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Radicals Revisited: Eyewitnesses to Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement Mark 50th Anniversary

June 19, 2014
by Martin Snapp
A crowd gathered around a free speech sign

Alumni Gazette

How time flies! This fall will be the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, and FSM veterans will return to campus for a reunion that will feature the usual events, plus some others you might not have anticipated.

For instance, are you ready for FSM: The Musical? Produced by Stagebridge in association with Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the full-length musical production will have its first performance September 27 on Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage, with two additional performances the following day.

But wait! There’s more! The musical was composed by none other than Mario Savio’s son Daniel in collaboration with two veterans of The San Francisco Mime Troupe, Joan Holden, M.A. ’64, and Bruce Barthol ’68. Bruce sat in at Sproul Hall when he was a 16-year-old freshman.

“I feel a great responsibility to get it right for my father’s sake, and also for Michael Rossman and Reggie Zelnik and my mom,” says Daniel, who looks just like his dad. “I grew up with this history. I know it as well as anybody who was there.”

Daniel’s mom, Lynne Hollander Savio ’65, is the show’s creative advisor and a member of the 50th reunion committee.

The FSM began on September 14, 1964, when the University of California at Berkeley, under pressure from Senate Majority Leader William F. Knowland ’29, who was angered by Civil Rights sit-ins, announced that existing University regulations banning political activity on campus would be “strictly enforced.”

The resulting protests, unprecedented in scope, were the harbinger of the student power, civil liberties, and antiwar demonstrations that convulsed college campuses throughout the country for the next decade. They also triggered a voter backlash that many believe led to the election of Ronald Reagan, who campaigned on a promise to “clean up the mess at Berkeley,” as governor of California in 1966.

In the five decades since that memorable autumn, FSM has become part of the popular culture. In 2006, an episode of Battlestar Gallactica featured a character closely paraphrasing Mario Savio’s “bodies upon the gears” speech.

“I got an email from the producer wanting to know if he could use it,” says Lynne. “He said his wife was at Cal at the time, and they were both admirers. He gave the Mario Savio Memorial Lecture Fund a nice contribution in exchange.”

This year’s annual Savio lecture—to be given by Saru Jayaraman, director of the Food Labor Research Center at Cal—will be the last one sponsored by Savio’s friends and admirers, who created the lecture series after his death in 1996. From here on, it will be sponsored by the Social Sciences Division in the College of Letters & Science.

“The timing seemed right to both its organizers and campus leaders to ensure it would continue in perpetuity as a part of our academic landscape and as a commemoration of a very important part of campus history,” says Carla Hesse, Dean of Social Sciences and a member of the campus coordinating committee for the 50th anniversary. Dean Hesse’s father, Siegfried Hesse, J.D. ’50, was one of the lawyers for the Sproul Hall arrestees.

After decades of ambivalence, UC Berkeley is finally embracing this important part of its history. “Though I cannot presume to speak for our current administration, I think it is fair to say that the attitude of campus leaders to the Free Speech Movement has evolved over the past 50 years, from fear to pride in what the students at that time stood up for and what they accomplished,” says Dean Hesse.

The official celebrations will start even before the fall quarter begins, with freshman and new students in the On The Same Page program being asked to read Freedom’s Orator, a biography of Mario Savio written by NYU professor Robert Cohen, M.A. ’81, Ph.D. ’87. The celebrations will continue throughout the fall, including a concert by Mavis Staples, a hootenanny at Ashkenaz, exhibits at the Bancroft Library and the Berkeley Historical Society, documentaries at the Pacific Film Archive, a political poetry night at the FSM Café, freedom-of-speech symposia at the law school, and the Academic Senate’s commemoration of their historic vote on Dec. 8, 1964.

The reunion itself will take place Sept. 26–Oct. 3, climaxing with a rally at Sproul Plaza on Oct. 1, anniversary of the arrest of former grad student Jack Weinberg—the man who said, “Never trust anyone over 30.” Robert Reich, Dolores Huerta, and FSM veterans will deliver speeches from the Sproul steps, which were officially renamed the Mario Savio Steps in 1997.

Though FSM took place half a century ago, those who were there remember the events as if they happened yesterday: the thousands of students on Sproul Plaza surrounding the police car holding Weinberg; the mass sit-in at Sproul Hall and the mass arrests that followed; the cops jumping on Mario Savio as he attempted to speak at the Greek Theater; and the climactic Academic Senate resolution.

“Jack and I set up the card table at 11:30 on that fateful day when he was arrested,” recalls John Sutake ’68. “The reason he was arrested and I wasn’t, was that he was not a currently registered student and I was. It sort of hurt my feelings.”

Many of the FSM leaders were veterans of the Mississippi Freedom Summer, where they were deeply influenced by the nonviolent militancy of Bob Moses and Martin Luther King, Jr. But FSM drew support from across the political spectrum, including fraternity boys, sorority girls, even Young Republicans. Most had never before taken part in a demonstration.

“We were all sitting there, shivering for our careers,” the late Michael Rossman ’63, one of the first people to sit down around the police car, told me before his death in 2008. “We had just come out of the McCarthy period, when people’s lives were destroyed for walking a picket line, let alone sitting around a police car in the middle of a plaza of a great university.”

“I had to make a choice,” says Lee Felsenstein ’72. “Was I a scared kid who wanted to be safe at all costs? Or was I a person who had principles and was willing to take a risk to follow them? It was like that moment in Huckleberry Finn when Huck says, ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell.’”

“I was coming out of class and saw them take him into the car,” says Jeremy Bruenn ’65, Ph.D. ’70. “Somebody said we should surround the car, and we did. I remember wondering whether they would drive over us, and being happy when they didn’t. I thought they showed fairly good judgment in not creating more of a situation than was necessary.”

“When people climbed up on the po­lice car, they took their shoes off first. There was no in­tent to dam­age. It was all done civilly.”

“I was sitting by the front bumper,” remembers Damon Tempey ’66. “Weinberg was in the back of the car for more than a day, so he peed into a Coke bottle and ate sandwiches. He had a ringside seat for the speeches as people mounted the police car and spoke.”

But not everyone on the plaza that day was a supporter.

“The vast majority of us were simply walking across campus and stopped to find out what all the commotion was about,” says Phil Litts ’66, who was elected Head Yell Leader later that year on a platform that mocked FSM. “I was on my way back to Unit Three for lunch.”

Although he opposed their goals, Litts was still impressed by the way they went about it.

“Mario Savio was very respectful of people with opposing views. There was no name calling. And when people climbed up on the police car, they took their shoes off first. There was no intent to damage. It was all done civilly, and that’s something you don’t hear a lot about.”

That night, some fraternity boys started heckling the seated protestors and flipping lighted cigarettes at them.

“A bunch of us formed a cordon line with our backs to the frat boys and let them beat on us to protect the people sitting on the ground,” Sutake told me. “Later, when we realized we had to reach out to these people, we went to the frats and sororities giving little talks explaining what we were all about. I don’t know if it changed any minds, but we were trying to build a mass movement, and that included people who disagreed with us.”

The confrontation escalated in fits and starts over the next two months, with rallies, sit-ins, cancelled classes, and picket lines urging students to boycott the few classes that were still going on. Litts, who crossed the picket lines, arrived at his lecture hall and found only two people there: him and the professor.

“I was watch­ing my­self be­ing mis­used by the me­dia to state something that was totally un­true about what was go­ing on at Berke­ley. It was my rad­ic­al­iz­ing mo­ment, and I have nev­er trus­ted the me­dia ever since.”

“So I had a one-on-one tutorial. I sat in the front row, he sat on top of his desk, and we talked, and it was great.”

Ginger Lapid-Bogda ’68 (née Snapp), on the other hand, was an FSM sympathizer who wouldn’t have dreamed of crossing a picket line. But some classes remained open by pre-arrangement between the professor and the FSM leadership, including her anthropology course in Wheeler Auditorium.

“There were movie cameras in the room, and for some reason I could tell one of the cameras was doing a close-up of me. I thought, ‘Can they do this without my permission?’ But I didn’t think any more about it until a few weeks later, when I was back home in L.A. having Thanksgiving dinner with my parents. We were watching Walter Cronkite, and one of the stories was a report from Berkeley. The reporter was saying, ‘Students are crossing picket lines in droves, like this coed.’

“Lo and behold, it was my anthro class, and the coed the camera was zeroing in on was me! I was watching myself being misused by the media to state something that was totally untrue about what was going on at Berkeley. It was my radicalizing moment, and I have never trusted the media ever since.”

Aside from Mario Savio, the best-known FSM leader was Bettina Aptheker ’66, whom the media portrayed as an intransigent hardliner because she was a Communist.

“The irony is that Bettina was one of the moderates,” says Sutake. “She was always saying, ‘Go slow’ and ‘Be reasonable.’ But she was a convenient target.”

The nightly FSM executive committee meetings often lasted into the next morning because everyone had to be heard.

“I sometimes went nuts listening, but you had to do it, and some of the speechifying was great,” declares Kate Coleman ’65. “Like the time we were trying to decide if Mario should lead us into a sit-in—I forget which one—and Barbara Garson in her Brooklynese said, ‘I don’t believe in the cult of the personality … (pause) … but if you have one—use him!’ We all laughed, because of course it was fitting that Mario lead us that day.”

The crisis finally came to a head on December 2, when Joan Baez led about a thousand students singing “We Shall Overcome” into Sproul Hall for a mass sit-in.

Some passed the hours by doing homework, some sang Civil Rights songs, some watched Laurel and Hardy movies, and a sizable group of Jewish students celebrated Hanukkah by dancing the hora.

“I ran into my Anthro 1 T.A., who was just a wonderful guy,” recalls Bob Kroll ’68. “I asked him how I did on the midterm, and he said, ‘Terrible. I was going to give you a D, but since you’re here in Sproul, I’m going to raise it to a B.’”

At 3:05 a.m. on Dec. 3, Chancellor Edward Strong ordered the building locked and gave the students an ultimatum: Get out now or be arrested.

“Some were be­ing dropped, so they would go bump, bump, bump as they were dragged. It was so fright­en­ing.”

A few avoided arrest by climbing down a rope from the second floor balcony, including Sutake. “I was only 18 and already on probation from an arrest from a previous Civil Rights demonstration, so the sit-in leaders told me I could do more good on the outside by raising bail money and organizing transportation to Santa Rita,” he says.

But as soon as he climbed down the rope, others on the ground outside started climbing up.

“I heard on the radio that the arrests had started, so I got on my bike and rode to campus as fast as I could,” says Paula Shatkin ’67 (then Kogan). “Now, I am no athlete, but somehow I got hold of that rope and was pulled up to the balcony. That was the most physically daring act of my life, before or since. But, goddammit, I was not going to miss getting arrested after all that work and sitting in and demonstrating!”

The arrests began at 3:45 a.m. It took more than 12 hours to arrest them all.

“The cop who arrested me said, ‘Do you want us to carry you out? Or do you want to leave like a gentleman?’” says Malcolm Zaretzky, Ph.D. ’71. “They were dragging people down those marble steps, so I elected to walk.”

“Some were being dropped, so they would go bump, bump, bump as they were dragged,” Linda Rosen ’66 remembers. “It was so frightening.”

The arrestees were cheered by onlookers as they were put on busses and driven to Santa Rita. But the feeling wasn’t unanimous.

“As we got to the corner of Telegraph and Channing I looked out the window and saw this little old lady, who was probably younger than I am now,” says Glenn Lyons ’65, Ph.D. ’71. “I flashed her the peace sign, and she shook her fist at me. That was my first inkling that not everyone in the world thought we were doing a great thing.”

Neither did some of their fellow students.

“On the night I gradu­ated, I went to Sproul steps and screamed at the top of my lungs, ‘You screwed our Uni­versity!’ I was so angry. The things I wanted to do, the fun I wanted to have, were taken away from me.”

“I belonged to a politically conservative group called Students For Law And Order. We had funding from one of the UC regents,” explains Bruce Roberts ’68. “Our job was to go onto campus with flyers and talk about why [FSM] was an inappropriate thing for the University.”

Their families weren’t always supportive, either.

Linda Rosen says, “My parents down in Orange County were so mad at me, they took away the Mustang they had bought me for graduation and gave it to my sister,”

“My parents’ reactions were classic,” remembers Susan Peterson, a grad student in literature back in the day. “My father said, ‘They’re just a bunch of Commies!’ My mother said, ‘You’re our daughter, and we love you no matter what.’”

Jentri Anders ’67 (then Barbara Samuels) returned home from Santa Rita the next morning to be greeted by her husband, who hugged her and said, “Take a bath. You stink.”

“We split up and were officially divorced two years later,” Anders says.

On Dec. 7, President Clark Kerr attempted to defuse the crisis with a kiss-and-make-up convocation at the Greek Theater. All seemed to go well until the end, when Savio approached the microphone. He was jumped by campus cops who wrestled him to the ground, ripping his suit to shreds and turning the convocation into an uproar.

Indeed, the regents, at Kerr’s urging, rejected the Academic Senate vote. But after another month of moves and countermoves, the first legal political rally finally was held at Sproul Plaza on Jan. 4.

Some of the arrestees suffered repercussions for years afterwards; others didn’t.

Jentri Anders was puzzled why she kept getting turned down for federal jobs until somebody referred her to an FBI agent who told her, “You have an arrest record and a file with us because of your participation in the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley. I am going to fix it so that you will never work for the federal government.”

On the other hand, Susan Peterson tells me, “Every time I apply for a new teaching job and have to go through a criminal background check, I delight in giving them more information than they want about FSM.”

Mario Sa­vio “was so humble. I don’t think I really ap­pre­ci­ated that un­til later, as the left got ugly and star­ted to eat its own.”

Bob Kroll adds, “When I applied for the bar years later, they asked me, ‘Have you ever been arrested?’ I said, ‘Twice. Once for sitting in at Sproul Hall, and once for coming through LAX with a joint in my pocket. They wrote me back and said, ‘No problem.’”

And famed poster artist David Lance Goines, who would have graduated in 1967, insists that “FSM changed my life. I was studying classics and headed for an academic career. Instead, I was expelled from school and became an apprentice printer, which led to my artistic career, which would never have come to pass had I not been forcibly removed from the arms of my alma mater.”

So was FSM a good thing or a bad thing? Fifty years later, they’re still debating that.

“On the night I graduated, I went to Sproul steps and screamed at the top of my lungs, ‘You screwed our University!’” says Bruce Roberts about the protests. “I was so angry. The things I wanted to do, the fun I wanted to have, were taken away from me. And not just from me—from the entire student body.”

Paul Coopersmith ’68 disagrees. “For all that happened at Berkeley in the ’60s and early ’70s subsequent to the FSM, it never approached the pure, non-egotistical, lets-make-the-world-a-better-place idealism of that movement. I attribute much of that to Mario, who, looking back from this distance of half a century, strikes me as the most selfless leader this country has produced in a very long time. Without Mario, there may have been a Free Speech Movement. But it would not have been the FSM we came to know and so fervently believe in.”

“FSM was not a hate-filled movement, and so much of what came after was,” says Kate Coleman. “And a lot of it has to be credited to Mario. A lot of guys in the movement were arrogant jerks, but not him. He was so humble. I don’t think I really appreciated that until later, as the left got ugly and started to eat its own.”

But I think the late Reggie Zelnik, a junior faculty member in 1964 who became chairman of the Department of History and co-editor (with Robert Cohen) of a great history of FSM called The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s, summed it up best when we talked about FSM shortly before his untimely death in 2004.

“As a historian, I always like to remind people that nothing is as beautiful as it appears on the surface,” he said. “But FSM was as good as it gets. It certainly never got that good again.”

For more information and updates on the FSM reunion, check the FSM Archives web site (Twitter hashtag #FSM50), the campus FSM web site, and the On The Same Page web site.

Reach Martin Snapp at catman@sunset.net.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of UC Berkeley, The Bancroft Library. Group carrying “Free Speech” banner through Sather Gate [ca. 1965].

From the Summer 2014 Apocalypse issue of California.

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