Events mark 50th anniversary of Free Speech Movement

An iconic image from the Free Speech Movement, which erupted on the Berkeley campus 50 years ago. Photo: UC Berkeley Libraries
An iconic image from the Free Speech Movement, which erupted on the Berkeley campus 50 years ago. Photo: UC Berkeley Libraries

Oct. 1 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, a protest that only lasted for three months but set the stage for the turbulent 1960s.

On that day, thousands of UC Berkeley students surrounded a police car parked near Sproul Plaza. A young man named Jack Weinberg was inside. He had been arrested for distributing political material on university grounds despite rules that forbade it.

Many of the students who spontaneously surrounded the police car had been involved – or had been watching – the Civil Rights movement emerge. They were outraged by the injustices of the Jim Crow south. They had protested when the House Un-American Activities Committee held hearings in San Francisco. They had been furious when Clark Kerr, the president of the UC system, had declared that it was illegal to hand out political pamphlets on university grounds.

Jack Weinberg, who was arrested for distributing information about CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, sat in a police car for 33 hours. Photo: Steven Marcus/Bancroft Library
Jack Weinberg, who was arrested for distributing information about CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, sat in a police car for 33 hours. Photo: Steven Marcus/Bancroft Library

The stand-off at the police car lasted 33 hours. At one point, a young graduate student, Mario Savio, stood on top of the police car and made a speech that catapulted him into the leadership of what would be known as the Free Speech Movement.


The Oct. 1 stand-off  ended peacefully when university officials agreed not to press charges against Weinberg. But it launched a series of direct actions by students, including marches and sit-ins, to secure the right to distribute whatever information they wanted to on campus.

The Free Speech Movement affected national events as well. UC Regents fired President Kerr because they did not think he took a strong enough stance against the students. FBI Director Edgar Hoover used the movement as an excuse to bump up the agency’s spying on students and leftist protest groups. A Hollywood actor named Ronald Reagan used the student unrest as a wedge issue to defeat Gov. Pat Brown in 1967, thereby launching a political career that would carry him to the Presidency. And the Free Speech protests would radicalize thousands of students,many of whom went on to fight other important battles, including protesting the Vietnam War.

Mario Savio’s famous Dec. 2 1964 speech when he talks about the “odious gears of the machine.”

There are numerous events and exhibitions happening in the next few months to mark the 50th anniversary of the protest against the police car in Sproul Plaza.

On-going:

  • Bancroft Library exhibition commemorating the Free Speech Movement, pictures and documents. Runs September 22 – May 29, 2015 in The Bancroft Library Corridor, Doe Library Building, UC Berkeley. Exhibit is open Monday – Friday, 8am – 5pm.
  • Free Speech Movement play Stagebridge’s production FSM, an original play with music, written by Joan Holden, commemorates the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Free Speech Movement with performances at Brava Theater in San Francisco and Berkeley Rep. Previews start on Saturday Sept. 20. The widow and son of Mario Savio are members of the Stagebridge community and were heavily involved in the creative process and production of the play. Here’s what Stagebridge says about it: “FSM takes 60’s politics seriously. It celebrates the joy, moral purpose, newborn freedom and occasional absurdity of being young, part of a movement and passionately political, from a distance that takes account of the consequences.” The play only runs two weekends. Find details and buy tickets at stagebridge.org
  • Berkeley Historical Society, Looking Back: The Free Speech Movement at Fifty. Opening reception Sunday, September 28 4:30-6:30 pm, with Bettina Aptheker. Exhibit features photographs, document, oral history excerpts. Veterans Memorial Building, 1931 Center Street, Berkeley.

Events commemorating the Free Speech Movement:

  • Tuesday, Sept. 23: A Free Speech All-Campus Sing-In on Sproul Plaza at 5 p.m. followed by a lecture, “Can Students Change the World? Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s,” by Robert Cohen, a New York University professor and author of “Freedom’s Orator,” which incoming students are reading as part of the campus’s On the Same Page program.
  • Friday-Sunday, Sept. 26-28: A Free Speech Movement 50thanniversary reunion. Veterans and friends of the movement will reunite for panel discussions, social events, debates and conversations.
  •  Wednesday, Oct. 1: Anniversary rally on Sproul Plazawith Free Speech Movement veteran speakers including Lynne Hollander Savio, Bettina Aptheker and Jack Weinberg, along with Dolores Huerta, labor organizer and immigrant and women’s rights advocate.
  • Thursday Oct. 2: Mario Savio Memorial Lecture: Saru Jayaraman, Out of the Kitchen and Into the Streets? Wheeler Auditorium, 8 p.,.
  •  Wednesday, Oct. 29: Conversation with Dr. Bassem Youssef, a champion for free speech in Egypt, moderated by Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, at Zellerbach Hall. Youssef is the host of Al-Bernameg (“The Program”), a satirical news show recently taken off the air by Egyptian authorities. In 2013, he was named one of the 100 influential people in the world by TIME magazine.

See a listing of events sponsored by the FSM Archives.
UC Berkeley list of events.
UC Berkeley’s website on the FSM.
An interactive timeline of the FSM 


Are you a culture vulture? Berkeleyside’s Uncharted: The Berkeley Festival of Ideas is two days of provocative thinking, inspiring speakers, workshops, and a big party — all in downtown Berkeley on Oct. 24-25. Read all about it and buy your tickets at www.berkeleyideas.com