The Dean welcomed us, thanked us for agreeing to participate and then laid out 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 for Civil Rights. While the issue being addressed was important, there were other, more appropriate means available for addressing it that did not involve Berkeley. The Administration had been extremely tolerant so far but was approaching a point where it would 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 crackdown, 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— a warning to move cautiously and 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 wondered if the guy was a plant, preprogrammed by the Administration to represent 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 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 and get on with the important life of being students.” And I wanted to be accepted, to be a part of the student government. 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 and said:

“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 on campus 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.

Next Wednesday in my blog-a-book post from my Peace Corps memoir, I will discuss the impact of John Kennedy’s assassination on the Berkeley campus and the beginning of the massive student uprising known as the Free Speech Movement.

NEXT POSTS:

Friday’s Travel Blog: I will wrap up my series on Oregon’s Harris Beach State Park (appropriately) with photos of the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean.

20 thoughts on “The UC Admin Marches Blindly into Confrontation; I Urge Otherwise

  1. I appreciate your taking me back down memory lane. I was growing up in Mexico at the time so I wasn’t connected to the events that were happening in the states and in 1963 I was 13. However, when I look back on those days from this distance in time I am aware that the era of McCarthy’s reign had only ended a few years before your time at Berkeley and his rants against anything that would sound/look like Socialism in any way might still be reverberating in the minds of some, especially those in positions of power or wanting power. Thank God for the Hippies and all the social activists around the world! 🙂
    I was also hearing that this was a hard time for you and that you were dealing with a lot, including remaining in integrity with yourself while caring for people and relationships that were important to you.

    • The battle continues today, Arati. No doubt about it. And it has become as nasty, if not more so, than it was during McCarthyism. In the early to mid 60s, McCarthyism was still an open wound, however. Few people remember how devastating it was. I’ll write more about the left/right conflict in my series on Berkeley.
      Yes, they were tough times, but also incredibly valuable to me in terms of who I was and who I was becoming. Thanks for your thoughtful comments and observations. –Curt

  2. WOW. You are very brave! I know how hard it is for me to engage in any civil discourse these days, even if it’s just at a party or some kind of casual environment. How amazing that you didn’t let the voices of others sway your opinion. Can’t WAIT to read more about this. Also, I have to tell you that I absolutely loved this visual: “The dark, heavy veil of depression rolled over my mind like the fog rolling in from the Bay.” – great writing, that. 🙂

    • That must be an interesting story, Peggy.
      One thing at Berkeley, there was strong support for the Free Speech Movement, from faculty as well as students. It continued to grow as the administration bowed to outside pressures. Different schools on the campus reacted differently, which I will talk about. Some. like bus-ad and engineering sided with the administration. Some, like poly sci were split. And some, like English and math were close to all in in support of the students. –Curt

  3. I agree with the other reader who commented on this remarkable expression: “The dark, heavy veil of depression rolled over my mind like the fog rolling in from the Bay.” This was a great read, a great look back into history. Good for your stating your belief regardless of outcome.

    • Thanks, Kelly. I think I felt just about every emotion known during my two years at Berkeley. In ways, it felt like a lifetime. But it is an experience I am ever so glad I had. And I never regretted it, even in the darker moments. We realized at the time that major changes were taking place and that we were part of it. –Curt

  4. What courage it must have taken to speak your truth. And you should have no shame for withdrawing from student politics given all else that was on your plate at the time. I’m so enjoying this personal look at the unfolding of events at Berkeley.
    Alison

    • It had to be said, Alison. I wish others would have spoken out forcefully. It might had made a difference. Probably not, but… 🙂 As for the other, it was more regret than shame. But it was a good decision on my part. –Curt

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