Robert Cohen teaches social studies and history at New York University and chairs the department of Teaching and Learning in NYU’s Steinhardt School of Education. His new book, Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s, is the first biography of Savio, the brilliant leader of the Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, who helped carry the students to victory in their struggle against the university. In the excerpt below we are introduced to Savio.
Few protest leaders have burst upon the American political scene more dramatically than did Mario Savio in fall 1964 when he was a twenty-one-year-old Berkeley student. The University of California (UC) had become the scene of nonviolent political warfare, with the administration enforcing and students defying a campus ban on political advocacy that closed down the free speech area at UC’s busy southern entrance. Coming at a time when student civil rights activism was surging, the ban seemed an attack on the civil rights movement and a gross violation of the right to free speech, igniting protests in mid- and late September. This conflict escalated just before noon on October 1 as police drove a squad car to UC Berkeley’s central thoroughfare, Sproul Plaza, to arrest civil rights organizer Jack Weinberg because he, like many free speech activists, was defying the ban by staffing a political advocacy table on the plaza. Before the police could arrest, someone shouted, “Sit down!” Within moments a crowd of students surrounded the car in a nonviolent blockade that would last thirty-two hours. Shortly after the blockade began, Mario Savio, a leader of the civil rights group University Friends of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), removing his shoes so as not to damage the police car, climbed on top of it and into national headlines, using its roof as a podium to explain the protest and demand freedom of speech. From those first moments atop that car Savio emerged as the Berkeley rebellion’s key spokesperson, symbolizing all that was daring, militant, and new about the Free Speech Movement (FSM).
…Savio was among the first media starts of America’s New Left – the 1960s student movement “committed to redressing social and political inequalities of power,” challenging cold war nationalism, and renewing “the atrophied institutions of American democracy” by creating “new institutions of popular participation to replace existing bureaucratic structures.” In 1964, when Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) had yet to attract the media coverage it would receive as the key New Left organization of the mid- and late 1960s, Savio was making headlines leading the largest, most disruptive campus rebellion in American history. He helped to define a new role for American college students, that of a dynamic youth leader igniting mass student protest.
Savio’s fame was closely linked to his oratory. Back in 1964 the press – with its cold warrior disdain for radicalism – hardly knew how to react to his militant yet popular oratory because it seemed so out of place on U.S. campuses, which had almost never witnessed mass protest… Time magazine thus looked outside the States for comparisons, evoking Fidel Castro and attributing to Savio “an almost Latin American eloquence…a sense of demagoguery and a flair for martyrdom.” Yet not even Time’s antiradical editors could miss the fact that Savio had prevailed over a university administration undermined by its “habit of vacillating between concessions and crackdowns.” The Bay Area press uncomfortably conceded his eloquence, hinting that its appeal was based on emotion rather than reason. “He harangues in rapid fire staccato,” explained one San Francisco reporter, “shrill at times, emotionally charged always. He’s a slender 6 foot 1, sloping at the shoulders, clad usually in baggy slacks and a heavy jacket, bushy hair…unkempt, his blue eyes sparkling and intense.”
Friends and foes alike recognized that Savio on the stump “cut an extraordinary figure,” whose words and delivery made a lasting impression. Berkeley history professor Reginald Zelnik termed Savio “the most original public speaker I would ever hear.” Zelnik saw in him in the reflectiveness of a genuine intellectual, the questioning spirit of the most iconoclast undergraduate, and an intense desire to inspire thought and dialogue. Berkeley immunology professor Leon Wofsy reflected, “He wasn’t doing it for show. He wasn’t doing it to provoke.” When Savio argued on behalf of the FSM, as Wofsy put it, “he was speaking from his heart and from his head. There was certain quality there. Not just his rhetoric, but there was a quality of sincerity and thoughtfulness that just lifted him above the others.”
It is Savio’s speeches, not those of professors or campus officials, that have found their way into the histories of the 1960s. This was in part because during the FSM, as historian Henry May noted, students were the actors, making history through their protests, while faculty and administrators were merely reactors, trying to come to grips with this unprecedented outburst of activism and civil disobedience. But it more than simply Savio’s insurgent status that made his words memorable. After all, many Berkeley protesters spoke up, but none of their words have proven so enduring, and none of these speakers could match Savio’s passionate yet logical, accessible, democratic, and at times poetic oratory…
…Savio did not have to be speaking from atop a police car for his words to be remembered. His most famous speech occurred two months after the police car blockade as he urged students outside Sproul Hall to join the FSM’s culminating sit-in on December 2, 1964. He demanded that college youth heed their consciences and embrace activism. “There’s a time, ” Savio exhorted his classmates,
when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all!
This dramatic call to resist unjust authority embodied the youthful idealism and iconoclasm of the insurgent sixties. Well into our own century it continues to appear in feature films, documentaries, protest songs, and television shows that explore that decade and other times of revolt against oppression. The speech helped convince some thousand students to occupy Sproul Hall, paving the way for a mass sit-in, which for its time was the greatest act of mass civil disobedience…on an American campus.