Was free speech invented by wild-eyed Berkeley radicals?
Hardly. A new book shows that the campus’s historic student/faculty movement was widely supported by moderates

By Janet Gilmore, Public Affairs


Faculty supporters join marching students on Nov. 20, 1964.
Photo courtesy of the Steven Marcus Free Speech Movement Photographs, The Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

28 August 2002 | It’s been nearly 40 years since the Free Speech Movement (FSM) exploded onto the Berkeley campus, changing the political atmosphere at colleges and universities across the country and providing generations to come with a model for student activism. Yet few scholars or veterans of the movement have fully explored its origins, development, and legacy.

Reginald Zelnik — a professor of history at Berkeley and an FSM eyewitness — and his co-editor, Robert Cohen, associate professor of education and history at New York University, hope their new book, “The Free Speech Move-ment: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s” (University of California Press) will give readers a fuller, more complex view of that tumultuous time.

The book is a compendium of new articles and memoirs, largely by Free Speech Movement veterans and Berkeley faculty members. It includes several essays by scholars who pored over previously unavailable research materials, offering new insights into the movement and fresh analyses of issues of the day. Much of this primary material is located in the Free Speech Movement collection of the Bancroft Library.

“I hope the book helps people understand that a movement’s slogans are never a substitute for careful analysis of the historical events,” says Zelnik. Cohen spoke similarly: “I want people to see how complex the ’60s were, to create a peeling away of some of the ridiculous stereotypes about ’60s activists as wide-eyed revolutionaries trying to burn down the library.”

Though free-speech issues had been raised on campus prior to the fall of 1964, what has come to be known as the Free Speech Movement was launched when campus administrators sought to bar students from setting up tables and passing out political literature on campus property. That administrative decision led to sit-ins, mass arrests, and a push by students for broader rights to advocate on campus for political causes.

Zelnik was a 28-year-old junior faculty member at Berkeley at that time. In his essay “On the Side of the Angels,” he explains the complicated yet essential role that certain faculty members, the vast majority of whom were over 40, played in critically supporting the movement and challenging the administration. His essay — part memoir, part research paper — carefully documents why this support occurred and places into context the obstacles activists faced in mobilizing faculty assistance during the first two months of the movement.

Cohen, author of three of the book’s chapters, provides an essay that debunks the stereotypical image of FSM activists as revolutionaries or bohemians. Although radicals and members of what would soon come to be called the “counterculture” played an important role in the movement, Cohen shows that many of the rank and file were politically moderate. Most of those arrested during the big Sproul Hall sit-in on Dec. 3, 1964 (“the largest mass arrest of students in American history”), were there simply to defend their constitutional rights.

Cohen’s research into rank-and-file attitudes was greatly aided by documents once considered lost but now located at the Bancroft Library. Cohen viewed pre-sentencing statements written by more than 400 of the some 800 students arrested for trespassing during the Sproul Hall sit-in. In these statements, prepared at the request of the sentencing judge, the students offered no apologies for their actions. Many said they felt the administration’s actions forced them to take extreme measures — participation in a militant but peaceful sit-in. The students felt, some with regret, that they had to use civil disobedience for the greater cause of upholding their free-speech rights.

“I think what this shows is that a lot of the people who were in the movement were very thoughtful and democratic in their sensibilities,” says Cohen.

Berkeley’s Zelnik agrees. “The rank and file clearly was fixated on the Constitution, free speech, Jeffersonian issues. They weren’t for the destruction of capitalism. They were for the rights of free-born Americans.”

Key Free Speech Movement leaders, including Mario Savio, were heavily influenced by the civil rights movement, launched as African Americans sought to end segregation in the South. Two of the early essays in the book examine this link. The main section of the book examines and illuminates the history of the FSM, while its final sections discuss the aftermath of the movement and provide a closer look at Savio, its charismatic leader, who died in 1996 at age 53. Savio’s premature death inspired the editors to undertake this book project in his memory.

Though the vast majority of the book’s contributors are largely supportive of the Free Speech Movement and its tactics, many don’t shy away from exposing, or alluding to, blemishes. Movement leaders reveal political differences within its ranks. Faculty members offer a view of the varying camps and shifting positions within the academy. Clark Kerr, UC president at the time, contributes a behind-the-scenes look at his struggle with campus administrators as well as conflicts within the movement. Other authors, in turn, write critically of Kerr’s positions.

Zelnik and Cohen hope this book will serve as “a passing of the torch,” as writings about the movement begin to move away from first-person accounts and toward careful analysis and thorough research by a new generation of scholars.

“The Free Speech Movement” will be published on Oct. 1. For information about the book, see Online resources relating to the movement can be found at Photos and documents from the height of the FSM protests are on permanent view at the Free Speech Café in Moffitt Undergraduate Library.


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