Victory— for Students and Civil Rights… Berkeley in the 60s

An aging copy of the Daily Cal, Berkeley’s student newspaper, announces the arrests at Sproul Hall on December 4, 1964. (From my FSM files)

The whole campus was holding its breath in the immediate aftermath of the arrests at Sproul Hall, waiting to see what would happen next. Thousands gathered in Sproul Hall Plaza while an army of law enforcement officers were held ready to return to campus. Most of my classes were cancelled and I didn’t attend those that weren’t. Instead, I joined a picket line.

I’m in this line, one of many protesters opposing Administration policy by picketing at Bancroft Way and Telegraph Avenue. (Photo by my friend, Frank Martin.)

UC President Clark Kerr held a series of around the clock meetings with a select committee of Department Chairs and arrived at a compromise he felt would provide for the extended freedom being demanded on campus while also diffusing the outside pressure to crack open student heads. Sit-in participants arrested in the Sproul Hall would be left to the ‘tender mercies’ of the outside legal system and not disciplined by the University. Rights to free speech and organization on campus would be restored as long as civil disobedience was not advocated. 

Kerr and Robert Scalapino, Chair of the Political Science Department, presented the compromise to a hastily called all-campus meeting of 15,000 students and faculty at the open-air Greek Theater. There was to be no discussion and no other speakers. When Mario Savio approached the podium following the presentation, he was grabbed by police, thrown down, and dragged off the stage. Apparently, he had wanted to announce a meeting in Sproul Plaza to discuss Kerr’s proposal. Once again, Berkeley teetered on the edge of a riot. We moved from silent, shocked disbelief to shouting our objections. Mario, released from the room where he was held captive, urged us to stay calm and leave the area. We did, but Kerr’s compromise was compromised.

The UC Faculty Senate met on December 8 in Wheeler Hall to render its opinion on what should be done. Ironically the meeting was held in the same auditorium where Peter Odegard had lectured on the meaning of democracy to my Poly Sci 1 class during my first day at Berkeley. Some 5000 of us gathered outside to wait for the results and listen to the proceedings over a loud speaker. 

Some departments such as math, philosophy, anthropology and English were clearly on the side of FSM while others including business and engineering were in opposition. My own department of political science was divided. Some professors believed that nonviolent civil disobedience threatened the stability of government. Others recognized how critical it was for helping the powerless gain power. To them, having large blocks of disenfranchised, alienated people in America seemed to be a greater threat to democracy than civil disobedience.

To the students who had fought so hard and risked so much, and to those of us who had joined their cause, the results were close to euphoric. On a vote of 824-115 the faculty resolved that all disciplinary actions prior to December 8 should be dropped, that students should have the right to organize on campus for off-campus political activity, and that the University should not regulate the content of speech or advocacy. Two weeks later, the Regents confirmed the faculty position.

We had won. Our freedom of speech, our freedom to organize, and our freedom to participate in the critical issue of the day were returned. 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. 

In next Wednesday’s post I explore the background of the students arrested and begin to consider the options for my future: one is a war in South East Asia, the other is the Peace Corps.

FRIDAY’S TRAVEL BLOG: I’ll take you on a visit to our home in Oregon where spring is in full force, a cougar comes by in the night, and eight pregnant does hang out on our property.

16 thoughts on “Victory— for Students and Civil Rights… Berkeley in the 60s

  1. Really amazing that you were a part of this movement Curt. I admire you and really enjoy reading about your experiences, be they your childhood stories or your experiences in the Peace Corps (from your book), or these Berkeley accounts—all of it fascinating and an excellent read. Thank you for sharing your story.

    • Thanks, Sylvia. The retelling of these stories has been fun for me. And, in a way relevant to the times we live in. I am pleased that you, and the others who follow my blog, have been enjoying the tales. Much appreciated. –Curt

    • I suspect the police were showing a bit of their frustration. Their relatively easy life as campus cops had been severely disrupted. To do it in front of 15,000 people was insane. Fence sitting ended that day, MB. –Curt

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