Opinion: The Free Speech Movement in Berkeley was a defense of civil rights activism

The legacy of the Free Speech Movement has been disfigured by racists and politicians to serve their agendas. It started as a protest against the paucity of Black workers in stores

“The revolt began in the fall semester of 1964 as an extension of either vicarious or actual involvement in the struggle for civil rights.”

Mario Savio wrote those words to describe the origins of the Free Speech Movement. At a time when white supremacists claim the mantle of free speech, there is shockingly little discussion in Berkeley of this basic point of our history. Instead, the legacy of the FSM has been disfigured by racists and politicians to serve their agendas. Chancellor Christ, for example, claimed in her opening statement for the school year that in the FSM, “students on the right and students on the left united to fight for the right to advocate political views on campus.” This is a caricature.

The FSM began in the context of a militant civil rights fight against Bay Area businesses that were discriminating against Black workers. The UC Berkeley administration, responding to pressure from the business community and politicians, ramped up already-severe restrictions on student political organizing. Civil rights activists organized a coalition of groups called the Free Speech Movement in response and led thousands of students in militant direct actions to force the administration to allow free speech on campus. Right-wing forces on campus – including students, faculty, and administration – consistently opposed the FSM’s principles and tactics and sought to repress the movement.

Mario Savio knew this all very well. He was the president of the Berkeley Friends of Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and was a cadre activist of the civil rights movement. The FSM began in the fall of 1964; that summer, Savio was in Mississippi registering Black voters for the massive Freedom Summer campaign. He estimated that about 3,000 of his fellow Berkeley students participated in civil rights activism, in the South or locally.

Discrimination was rampant in the Bay Area. 98% of the Black population in Berkeley lived in less than 50% of the census tracts. The Black unemployment rate was 7 points above the overall rate. 80% of the grocery stores in Berkeley had no non-white workers. As one employer put it, “they wouldn’t fit in, and besides, we don’t have adequate washroom facilities.” Black people made up .1% of the UC Berkeley student body.

In response, thousands of Berkeley students engaged in militant and often illegal direct actions such as sit-ins to pressure businesses to hire Black workers and improve their working conditions. They also did “shop-ins” at grocery stores, where they would fill their carts with items and then leave them at the checkout lanes. Hundreds of students were arrested. In September 1964, the civil rights organizations announced that they would picket the Oakland Tribune, which was run by former Republican U.S. Senator William Knowland. Knowland and the Tribune supported the segregationist Barry Goldwater for President and viciously attacked the civil rights movement. Knowland denounced the picket and pressured the university to stop the students – the administration complied.

As Savio later wrote, there was “business-community pressure on the university to crack down on campus-launched campaigns into the surrounding community – which had proven all too effective.” In response, “the university set about denying students access to those facilities and rights on campus which had made possible student involvement in the civil-rights movement in the previous few years.” The FSM’s antagonist, UC President Clark Kerr, similarly wrote that “the revolt of 1964 was basically about dissatisfactions with off-campus conditions involving civil rights and lack of on-campus opportunities to oppose them.”

The administration’s restrictions on speech were already very severe. Political organizations were forbidden to fundraise or recruit on campus. They could only hold a meeting if a tenured professor chaired it. Students would instead table at the intersection of Bancroft and Telegraph, which was thought to be city property and so not subject to these restrictions. However, the university now produced documentation that it was their property, and so it was closed off. That was the spark and students began to protest against the university.

On October 1, student organizations were tabling on Sproul Plaza in violation of the speech restrictions. Administration officials approached Jack Weinberg at the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) table and demanded that he leave. He refused. The officials summoned police, who drove a car onto Sproul and placed Weinberg inside it. Thousands of students surrounded and immobilized the car to prevent him from being taken away, and a sit-in began. Mario Savio got on top of the car and, in his words, served a “threat” to the administration that it would be “subject to continuous direct action” unless the following demands were met: Weinberg be freed, charges be dropped against people who violated the restrictions, and that there be meetings to discuss new regulations on speech.

As Savio and thousands of students were defending the free speech of an arrested civil rights activists, right-wing organizations opposed the sit-in. Parroting anti-civil rights rhetoric of the time, they told the Daily Californian that this was not a “lawful redress of grievances.” A member of the Young Republicans for Goldwater also got on the police car to announce this opposition to the sit-in. (That weekend, as the Free Speech Movement was officially formed, right-wing organizations refused to join and were only intermittently involved in the coalition.)

After 32 hours, the demands were met and the police car was finally allowed to leave. The Free Speech Movement continued through the semester with a similar pattern. Despite opposition from right-wing (and often liberal) elements, civil rights activists led thousands of students in militant direct actions to force the administration to allow free speech on campus. It is a truly inspiring history of solidarity and the expansion of democracy.

To learn more about the Free Speech Movement, readers should attend a teach-in on the History of the FSM on Wednesday, March 14 at 7 p.m. in VLSB 2050, led by guest speaker Joel Geier. Joel was a Cal student in the 1960s, a friend of Mario Savio, founder of the Berkeley Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) chapter, and an FSM organizer. Open to the public and admission is free.

Mukund Rathi a second year Berkeley Law student.