Berkeley's Fight For Free Speech Fired Up Student Protest Movement

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.

This past week marked the 50th anniversary of the free speech movement at the campus of UC Berkeley in California. The movement launched massive sit-ins and protests that would help define a generation of student activism across the country.

NPR's Richard Gonzales explains the dispute that started over rules banning political activity at the University of California campus.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Today in Sproul Plaza, thousands of students casually stroll past scores of information tables on everything from the fossil fuel debate to voter registration. But 50 years ago, before the free speech movement, UC students were barred from distributing flyers about the major issues of the day. In 1964, it was a civil rights struggle.

LYNNE HOLLANDER: It was the passion that fueled the free speech movement.

GONZALES: Lynne Hollander was a senior at Berkeley in October 1964. She recalls that many students had spent the summer on voter registration drives in the South. Back at Berkeley, they set up information tables to tell other students about civil rights. When the administration tried to shut them down, the students were incredulous.

HOLLANDER: The tables were used to give out literature to recruit members. Nobody was interested in fighting with the administration. We had, you know, bigger fish to fry.

GONZALES: Hollander, short, spry, gray hair, is 75 now. As she gazes across Sproul Plaza, she recalls that day when a former math grad student, Jack Weinberg, arrested for distributing civil rights literature. He's thrown into a patrol car while thousands of curious students watch.

HOLLANDER: Well, somebody shouted, sit down. And students who were there to watch this happening sat down. And that police car did not go anywhere for 32 hours.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

STUDENTS: Let him go. Let him go. Let him go. Let him go.

GONZALES: As the students spontaneously chant "let him go," the free speech movement is ignited. Its leader is a mild-mannered but fiery orator who would become Lynne Hollander's husband. His name was Mario Savio.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARIO SAVIO: There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart that you can't take part, you can't even passively take part. And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels.

GONZALES: That was Savio speaking in December 1964, weeks after the initial confrontation and just before a massive sit-in led to the arrest of 800 students. A reporter described the scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: They grabbed one kid and pushed him down the steps, beating him on the back of the head with a kind of gauntlet. They're kicking them and throwing them down the stairs.

GONZALES: The confrontation proved too much for the University. The UC faculty voted to end all restrictions on political activity. The student movement, ranging from young socialists to young Republicans, was victorious.

But if the students won their battle on campus, off campus was another story. Seth Rosenfeld is the author of "Subversives," a history of that era. He says a wave of conservative reaction against the Berkeley protest lifted a rising politician named Ronald Reagan.

SETH ROSENFELD: As he was testing the waters for an entry into the governor's race in 1965, everywhere he went people asked him about what he would do about those protests at Berkeley.

GONZALES: And as Reagan announced his candidacy for governor in 1966, he blasted both the Berkeley protesters and the administrators, who he argued were coddling the disruptive students.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RONALD REAGAN: Will we allow a great University to be brought to its knees by a noisy, dissident minority? Will we meet their neurotic vulgarities with vacillation and weakness?

GONZALES: For decades, the university's administration refused to commemorate the pivotal events of 1964. But old wounds, if not healed, were soothed by time. After Mario Savio died in 1996, the steps of Sproul Hall were named for the charismatic orator. This year, the University's hosting a serious of events to commemorate the 50th anniversary with concerts, poetry readings, and lectures.

There's no doubt that many students today appreciate the activism that came before them. Freshman Marissa McConnell says it's still part of Berkeley's brand.

MARISSA MCCONNELL: Berkeley has a huge, like, history behind it. And being able to come here, it's such an honor 'cause you're walking in the footsteps of some really amazing, influential people.

GONZALES: Back in Sproul Plaza, Lynne Hollander Savio reflects on what was accomplished 50 years ago.

HOLLANDER: We gave youth in America a sense that political and social action is something that you can and should be involved in, and you have power.

GONZALES: Students burdened by debt may have less time to be politically active today, says Hollander Savio. But their freedom to protest remains. Richard Gonzales, NPR News.

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