1964— The Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley… A Student Revolution: Part I

Wrinkled and showing signs of age, this is the original sign I carried in December of 1964 when the police occupied UC Berkeley and participants in the Sproul Hall Sit-in were arrested.

Wrinkled and showing signs of age, this is the original sign I carried in December of 1964 when the police occupied UC Berkeley and participants in the Sproul Hall Sit-in were arrested.

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

Chapter 3: Sargent Shriver Comes to Berkeley Looking for Unreasonable People… 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 day before Cliff sent me scurrying after the errant urinalysis, Sargent Shriver arrived on campus.  I, along with several thousand other students, flocked to hear him speak.

Three months before I was to enter Peace Corps training for Liberia, Sargent Shriver came to the Berkeley Campus and gave an insightful speech into what it meant to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. (Google photo)

John Kennedy recruited his brother-in-law in 1961 to set up and then head the Peace Corps. “If it flops,” Kennedy had said, “it will be easier to fire a relative than a political friend.” He gave Shriver one month to create the organization.

By 1965 when I joined the Peace Corps, Kennedy had been assassinated and the Peace Corps had become one of the more successful foreign relation programs in US history.

Shriver’s appearance on campus was an important event at Berkeley. In addition to heading up the Peace Corps, he still carried the aura of the Kennedy years. The University was also important to Shriver. We had provided more Volunteers than any other college in the nation

“First of all, I am in favor of free speech,” he began. “Even the initials FSM don’t scare me. Back in Washington my enemies say they stand for “Fire Shriver Monday.” But LBJ says they stand for “Find Shriver Money.”

He captured us. Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement (FSM) had dominated our lives. Times had been serious, even dangerous. We were ready to laugh.

“But here on campus,” he went on, “I want to talk about today’s challenge to the young, to the American university student of the 60s… of what I think might be called a “free service movement.”

Shriver then used a quote from Bob Rupley, a 1962 Berkeley graduate and Peace Corps Volunteer, to describe what he felt the essence of the Peace Corps was:

“Apathy, ignorance and disorganization are the things we want to eliminate… in all areas in which we work. Clearly no Volunteer can hope for absolute success, nor can he even expect limited success to come easily. Clearly, the Peace Corps is not the responsibility of every American. And it shouldn’t be! In many ways, the life of a Volunteer who sincerely seeks to effect progress is miserable.”

Three weeks after making this statement Rupley was shot to death in Caracas, Venezuela while he was working as Peace Corps staff.

Shriver told us the Peace Corps was looking for unreasonable men and women. Reasonable people accept the status quo. Unreasonable people seek to change it.

We were noted for being unreasonable at Berkeley.

Six months earlier the UC Berkeley Administration had declared that the Bancroft-Telegraph Free Speech area was closed and that there would be no more on-campus organization of Civil Rights demonstrations in the Bay Area.

The success of these demonstrations had upset powerful right-wing forces in California.  Telephone lines burned between the UC Administration, Sacramento and Washington DC. Free speech and the right to support off campus political efforts were sacrificed.

Student organizers reacted immediately. They said no.

Some, like Mario Savio, had walked the streets of the South registering black voters and risking their lives to do so. In the summer of 1964 three of their colleagues had been killed and buried under an earthen dam near Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Many had been introduced to political activism four years earlier in the anti-HUAC demonstrations in San Francisco where the police had used fire hoses to wash protestors down the steps of City Hall. Most had participated in numerous protests against racial discrimination in the Bay Area since. (HUAC was the House Un-American Activities Committee, a hold over from the McCarthy era.)

Free Speech Movement organizers understood the value of demonstrations and media coverage. They had become masters at community organization and were focused in their vision to the degree they were willing to face police and be arrested for their beliefs.

The result was a series of confrontations that ended with the massive sit-in at Sproul Hall and the arrest of 800 students in early December. While I hadn’t served as a leader of FSM or been arrested, I empathized strongly with its objectives and had participated in many of the demonstrations. I even spent several hours in the Sproul Hall sit-in.

Heart pounding, I had waited in line and then stood up on the Dean’s desk in my socks and talked of rights and responsibilities. It was our right to oppose racism; it was our responsibility to do so.

Out in the hall, a group of students sat on the floor… surrounding Joan Baez and singing protest songs. I sat down and joined in. “We shall overcome some day…” I was part of something, something much larger than myself.

In the end, we 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.

“You have demonstrated your leadership in the generation of the ‘6os,’ the generation that will not take ‘yes’ for an answer, which has shown an unwillingness to accept the pat answers of society… either in Berkeley, in Selma or in Caracas, Venezuela,” Shriver noted.

“Once in every generation fundamentals are challenged and the entire fabric of our life is taken apart seam by seam and reconstructed…. Such a time is now again at hand and it is clear that many of you are unreasonable men (and women), restless, questioning, challenging, taking nothing for granted.”

We had not forfeited our rights at Berkeley, nor had we, according to Shriver, forfeited our claim to a fellowship with the Peace Corps. And this, at least in part, was why I had been accepted as a Volunteer. Participation in the Free Speech Movement was regarded as a plus, not a minus.

But the time had come to move beyond protest. Shriver concluded his talk with a ringing call for service.

“We ask all of you who have taken what you have learned about our society and tried to make it live, to join us in the politics of service, to demonstrate by doing, to the poor and the forgotten of villages and slums in America and the world, what you have learned of Democracy and freedom and equality. The times demand no less.”

“It is time not just to speak, but to serve.”

Holding a Police Car Hostage: UC Berkeley’s 1965 Free Speech Movement

Jack Weinberg, creator of the statement "Never trust anyone over 30," was arrested for raising funds to support Civil Rights efforts on the UC Berkeley Campus in the fall of 1965. Students surrounded the police car and held it hostage.

In the fall of 1965, the UC Berkeley Administration declared that the Bancroft-Telegraph Free Speech area was closed and that there would be no more organization of off-campus Civil Rights demonstrations at Berkeley. Student organizers of the various community efforts reacted immediately.

These were not young adults whose biggest challenge had been to organize pre-football game rallies. Some, like Mario Savio, had walked the streets of the South registering black voters and risking their lives to do so.

In the summer of 1964 three of their colleagues had been shot dead and buried under an earthen dam near Philadelphia, Mississippi. Many had cut their political eye teeth four years earlier in the anti-HUAC demonstrations in San Francisco and had participated in numerous protests against racial discrimination throughout the Bay Area since. (HUAC was the House Un-American Activities Committee, a hold over from the McCarthy era.)

The student organizers understood the value of demonstrations, media coverage and confrontation and had become masters at community organization. They were focused in their vision to the degree they were willing to face police and be arrested for their beliefs.

The Administration wasn’t nearly as focused. Liberal in nature and genuinely caring for its students, it utilized a 50’s mentality to address a 60’s reality. Its bungling attempts to control off campus political activity combined with its inability to recognize the legitimacy and depth of student feelings would unite factions as diverse as Young Republicans for Goldwater with the Young People’s Socialist League.

It eventually led to the massive protests that painted Berkeley as the nation’s center of student activism and the New Left.

Over the next three months I would spend a great deal of time listening, observing and participating in what would become known world-wide as the Free Speech Movement (FSM). As a political science major, I was to learn much more in the streets than I did in the classroom.

What evolved was a classic no win, up-against-the-wall confrontation. The Administration would move from “all of your freedoms are removed,” to “you can have some freedom,” to “let’s see how you like cops bashing in your heads.” The Free Speech leaders would be radicalized to the point where no compromise except total victory was acceptable.

Student government and faculty solutions urging moderation and cooperation would be lost in the shuffle. Ultimately, Governor Pat Brown would send in the National Guard troops and Berkeley would take on the atmosphere of a police state.

I found myself being radicalized in the process as well although I never reached the point of moving beyond issue to ideology. It was no more in my nature to be left-wing than it had been to be right-wing. However, I would move across the dividing line into civil disobedience.

Within hours of the time that Dean Katherine Towle sent out her ultimatum to campus organizations, the brother and sister team of Art and Jackie Goldberg had pulled together activist organizations ranging in orientation from the radical to conservative and a nascent FSM was born.

Shortly thereafter the mimeographs were humming and students were buried in an avalanche of leaflets as they walked on to campus. I read mine is disbelief. The clash I had predicted at the student leader meeting a year earlier had arrived. There was no joy in being right.

In an era before social networks and cell phones, FSM organizers relied on mimeographed fliers and word of mouth to build instant support. The above flier is one I saved in my files on the Free Speech Movement.

As soon as it became apparent that the Administration had no intention of backing off from its new rules, the FSM leadership determined to challenge the University. Organizations were encouraged to set up card tables in the Sather Gate area to solicit support for off campus causes.

I had stopped by a table to pick up some literature when a pair of Deans approached and started writing down names of the folks manning the tables. Our immediate reaction was to form a line so we could have our names taken as well. The Deans refused to accommodate us. The Administration’s objective was to pick off and separate the leadership of the FSM from the general student body.

A few days later I came out of class to find a police car parked in Sproul Plaza surrounded by students. The police, with encouragement from the Administration, had arrested Jack Weinberg, a non-student organizer for CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) who had been soliciting support for his organization.

Someone had found a bullhorn and people were making speeches from the top of the police car while Jack sat inside. I situated myself on the edge of the fountain next to the Student Union and idly scratched the head of a German Short Haired Pointer named Ludwig while I listened. (Ludwig visited campus daily and played in the fountain. Later, in Berkeley-like fashion, the fountain would be named for him.)

A scanned photo of Ludwig from Berkeley's student newspaper.

Eventually I stood up and joined those on the edge of the crowd thereby becoming a part of the blockade. It was my first ever participation in civil disobedience. It was a small step. There would be plenty of time for more critical thinking if the police showed up in force.

Being only semi-radical, I did duty between classes and took breaks for eating and sleep. Eventually, after a couple of days, the FSM negotiated a deal with the Administration. Jack was booked on campus and turned loose, as was the police car. A collection was taken up to pay for minor damages the police car had sustained in the line of duty while serving as a podium.

Next Blog: The Police and National Guard occupy Berkeley’s campus

 

Berkeley on Edge… the 60s

Within a week of my arrival at Berkeley, I was President of Priestly Hall, my dorm. Following my stint as Student Body President at Sierra College, I decided to jump into student politics at the University. The dormitories were new so the residents were new. The fact that I was a Community College transfer made little difference.

Student politics seemed dull and almost frivolous compared to the real thing, however. What truly fascinated me about Berkeley was the palpable sense of being involved in the events of the day.

Fellow students had actually signed up for and gone on Freedom Rides in the South. An active effort to end discriminatory hiring practices was underway in the Bay Area and organizations such as the Congress of Racial Equality were recruiting students to support their efforts.

I was drawn toward these issues and the call to action tweaked my interest. Limiting the future of a potential Martin Luther King because of who his parents were 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 in struggling with classes and eking out time to be with Jo Ann. There were also numerous responsibilities to fulfill in my role as dorm president such as organizing parties, collecting rolls of toilet paper to throw during Cal football games and learning the football fight songs.

I did strike one tap hammer blow against the machine, however. We were 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 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. 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 created by assembly line education where numbers were more important than individuals. Apparently the student body wasn’t ready for the message; a popular bartender representing a fraternity walked away with the prize.

While my concerns over student alienation 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. These weren’t bad goals but there was little room in the equation for students seeking social and political change… in Mississippi, in Oakland or on campus.

But ‘the times they were a changing,’ as Bob Dylan sang. A young President in Washington was calling on the youth of America to become involved, 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 also 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 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, the University President, 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.

A 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 addressing were important, there were other, more appropriate means available for solving them that didn’t 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 force 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 blog: John Kennedy Is Shot Down on the Streets of Dallas.