UC Reaches the Boiling Point… Berkeley in the 60s

Mario Savio, who had risked his life registering black voters in the South during the Freedom Summer of 1964, became a key leader of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement that fall. (Photo from UC Berkeley Library.)

In my last Blog-a Book post on my experiences at UC Berkeley, I reported on how I returned to the campus in the fall of 1964 to discover that the Administration had moved decisively to end student participation in Civil Rights battles taking place in the Bay Area.

The Administration’s actions were a testament to the students’ success. It wasn’t that the activists wanted change; the problem was that they were achieving it. Non-violent civil disobedience is a powerful tool. Base your fight on moral issues; use the sit-in and the picket line to make your point. When the police come, don’t fight back; go limp. If they beat you over the head, you win. Sing songs of peace and justice; put a flower in the barrel of the weapon facing you. It is incredibly hard to fight against these tactics. 

As the demonstrations in the surrounding community became more successful, the businesses being targeted struck back. Calls were made to the Regents, the President of the University system, and the Chancellor at Berkeley. ‘Control your students or else’ was the ominous message. One of the people making the threats was William Knowland, owner of the Oakland Tribune and a former Republican Senator from California who had served as Senate Majority Leader. The Tribune was one of the targets of the anti-discrimination campaign.

The Regents, President and Chancellor bowed to the pressure. Some members of the Administration undoubtedly saw the student movement as a Communist inspired left-wing plot that California’s right-wing was promoting. Others may have believed that the students’ effectiveness would bring the powers that be down on the university. Academic freedom could be lost. Some likely felt that the activities were disruptive to the education process and out of place on a college campus. The latter two arguments had an element of merit. 

One thing was immediately clear; the Administration woefully underestimated the reaction of the leaders of the various organizations and large segments of the campus population to its dictum. Maybe the administrators actually believed the message they had received from their student leadership the previous fall at the meeting I had attended, or maybe they just felt that the outside pressure was so great it didn’t matter how students reacted. 

But react they did. These were not young adults whose biggest challenge had been to organize a pre-football game rally. Some, like Mario Savio, had walked the streets of the South and stared racism in the face, risking their lives to do so. That summer while I was driving a laundry truck over the Sierras, three of their colleagues had been shot dead and buried under an earthen dam near Philadelphia, Mississippi. I would later visit the spot. Many had cut their political eyeteeth four years earlier opposing the House Un-American Activities Committee meetings in San Francisco and had participated in the numerous protests against racial discrimination since. They understood the value of demonstrations, media coverage and confrontation, and had become masters at community organization. They were committed to their beliefs and were willing to face police and be arrested if necessary. 

The Administration wasn’t nearly as focused. Mostly 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 and eventually lead to the massive protests that would paint 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. As a student of politics, 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 police and Berkeley would take on the atmosphere of a police state. 

The process of alienation that had started for me with the student leader conference continued to grow, but I never made the leap from 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 journey across the dividing line into civil disobedience, which will be my next Wednesday’s tale.

NEXT POST:

Friday’s Travel Blog: Peggy and I continue our exploration of Pt. Reyes National Seashore, driving out to the Pierce Point Ranch and hiking out toward Tomales Point where we encounter a herd of elk and sushi eating coyotes.