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Fresh, behind-the-scenes look at Free Speech Movement in new book by UC Berkeley, NYU professors
12 August 2002

By Janet Gilmore, Media Relations

Berkeley - It's been nearly 40 years since the Free Speech Movement exploded onto the University of California, 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.

Book jacket

Two history professors hope their new book, "The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s," (University of California Press) will give readers a fuller, more complex view.

The book, to be released to the general public in early October, is a compendium of new articles and memoirs, largely by Free Speech Movement veterans and UC 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 at UC Berkeley.

"I hope the book helps people understand that a movement's slogans are never a substitute for careful analysis of the historical events," said UC Berkeley history professor Reginald Zelnik, co-editor of the book.

Zelnik's co-editor, New York University associate professor Robert 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."

  Reginald Zelnick on Sproul Plaza
Reginald Zelnik on Sproul Plaza, where the Free Speech Movement ignited in 1964. (Bonnie Powell photo)
During the Free Speech Movement of 1964, a time when the phrase "Don't trust anyone over 30" was popular, Zelnik was a 28-year-old junior faculty member at UC Berkeley. In an essay he wrote for the book - part memoir, part research paper - Zelnik explained 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 also carefully documents why this support occurred, and places into context the obstacles to 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 Free Speech Movement activists as revolutionaries or hippies. Although radicals and countercultural activists definitely played an important role in the movement, Cohen shows that many of the rank and file were politically moderate. Most of those arrested on Dec. 3, during the big Sproul Hall sit-in, were there to defend their Constitutional rights.

Robert Cohen
Robert Cohen

Cohen, who was still in elementary school during the Free Speech Movement, approached his research for the book from strictly an academic point of view. He is an associate professor of education and history at New York University and a scholar of American student protest movements who received his doctorate in history from UC Berkeley in 1987.

His essay on the rank and file 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 action - participation in a militant but peaceful sit-in. The students felt, some regrettably, 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," said Cohen.

Zelnik agreed. "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 essays examine this link. The main section of the book examines and illuminates the history of the Free Speech Movement, 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.

The final sections of the book examine 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 the movement's ranks. Faculty members offer a view of the varying camps and shifting positions within the academy. Clark Kerr, president of the University of California at the time, wrote specifically for the book a behind-the-scenes look at his struggle with administrators at UC Berkeley as well as his 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.