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50th Anniversary of Free Speech Movement and Its Devolvement

50th Anniversary of Free Speech Movement and Its Devolvement

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This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement and the iconic speech delivered by Mario Savio from the top of a police car in Sproul Plaza at the University of California at Berkeley. The vibrant crusader for free speech implored fellow students to protest the university’s ban on political activities.

The epic moment triggered the beginning of the Free Speech Movement (FSM), which ultimately gave rise to nationwide anti-war demonstrations, civil disobedience protests, and student unrest on university campuses across the nation.

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In a tribute to the movement and the now deceased Savio, FSM alumni will revisit the campus for a reunion replete with dedications honoring the protest, including FSM: The Musical at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. The play was co-written by no other than the FSM’s legendary leader’s son, Daniel Savio.

According to the Cal Alumni Association’s magazine, Daniel wrote it in collaboration with two veterans of The San Francisco Mime Troupe, Joan Holden, M.A. ’64, and Bruce Barthol, ’68. Barthol as a freshman was at Sproul Plaza and witnessed history taking place.

The reunion, celebrated, Sept. 26-Oct. 3, features a rally at Sproul Plaza on Wednesday, which also represents the 50th anniversary of the arrest of former grad student/protester Jack Weinberg, who coined the phrase, “Never trust anyone over 30.”

Conservative intellectual and Judaism teacher Dennis Prager contends that the “Never trust anyone over 30” mantra, which animated the movement, was no meaningless phrase. Prager believes the viewpoint not to trust adults gave way to the undermining of parental authority and religious leaders and consequently precipitated a host of societal problems

The beginnings of the FSM were characterized by peaceful protests led by folk singers such as Woody Guthrie and Joan Baez. When Savio and others stood on top of the police car, purportedly they took their shoes off first so as not to scratch it. However, as the war in Vietnam became more unpopular, campus demonstrations and protests against America’s involvement in Viet Nam grew more violent.

Four dead students at Kent State in a clash between the National Guard armed with rifles and students hurling rocks and empty tear gas containers exemplified the devolvement of the FSM. The tentacles of the FSM reached across the Atlantic, and in 1968 demonstrations took place outside an American embassy in London prompting 200 arrests and 86 people injured. 

Violent antiwar groups surfaced, such as the Weather Underground led by radicals Bill Ayres and Bernadine Dohrn. Ayers, who spent the 1970’s as a fugitive, admitted to the New York Times, ”I don’t regret setting bombs… I feel we didn’t do enough.”

Unfortunately, the recent Occupy Movement became the latest iteration of the devolved FSM. Thousands of protesters across the nation gathered to express their outrage and hatred for the privileged 1% and demanded the end to income inequality. The hordes of discontented citizens left tons of garbage strewn about, raped fellow occupiers, vandalized, looted stores, and damaged structures.

Yet, perhaps the ultimate metaphor for the demise of the FSM are the actions by some Occupy protesters defecating in police cars, proving that they had come along way from Mario taking his shoes off before he climbed on top of the lone police car. 

Nevertheless, Carla Hesse, Dean of Social Sciences and a member of the campus coordinating committee for the 50th anniversary, wants the University to continue the annual lecture series dedicated to the historic event. Up until now, the lectures have been sponsored by the friends and admirers of Mario Savio, since he passed away in 1996. Hesse stated that the University will now be sponsoring an annual remembrance of the man who most influenced the FSM.

“The timing seemed right to both its organizers and campus leaders to ensure it would continue in perpetuity as a part of our academic landscape and as a commemoration of a very important part of campus history,” Hesse stated.

The Cal Alumni magazine reported that Reggie Zelnik, a former Chairman of the History Department and member of the faculty in 1964, who co-edited The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s, said this before his death in 2004:

“As a historian, I always like to remind people that nothing is as beautiful as it appears on the surface,” he said. “But FSM was as good as it gets. It certainly never got that good again.”

Alumni Bruce Roberts ’68 wasn’t quite as enamored with the movement as Zelnik and feels his college experience was corrupted by the all-consuming FSM. Roberts belonged to a conservative group funded by the UC Regents called Students for Law And Order. During his days at Berkeley, he passed out flyers on campus and talked to other students and faculty about the inappropriateness of the FSM.

“On the night I graduated, I went to Sproul steps and screamed at the top of my lungs, ‘You screwed our University!'” he recounted. “I was so angry. The things I wanted to do, the fun I wanted to have, were taken away from me. And not just from me–from the entire student body.”


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