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.

An Introduction to The Bush Devil Ate Sam… and other Peace Corps Tales

Mandingo mosque in Gbarnga, Liberia circa 1965.

I watched as this mosque was built in Gbarnga, Liberia in 1966 and then showed up for the opening ceremony– the only non-African present. I was sitting up front with the dignitaries when Do Your Part the Dog came whipping through the door and made a beeline for me, almost causing a riot.

(I’ve been working hard on a book about my Peace Corps adventures in West Africa. It is actually getting close to being published as an Ebook– with close meaning some time in the next three months (grin). I’ve  posted a number of my draft chapters on this blog over the past year. They are listed under Africa Peace Corps Tales in the sidebar. Today I will post a draft featuring part of the book’s introduction. It is designed to give readers a taste of what is included in the book.)

The soldier pounding on our door with the butt of his rifle in the middle of an African night made me seriously question my decision to join the Peace Corps. When he demanded that I go off with him into the dark, my questioning became epic. People had been beaten and even killed under such circumstances. I told him to screw off.  The sergeant was not pleased.

My decision to become a Peace Corps Volunteer was one of the best decisions in my life, however. The way I was raised and educated, even my DNA, had pointed me in the direction of volunteering and striking off for parts unknown. But there was more.

I am very much a “child of the 60s.” Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, and student activism dramatically effected how I viewed the world. Being a student at UC Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement in 1965 intensified my involvement in these issues. Looking back, I can see how the Berkeley experience, my ‘wandering’ genes, and the influence of family, friends and teachers combined to encourage my decision to join the Peace Corps.

In 2007 I was working on my memoirs. I had retired from my career as an environmentalist and public health advocate, needed a new challenge, and loved to write. Conventional wisdom and a thousand books on writing dictated I should write about what I knew best. Having finished the first draft, I bravely decided to share the manuscript with the book club my wife Peggy and I had belonged to for 17 years, the BSBC out of Sacramento, California. We had a fun night and the book club was kind. It can be feisty.

At the end of the evening, John Robbins, an iconoclastic professor and physician with the University of California Medical School at Davis, suggested that I pull out the section I had written about my Peace Corps experience and turn it into a book on its own. His suggestion led me to consider the idea. The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Peace Corps in 2011 clinched the deal.

Dr. John Robbins of the University of California  Medical School of Davis.

John Robbins has a discussion with his cat at his home in Sacramento, California.

John Kennedy created the Peace Corps in 1961 as one of his first acts as President of the United States. His reasons were both idealistic and pragmatic. Yes, he wanted to help third world countries combat the terrible poverty, disease, hunger, illiteracy and conflict they faced, but he was also interested in winning hearts and minds for the West. The mindset of Kennedy, and most other leaders of his generation, was that we were in the midst of a worldwide conflict between capitalism and communism, totalitarianism and democracy, and Christianity and Atheism. The Cold War was raging and much of this war was being fought in third world countries.

While few Peace Corps Volunteers would list “making friends for America” as their reason for joining the organization, it more or less comes with the territory of being from the United States and working intensely in another country to help people improve their lives. In this sense, the Peace Corps is one of the most effective foreign aid programs ever created by the US. It is certainly one of the least expensive– especially when the work Volunteers do overseas and the skills and commitment they bring back home are considered. A recent Peace Corps budget justification noted that the total cost of running the Peace Corps for the past 50 years could be covered with what the US spends on the military every six days.

My assignment was to serve as a teacher in Liberia, West Africa.  The country has a unique history dating back to the early 19th Century when freed slaves from America were shipped back to Africa. Within 30 years, the freed slaves, or Americo Liberians as they came to be known, had established themselves as the rulers of Africa’s first black republic. When I arrived in 1965, their descendants still controlled the political, military, justice, education and economic systems of Liberia– i.e. almost everything. William Shadrach Tubman, President of the country since 1944, had invited Peace Corps into Liberia to help tribal Liberians, who made up 95% of the population, prepare for a larger role in the nation’s future. Not all Americo-Liberians agreed with this goal– as I would learn.

“The Bush Devil Ate Sam” is a the story of adventures that I, along my ex-wife, Jo Ann, had in Africa, but it also includes, background on my decision to join the Peace Corps and some thoughts on the tragic history of Liberia since the 60s.

I begin with a brief look at the influence of my family’s restless nature and discover that I was right to be worried about the soldier knocking on our door: wandering can be hazardous to your health. William Mekemson has his head chopped of by tomahawks during the Blackhawk War and George Marshall, my mother’s great grandfather, is killed for his gold after striking it rich during California’s gold rush.

Following in the footsteps of my ancestors, I wander off to UC Berkeley where police occupy the campus, liberally use nightsticks, and drag students down stairs. A roommate tells the FBI I am a Red, a Communist– and I not even pink. But this is a time when innuendo is more important than facts and J. Edgar Hoover believes there is a Russian agent hiding behind every tree on campus. I figure my chances of making it into the Peace Corps are ruined. Sargent Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps, likes people who challenge the status quo, however, and I soon find myself in the Sierra Nevada Mountains decapitating a chicken as part of my training.

In Liberia I am thrown into a second grade class of 7-22 year olds where children who barely speak English are taught reading out of aging California textbooks featuring middle-class white kids and Spot, a pet that resembles dinner. Peace Corps encourages me to write a Liberian second grade reader using Liberian children and African folk tales, which I do. Americo-Liberians in the Department of Education determine the book is subversive. It’s torpedoed and I am told to never mention the project.

The high school principal recruits me to teach social studies to 10th, 11th and 12th graders and Jo Ann to teach French and English. Somewhat to my surprise, I discover I enjoy teaching and may even be good at it. Things run smoothly until the Liberian government determines that the student government I create to teach my students about democracy is a direct challenge to the country’s one party state. I am told to pack my bags. My students are told they will be arrested.

Our tenth and eleventh grade classes and Jo Ann at Gboveh High School in Gbarnga, Liberia (1967)

Our tenth and eleventh grade classes and Jo Ann at Gboveh High School in Gbarnga, Liberia (1967)

On the home front I repulse an invasion of army ants, breed rhinoceros beetles, and watch Jo Ann make mincemeat out of a Green Mamba, one of the world’s more deadly snakes. A menagerie of animals adopt us and provide both companionship and comic relief. They also create mischief. Rasputin the Cat collaborates with the Cockle Doodle Rooster to wake us at five every morning. Do Your Part the Good Dog crashes a solemn ceremony I am at attending at a mosque and causes a riot while Boy the Bad Dog develops a penchant for eating guinea fowl that belong to the Superintendent (governor) of Bong County. It’s the latter that brings the soldiers to our house in the middle of the night. Apparently, the illegal consumption of would-be chickens is a more serious crime than writing a subversive second grade reader or teaching high school kids they can be part of the government.

Burning out a nest of army ants in Gbarnga, Liberia circa 1966.

The army ants invaded our home. Here I burn out their nest in an effort to persuade them to move elsewhere.

I learn that the scarification marks marching up the chest on Sam, the young man who works for us, were ‘made’ by the Kpelle Bush Devil’s teeth, which leads to an interest in tribal culture. I discover the Lightning Man can make lightning strike people, sit in on a trial where justice is determined by a red-hot machete, and find myself involved in a situation where Juju, the dark magic of West Africa, is being used on one of my students.

The use of Juju in West Africa.

Mamadee Wattee, shown here, appeared at our house on a dark, stormy night to tell us that juju, dark magic, was being used to make him sick.

A year and a half into our service, we are numbered among the veteran Peace Volunteers of Liberia, the people to go to for sage advice. Jo and I take a month off to tour the big game parks of East Africa in a rented VW Bug, my students receive top national honors in social studies, and we turn down a request from Peace Corps’ to spend our last six months touring Liberia and training teachers. Instead we spend our time with the students who have earned our allegiance and the animals that have won our hearts.

I snapped this photo of a baby zebra with a Kodak Instamatic camera on our trip through East Africa.

I snapped this photo of a baby zebra with a Kodak Instamatic camera on our trip through East Africa.

One of my final encounters is disturbing. A representative from the US Embassy in Monrovia requests that I meet with him at our house in Gbarnga. He wants my views on the future of Liberia. My experience with the paranoid reactions of the government leads me to suggest that the future is bleak unless drastic changes are made in how Liberia is governed. Unfortunately, as I share in the Epilogue, much of what I feared in 1967 comes to pass. Only today is Liberia recovering from the tragic results.

12th Grade Class of Gboveh High School, Gbanrga, Liberia (1967)

A photograph of my twelfth grade class along with me standing in front of Gboveh High School. (1967)

NEXT BLOG: I join the spirit of the season by re-blogging hair-raising stories of the ghosts that lived in the graveyard next to the house I grew up in.

Chapter 2: The FBI is Told I Run Communist Cell Meetings… Peace Corps Tales

Welcome to “The Dead Chicken Dance and Other Peace Corps Tales.” I am presently on a two month tour of the Mediterranean and other areas so I thought I would fill my blog space with one of the greatest adventures I have ever undertaken: a two-year tour as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, West Africa. Every two days I will post a new story in book format.

When I have finished, I will publish the book digitally and in print.

The mid-60s were a time of turmoil at UC Berkeley when the University blocked on-campus support for the Civil Right’s Movement. Here, I am one of many protesters opposing Administration policy by picketing at Bancroft Way and Telegraph Avenue.

In the last post, my first wife, Jo Ann, and I applied for the Peace Corps when we were students at UC Berkeley in 1965. We were tentatively accepted as teachers in Liberia, West Africa.

There were still hurdles. They were tied to the illusive if. We could go if we could get through the background security check, if we weren’t deselected during training, and if we could pass the physical. Training wasn’t a worry. We had enough confidence in ourselves to assume we would float through. How hard could it be after Berkeley?

The Security Check was something else. Jo Ann was squeaky clean but I had been up to mischief at Berkeley, hung out with the wrong people, been seen in a few places where law-abiding people weren’t supposed to be, and had my name on a number of petitions.

“And where were you Mr. Mekemson the night the students took over the Administration Building?”

Maybe there was even a file somewhere; maybe it was labeled Radical. J. Edgar Hoover saw Red when he looked at Berkeley.

Soon I started hearing from friends. The man with the badge had been by to see them. The background security check was underway. One day I came home to the apartment and found my roommate Jerry there. He was pale and agitated. His eyes bounced around the room.

“I have to talk to you Curtis,” he blurted out. “The FBI was by today doing your Peace Corps background check and I told them you had been holding communist cell meetings in our apartment.”

Jerry was deadly serious; Jerry was dead.

“What in the hell are you talking about?” I yelled, seeing all of our hopes dashed and me rotting in jail. I knew that Jerry disagreed with me over my involvement in Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement (FSM) and probably disagreed with me over the Vietnam War, but I hadn’t a clue on how deep that disagreement went. Or what he based his information on.

My degree in International Relations had included a close look at Communism. I found nothing attractive about repressive totalitarian states.

The closest I came to joining a leftist group had been the Free Student Union. Yes I had held committee meetings at our apartment but I had also severed my relationship with the organization. The folks behind the Union apparently believed that confrontation with authority was a good thing in and of itself. Getting bashed on the head with a nightstick made students angry. FSU wanted to radicalize the student body, not serve it.

I was not happy with Jerry that night or for some time after. I assumed the Peace Corps option was out and begin thinking of alternatives. They were bleak.

As it turned out, we received final notification from the Peace Corps a few weeks later. We were accepted. Jerry could live. The people who said good things about me must have outweighed the people who said bad things. Either that or Jo looked so good they didn’t want to throw the babe out with the bath water.

Or possibly the majority of other students who signed up for the Peace Corps from Berkeley in 1965 had rap sheets similar to mine.

There was one final hitch. I was to report to the Army Induction Center in Oakland for my physical. It was an experience not worth repeating. I lined up with a bunch of naked men to be poked and prodded.

“Turn your head and cough. Now, bend over.”

I took it like a man and escaped as soon as the opportunity presented itself. A couple of days later I came back from class and there was a scribbled note from my other roommate, Cliff, who was also going into the Peace Corps.

“The Induction Center called,” he wrote, “and there is a problem with your urinalysis.” I was to call them.

“Damn,” I thought. “Why is this so difficult?” So I called the Center and resigned myself to peeing in another jar. With really good luck, I might avoid the naked-man line.

I got a very cooperative secretary who quickly bounced me to a very cooperative nurse who quickly bounced me to a very cooperative technician who quickly bounced me to a very cooperative doctor… and none of them could find any record of my errant urinalysis.

They didn’t see any problems and they didn’t know who had called. They suggested I call back later and be bounced around again. More than a little worried, I rushed off to my next class.

That evening I reported my lack of success to Cliff. He got this strange little smile on his face and asked me what day it was.

“April 1st,” I replied as recognition of having been seriously screwed dawned in my mind. “You little ass!” I screamed, as Cliff shot for the door with me in fast pursuit. He made it to Telegraph Avenue before I caught him. The damage wasn’t all that bad, considering.