I Join a Massive Sit-In and Sing Protest Songs with Joan Baez… Berkeley in the 60s

Joan Baez singing in front of Sproul Hall during an FSM rally. Later she would join the participants in the defining sit-in of the Free Speech Movement and I would sit down with her and sing protest songs.

One day I was faced with a test more serious than any I had ever faced in the classroom. On Friday, December 3, 1964, FSM leaders called for a massive sit in at Sproul Hall. Once again communication had broken down and the Administration was back peddling, caught between students and faculty on the one side and increasing pressure from the outside on the other.

I thought about the implications of the sit-it and decided to join. It was partly on whim, and partly because I felt compelled to act. For three months I had listened to pros and cons and watched the press misrepresent what was happening on campus as a violent resurrection egged on by Communists rather than peaceful protests with a legitimate cause. The public had little option but to believe we were being manipulated by a small group of radicals. 

It was not wrong to utilize an edge of campus for discussing the central issues of the day, or for organizations to raise funds for various causes, or even to recruit students to participate in efforts that ranged from supporting Civil Rights to electing Barry Goldwater. It didn’t disrupt my education. I was free to stop and listen, to join in, or pass on. What it did do was irritate powerful, established members of the community. And for that reason, our freedoms had been curtailed. 

Maybe if enough students joined together and the stakes were raised high enough, the Administration would listen, and the press would dig a little deeper. I told Jo Ann I was going inside and then joined the thousand or so students who had made a similar decisions. It was early in the afternoon and we were in high spirits. I believed it would be hard for the Administration to claim 1000 students were a small group of rabble-rousers bent on destroying the system. And I was right. They claimed we were a large group of rabble-rousers bent on destroying the system.

Inside I was treated to one of the more unique experiences of my life. The sit-in was well organized. Mario and other FSM leaders stood at the entrance and gave us directions on what to do if the police arrived. There were also clear instructions that we were not to block doorways. The normal business of the University was not to be impeded, and we were not to be destructive in any way. Floors were organized for different purposes. One was set aside as the Free University where graduate students were teaching a variety of classes. These included normal topics such as physics and biology and more exotic subjects such as the nature of God. Another was set aside as a study hall and was kept quiet. One featured entertainment— including old Laurel and Hardy films. 

After the administrators left, the Dean’s desk became a platform for expressing our viewpoints, much like the police car holding Jack Weinberg had been. I decided to participate. There was a long line of speakers. We were required to take off our shoes so the desk wouldn’t be damaged. The real treat though was an impromptu concert by Joan Baez. I joined a small group sitting around her in the hallway and sang protest songs. The hit of the night was “We Shall Overcome.” It provided us with a sense of identification with struggles taking place in the South. I felt like I belonged and was part of something much larger than myself. Mainly I walked around and listened, taking extensive notes on what I saw and felt. Later I would sit in the Café Med and write them up. They would become the basis of talks I would give back home over the Christmas break.  

Along about midnight I started thinking about my comfortable bed back in the apartment. The marble floors of Sproul Hall did not make for a good night’s sleep and it appeared the police weren’t coming, at least in the immediate future. Yawning, I left the building and headed home. I would come back in the morning.

I did, but I came back to an occupied campus. Armed men in uniforms formed a cordon around the Administration Building where students were being dragged down the stairs and loaded into police vans. Windows had been taped over so people or media could not see what was transpiring inside. The Governor of California, Pat Brown, had acted to “end the anarchy and maintain law and order in California.” 

I am sure Laurel and Hardy would have seen something to laugh about. Dragging kids down stairs on their butts while their heads bounced along behind could easily have been a scene in one of the old Keystone Cop films. The Oakland police weren’t nearly as funny as the Keystone Cops, however. As for Clark Kerr, President of the University, he felt the participants were getting what they deserved and argued that the FSM leaders and their followers “are now finding in their effort to escape the gentle discipline of the University, they have thrown themselves into the arms of the less understanding discipline of the community at large.”

Later, Kerr claimed he had an understanding with Governor Brown to let the students remain in Sproul Hall overnight. He would talk with the protesters in the morning in an effort to end the sit-in peacefully. But Brown reneged on the agreement. One report was that Edwin Meese, Ronald Reagan’s future Attorney General and, at the time, Oakland’s Deputy DA and FBI liaison, had called Brown in the middle of the night with the claim that students were destroying the Dean’s office. 

I had participated in the “destruction,” i.e. stood on the desk in my socks. Either the DA had received an erroneous report or he had deliberately lied to the Governor. My sense was the latter. The people who saw their interests threatened by the student protests had more to gain from arrests and violent confrontations than they did from negotiated settlements. 

A pair of speakers were set up in front of Sproul Hall for reporting on the arrests happening inside. When the police moved to grab the speakers, we formed a tight ring around them. (Photo from Archives.)

The campus came to a grinding halt and a great deal of fence sitting ended. Whole departments shut down in strike. Sproul Hall plaza filled with several thousand students in protest of the police presence. When the police made a flying wedge to grab a speaker system FSM was using, we were electrified and protected the system with our bodies. It was the closest I have ever come to being in a riot; thousands of thinking, caring students teetered on the edge of becoming an infuriated, unthinking mob. Violence and bloodshed would have been the result. Kerr, Brown, Knowland and company would have had the anarchy they were claiming, after the fact. A few days later we were to come close again. And that is the subject of next Wednesday’s post.

FRIDAY’S TRAVEL BLOG: I wrap up my Pt. Reyes series with a pleasant hike out to Abbot’s Lagoon and an exploration of the small but interesting town of Pt. Reyes Station where Peggy directs me to buy $200 worth of books at the bookstore for my birthday present. She knows me well…

The UC Admin Marches Blindly into Confrontation; I Urge Otherwise

In my last blog-a-book post about my time at Berkeley in the 60s, I concluded with a meeting of student leaders in the fall of 1963 to discuss the growing unrest on campus over Administration efforts to shut down off-campus protests by UC students in support of Civil Rights. As the president of one of the dorms, I was invited to attend along with some 40 others. The groups organizing the protests were not invited. I expected a thoughtful discussion on the issues facing the University.

In 1963, the UC Berkeley Administration argued that a small group of radical students was organizing off-campus protests in support of Civil Rights and threatened to crack down, which it did. The ultimate result was the massive student uprising in the fall of 1964 known as the Free Speech Movement.

The Dean welcomed us, thanked us for agreeing to participate and then laid out 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 for Civil Rights. While the issue being addressed was important, there were other, more appropriate means available for addressing it that did not involve Berkeley. The Administration had been extremely tolerant so far but was approaching a point where it would 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 crackdown, 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— a warning to move cautiously and 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 wondered if the guy was a plant, preprogrammed by the Administration to represent 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 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 and get on with the important life of being students.” And I wanted to be accepted, to be a part of the student government. 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 and said:

“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 on campus 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.

Next Wednesday in my blog-a-book post from my Peace Corps memoir, I will discuss the impact of John Kennedy’s assassination on the Berkeley campus and the beginning of the massive student uprising known as the Free Speech Movement.

NEXT POSTS:

Friday’s Travel Blog: I will wrap up my series on Oregon’s Harris Beach State Park (appropriately) with photos of the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean.