Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Free Speech Movement at Berkeley: 45th Anniversary of the Sproul Hall Sit-In

When asked by campus police for his identification on October 1, 1964, former UC Berkeley grad student Jack Weinberg refused. Tabling for the civil rights organization Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) on the “advocacy strip” at the corner of Bancroft and Telegraph just outside the main gate of campus—an area considered the jurisdiction of Berkeley rather than the University of California—Weinberg was arrested.

This incident occurred in the period immediately following Freedom Summer—launched in June of that year—when the highest possible registration of African-American voters in Mississippi was attempted. CORE was part of a coalition taking on Mississippi, a state that had—until then—nearly excluded black voters. That coalition, Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) also included the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). SNCC, which came into national consciousness through their lunch counter sit-ins throughout the South in the early 1960s, was the lead group –with SNCC field secretary Robert Moses co-directing COFO and directing Freedom Summer.

Jack Weinberg wasn’t alone on this strip, which had come under the scrutiny of UC Berkeley Dean Katherine Towle who announced regulations prohibiting advocacy, recruitment, and fundraising for political causes and student organizations in that area. Empowered by the previous summer’s organizing in Mississippi, fundraising for groups like SNCC proceeded apace. It was also the middle of a Presidential campaign, and student organizations supporting Democratic incumbent Lyndon Baines Johnson and Republican challenger Barry Goldwater –in turn—sought support from students on this flagship campus. In this politically charged situation, students spontaneously surrounded the police car in which Weinberg was to be transported. That car did not move for 32 hours. Within the intervening hours, approximately 3,000 students surrounded the car, which was used as a speaker’s podium. Public discussion there ensued until charges against Weinberg were dropped.

This was just the opening salvo in the volatile political situation at Berkeley—one that would define the situation on U.S. campuses for another decade and not relent until the U.S. pullout from Vietnam and resignation of President Richard Nixon in the wake of Watergate in the early 1970s.

One of the people who climbed onto the car bearing Jack Weinberg to rouse the students blockading it was barefoot Queens, New York junior Mario Savio (1942-1996) who managed to talk the crowd down and get them to leave “with dignity” after reaching an “understanding” with UC President Clark Kerr. The previous summer Savio had participated in Freedom Summer in Mississippi–doing voter registration of African-American citizens and teaching at a “freedom school” for black children in McComb. In July 1964 he, another white civil rights worker, and a black acquaintance were attacked by two men in Jackson. [This took place during the frantic search period to find the bodies of the martyred James Chaney (1943-1964), Michael Schwerner (1939-1964), and Andrew Goodman (1943-1964)—whose deaths were presumed by federal authorities.] Savio returned to Berkeley that fall intending to raise money for SNCC organizing and was horrified to learn that UC Berkeley had banned all such activity.

By the first week in December 1964 the situation leading to the arrest of Jack Weinberg still had not been resolved: The university administration was adamant in pulling the plug on public political involvement and activism on campus. On December 3rd, nearly 2,000 students assembled at Sproul Hall to order school administrators to negotiate on these sensitive issues of campus restrictions on political speech. While those left and liberal on the political spectrum predominated, students from groups like Young Republicans and the right-wing Young Americans for Freedom also chafed under campus restrictions and demanded the right to organize and do outreach on campus.

A day earlier on December 2nd, Savio electrified the crowd at Sproul Hall with his important “Put Your Bodies Upon the Gears” speech: “There’s 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 machine will be prevented from working at all.” For years after his involvement, Savio would be hounded by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which continually violated his Constitutional rights.

Those students engulfing Sproul on December 3rd also protested disciplinary actions against four student leaders: brother and sister Art and Jackie Goldberg (both leaders of the student United Front), Mario Savio, and Brian Turner. (All had spoken from the car holding Weinberg.) With many of the students toting sleeping bags, the demonstration was orderly. During this famed sit-in students studied, others watched movies, and still others sang folk songs. Joan Baez led the singing and offered support. “Freedom classes” on a variety of issues were held by teaching assistants on one floor. Occurring as this action did during the Jewish festival of Chanukah, students observed the holiday by lighting a menorah.

Alameda County deputy district attorney—later Ronald Reagan henchman and censorious U.S. Attorney General—Ed Meese got the “OK” from Governor Pat Brown to remove the students from the Sproul Hall in a mass arrest. Cordoning off the building in the early hours of December 4, 1964, the police stormed the building and arrested nearly 800 students. (This was the largest mass arrest of students in U.S. history up to that time.) Most of those arrested were released on their own recognizance after a few hours at Santa Rita Prison. Gluttons for punishment, the UC administration proceeded to bring charges against the “almost 800”—which led to an even larger demonstration by students, which closed the university!

While outrageous disciplinary actions were continued against the involved students, UC officials finally started to back down. In early 1965, new regulations were promulgated by the Berkeley administration that permitted tabling and other forms of political activity subject time restrictions.

While there was a backlash following the Free Speech Movement that catapulted Ronald Reagan to the California governorship in 1966, the tradition of political organizing continued at Berkeley unabated. Reagan—who demanded that “the mess” in Berkeley be “cleaned up”—immediately directed the UC Board of Regents to fire President Clark Kerr who was considered by him to be “too soft” on the students. The fact is that Clark Kerr was irrelevant. Students who had confronted the horror of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), the brutality of Mississippi racists, outrageous mandatory ROTC training, and backroom tactics of East Bay business interests (who loathed student support for a “fair housing ordinance” and the Woolworth/Kress boycott) were not going to be stopped by university administrators. The Free Speech Movement would be followed in 1965 by the instrumental Vietnam Day Committee, which helped to set the tone of the mass movement in opposition to U.S. policy in Vietnam.

An instrumental spokesperson for the Free Speech Movement was red diaper baby Bettina Aptheker, who cut her teeth on the “Old Left” politics of her family—notably the Marxist historian and Communist Party theoretician Herbert Aptheker. Having met luminaries such W.E.B. Dubois and Paul Robeson while growing up in Brooklyn, she was an important bridge between progressive political currents and tendencies. In the early 1970s she championed the release of political prisoner, childhood friend, and fellow UC professor Angela Davis. Aptheker has taught in the UC Santa Cruz Feminist Studies department since 1980. She has the great honor of having been included on the list of right-wing naysayer David Horowitz’s “101 Most Dangerous Academics in America” (2006). Brian Turner—a scion of a trade unionist family—went on after graduation to do important research on employment and union issues. Jackie Goldberg was the first openly LGBT elected member of the Los Angeles School Board and City Council. She later served in the California legislature until term limits kept her from running for reelection.

Mario Savio’s “Put Your Bodies Upon the Gears” speech

Berkeley Free Speech Movement Archives

Free Speech Movement Photographs

Free Speech Movement Digital Archives

The FSM: An Historical Narrative (by Bettina Aptheker)

In Memory of Mario Savio (by Bettina Aptheker)

The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s (by Robert Cohen & Reginald E. Zelnik)

Essay by Jo Freeman (published in “Encyclopedia of American Social Movements”)

Narrative Summary by David Burner

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