From the middle of September 1964 until the end of the year, followed by an armistice-like lull in January, the University of California campus at Berkeley was the scene of the largest-scale war between students and administration ever seen in the United States. It was also the scene of the largest-scale victory ever won in such a battle by students, organized as the Free Speech Movement.
It had everything in terms of American superlatives: the largest and longest mass blockade of a police operation ever seen, the biggest mobilization of police force ever set up on any campus; the biggest mass arrest ever made in California, or of students, or perhaps ever made in the country; the most massive student strike ever organized here. It was, in sum, by far the most gigantic student protest movement ever mounted in the United States on a single campus.
There must have been a reason – an equally gigantic reason. Berkeley gets the most brilliant students in California, by and large, and a good portion of the best from the rest of the country. In turn, the FSM included a good portion of the best at Berkeley.
“The real question” said the head of the university’s History Department, Professor Henry May, “is why such a large number of students – and many of them our best students, who have engaged in no prior political activity – followed the Free Speech leaders.”
A professor who thought the FSM’s sit-in tactics were “anarchy,” Roger Stanier, nevertheless admitted that the state’s governor was wrong in thinking that “the dissident students constitute a small radical fringe.” He declared, “This is simply not the case. Some of the most able, distinguished students at the university are involved in this matter.”
The chairman of the university’s Classics Department, Joseph Fontenrose, wrote to a daily paper that “The FSM leaders represent a new generation of students ... They are good students; serious, dedicated, responsible, committed to democratic ideals.”
Life magazine’s columnist Shana Alexander seemed rather surprised to report from the field that “the FSMers I met were all serious students, idealists, bright even by Berkeley’s high standards, and passionate about civil rights. Although, regrettably, they neither dress nor sound one bit like Martin Luther King, they do feel like him.” (Jan 15, 1965.)
In a survey of the FSM students who were arrested in the mass sit-in of December 3, it was found that:
Most are earnest students of considerably better than average academic standing ... Of the undergraduates arrested, nearly half (47% ) had better than 3.0 (B) averages, 71% of the graduate students had averages above 3.5 (between B and A). Comparable figures for the undergraduate and graduate student bodies as a whole, according to the Registrar’s Office, are 20% and 50%, respectively. Twenty were Phi Beta Kappa; eight were Woodrow Wilson fellows; twenty have published articles in scholarly journals; 53 were National MeAt Scholarship winners or finalists; and 260 have received other academic awards. Not only are these students among the brightest in the University, but they are also among the most advanced in their academic careers. Nearly two-thirds (64.3%) are upper-division or graduate students. (Graduate Political Scientists’ Report. [1*])
A similar result was found in a survey of student opinion made in November under the supervision of a sociology professor, Robert Somers. Of those interviewed who had a grade point average of B+ or better, nearly half (45% ) were pro- FSM, and only a tenth were anti-FSM; but of those with B or less, over a third were anti-FSM and only 15% were pro. [2*] We shall also see later that the “elite” of the graduate students, those given jobs as Teaching Assistants and Research Assistants, had a far higher proportion of commitment to the FSM than the graduate body as a whole. In terms of student quality, the higher a student stood in accomplishment or level of training, the more likely was he to be pro-FSM to one degree or another.
These are rather mind-shaking facts for those journalistic or professorial commentators whose reflex reaction to the outbreak of Berkeley’s Time of Troubles was to derogate the “trouble-makers” as “a bunch of rowdies,” “unwashed beatniks,” “forlorn crackpots” or with other profound epithets.
Perhaps more surprising to some is the fact that, in spite of some feeble efforts at McCarthy-type red-baiting – by University President Clark Kerr, by Professor Lewis Feuer, and by some local politicians – even lunatic fringe elements apparently decided that the FSM was really and truly not Communist-led. At one FSM rally the local fuehrer of Rockwell’s American Nazis held aloft a placard with the announcement “Mario Savio Is a Dupe of Communism,” which translated means that the FSM leader could not possibly be a Communist. Of course, to hand the Communist Party (which is insignificant in influence in the Bay Area) credit for a great democratic student movement would be an ultimate commentary on the self-destructiveness of the American obsession with “anti-Communism” as a substitute for politics.
A student revolt of these massive proportions is a phenomenon of national importance. It demands to be studied, analyzed, and understood, whether by students who want to go and do likewise, or by educators who want to remedy the conditions which produced it, or by observers who want to grasp what is happening to the Great Society of the sixties.
1*. This is the short title of the following document: The Berkeley Free Speech Controversy (Preliminary Report). Prepared by: A Fact-Finding Committee of Graduate Political Scientists (E. Bardach, J. Citrin, E. Eisenbach, D. Elkins, S. Ferguson, R. Jervis, E. Levine, P. Sniderman), December 13, 1964. (Mimeo.) The viewpoint of these graduate students is pro-FSM, but their work is a valuable compilation of information and data.
2*. We shall refer to this again as Somers’ November survey. He based his report, issued in January, on “a carefully drawn sample of 285 students representing the whole student body.”
Last updated on 29.8.2006