This post is my article in a book published in observance of the 50th Anniversary of the Free Speech Movement:
FiftyYears of Free Speech: Perspectives on the Movement that Revolutionized Berkeley, with editors Meg Elison, Gina Cova, Chloe Hunt and Alex Berryhill, published by The Daily Californian and Independent Berkeley Student publishing company, (Berkeley, CA)
WHAT ONE PROFESSOR REMEMBERS
Most students who experienced FSM are alive to tell the tale. Probably most members of the faculty of 1964 are not. They would surely be astonished to see “what time hath wrought”, how warmly UC has come to embrace the unruly band that refused to abide by institutional “norms” in 1964.
Image change over time is not uncommon, though it can be quite spectacular. When we celebrate Martin Luther King’s birthday as a national holiday, the conventional narrative overlooks how he was vilified for opposing the Vietnam War, how much the entire civil rights movement was hounded by the FBI and considered by successive presidents of the United States to be a thorn in the side.
So we might well remember how hard the authorities fought against the free speech demands. The UC administration and the Regents resisted stubbornly; campus protesters were confronted by police and, over the next few years, by a hostile governor who ordered in the National Guard.
I was almost 43 when FSM burst on to the Berkeley campus, having joined the faculty only two months earlier.
FSM took us, the faculty, on a very bumpy ride. A few got on board when students surrounded the police car in Sproul Plaza. Most were unresponsive, a few annoyed and hostile, most assuming the disturbance would soon blow over. The mass arrests at Sproul Hall on December 2nd changed the mood, a majority shocked by the use of such force at the behest of campus administrators.
I remember standing with Professor Howard Schachman at Sproul Hall right after the students were dragged out and arrested. We decided to enlist our colleagues to convene an ad hoc meeting of faculty that evening. That meeting in the old Life Sciences Building formed the Committee of 200, which rallied a large majority of the faculty to the side of free speech, culminating in the historic Academic Senate vote of December 8th. Of course that landslide vote marking the FSM’s victory was guaranteed in advance when campus police tried (and failed) forcibly to keep Mario Savio from speaking at the Greek Theater convocation.
We listen in awe today to the remarkably thoughtful, poetic and inspired speeches of Mario Savio, but I’m reminded that some administrators were so blinded by rage that they could say, as one did to me: “he speaks the language of the gutter”. I’ve told the story elsewhere (a chapter in the Zelnik and Cohn book about FSM) of my being asked for advice at high levels of the UC administration, advice that was rejected because it was supportive of the students. Moreover, adding injury to insult, a record of that “confidential” encounter was passed on to the FBI and appeared in my FBI file obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
FSM gave something very important to faculty who came to its support. It gave (or evoked) courage and a sense of community with the students.
Soon after the FSM prevailed, students and much of the faculty used their “free speech” to protest the Vietnam War. Governor Reagan, who had conspired with J. Edgar Hoover to oust UC President Clark Kerr as too liberal, felt that speech shouldn’t be free after all. When students and faculty decided to hold a “Vietnam Commencement” supporting graduating seniors who had pledged not to fight in Vietnam, Reagan and the Regents banned the event. But it took place anyway, thousands filling Sproul Plaza, and 300 faculty standing together on the steps of Sproul Hall in direct defiance of the ban. Threatened punishment failed to materialize.
Later still, during the Regents’ effort to eliminate People’s Park, Governor Reagan ordered the National Guard to the Berkeley campus, unleashing tear gas indiscriminately from swooping helicopters. A delegation of faculty went to Sacramento to plead for sanity. When the Governor called them in for a tongue lashing in front of massed news cameras, the faculty delegation took him on and actually achieved remarkably favorable coverage by the media.
So FSM wasn’t the end of the fight for free speech. For some, it continued in support of efforts for affirmative action and establishment of ethnic studies. For many more, it carried on to divestment of UC’s holdings in apartheid South Africa. And that didn’t come easily either.
FSM turned out to be an important part of many lives, my own included. We have every reason to be proud of what happened at UC, of the spirit that added to the University’s greatness.
Among other things, those years gave me some of the most valued friendships of a lifetime. There were Mario Savio, Bettina Aptheker and Jack Kurzweil; Conn Hallinan and Brian O’Brien, who helped form the union of graduate assistants; and many more who were students back then. Among faculty, my dearest memories are of Reggie Zelnik and Larry Levine, young assistant professors in 1964 who risked their careers without hesitation to stand for free speech before most of the faculty was ready to pay attention. Like Mario, they died much too soon. So did Pat St. Lawrence, another good friend who in 1964 was the only woman among tenured faculty in biology.
Then there are Howard Schachman, Charlie Sellers, and a few other nonagenarians like me, still rolling along with no regrets that our part in UC’s story is more than academic.
I’m still using my free speech. You are invited to share your views with me: leonsoped.blogspot.com