(b. 8 December 1942 in New York City; d. 6 November 1996 in Sebastopol, California), civil rights activist and student leader of the 1964 Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley.
Savio's parents emigrated from Sicily to the borough of Queens in New York City, where his father, Joseph, worked as a machine-punch operator. They were devout Catholics who instilled in their two altar boy sons a strong sense of morality and an understanding of the importance of education. Savio, called "Bob" for most of his youth, graduated first in his class of 1,200 at Martin van Buren High School and was a finalist in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search Scholarship before going on to Manhattan College, a Catholic school, in the Bronx, and later Queens College. In the summer of 1963 he worked for a Catholic relief organization, building a laundry near Taxco, Mexico. When his parents moved to Los Angeles that year, Savio enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, as a philosophy major. He began calling himself "Mario."
In his first year at Berkeley, Savio quickly gravitated to civil rights activism and was first arrested for taking part in a sit-in at the Sheraton Palace Hotel in San Francisco, where protesters demanded that African Americans be hired for positions other than maids. At the end of the school year he took part in Freedom Summer, teaching a freedom school for black children in McComb, Mississippi. His parents supported his activism and commitment to social justice. Administrators at the Berkeley campus, however, were not as supportive. For decades the school had prohibited political activity on campus but had allowed students to set up card tables to distribute leaflets on the edge of campus, at the corner of Bancroft Way and Telegraph Avenue. In September 1964 administrators unilaterally issued new rules banning the tables from the campus. This outraged civil rights activists, including Savio, who had returned to Berkeley from Mississippi to lead the campus chapter of Friends of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. "I spent the summer in Mississippi," he said. "I witnessed tyranny. I saw groups of men in the minority working their wills over the majority. Then I came back here and found the university preventing us from collecting money for use there and even stopping us from getting people to go to Mississippi to help."
The organization that became known as the Free Speech Movement (FSM) began when angry students, frustrated by the harassment of school officials, moved their leaflet tables to Sproul Plaza, well inside the campus perimeter. Eight students, including Savio, were suspended indefinitely, but when university police drove onto the plaza and arrested the civil rights activist Jack Weinberg, hundreds of students surrounded the car before it could drive away. A standoff continued as Weinberg sat in the car for thirty-two hours. During the standoff Savio established himself as a leader of the protests in several thoughtful, spontaneous addresses delivered from the top of the police car (police had given the students permission to place a microphone on the roof), beginning on 1 October 1964. Although Savio frequently stuttered in private conversation, he spoke forcefully and articulately to crowds.
Negotiations between students and the university president, Clark Kerr, ended the plaza sit-in with promises of a reexamination of the student suspensions and negotiations for a new policy on campus political activity. In late November, however, when negotiations began to unravel and the students asserted their First Amendment right to free speech and set up tables again, Kerr responded by sending out disciplinary letters marking Savio and three others for further punishment. In response, the FSM made plans for a massive sit-in of Sproul Hall, home to administration offices.
In anticipation of the event, on 2 December, Savio spoke his most memorable words, extemporaneously, to a crowd of thousands: "There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machines will be prevented from working at all." Here Savio captured the sense of alienation and powerlessness felt by so many students at the modern university (called the "knowledge factory" by Kerr) and in American society, inspiring the famous FSM slogan "Human Being—Do Not Fold, Spindle, or Mutilate." Two days later police arrested 773 students who had occupied Sproul Hall, the largest mass arrest in California history. The entire campus then went on strike, with fewer than 18 percent of students attending classes. The following week the Berkeley faculty voted overwhelmingly to allow freedom of expression on campus. Although Savio spent four months in jail and was suspended from the university, Kerr was defeated.
Weary of media attention, Savio left Berkeley with his wife, the FSM leader Suzanne Goldberg, with whom he later had two children. In 1966 Savio was arrested again at Berkeley—this time as a nonstudent—for protesting an armed forces recruiting table. In 1969 he ran for state senate on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket and in 1980 helped found the Citizen Party. After his first marriage ended in divorce, Savio in 1980 married another FSM activist, Lynn Hollander; they had one son. Twenty years after the Free Speech Movement, in 1984, Savio earned his B.S. degree in physics from San Francisco State University; he earned a master's degree in 1989. He taught physics, mathematics, philosophy, and poetry at Sonoma State University from 1990 until 1996, when, while moving furniture, he suffered heart fibrillation and slipped into a coma from which he never recovered. Savio died at the age of fifty-three at Palm Drive Hospital. At the time he had been advising Sonoma State students fighting a fee increase and working against Proposition 209, an anti–affirmative action initiative.
Although he eschewed celebrity, Savio's highly publicized role in the Free Speech Movement inspired student activists in the New Left, civil rights, antiwar, and women's liberation movements and beyond. Draft resisters who openly defied Selective Service laws found strength in his description of the machine's operation and the sacrifice required to stop it. He personified the New Left quest for authentic human relations in a society numbed by the alienation of modern institutions, wounded by racism and discrimination, and threatened by the cold war arms race. Although he received hate mail in 1964 and Kerr at times detested him, following his death Berkeley officials held a memorial service for Savio in December 1996 and renamed the steps of Sproul Hall the Mario Savio Memorial Steps on 3 December 1997.
Savio's role in the Free Speech Movement is chronicled in Hal Draper, Berkeley: The New Student Revolt (1965), for which Savio wrote the introduction; Bettina Aptheker, Robert Kaufman, and Michael Folsom, FSM: The Free Speech Movement at Berkeley (1965); W. J. Rorabaugh, Berkeley at War: The 1960s (1989); and David Lance Goines, The Free Speech Movement: Coming of Age in the 1960s (1993). Mark Kitchell's documentary film, Berkeley in the '60s (1990), showcases Savio's personality and oratorical skills. The Free Speech Movement's archives are housed at the Bancroft Library at Berkeley. Obituaries are in the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner (both 7 Nov. 1996), the New York Times and Washington Post (both 8 Nov. 1996), the Los Angeles Times (10 Nov. 1996), U.S. News and World Report (18 Nov. 1996), and Time (25 Nov. 1996).
Michael S. Foley