The Berkeley Free Speech movement was one of the most important events of the 1960s. It represented the birth of the New Left. Student support for the movement was overwhelming, and the movement’s victory was total. Never again would students be as successful as they had been at Berkeley. Columbia was a stunning example of the defeat of the New Left. What was it about Berkeley that inspired the Free Speech Movement and what were the conditions that caused it to be so successful?
The Free Speech Movement occurred when Clark Kerr attempted to ban all political activity on campus. When political activity continued, the police arrested Jack Weinberg. Thousands of students surrounded the police car, and refused to let it drive off. A Free Speech Committee was formed, which included representatives from all of the affected organizations. An agreement was worked out with the administration, but when the administration attempted to go back on its part of the deal, enraged students occupied a University building. When they were forcibly cleared by policeman, students used tactics of non-violent resistance that they had learned during the civil rights movement. Faculty, student, and public sympathy for the Free Speech Movement became overwhelming, and the administration had no choice but to concede to the students demands.
When writing about the Free Speech Movement, Alexander Worst asserts, "If there was going to be a student rebellion, then certainly Berkeley, California was a logical place for it to start" (Worst 276). Clark Kerr, the administrator unfortunate enough to be in charge during this turbulent time, later said
As an avant-garde campus, Berkeley was going to be in trouble at
some point. It didn't have to be at that time over this issue. But given the
nature of San Francisco and the tradition of the Berkeley campus and what was
going on around the world, in Japan in 1960 and the movement of the blacks,
Berkeley was going to be in trouble at some time (Kerr in Worst).
What was it about San Francisco and Berkeley that caused this attitude?
Mario Savio, one of the leaders of the Free Speech Movement, wrote:
The Berkeley campus is very close to the urban problems of Oakland
and San Francisco, but not in either city. On campus it is virtually impossible
for the thoughtful to banish social problems from active consideration. Many
students find it impossible not to be in some sense engage. The shame of urban
America (just south of campus or across the bay) forces itself upon the
conscience of the community (Savio 2).
Berkeley was located right on the San Francisco Bay, only a short distance away from San Francisco (Worst 276). San Francisco had long been a haven of radicalism: "From the time of Jack London, the Bay Area has tolerated all shades of political radicalism" (Bacciocco 149). Compared to the rest of the nation, San Francisco had a relatively strong Communist presence (Unger 82). Mario Savio, called the Bay Area "one of the few places left in the United States where a history of personal involvement in radical politics was not a form of leprosy" (Savio 2).
Both Berkeley and San Francisco had been favorite hangouts of the Beat poets. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Neal Cassady all lived in Berkeley for a period (Gitlin 46). David Steigerwald described Berkeley as the "mecca of the Beats" (Steigerwald 132). When Allen Ginsberg arrived in Berkeley, he encountered, "a kaleidoscope of poets, dedicated feverishly to their work" (Worst 68). Ginsberg wrote back to New York that in Berkeley "there are a few hidden and excellent poets -- a kind of buddhist influenced post Pound post Williams classicism full of independence and humor AND gift of gab, native word-slinging" (Ginsberg in Worst 68).
Berkeley, along with Greenwich Village, had become the nation’s post-bohemian center. Described as "quick to the point of faddishness in responding to the times" (Worst 276), in the years following the Free Speech Movement, Berkeley would become home to hippies, psychedelics and acid rock. Like its neighboring San Francisco, Berkeley was no stranger to leftist movements. "FSM's [Free Speech Movement’s] appearance at Berkeley, though spontaneous, was not accidental. Leftist students had been organizing there for years" ( Steigerwald 132).
Even though Berkeley had a strong leftist presence, it was no stranger to communist repression. In an effort to squash campus communists, who were organizing at Berkeley in the 1930s, the administration banned all forms of politics (Steigerwald 132). This was the issue over which the Free Speech Movement would be fought. During the height of McCarthyism, Berkeley joined in the fray. It required a loyalty oath of its entire faculty that they were not, nor ever had been, members of the Communist party. Twenty-six members of the faculty were terminated for refusing to take the oath, an additional thirty-seven members resigned in protest; forty-seven outside scholars turned down job offers, causing fifty-five courses to be eliminated. Although the court later reinstated the faculty dismissed, the episode caused a tremendous amount of bitterness. Also put in place was a ban on Communist speakers on Berkeley’s campus. This was removed in 1963 after "a long series of student protests, rallies, polls, ASUC [student government] and club petitions, and other pressures organized against the ban after 1960 in Berkeley" (Draper 8). The ban had proven to be counter-productive, causing sympathy for the communists and increasing their off-campus audiences. The most publicized example occurred in 1963 when Communist party writer Herbert Aptheker was denied permission to speak at Berkeley after being invited by the history department to give a strictly academic talk on African-American history.
One of the first student organizations to refuse to subscribe to anti-communism was SLATE. The pre-cursor to the Berkeley New Left, SLATE was formed in 1958 and originally named Toward an Active Student Community. SLATE was a loosely structured organization of leftists which won the first student election the following year in 1959. SLATE fiercely championed Civil Rights and academic freedom, but what antagonized the administration the most was its refusal to add an anticommunist disclaimer to its charter.
The school year of 1959/1960 proved to be chaotic for Berkeley. It began when a 17 year-old student, the son of an Air Force colonel, was expelled for conducting a seven-day fast in protest of compulsory ROTC (Worst 168). Another event of consequence was the execution of Caryl Chessman on May 2, 1960. Chessman was young, came from an impoverished family, and had been in jail since 1948 for a 20 day crime spree which included 17 felonies (eight counts of robbery, four counts of kidnapping, two counts of sex perversion, one attempted robbery, one attempted rape, and one auto theft) but no murder victim. Chessman had taken advantage of his prison time to study law and generally educate himself, as well as write an autobiography. Students believed the Chessman case represented how little the courts cared for the life of a poor man. On the eve of his execution, students from all over the bay area gathered at San Quentin to hold a silent vigil through the hour of his death. It was a radicalizing experience for many (Bacciocco 25). Controversy also arouse when the Board of Regents apologized to right-wing organizations for allowing a mild criticism of the FBI in a university document. The student newspaper, the Daily Californian, wrote an editorial comparing the FBI to the Gestapo (Worst 168).
Then in May of 1960, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) came to San Francisco to question witnesses about alleged Communist party activities in the Bay Area. The traditional adult opponents of HUAC were there to emphasize the damage HUAC had done in the past, but there was also a group of student protestors. Although many of the older adult radicals were surprised to see such a large student population, they should not have been. Berkeley students were affected by HUAC since twenty-five percent of those subpoenaed by HUAC were Berkeley faculty, and even one Berkeley student was subpoenaed. Leaders of the Bay Area’s civil rights organizations were also summoned. Carl Wertherman, a reporter, classified the students who protested into four major groups: former leaders of the now inactive Student Civil Liberties Union, SLATE, Young Peoples Socialist League, and unorganized graduate students who had previously been apolitical. The changing attitudes in the graduate students showed that politics was becoming increasingly important for Berkeley students.
A picket line formed outside of city hall, but students were not allowed at the hearings. Wheeler, the Committee investigator, said, "there were about 150 passes. I issued them to individuals – to keep the Commies from stacking the meeting. We wanted some decent people in there" (Wheeler in Huberman and Prickett). After student leaders met with Berkeley Sheriff William Carberry, he agreed to let people in on a first-come first serve basis. The next day, however, the pass system was again in effect. Police Inspector Michael McGuire was admitting white-card holders (those with a pass), when he noticed a number of students filing in. He grabbed one roughly, but when the student angrily shouted, "I’ve got a white card!" McGuire let him go. McGuire seized another student, who shoved a camera into his face and hit the flash. While McGuire recovered, several students slipped into the Chambers.
The rest of the students attempted to climb the barricades and gain entrance into the hearings while those already inside disrupted the hearings by singing "The Star Spangled Banner." McGuire opened the fire hose on the demonstrators inside city hall. Witness and reporter Fred Haines described the scene:
The singing broke up into one gigantic horrified scream. People
fled past me as I ran forward, trying to see what was going on; … For the first
time I had a moment to think, to take stock of the situation … during the past
few minutes they’d dumped thousands of gallons of water inside a public
building, causing several thousand dollars worthy of damage (not counting
whatever human injury there had been). And they had accomplished nothing.
Perhaps 50 people of the 200 had fled … now they had 150 people wet, angry, and
injured, most of whom were rooted to the spot and determined to make as much
noise as ever before (Haines in Huberman and Prickett 4-5).
The students who had been knocked over by the hoses simply returned to their seats, singing "We Shall Not Be Moved." The police came in swinging their clubs wildly. Having cleared the area of most demonstrators, the police proceeded to throw those remaining down the stairs. "Bodies cascaded over the stone and blood mixed with the water" (Worst 170). Sixty-three students were arrested on May 13, 1960, a day that became known as "Black Friday" in Berkeley legend. The students were beaten, but not defeated. As a result of the publicity Black Friday received, they returned eight thousand strong the following day.
That summer, HUAC released Operation Abolition, a movie that documented the demonstrations. Operation Abolition "scrambled footage and invented facts to present the committee as the victim of a Communist-run campaign" (Gitlin 82). The film was clumsily done (including obviously fake backgrounds), overly melodramatic, and filled with verbal cliches. The film was shown on college campuses throughout the nation, but did not have the intended effect. Young people saw other young people being clubbed by policemen as they non-violently protested. Former Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) President Todd Gitlin called it "a recruiting film for a New Left that barely existed." Young people eager to become more radical came to Berkeley, and the political climate of the city went even further to the left.
The film Operation Abolition was also shown on Berkeley’s campus. After the film, SLATE turned on a record, "Sounds of Protests" as a reply. Because this violated Berkeley’s strict laws on political activity, SLATE eventually lost its status as an on-campus organization (Draper 7).
Student radicals were increasingly attracted to Berkeley and student radicalism had one important issue in the early 60s: civil rights. Civil rights had been the dominant issue on the left in northern California for some time before this, but it spread quickly to Berkeley following 1960. Students actively raised money and recruited workers for the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). There were not many African-Americans in Berkeley (although Oakland was not far away), however the students had no lack of racist targets.
In 1960, the civil rights movement hit the Bay Area when the National Student Association began picketing Woolworth and Kress, imitating the style of Southern sit-ins. At the time, NAACP and CORE numbered just over 100 people on Berkeley’s campus.
During the academic school year of 1963-64, hundreds of students picketed the racist hiring policies of local businesses. Many of these students had spent the summer in the South working as volunteers for SNCC or CORE and they returned to Berkeley energized. The first target ws the restaurant chain Mel’s Drive –In. Campus CORE refused to participate on the grounds that it was politically motivated since one of Mel’s owners was a candidate for Mayor of San Francisco, and it lacked monitors to prevent violence. Ninety-three demonstrators were arrested, 37 of whom were students at Berkeley. By November Mel’s gave in to the students’ demands and they moved on to other targets (Bacciocco 150).
By this time there were several student groups working for civil rights in Berkeley including SLATE and the recently organized W.E.B. Du Bois club which was affiliated with the Young Communists. All of these groups combined their forces in the Direct Action Committee which coordinated civil rights protests. Of these groups, only campus CORE and Friends of SNCC were technically university clubs, but the members of almost all of them were predominately students. At Lucky food stores they held "shop-ins." Students filled carts with food, unloaded them at the checkout line and left in front of shocked clerks. Lucky food stores were told the "shop-ins" would continue until African-Americans were employed at the store. The company soon gave in. The protests reached a peak in March as students picketed the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. Thousands of students showed up on three successive nights. Before the hotel signed a minority hiring agreement, 767 students were arrested (Worst 283).
Intoxicated by success, the Direct Action Committee allied itself with CORE and the NAACP. Their next attack was on car dealers along San Francisco’s "Automobile Row." Three hundred students were arrested in the protests that followed. The tactics that the Berkeley students had learned in these civil rights campaign would later be used in the Free Speech Movement.
It was during the civil rights campaign that the students made a powerful enemy: William P. Knowland. Knowland was a right-wing former supporter of Joe McCarthy. "Knowland’s redeeming quality was that, like most American right-wingers, he was a blunderer. Even when the wind is blowing their way, right-wing politicians manage to turn around when they have to spit" (Conlin 115). Knowland had a secure seat in the Senate when he bullied incumbent Republican Governor Goodwin Knight, into swapping nominations. Knowland ran for Governor while Knight ran for the Senate. It was too much for California voters and both were defeated, sweeping liberal democrats into power two years before Kennedy became president. Knowland was the editor of the Oakland Tribune and
took to railing against subversives in every corner. He was a
dependable screamer in the HUAC fracas and took one of the frankest
prosegregationist stands to be found outside the South. He smeared King and
other civil rights leaders as, at best, dupes of the Kremlin" (Conlin
Students picketed the Tribune’s office regularly.
The situation was not helped over the summer. While the student population moved increasingly Left, the California Republican Party shifted to the Right. Since World War II, California had been in the hands of liberal Republicans. The party had been gradually moving away from liberalism and in 1964 Barry Goldwater won the Republican Presidential Primary over the more liberal Nelson Rockefeller. At the same time, the control of the state party switched to conservative Republicans, followers of Ronald Reagan. "For the first time within man’s memory, the Berkeley campus became a hotbed of political activity not only by radicals but also by conservative students" (Draper 11). Various anti-Goldwater demonstrations took place, as conservative students championed the more moderate republicans: Lodge, Scranton, and Rockefeller.
At the Republican National Convention in San Francisco in July, party moderates desperately turned to Berkeley "to recruit an army of demonstrators" (Worst 284). Despite marches through San Francisco, Goldwater won, and the conservatives took power. The conservatives had always eyed Berkeley with suspicion, now after the anti-Goldwater protests, they were determined to do something about the campus.
The civil rights issue had not been dormant over the summer. The courts were still jammed with cases from the previous school year, and in June campus CORE sponsored a sit-in at the U.S. District Attorney’s office to protest inaction on the Mississippi murders. The demonstrators were removed by force. Bay Area CORE even began organizing against the Bank of America. It was during this time that the Direct Action Committee launched a picket line against Knowland’s Oakland Tribune. The timing could have been better. With the rising tide of conservatism, Knowland was not about to roll over and let the students win.
Knowland found his solution to the students. His reporters discovered that the Bancroft Strip (also known as Sproul Plaza) on which the civil rights groups did most of their recruiting, was technically on university property and therefor violated the campus-wide ban on political activity. "It was universally assumed, even by the U.C. administration, that Sproul Plaza was city property. … In fact this was not so. Sproul Plaza was university property. … But for reasons lost as irretrievably as Leviticus’s pork taboo, the university administration never interfered with political activity there" (Conlin 117).
The Oakland Tribune called for an end to political activity on Bancroft Strip. Under pressure from Knowland and the Oakland Tribune, as well as from the Bank of America, the Berkeley administration announced that the Bancroft Strip could no longer be used for political recruiting. The students had been energized in the civil rights movement and had learned the principles of non-violent confrontation, as well as how to win. And so, on October 1, 1964, when police arrested Jack Weinberg for recruiting for CORE, and two thousand students surrounded the police car, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement began.
Clark Kerr was right when he realized that Berkeley was bound to be trouble at some point given the nature of the campus. The rising radicalism within Berkeley and the growing conservatism in California was an explosive mix, and both factors provoked the Free Speech Movement. The Free Speech Movement was also a result of a radical tradition in Berkeley and the bay area, which both created and attracted student radicals. The Berkeley Free Speech Movement was a result of previously existing conditions in Berkeley and in the bay area.
Anderson, Terry. The Movement and the Sixties: Protest in America from Greensboro to Wounded Knee. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1995.
Bacciocco, Edward. The New Left in America: Reform to Revolution 1956-1970. Stanford: Hoover Institution Press. 1974.
Conlin, Joseph. The Troubles: A Jaundiced Glance Back at the Movement of the Sixties. New York: Franklin Watts. 1982.
Draper, Hal. Berkeley: The New Student Revolt. Berkeley. The Center for Socialist Studies. 1965
Gitlin, Todd. The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. New York: Bantam Books. 1987.
Steigerwald, David. The Sixties and the End of Modern America. New York: St. Martin's Press. 1995.
Unger, Irwin, Debi Unger. Turning Point: 1968. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1988.
Savio, Mario. Introduction to Berkeley: the New Student Revolt. Berkeley. The Center for Socialist Studies. 1965
Worst, Milton. Fire in the Streets: America in the 1960s. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1979.
Professor's Comments: This is a solid description of events leading up to the Free Speech Movement. Can you put it in a larger context--especially can you indicate what it has to do with the West?