I Join a Massive Sit-In and Sing Protest Songs with Joan Baez… Berkeley in the 60s

Joan Baez singing in front of Sproul Hall during an FSM rally. Later she would join the participants in the defining sit-in of the Free Speech Movement and I would sit down with her and sing protest songs.

One day I was faced with a test more serious than any I had ever faced in the classroom. On Friday, December 3, 1964, FSM leaders called for a massive sit in at Sproul Hall. Once again communication had broken down and the Administration was back peddling, caught between students and faculty on the one side and increasing pressure from the outside on the other.

I thought about the implications of the sit-it and decided to join. It was partly on whim, and partly because I felt compelled to act. For three months I had listened to pros and cons and watched the press misrepresent what was happening on campus as a violent resurrection egged on by Communists rather than peaceful protests with a legitimate cause. The public had little option but to believe we were being manipulated by a small group of radicals. 

It was not wrong to utilize an edge of campus for discussing the central issues of the day, or for organizations to raise funds for various causes, or even to recruit students to participate in efforts that ranged from supporting Civil Rights to electing Barry Goldwater. It didn’t disrupt my education. I was free to stop and listen, to join in, or pass on. What it did do was irritate powerful, established members of the community. And for that reason, our freedoms had been curtailed. 

Maybe if enough students joined together and the stakes were raised high enough, the Administration would listen, and the press would dig a little deeper. I told Jo Ann I was going inside and then joined the thousand or so students who had made a similar decisions. It was early in the afternoon and we were in high spirits. I believed it would be hard for the Administration to claim 1000 students were a small group of rabble-rousers bent on destroying the system. And I was right. They claimed we were a large group of rabble-rousers bent on destroying the system.

Inside I was treated to one of the more unique experiences of my life. The sit-in was well organized. Mario and other FSM leaders stood at the entrance and gave us directions on what to do if the police arrived. There were also clear instructions that we were not to block doorways. The normal business of the University was not to be impeded, and we were not to be destructive in any way. Floors were organized for different purposes. One was set aside as the Free University where graduate students were teaching a variety of classes. These included normal topics such as physics and biology and more exotic subjects such as the nature of God. Another was set aside as a study hall and was kept quiet. One featured entertainment— including old Laurel and Hardy films. 

After the administrators left, the Dean’s desk became a platform for expressing our viewpoints, much like the police car holding Jack Weinberg had been. I decided to participate. There was a long line of speakers. We were required to take off our shoes so the desk wouldn’t be damaged. The real treat though was an impromptu concert by Joan Baez. I joined a small group sitting around her in the hallway and sang protest songs. The hit of the night was “We Shall Overcome.” It provided us with a sense of identification with struggles taking place in the South. I felt like I belonged and was part of something much larger than myself. Mainly I walked around and listened, taking extensive notes on what I saw and felt. Later I would sit in the Café Med and write them up. They would become the basis of talks I would give back home over the Christmas break.  

Along about midnight I started thinking about my comfortable bed back in the apartment. The marble floors of Sproul Hall did not make for a good night’s sleep and it appeared the police weren’t coming, at least in the immediate future. Yawning, I left the building and headed home. I would come back in the morning.

I did, but I came back to an occupied campus. Armed men in uniforms formed a cordon around the Administration Building where students were being dragged down the stairs and loaded into police vans. Windows had been taped over so people or media could not see what was transpiring inside. The Governor of California, Pat Brown, had acted to “end the anarchy and maintain law and order in California.” 

I am sure Laurel and Hardy would have seen something to laugh about. Dragging kids down stairs on their butts while their heads bounced along behind could easily have been a scene in one of the old Keystone Cop films. The Oakland police weren’t nearly as funny as the Keystone Cops, however. As for Clark Kerr, President of the University, he felt the participants were getting what they deserved and argued that the FSM leaders and their followers “are now finding in their effort to escape the gentle discipline of the University, they have thrown themselves into the arms of the less understanding discipline of the community at large.”

Later, Kerr claimed he had an understanding with Governor Brown to let the students remain in Sproul Hall overnight. He would talk with the protesters in the morning in an effort to end the sit-in peacefully. But Brown reneged on the agreement. One report was that Edwin Meese, Ronald Reagan’s future Attorney General and, at the time, Oakland’s Deputy DA and FBI liaison, had called Brown in the middle of the night with the claim that students were destroying the Dean’s office. 

I had participated in the “destruction,” i.e. stood on the desk in my socks. Either the DA had received an erroneous report or he had deliberately lied to the Governor. My sense was the latter. The people who saw their interests threatened by the student protests had more to gain from arrests and violent confrontations than they did from negotiated settlements. 

A pair of speakers were set up in front of Sproul Hall for reporting on the arrests happening inside. When the police moved to grab the speakers, we formed a tight ring around them. (Photo from Archives.)

The campus came to a grinding halt and a great deal of fence sitting ended. Whole departments shut down in strike. Sproul Hall plaza filled with several thousand students in protest of the police presence. When the police made a flying wedge to grab a speaker system FSM was using, we were electrified and protected the system with our bodies. It was the closest I have ever come to being in a riot; thousands of thinking, caring students teetered on the edge of becoming an infuriated, unthinking mob. Violence and bloodshed would have been the result. Kerr, Brown, Knowland and company would have had the anarchy they were claiming, after the fact. A few days later we were to come close again. And that is the subject of next Wednesday’s post.

FRIDAY’S TRAVEL BLOG: I wrap up my Pt. Reyes series with a pleasant hike out to Abbot’s Lagoon and an exploration of the small but interesting town of Pt. Reyes Station where Peggy directs me to buy $200 worth of books at the bookstore for my birthday present. She knows me well…

22 thoughts on “I Join a Massive Sit-In and Sing Protest Songs with Joan Baez… Berkeley in the 60s

    • It was history in the making, MB. And I recognize that there are other perspectives, which are fair. The media blew everything out of proportion, though, and in some cases, it deliberately mislead readers. One newspaper in the area, The San Francisco Chronicle, worked hard to present a fair picture. Another, the San Francisco Examiner was the opposite. –Curt

  1. Great to read an accurate account of what took place. I remember the news stories back then and remember what transpired on my own university campus. The media was either hoodwinked or the misreporting was intentional.

    • Certainly in some cases the media was used by the FBI in its counter-intel efforts of the 50s and 60s. Hoover saw Communists everywhere and wasn’t beyond creating them when none existed. There is one documented case at Berkeley where an FBI agent wrote false statements about what was happening on the UC campus and submitted them to a ‘friendly’ writer with the SF Examiner who then turned them into news stories under his name. –Curt

  2. Oh, those sit-in days! I remember them well, only I was a watcher of them on TV, not a participant. I’ll bet these would seem fairly tame today after all the riots we’ve seen of late. You’re really bringing up some memories now, Curt.

  3. I often think Curt there isn’t much in this life you haven’t experienced. Perhaps a good move that you left the marble floor for your own bed that night.

    • Laughing. I could use another 100 years, Sue. By then I might just have at least touched on the things that interest me. Yep. Although being arrested would have been interesting… but not being dragged down stairs! –Curt

    • I just read an article on Joan Baez and her early protest years in the Washington Post, Alison. Also Peggy and I attended a concert of hers in our nearby town of Jacksonville two years ago. Quite moving. She’s still got! 🙂 Thanks. –Curt

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