UC Berkeley’s Free Speech Moment— 50 Years Later: Part III

The student newspaper at UC Berkeley used headlines from its 1964/65 coverage of the Free Speech Movement on its front page issue that summarized the tumultous year.

The student newspaper at UC Berkeley used headlines from its 1964/65 coverage of the Free Speech Movement on the  front page of its May 19, 1965 issue that summarized the tumultuous year.

In preparation for writing these blogs on the Free Speech Movement, I broke out my old files from the FSM days. Included were aging, yellow copies of the Daily Cal, a Christmas carol song book and record with the carols modified to reflect what had happened on campus, hurriedly mimeographed sheets documenting the most recent administration ‘outrage,’ and my own personal picket sign I had carried following the arrests in Sproul Hall. Memories came flooding back. I even found a picture of Ludwig, the German Short Haired Pointer. Since then I have discovered numerous sources covering the movement and its impact including an excellent book, “The Free Speech Movement,” edited by Robert Cohen and Reginald Zelnik. FSM even has its own website where I discovered pictures of white-haired aging men and women looking remarkably like me. Fifty years ago is now the ancient past.

I also returned to campus on one of the periodic pilgrimages I make to Berkeley. Sitting on the edge of Ludwig’s fountain under a fine mist of spray, I stared at the steps of Sproul Hall while searching my memory for the ghostly reminders of past demonstrations. Naturally I had to visit the Café Med for an obligatory cup of cappuccino. I also visited the Free Speech Café in the Moffitt Undergraduate Library. Every seat was full so I wandered around and looked at pictures. Mario, who died in 1996, was there in spirit. A picture captured him in a characteristic pose haranguing a sea of upturned faces.

In hindsight, the Free Speech Movement has become an important part of Berkeley’s history, honored even by an Administration that once characterized it as a Communist inspired plot. And what about my hindsight; have the years blurred or substantially modified my vision of what took place? I tried in writing about FSM to be faithful to what I felt at the time as an involved observer, struggling to understand what was happening and why. I feel now, as I did then, that it didn’t have to happen. The attitude of the Administration so aptly demonstrated in the 1963 student government meeting I described went beyond naïve to dangerous. If the more radical students found ground for ‘revolution,’ it was a ground fertilized and plowed by the Administration. The desire to protect the campus from outside influence became a willingness to limit the rights of students to participate in the critical issues of the day and, in so doing, take the side of the people whose vested interest were in maintaining the status quo on civil and other human rights issues.

What changed as a result of the Free Speech Movement? Certainly the concept of in locus parentis took a major hit. Students at Berkeley and other colleges across America would have much greater freedom in the future, on both a personal and political level. We had graduated from being older teenagers needing strict guidance to young adults capable and responsible for our own decisions. Human rights and equality, the anti-war campaign, and the environmental movement would all benefit from the infusion of young people dedicated to making positive changes. Berkeley students had participated in one of America’s great transformations.

The New Left, being more issue oriented and less ideological than the Old Left, considers the Free Speech Movement as an important source of origin. A similar claim might be made for the New Right. Not surprisingly, both the left and the right saw the unrest on the Berkeley Campus as an opportunity waiting to happen.

Certainly Ronald Reagan exploited the student unrest of the 60s and 70s to gain power. Following the Free Speech Movement and for the next the next decade, he would use the student protests at Berkeley and other California colleges as a launching pad for his career in politics. One of his first moves as Governor of California would be to fire Clark Kerr for being too soft on the students. There is a picture from the early 70s of Reagan turning around and flipping off student protestors at a U.C. Regent’s meeting. It was a clear message of intent. There would be little love lost between the future president and young people opposing the war in Vietnam, supporting the environmental movement, and fighting for human rights.

In the spring of 1965, after most of the tumult of the Free Speech Movement had ended, Sargent Shriver, John Kennedy’s brother-in-law and the man Kennedy asked to create the Peace Corps, came to Berkeley and addressed the student body. He told us the Peace Corps was looking for unreasonable men and women. Reasonable people accept the status quo, Shriver noted. Unreasonable people seek to change it. We were noted for being unreasonable at Berkeley. His words:

“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,” he went on to say, “ 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 ask all of you to take what you have learned about our society and make it live… to join us in the politics of service, to demonstrate 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.”

We gave Shriver a standing ovation. I joined the Peace Corps.