Fifty years of struggle: alumni celebrate the victory and legacy of the the Free Speech Movement

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Jim Jumblatt/File

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Early October in 1964, UC Berkeley students snaked their picket lines around popular campus buildings, puncturing the cool morning air with whoops and hollers. They were denizens of the folk scare, an acid-inspired and bebopping crew who felt the heat of a boiling movement — their anthem a resounding for the right to mobilize on issues of civil liberties and freedom of speech in the homonymous Free Speech Movement.

Kathleen Piper, a former member of the movement’s executive committee, said one student walked onto campus that morning carrying a tall, stacked pile of textbooks. Upon seeing the picket lines and the paddy wagons parked in middle of Sproul Plaza and people being hauled out of buildings, the student dropped his books.

Piper recalls him saying, “Oh shit.” Then, she says, he picked up a sign and joined his peers.

For Piper, that story is a hallmark of the demonstrations. She said she doesn’t know if he was cursing the cops or the university or the movement, only that he — like many students invested in the protests against the administration — “knew what he had to do.” He partook in the demonstrations.

This fall, UC Berkeley celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement: the event that afforded students the ability to manifest their activist agendas on college campuses and spurred national free speech reformations. If nothing else, the movement injected into UC Berkeley a reputation of free speech that persists today.

For those who were there, the time was electrifying.

When the university instituted a ban on campus political activity in 1964, students balked at their inability to disseminate literature on Sproul Plaza. Failed negotiations with the campus to reform the new policy escalated into three months of protests and culminated in a campuswide student strike that halted all campus activity. The administration eventually addressed students’ concerns on free speech after months of condemning the movement. At the start of the new semester, they changed their policy on political advocacy.

Jack Radey, a veteran of the movement, recalled when the campus Academic Senate endorsed the movement Dec. 8. He said Jacobus Tenbroek, a former campus political science professor, walked with other faculty out of the meeting. Tenbroek was blind and carried with him a long cane. When he walked out the building, Radey says he “lifted his cane and waved it over his head in triumph.”

“My friend and I just looked at each other,” Radey said. “We knew that they got the message, they got the spirit: Don’t let these assholes push you around. I cried then, and I cry now.”

The Free Speech Movement held its first legal rally on the steps of Sproul Hall on Jan. 4, 1965.

Fifty years later, the students who pepper Sproul Plaza and disseminate a kaleidoscopic array of leaflets and stickers and merchandise are arguably the most obvious remnant of the movement.

“I was surprised when I was looking at the tables on Sproul (during a recent visit),” said Jo Freeman,  the author of “At Berkeley in the Sixties” and an FSM veteran. “All those tables are a result of what we did.”

Though the student movement led to unrestricted campus political activity, it would be decades before the campus formally commemorated the protests. Bettina Aptheker, a professor at UC Santa Cruz and veteran of the movement, said that although the campus was indifferent toward the movement for the two following decade, she sees that delay as a necessary passage of time.

This year, the Free Speech Movement was commemorated on campus by FSM veterans and others in an Oct. 1 rally on the steps of Sproul Hall. There, the values of liberated expression that were first impressed during the FSM prevailed among the crowd.

Student protesters and community groups joined veterans of the movement to protest and rally in support of free speech. Hundreds of individuals convened on Sproul Plaza as speakers urged the crowd to speak out. Some repeated Mario Savio’s famous words, “put your bodies upon the gears.”

“I think the celebration was genuine, and I think it’s the result of a generational change,” Freeman said. “When people came into power who were not personally harmed by what was going on, they looked at it and thought ‘Yeah, we should’ve done it! We should’ve done it a long time ago.’ ”

Freeman and other veterans commended the campus for its visible acclaim of the movement — such as through anniversarial celebrations and campus memorials and the Free Speech Movement Cafe.

“All of the sudden, we had become incorporated into the history of the university — we were celebrated,” said Aptheker. “I think that the desire for an endowment like that overolled any reaction to what FSM had been.”

Still, some movement veterans feel that their adverse treatment in 1964 has since been overwritten by the movement’s success.

“I don’t think the administration is any different than the one that students have been facing for years,” said Mike Smith, a veteran of the movement.

In an op-ed submitted to The Daily Californian, Chancellor Nicholas Dirks addressed the questions some had regarding the administrative celebration of the Free Speech Movement on its 50th anniversary — as it has often been characterized as a movement of students against administrators.

“It was a time when students exercised an important moral imperative and yet in the end joined with faculty and eventually with the administration to find collective ways to recommit to the extraordinary value, and values, of the university,” he wrote.

Whether or not the administration’s relationship with students has truly evolved, or the original emotions of the movement remain on campus, for some veterans the memory of the free speech movement persists even after half a century.

“The whole point was to get people thinking,” said Aptheker. “It’s 50 years later — you let it go. You move on.

Contact Zoe Kleinfeld at [email protected]