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Free Speech Movement

Free Speech Movement

The Free Speech Movement started as a dispute over 26 feet of sidewalk and escalated into a pitched battle for control of the University of California at Berkeley. In the process, an entire school, students and faculty alike, was polarized into two camps fundamentally at odds with each other, both ideologically and in terms of rhetoric. The Free Speech Movement represented the adoption of civil rights protest techniques—pickets, sit-ins, and other non-violent methods—in a hitherto untested arena, the university. As it turned out, it was the opening salvo in a long, drawn-out battle, a tumult that would ultimately affect one out of every ten college and university campuses nationwide (a conservative figure), rending the country in two along ideological and generational lines.

Over the summer of 1964, the administration of the UC Berkeley changed its rules on political activism on campus, eliminating a narrow strip of sidewalk at the intersection of Telegraph Avenue and Bancroft Way that had been a main point of egress to the campus, and a traditional location for political activity. To the student activists, the administration's ruling was an attack not only on their individual rights but also on the civil rights movement itself. Concerned student activists met with administrators, and were able to win back their right to set up tables, but the administration refused to budge on matters of fund-raising or political advocacy.

This set the stage for a series of escalating protests, as students tested the power of their as-yet-untried political muscle. Fundraising and advocacy activities resumed at the Bancroft/Telegraph intersection under the auspices of the United Front, an ad-hoc organizing committee, and after a week had passed without incident, new tables were set up at Sather Gate, a hundred yards inside the campus. On September 30, five students were cited for manning them. Five hundred students signed a letter of complicity, crowded Sproul Hall, which they occupied until early morning, and demanded that the administration discipline all of them. Eight students were suspended indefinitely, and the following day Jack Weinberg, a recent graduate and a leader of the campus Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), was arrested as he manned a table. Hundreds of students surrounded the police car containing Weinberg and, for the next 32 hours, the crowd maintained a vigil, with speakers holding forth from atop the car's bonnet.

The more intransigent the administration appeared, the more radicalized the movement became. "Beginning with concern about rights to a small strip of territory," wrote Max Heirich, a sociologist who studied the movement as it was happening, "the students had shifted their focus to freedom of expression and advocacy on the campus as a whole. After the arrest of October 1, they began to talk about the proper purpose of the university." The weeks wore on without resolution and more students were swept up in the conflict, forced to choose a side amidst the growing rancor. Chancellor Edward Strong remained firmly opposed to any concessions, convinced that student opinion was volatile and would peter out of its own accord. There were indeed indications that the protest was losing steam: after the UC Board of Regents ruled against the FSM in a November 20 meeting, a rally and sit-in the following Monday ended in disarray, with the student leadership disheartened and student support flagging. Over the Thanksgiving break, however, disciplinary letters were sent to four FSM leaders, rekindling the fickle flames of student unrest and inflaming the FSM leadership by this show of bad faith. The FSM reacted by submitting an ultimatum to the administration—if the charges were not dropped, a sit-in would begin on Wednesday, December 2, followed by a general strike.

The administration did not deign to respond, and students set about occupying Sproul Hall. Far from housing an angry mob, the occupied premises had a festive air as the students passed the time square dancing, and conducting teach-ins and religious services. Joan Baez led a folk singalong; Laurel and Hardy films were shown. On Governor Pat Brown's orders, police officers began clearing Sproul Hall early Thursday morning. By daybreak, the exhausted police officers were growing rough with the students—who went limp in classic civil rights fashion—and those en route to their morning classes were treated to the sight of fellow students being manhandled by the California Highway Patrol, and cries of police brutality echoing through Sproul Hall. The next day pickets appeared.

In the end, the administration capitulated. Perhaps it was the threat of a prolonged strike, perhaps the pressure of faculty members, who voted at an Academic Senate to support the students' demands. However, the tenor of the conflict can be summed up in a single event: at an assembly on the Monday following the successful strike, the entire student body watched as Mario Savio, one of the most charismatic of the movement's leaders, strode to the lectern, only to be tackled by Berkeley policeman and quickly hustled offstage. Savio had been forbidden to address the students, and his decision to take the platform appeared to be calculated for maximum impact. The incident had the desired effect, cementing student support for the FSM. In the weeks following the strike, Chancellor Strong was relieved of his duties by the regents, and a chancellor who was sympathetic to FSM goals was appointed. In the elections held the week following the strike, FSM candidates swept into ASUC office. In the space of a semester, the climate of UC Berkeley changed irrevocably from comfortable complacency to overt radicalism. The campus would remain at war for the next five years.

The triumph of the Free Speech Movement against Berkeley's administration encouraged a wave of protests over alleged administrative abuses nationwide. The following year, 14 schools experienced outbreaks of student unrest, and student revolt developed into a worldwide phenomenon, culminating in the massive protests, strikes, and general unrest of 1968. Berkeley itself became the site of bitter, protracted battles that eventually led to fatalities. Max Heirich wrote, of the protests that followed, "With increasing momentum each side seemed to create its own 'self-fulfilling prophecies' of what opponents would do," adding to the rampant paranoia.

Nowhere, then, was the revolt as typical as at Berkeley, where the privileged sons and daughters of the middle class had risen up with such force and determination. Theirs was a political conversion unique in world history—a revolution fomented by abundance. "… We were the first generation in the history of the world that had never gone hungry," wrote David Lance Goines, one of the eight students suspended on October 2, 1964. "Our parents trembled at the memory of the Great Depression, but it meant nothing to us. We didn't have much notion of not getting what we wanted, when we wanted it." True to Goines' appraisal, Berkeley students got what they wanted—indeed, perhaps rather more.

—Michael Baers

Further Reading:

Anon. Berkeley: The New Student Revolt. New York, Grove Press, 1965.

Goines, David Lance. The Free Speech Movement: Coming of Age in the 1960s. Berkeley, Ten Speed Press, 1993.

Heirich, Max. The Beginning: Berkeley, 1964. New York, Columbia University Press, 1970.

Kitchell, Mark. Berkeley in the Sixties (documentary). Los Angeles, Pacific Art, 1992.

Rorabaugh, W.J. Berkeley at War: The 1960s. New York, Oxford University Press, 1989.

Warshaw, Steven. The Trouble in Berkeley. Berkeley, Diablo Press, 1965.

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