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Lost and found: Mario Savio’s reflections

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NOVEMBER 15, 2011

“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part … and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears … and 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!” These words, from Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio’s historic speech outside Sproul Hall just before that movement’s culminating sit-in on Dec. 2, 1964, are among the most famous uttered by any campus radical in that decade of student revolt. But while this speech and the mass sit-in it helped inspire at Sproul Hall have been well remembered (and are discussed in many history books), other Savio words from this same critical point in the FSM’s history were lost for decades and have only come to light this September with the discovery of an important Savio letter.
The lost letter was penned by Savio on Dec. 4, 1964, from Santa Rita Prison, where he and hundreds of students had been sent after being arrested for nonviolently sitting-in at Sproul Hall. The letter, which Savio had sent (or intended to send) to his parents, brother and grandmother, was discovered by Barbara Stack as part of a project — funded by FSM veteran Thom Irwin of the Free Speech Movement Archive — to gather and inventory the papers of FSM activists.

Savio’s letter from Santa Rita sheds new light on his mood and thoughts in the wake of the police invasion of the campus, which ended the Sproul sit-in via the largest mass arrest in California history. The letter evokes the special meaning of being jailed for an act of civil disobedience. Unlike conventional arrests, where people are caught committing a crime that that they sought to conceal, the activist arrested for sitting-in courted arrest by defying the law publicly in an act of conscience, seeking to air a political grievance and promote a lofty cause.

In the case of the FSMers arrested at Spoul, that cause was free speech. Savio and his fellow protesters were proud that they had been arrested for sitting-in against campus restrictions on political advocacy, which they viewed as aimed at stifling student involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. This is why Savio opened his letter home by invoking the black freedom movement and the tradition of civil disobedience embodied by Martin Luther King Jr., reassuring his family that he would not be imprisoned long and declaring he thought they “might like to receive a letter from the Birmingham Jail” — referring to the famed prison letter King had written from his Birmingham prison cell, eloquently justifying resistance to unjust authority in the struggle against Jim Crow.

The letter from Santa Rita finds Savio in high spirits, as he puts it “buoyantly happy — if a little grubby,” because he regarded the Sproul sit-in as both moral and successful. More than a thousand students had “seized and held” Berkeley’s “administration building, Sproul Hall for about 14 hours,” the most massive act of civil disobedience ever on an American college campus. And this was followed by a campuswide student strike protesting the mass arrests and the free speech violations that had sparked the sit-in. Savio thought the student strike and the refusal of “the Teamsters Union … to cross our picket lines” — which prevented all deliveries to campus including “food … to the cafeterias” — had made good on the promise he made in his Dec. 2 Sproul speech. “I’d promised that either we would get our rights or we would completely halt the operation of the University! …Whereas (during the mass arrest at Sproul) the administration held the students in siege in one building; now we hold the administration in siege on the entire campus!”

Savio believed that the scale of the protest and the morality of the FSM cause were resonating far beyond Berkeley. “Our action has electrified the entire state — as well as many thousands beyond the state.” This euphoric estimation would prove only half right. Students across the country and the globe did find the Berkeley rebellion an inspiring demonstration of principled protest, which proved that students could exercise real power on campus by using civil disobedience. This lesson would be applied widely as students used FSM-style tactics in their campus protests against the Vietnam War in the mid- and late-1960s, paving the way for the emergence of a mass national student movement.

But on the other hand, Savio, from his Santa Rita jail cell, had lost touch with public opinion off campus, which ran heavily against the FSM. Most Californians judged the FSM not on the basis of its idealistic free speech goals but on its militant protest tactics, which tended to be viewed as disrespectful of authority, lawless and riotous. Such hostility would soon be exploited by backlash politicians on the right, most notably Ronald Reagan, who won California’s governorship in 1966 by pledging to “clean up the mess” in Berkeley Although Savio overestimated the FSM’s popularity off campus, his letter proved wholly accurate in assessing the impact the Sproul sit-in and mass arrest had on campus. He thought these events were turning campus opinion against the UC administration and in favor of the FSM and its battle for free speech. Savio was especially perceptive in noting that the police invasion of the UC has “brought the faculty over to our side … The action that we took lit a fire under the faculty,” who, after being divided for months, had in the wake of the arrests “raised thousands of dollars in bail money” for the jailed students, “demanded (that) we be pardoned … (and) demanded that our demands for free speech be met.” Just four days after Savio wrote this letter, Berkeley’s faculty, assembled in its Academic Senate, voted by an overwhelming margin (825-114) to endorse the FSM’s central free speech demand: “that the content of speech or advocacy ought not be restricted by the university” — a smashing victory for Savio and the FSM.

Savio’s letter is also an emblematic 1960s New Left document in that it anticipates the rift between student radicals and mainstream liberals, which would widen as liberals escalated the war in Vietnam. In Savio’s letter only one liberal is named, California governor Edmund “Pat” Brown, and he comes up only long enough to be denounced as a “fink” who “ordered our arrest” at Sproul.

The letter’s closing reminds us that Savio was more than a political figure; he was a loving son, grandson and brother who sought in his letter to calm his family and ease their anxiety over his welfare. “I am well … Don’t worry, please.” As if to illustrate how safe and popular the protest had been, Savio mentioned that “the world famous folk singer” Joan Baez had participated in the protest. “She was with us in Sproul Hall!” But despite such reassurances his parents did worry, and rightly so. Savio would later be barred from returning to school at Berkeley and serve a prison term for his role as an FSM leader, paying a price for the free speech victory that he and his fellow student protesters won in 1964.


Robert Cohen a professor at NYU and is the author of "Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s."

NOVEMBER 15, 2011