Remembering the Free Speech Movement

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs


free speech

Sproul Plaza was ground zero for Free Speech demonstrators in 1964.
Photo courtesy of Bancroft Library

18 April 2001 | Though it appeared to be a spontaneous outburst against injustice, the Free Speech Movement that erupted on campus in the fall of 1964 was more like a simmering volcano that finally exploded.

The arrest of graduate student Jack Weinberg — for advocating a political cause on campus — was the trigger for frustrated students, many of whom were trained and ready for battle.

“The energy had been building up all summer,” said Weinberg of the events that led up to the protest. “The anger got turned on the university at this moment.”

Weinberg, other Free Speech Movement activists and scholars were on campus this past weekend to talk about the legacy of social protest.

The two-day symposium was organized to celebrate the completion of the Free Speech Movement Digital Archive and Oral History Project at the Bancroft Library.

At the Friday night session, panelists discussed the connections between the Free Speech movement and civil rights organizing of the time.

The summer before the launching of the Free Speech Movement was a profound one, said Weinberg, who now works for Greenpeace.

For the first time, assaults on black civil rights demonstrators throughout the South were televised nationally, he said, and Berkeley students saw the strife firsthand when they traveled to the South to register blacks and build schools for black children.

These events, and local protests against racial discrimination in Bay Area businesses, instilled a sense of injustice in students that spilled over as they tried to organize on campus that fall. Many of the students were well-versed in political activism and quickly organized students. The university was ill equipped to deal with the protests, according to Weinberg.

“It was a total mismatch,” he said. “The administration didn’t know what they were getting into. They ran right into a buzz saw.”

At issue, said Weinberg, was that students should have every right of citizenship.

Panelist and Free Speech Movement activist Bettina Aptheker, now a professor at women’s studies at UC Santa Cruz, reflected on women’s sometimes subservient position in the campus’s Free Speech Movement.

“Mario (Savio) preached about participatory democracy, but this wasn’t always the case for the women in the organization,” she said. “Men served as the main spokespeople for the movement and usually dominated our meetings.”

Other symposium panels focused on the impact of the Vietnam War on the Berkeley campus, educational reform efforts that evolved from changing social environments, and the language and politics of the New Left.

Speakers also offered their perspectives on the lasting impact of the Free Speech Movement.

Other than civil rights, many students today don’t relate to the “less visible” free speech and feminist movements, said Winifred Breines, sociology professor at Northeastern University. Those who are active, she said, are unable to garner the media attention that their counterparts received in the 1960s.

Distance can either enlarge or diminish particular events, said Sheldon Wolin, emeritus professor of political science at Princeton. From his point of view, the Free Speech Movement “rediscovered” the democratic political process.

Free Speech Movement Archive


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