Last week, UC Berkeley released nearly 40 interviews conducted with a diverse group of Free Speech Movement participants and witnesses to commemorate the movement’s 50th anniversary.
The Free Speech Movement Oral History Project is a part of UC Berkeley alumnus Stephen Silberstein’s $3.5 million effort to record and honor Mario Savio and the FSM. Beginning in 1999, the Regional Oral History Office of the Bancroft Library conducted a series of interviews with student activists, student observers, faculty and community members who recounted their experiences during the movement. The office partnered with the Free Speech Movement Archives, which was created by FSM veterans including Lynne Savio and Michael Rossman.
Historian emeritus and longtime interviewer for the office Lisa Rubens, who conducted the interviews for the project, said the office wanted to record the experiences of previously absent voices in the FSM conversation.
“People were affected very much (by the FSM) — they were drawn into a much more social and political consciousness,” Rubens said. “The university becomes much more attuned to the social impulses of the day.”
In addition to anticipating the FSM’s 50th anniversary, Rubens said the office also held the transcripts until recently because it takes the office an “extraordinary” amount of work to track down interviewees and conduct interviews.
Rubens, who was a student at the time, said she was drawn in by the movement.
“I was just so impressed by how these people could formulate arguments and make them accessible to a lowly undergraduate,” Rubens said.
Rubens highlighted her interview with Charles Powell, then-ASUC president, who had never been interviewed about his involvement with FSM. She said Powell felt completely bypassed by FSM leaders.
Powell told Rubens in 2001 that he was not as excited about the issues as his peers were, and he did not feel free speech was a noteworthy cause.
“Spokespeople for the FSM cause would say such harsh and unkind things about people who I knew in the administration who I thought highly of, and vice versa,” Powell said in the interview. “I didn’t like seeing people angry with each other, hating each other, throwing people in jail because they were sincerely concerned about an issue, carting them off out of Sproul Hall.”
UC Santa Cruz professor and prominent FSM leader Bettina Aptheker explained that oral histories are important in order to add the experiences of those left out of the historical record. She said these tend to be women, people of color and working-class individuals.
Suzanne Goldberg, a then-UC Berkeley graduate student, spoke in her oral history in 2000 about the sexism she and other women experienced during the FSM, where her ideas were sometimes ignored by leaders of the movement.
Robert Cohen, UC Berkeley alumnus and a visiting New York University professor and author of the book “Freedom’s Orator,” noted the unique perspective an after-the-fact oral history provides.
“It’s not an exact window — it’s refracted through time,” Cohen said. “Sometimes their memory will be distorted in some way, because it’s not a Rosetta Stone that gives you all the answers.”