On the steps in front of Sproul Hall on the University of California’s Berkeley campus a small plaque proclaims: “Mario Savio Steps – Dedicated 1997.” It is unusual to dedicate a stairway; it is astounding to have these steps dedicated to the former undergraduate who in 1964 stood there and told a crowd of students: “There is a time 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.”
Modern student activism began at Berkeley in the late l950s when a group of politically conscious students decided to try to take over student government. The issues of the day were nuclear testing in the atmosphere, capital punishment (Caryl Chessman), the rampages of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), and civil rights. Student government, traditionally a province of fraternities and sororities, took little interest in politics. The UC, Berkeley students organized a party called SLATE which captured student government and began passing resolutions on the important issues.
The first large scale demonstrations took place in San Francisco in 1960 when HUAC came to town to hold hearings. Students, mostly from Berkeley, San Francisco State, and Stanford, besieged City Hall where the hearings were taking place. They picketed on the outside, and inside the hall demanded entrance to what was supposed to be an open hearing. HUAC had packed the few seats with sympathizers. On the third day of the demonstrations, fire hoses were turned on the protesters inside City Hall, and police arrested 64 students. Charges were dismissed against all but one and he was subsequently acquitted.
The center of student activism then shifted to the Midwest where it cohered at Port Huron, Michigan as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Young people on the east coast were also becoming active, but in 1964 attention shifted suddenly and decisively back to Berkeley. One reason was the Republican Convention which was held in San Francisco that year.
The political heat was building and in the fall the university administration ignited it by banning politics from the Sproul Plaza area. The area where the tables were set up was thought by many to be owned by the city, but it wasn’t. Tables promoting civil rights and other issues had been a feature of the plaza for some time, but conservative elements in the business community and state government complained and the administration gave in to them. The ban produced a United Front of student opposition. It consisted of all the organizations that had tables in Sproul Plaza, ranging from the Young People’s Socialist League to the Young Republicans, including the oxymoronically named University Society of Individualists. (The Trouble in Berkeley, Steven Warshaw, 1965.)
But there was an undercurrent of unrest that was more than political. The ban on recruiting and soliciting in Sproul Plaza was an expression of the University’s increasing view of itself as, in President Clark Kerr’s words, “a prime instrument of national purpose.” (The Uses of the University, Clark Kerr, 1963.) Students felt that the university with its large classes, increasing emphasis on vocational goals, and bureaucratic policies aided by the introduction of automation was alienating them from what they thought an education should be. Kerr, in fact, had approvingly referred to the university as a factory. So as one of their slogans students echoed the instructions on the punch cards used by the IBM computing machines that recorded enrollment and grades: “I am a human being: Do not fold, bend, or mutilate.”
On October 1, 1964, a former UC student named Jack Weinberg set up a now “unauthorized” table in Sproul Plaza and was arrested. Students rallied around the police car that held him and that, like the storming of the Bastille, was the event that symbolically if not in fact touched off student activism as we knew it in The Sixties. Speakers, including Mario Savio, climbed to the top of the police car to address the crowd and The United Front became the Free Speech Movement. After sit-ins, arrests, and futile negotiations, Savio delivered his speech about the odiousness of the machine from the steps of Sproul Hall on December 3, 1964.
(As if to prove at least the second part of Marx’s dictum that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce, the Free Speech Movement was followed a year later by the Filthy Speech Movement.)
Student activism surged across the country. Teach-ins, sit-ins, and demonstrations, primarily against the war in Vietnam but also for more student rights, civil rights, and, soon, women’s rights followed.
The University administration at Berkeley fought back, asserting its authority and invoking the police. Over 800 students were arrested at the Sproul Hall sit-in. It was the largest mass arrest in California history. The academic senate mediated the dispute with considerable success, further isolating the administration from the rest of the campus community, but hostility reached its peak in a turf war over a plot of land the University purchased and students occupied. Students and their non-student allies wanted to turn the vacant land into a park, but the University called in the police and when they proved insufficient Governor Reagan called in the National Guard. One person was killed and fifty or more were wounded.