Our story begins in Queens, New York, in 1942. Mario Savio was born during World War II and would later grow up in the conformist postwar decade in America. Savio was, however, every bit the counterculture youth. Think of him as John Travolta in Grease — except way smarter and without the grease.
Savio spent the summer of 1963 helping the poor in Taxco, Mexico, and the summer of 1964 in Mississippi campaigning for civil rights. (So what were you saying about how many seasons of Breaking Bad you got through last summer?) Savio transferred to UC Berkeley in the fall of ’64 and majored in philosophy — and yes, he did find a job after college.
Upon returning from Mississippi, Savio sought to continue his political activism, but Clark Kerr got in his way. We’re not talking about the residence hall that looks like a country club on Warring Street. Once upon a time, there was a chancellor, not too different from the one from Star Wars (think bad guy). Kerr limited the rights of political organizations on campus and later dismissed the Free Speech Movement as “as a ritual of hackneyed complaints.”
In steps, our hero, Savio, an executive member of the Free Speech Movement, who led what he claimed was the most successful strike in student history. In fact, only 17 to 18 percent of students were attending class — strikingly similar to the attendance rate for 8 a.m. discussions today. (Not an actual statistic.)
“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!” Savio said in his “Bodies Upon the Gears” speech. “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! 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!” *Drops the mic*
This “Bodies Upon the Gears” speech was perhaps the peak of his oratory. Savio actually had a stutter throughout his childhood, making his words all the more moving. He was basically the real-life Colin Firth. Oh, we mean King George VI — ugh, never mind.
Despite his triumph in returning free speech to campus, Savio was still suspended and even sentenced to prison for his role in a certain protest. Savio eventually received a degree in physics and math and later became a teacher for various institutions in the Bay Area. He passed away in 1996.
The legend of Savio and the Free Speech Movement extends far beyond the trendy cafe next to Moffitt Library. UC Berkeley’s nonviolent demonstrations would serve as a model for nationwide protests against the Vietnam War in the coming years. So think about Savio and the sacrifices he made next time you walk past the myriad of tables along Sproul Plaza (maybe you’ll even wait until the second trash receptacle you pass before you toss out that flyer).
Contact Ismael Farooqui at [email protected].