From Atop the Police Car

A Review of The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s
by Robert Cohen and Reginald E. Zelnick

Author Biography

Born in New York City during the late sixties, Robert Cohen received a M.A. and a P.H.D. from UC Berkeley. He began his career teaching US history at UC Berkeley and the University of Toledo and is an affiliated member of the NYU History Department. Born in New York City in 1936, Reginald E. Zelnik received his B.A. from Princeton University in 1956, his M.A. from Stanford University in 1961 and his PhD in 1966. He is a professor of history at UC Berkeley.

As UC Berkeley entered its fall semester in 1964, its administration decided to end a decade-long tradition by banning student political activities from the Bancroft and Telegraph entrances of the campus. The University’s severe action put to light the fact that the administration purposefully permitted “less free speech to be permitted on campus than in town.”1 As a reaction to the blatant limitation on an American’s First Amendment rights, students ignited the Free Speech Movement (FSM). On October 1, 1964, a mass student sit-in immobilized a police car for thirty-two hours to prevent the arrest of civil rights activist Jack Weinberg. A succession of students climbed on top of the police car and gave speeches regarding human rights and free speech. Forty years later, the death of the movement’s leader, Mario Savio, prompted co-editors Robert Cohen and Reginald E. Zelnik to examine the event as closely as never before. In their book The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s, the co-editors sought to present a thorough account of the FSM by compiling together a collection of essays written by FSM veterans. From movement organizers to faculty members, the authors of these thirty-three articles held different approaches to the event and each gave their understanding and account of the first student movement of the sixties.

The book begins by examining the roots of the Free Speech Movement. Opening with the manuscript of a talk given by Mario Savio, whom the book is dedicated to, the book points out that the Civil Rights Movement influenced many students who participated in the FSM. As a young philosophy student, Savio joined in various civil rights demonstrations and participated in the Mississippi Freedom Summer, where he taught English to African Americans to promote black suffrage. Facing violent Klansmen and reluctant blacks, Savio obtained a taste for the harshness of reality that he, as a “disillusioned philosophy student”, had prior sought.2 Both Jo Freeman’s and Waldo Martin’s essays mention that Savio’s participation in the Mississippi Summer Project transformed him from “a cautions, inquisitive do-gooder to a self-confident activist.”3 The Civil Rights Movement had made Mario Savio into the eloquent and bold orator whose presence was one of the reasons for the Free Speech Movement’s success. Freeman and Martin also discussed how many students had empowered themselves through various protests of the Civil Rights Movement. After facing threats, insults, and arrests, many students gained the courage to stand up to a powerful system and recognized the importance and effectiveness of non-violent protests. The civil rights activists were some of the first to be informed of the Sather Gate ban and were some of the first to begin speaking out against the university’s oppressive prohibition. Without the Civil Rights Movement, many students would have lacked the courage, insight, and experience in demonstrations that have led the FSM to its success.

Next, the book’s focus shifts to the movement itself. Throughout this part of the book various authors recollected their own positions at the time and retraced the steps they took to eventually become involved in the FSM. The variety of students included movement leaders, followers, and graduate students, reflecting the Free Speech Movement’s diversity and its amazing ability to hold together a large range of beliefs through a highly democratic way of organization. Members of the faculty fought a battle as well when their opinion differed from that of the administration. Demoralized by harsh, oppressive McCarthyism during the 1950s, the faculty, who were embittered and forced to sign the loyalty oath, welcomed the FSM. The faculty’s “readiness to side with the FSM” became “increasingly clear” and it sought to please both the students and the administration.4 As president of the University of California and the head of the hated administration, Clark Kerr was the man with the most undesirable position during the FSM. As a liberal president, Kerr strongly protested the loyalty oath and had diligently worked toward lifting various communist bans off of the Berkeley campus for years. In his article, he scoffs that the FSM is nothing significant compared to his patient, hard work. As head of the administration, Kerr was seen as a common enemy by the student protestors. However, as a liberal president, Kerr was also criticized by the Berkeley administrators for being too soft on the students. While most of the essays of this book exalted the achievements of the FSM, Kerr thought the opposite and thought his own achievements were more significant.

The book moves on to discuss the legal and constitutional aspects of the FSM. Robert Post, a law professor at UC Berkeley, indicated in his essay that the FSM challenged “virtually all University regulation of communication.”5 To satisfy the FSM’s demands would mean the crumbling of the University itself. Both the FSM and the administration faced each other in a seemingly interminable battle until the faculty stepped in and favored the students. While Robert H. Cole, former faculty member, agreed with Post’s argument, he also mentioned the FSM’s massive influence and its long-lasting results. The FSM did not allow for blind, absolute liberty but made a “time, place, and manner” rule that was “designed to promote speech while preventing interference with the normal functions of the University.”6 By setting boundaries for itself, free speech became acceptable and controllable. However, the whirlwind of events during the FSM did spin out of control, as mentioned by Malcolm Burnstein, who defended the arrested Berkeley students during the FSM. Although many protestors faced charges, Burnstein marveled at the courage and dedication of students who were willing to risk their future and education for freedom. He also reminded the readers that “the spirit of the FSM is not obsolete,” as one could see from various peaceful demonstrations in today’s society.7 Even though people’s minds are much more advanced and liberated today, the freedom of expression problem continues to be relevant.

While the Free Speech Movement only lasted a few months, its impact was long lasting. In the “Aftermath” section of the book, various authors examine the characteristics of Mario Savio, who had won over many supporters with his eloquent and charismatic speeches. After the University announced its plan to move the free speech area away from the central part of the campus to a secluded place, Savio launched the lesser-known “Little Free Speech Movement.” By organizing rallies and passing out leaflets, Savio won the battle by overwhelming support. However, because the University wished to get rid of Savio, it rejected Savio’s application for readmission in 1966 on the ground that Savio “violated campus regulations by leafleting” at a rally on campus.8 Savio was never admitted back to UC Berkeley again, but he continued to fight for human rights for the rest of his life, and his name shall stand by the FSM forever.

Even though works in the past have labeled the Free Speech Movement as primarily New Left, it is not so as UC Berkeley banned all forms of political activities and thus a large variety of groups had joined together to form a movement. As editor Robert Cohen stated, “historical moment cannot be compressed into a single meaning.”9 The FSM is a highly complex event that has different meaning for different people. The primary purpose of The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s is to document the FSM through people who have lived it and to cover every aspect of the incident so readers could understand that “the rights enjoyed by UC students in the late twentieth century did not come easily.”10 The book examines the FSM from its origin to various ideals and beliefs involved in the movement, selecting participants from all that are involved in the event, then concludes with the extend to which the FSM had influenced the society. Although the editors wished to present a complete picture of the event, bias could not be avoided. Both editors of the book genuinely extolled the FSM and supported it with enthusiasm. While Clark Kerr referred to the FSM as a “revolt of 1964” of students who lack “on-campus opportunities to oppose” the “off-campus conditions involving civil rights,”11 Robert Cohen states that “the Berkeley student rebellion [was] a memorable event, one that inspired campus activists across the country and the globe in the 1960s.”12 Unlike Kerr, who made blatant attacks against the movement, Cohen and Zelnik never once spoke of the FSM in negative terms. Instead, Cohen even straightened out the twisted images the media had construed for the FSM. In his essay in the “Thoughts About Mario Savio” section of the book, Zelnik expressed his awe of Savio who, while slowly going through school, “struggled to support his family”, and battled “ill health”, yet “none of [that] stopped him from continuing to defend affirmative action and…students’ rights.”13 Citing Savio’s hard-earned achievements, Zelnik clearly displays respect for the leader and symbol of the FSM. A bias is visible in the choice of articles as well. Of the thirty-three essays chosen for the book, only one—”Fall of 1964 at Berkeley” by Clark Kerr—is visibly hostile towards the FSM. With a single essay one can only see a portion of what the FSM was up against in the 1960s. Had there been an essay from a UC Berkeley administrator, the collection may have been slightly more balanced.

Throughout the book, one can see the influence of oral history. The only essay by Mario Savio in the book is a transcript of his speech at UC Santa Cruz. In “Dressing for the Revolution” by Kate Coleman, the entire tone of the essay is light and casual, as if the author is speaking to the reader. Throughout the essay Coleman continued to tie in the clothes she is wearing with her opinion: “wear open shoes… they breath freely. Which was, after all, what the FSM was all about.”14 Blending assertions with casual tone and words, certain articles in the book exhibit influence of the oral history historiography. Since the book was published in 2002, one can also speculate that the editors wished to reminisce positive memories after the September 11, 2001 attack. By recalling a glorious event in which freedom triumphed, the editors introduced hope and fond recollections.

The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s is a book of great importance. Never before had such a complete account of the FSM been published as a book. Having it retraced by FSM veterans brings the reader back in time as the movement participants live through history once again. It is also very interesting to see familiar names of movement leaders reappear throughout different essays. The entire book is neatly tied together by the common remembrance of Mario Savio, a truly intriguing and inspiring man. The articles spread out in a wide range of categories, covering almost all parts of the FSM, giving the reader a clear idea of the entire historic event while building “a bridge from past studies of the FSM… to future ones more thoroughly anchored in historical evidence.”15 Instead of mindlessly glorifying the FSM, the book offers different insight and “goes a long way towards dispelling some of the nostalgia.”16 Indeed, as Charles Dorn states in his review, “when scholars eventually conduct those studies, they will find The Free Speech Movement an invaluable resource.”17

However, this is not to say that the book is flawless. Assuming that the reader already knows about the event, the book does not provide a chronological account of the Free Speech Movement. The reader has to either conduct individual research or piece together the events through fragments of them inside various essays. Furthermore, as reviewer Lisa Rubens asserted, the book does not include “attention to the ethnic/racial groups that began to form in communities and on some campuses in the early sixties.”18 Just as Bettina Aptheker’s essay lamented the lack of support for women’s rights during the FSM, an article on minority races would be equally interesting. The FSM issues should look beyond the African American minority.

As the first student movement of the 1960s, the FSM inspired student protests on other campuses. The movement’s success raised awareness for students in other universities and heightened apprehension for the campus administration. Students perceived that “mass protest might become the royal road to political effectiveness” and soon sit-ins were ignited across the country.19 For the next decade, many FSM veterans found their next cause in protesting against the Vietnam War. The civil disobedience they conducted for the next decade became one of the epitomes of the sixties. The FSM prompted the rise of Ronald Reagan as well. Because the media at the time unfairly portrayed the movement protestors as communistic and cynical youths, Reagan played upon the general public’s fear of rebellious radicals by condemning the “young punks” at Berkeley.

Prior to the Free Speech Movement, people held the belief that a University was supposed to be free of political activities. As described by Professor Muscatine, “the idea was that society needed to provide a place that was free of political passions, controversy, and prejudice.”20 The notion was that a student is only in a University temporarily; political exercises should be taken to hometowns. With the arrival of the FSM, the older generation began to realize that students considered the University as a “civic home.”21 That oppression of free speech should not be tolerated anywhere. Instead of isolating itself from society or be suppressed by such obligations as a Loyalty Oath, Universities began to change its relationship to the political world.

The FSM triggered student participation in the educational system as well, with teachers “personaliz[ing] a mass institution” and students demanding “to be treated as citizens with a voice in the governance of their university.”22 The notion of school was reformed as students began to step beyond the curriculum and getting involved into participation with a broader world. Instead of passively obeying teachers all the time, students began to interact with the faculty and to make decisions for themselves. The FSM brought changes to the faculty’s teaching method, too. Teachers became increasingly democratic in distributing their opinions and knowledge.

Because of the FSM, students of universities in America today enjoy more political freedom on campus than ever before. The hierarchy in educational system is no longer as severe and evident as classes become more personal and students could have control over a school’s decision via the student government. Sproul Hall, the building where a thousand students conducted a massive sit-in before, is now a center of flourishing student political activity. As Lawrence Levine reported in her essay, “students won the right to hold rallies from Sproul Steps every weekday at noon…more important, they won a political presence they had not enjoyed before.”23 The FSM had transformed the Berkeley campus into a free haven where students enjoy the blessed privilege of the freedom of speech.

When the UC Berkeley administration, still under the shadow of McCarthyism during the fifties, issued the ban on political activity on campus, it never expected such a fervent response from such an enormous group of people whose diverse beliefs would otherwise never associate them together. Under the leadership of brilliant minds such as Mario Savio, the Free Speech Movement became the precedent for various student protests movements throughout the sixties and its legacy continued to today as UC students enjoy their freedom of speech on campus everyday.

review by Nancy Qin

  1. Cohen, Robert, and Reginald E. Zelnik. The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s. Berkeleyand Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002, 14.
  2. Cohen, Robert, and Reginald E. Zelnik, 64.
  3. Cohen, Robert, and Reginald E. Zelnik, 85.
  4. Cohen, Robert, and Reginald E. Zelnik, 283.
  5. Cohen, Robert, and Reginald E. Zelnik, 412.
  6. Cohen, Robert, and Reginald E. Zelnik, 412.
  7. Cohen, Robert, and Reginald E. Zelnik, 444.
  8. Cohen, Robert, and Reginald E. Zelnik, 469.
  9. Cohen, Robert, and Reginald E. Zelnik, 7.
  10. Cohen, Robert, and Reginald E. Zelnik, xv.
  11. Cohen, Robert, and Reginald E. Zelnik, 368.
  12. Cohen, Robert, and Reginald E. Zelnik, 1.
  13. Cohen, Robert, and Reginald E. Zelnik, 570.
  14. Cohen, Robert, and Reginald E. Zelnik, 188.
  15. Dorn, Charles “Book Reviews.” History of Education Quarterly 3 (2004). 30 May. 2006. .
  16. Rubens, Lisa Bodies Upon the Gears. Mar 2004. Online. 31 May2006. .
  17. Dorn, Charles, 2.
  18. Rubens, Lisa, 2.
  19. Cohen, Robert, and Reginald E. Zelnik, 29.
  20. Cohen, Robert, and Reginald E. Zelnik, 20.
  21. Cohen, Robert, and Reginald E. Zelnik, 21.
  22. Cohen, Robert, and Reginald E. Zelnik, 17.
  23. Cohen, Robert, and Reginald E. Zelnik, 343.

© 2006 Irvine High School

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