It was autumn 1964 in Berkeley, in a small apartment just a few blocks from Sproul Hall, when I found myself interviewing Mario Savio, the embattled leader of the Free Speech Movement. I was editor in chief of the Stanford Daily and sent staff reporters to Berkeley almost every day for months. This was one of my days.
Savio was shaving and getting ready for a press conference. His apartment was abuzz with excitement and activity because of his sudden effectiveness at grabbing the attention of the inept UC Berkeley administration. He did not look much like a campus radical—in fact, no one did then. He had curly hair that was not particularly long. His clothes were rumpled but pretty conventional middle class. He was polite, low key and not given to colorful language. At least until he stood on top of mob-encircled police vehicles.
In the beginning, the Free Speech Movement was not a leftist movement. The entire spectrum of student activists–from Students for a Democratic Society to the Young Americans for Freedom and Young Republicans– reacted viscerally to oppose a sudden move by the UC Berkeley administration to enforce dormant rules against recruiting and advocacy on campus for off-campus political causes.
“Off campus political causes”? The very notion of such rules is unbelievable today. And it was unbelievable at Stanford in 1964. So the Free Speech Movement was just about getting the “establishment” to back down from a pretty stupid set of rules.
Another fact lost in the passage of time: the speech had nothing much to do with the Vietnam war. Unrest was building about Vietnam, but in 1964, students were more concerned about the civil rights movement and the violence in Mississippi and Alabama than about Vietnam. Tie dye T-shirts were not yet in vogue.
In ensuing weeks, thanks to both the political incompetence of the Regents and the injection of increasingly radical political elements (20 per cent of the mass arrests at Sproul Plaza were not students), FSM became a crusade to stop the University from even functioning, and student opinion became deeply divided. Ronald Reagan, as a candidate for Governor in 1966, would be able to use the radicalization of the Free Speech Movement as a major issue in his campaign. And ordinary Californians were on his side.
I look at that episode as an example of the ebb and flow or pendulum effect of political movements. They arise to address valid grievances, get taken over by people who do not know when to declare victory or won’t let a good crisis go to waste, and the extremism produces counter-movements.