Cohen’s “The Essential Mario Savio” reflects on nature of the movement

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Historians often have a reputation for idolizing those that they study. As critics on both sides of the aisle note, this has been especially evident in the celebration of the Free Speech Movement during its 50th anniversary.

In “The Essential Mario Savio: Speeches and Writings that Changed America,” noted historian of the FSM and Daily Cal alum Robert Cohen ensures his discussion of Mario Savio, known as the lead spokesperson for the 1964 movement, does not follow such precedents.

Cohen’s book — his ninth on the era — contextualizes Savio’s letters and speeches to chronicle the history of two key moments of 1960s: the Mississippi Freedom Summer and the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. In doing so, Cohen illustrates Savio in a manner that contrasts the image that the media — both that of the 1960s and of today — often portrays Savio. The 21-year-old philosophy major and new transfer student at UC Berkeley in the fall of 1964 was neither the singular leader, god-like figure or communist brainwasher of the FSM that some may have been led to believe.

By focusing on Savio’s Socratic-style speeches, Cohen repaints the image of Savio in a light similar to many of those who participated in the FSM have in their recounts of the movement to The Daily Californian: Savio was first and foremost a great orator and a dedicated activist for social justice. Preceding the campus events of 1964, Savio participated in the Freedom Summer Project in Mississippi and volunteered in Mexico. In time, he would become an inspirational leader for student activism — although, to be clear, not the only leader.

The book opens with a foreword by Tom Hayden, who was an activist himself in the 1960s — although, he writes, Savio’s and his path’s never actually crossed. “What does it mean to declare that Mario was “freedom’s orator?” he writes. “(Savio’s) philosophical and mathematical training prepared him to communicate in plain but lucid language, rich with references to past great thinkers. His podium, however, was on the top of a police car or the Sproul steps. Mario did not deliver The Word from a mountaintop.”

Savio’s use of participatory oratory left leaders both more informed and empowered, Cohen elaborates on later in the book. Although his most famous speech calling on students to “place their bodies on the gears and stop the machine” was more of a battle cry, most of his speeches were Socratic and inclusive rather than solo performances, incorporating the crowd as participants rather than listeners.

“(Savio) was given the gift of speech — that is, he stopped stuttering — from the movement community,” Hayden writes. “In return, he gave them the gift of being heard, thinking aloud, for the first time.”

While it’s questionable that these personal letters and speeches “changed America,” as the title proposes, it is without a doubt that the movement Savio was an important catalyst in driving has left an unprecedented impact on the meaning of the U.S. university and the civil rights movement. Cohen’s ability to reflect upon this through such illustrative primary sources as the “freedom orator’s” speeches, provides an important new lens for understanding the role that these debates would come to have on a larger national discourse.

“The Essential Mario Savio” also defends the FSM and Savio against claims of their un-American and radical nature, stating that Savio’s love of the Constitution’s First and Fourteenth Amendments was so evident that it helped draw mainstream students into the FSM.

“At times … those on both sides of campus political battles have focused on the FSM’s sit-in tactics rather than the free speech principles embodied in the December 8 resolutions. With that shift, Savio and the FSM can be (and have been) loathed or loved as emblems of disruptive, even anarchic student protest. Conflicting memories of the polarized Berkeley political scene of the late 1960s…have added an emotional edge to the debate about the FSM’s legacy.”

It was a subversive protest, Cohen writes, but it was also, and primarily, a democratic movement aimed at defending civil rights.

At the end of Cohen’s introduction, “My hope is that this volume will contribute to this process of both rethinking the history that Savio and the FSM helped to make in the 1960s and reflecting on their vision of a more democratic society and university.”

Cohen, thus, reminds us of the need to continue reflecting on history with a critical eye and to seek out different perspectives on the past — especially on those events society has deemed fundamental to where we are today. Savio’s speeches provide an additional nuance to the ever-continual process of historical analysis, but they are not the “tell-all” of the era they came from. This Cohen succeeds in making clear.