The Berkeley Free Speech Movement, 56 Years Later

The Free Speech Movement at Berkeley was a watershed moment in 1960s student organizing. Through unprecedented mobilization, rejecting the expansion of McCarthyist-inspired rules to strangle political activities on campus, and a refusal to allow the administration's efforts to split the movement, students won their basic rights to free speech on campus.

Mario Savio, leader of the students' Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley, speaks to several thousand students before leading them in an invasion of Sproul Hall, 1964. (Peter Whitney / Getty Images)

At the beginning of the fall in 1964, a group of undergraduate and graduate students at the University of California at Berkeley began a protest against the campus administration in defense of their right to free speech. In a short time, the protest grew to involve large numbers of students supported by significant groups of faculty and staff; and by December, the movement had won its main demands: the ability to conduct political activity on the border of the campus and, even beyond that, inside the campus itself.

The movement also politicized and radicalized hundreds of students, many of whom joined the ongoing struggle of the Civil Rights Movement in Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco, and the movement against the war in Vietnam the following semester.

No one was better positioned to write about this movement than Hal Draper, then a fifty-year-old librarian at the university, who was at the center of the movement from beginning to end, and who played an extremely influential role as a political mentor for many of the leaders and student activists involved.

His widely read pamphlet “The Mind of Clark Kerr,” on Kerr, the president of the University of California system at the time, had a notable impact on the movement including Free Speech Movement (FSM) leader Mario Savio’s critique of Kerr’s view of the university as a knowledge producing factory. Draper’s Berkeley: The Student Revolt is a new edition of his writings on the history of the FSM, first published in 1965, shortly after the movement had won.

The book is a political analysis, based on a careful and methodical presentation of a political struggle, by an author who stresses the constantly changing balance of power between contending forces on the ground. He follows that dynamic in detail, from the moment the movement starts, when power rested with the campus authorities backed by enormous economic and political interests, to its end, when power had shifted to the side of the students, who obtained the support of the great majority of professors when faced with an intransigent and politically tone-deaf campus and university administration.

Draper’s history of the FSM is an example of how it is possible to develop an objective analysis that stems from a political point of view clearly favorable to the FSM. It is grounded in the politics of “Socialism from Below,” which he articulated in his “The Two Souls of Socialism,” originally published as an article in 1960, and later as a widely distributed pamphlet, espousing the view that it is the oppressed and powerless themselves that must directly undertake the struggle for their interests and for their self-emancipation, instead of expecting it from their rulers or would-be saviors.

The Berkeley students were able to win the battle for free speech with an unprecedented protest and radical mobilization going well beyond liberalism as usual. The students rejected the expansion of the 1950s McCarthyist-inspired rules to strangle political activities on campus, which the administration adopted under pressure from area businesses, local and state authorities, and eventually the rules themselves. And the thoroughly democratic FSM movement, through its growing militancy, overcame the administration’s efforts to take its initial concessions and its attempts to split the movement, taking advantage of the administration’s intransigence and political tone-deafness.

Roots of the Free Speech Movement

Draper’s account of the FSM starts with the formation of a coalition of a large number of campus political and social organizations that quickly came together to fight a series of new restrictions on campus political activity imposed by the Berkeley administration in September 1964.

This, he explains, was part of the conservative political backlash to the high level of participation of students in the militant civil rights demonstrations in Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco, focused primarily on the issue of employment discrimination against black people.

Heading this backlash were the conservative forces of the Oakland business community led by the right-wing newspaper Oakland Tribune owned and published by former Republican senator William Knowland, a strong supporter of Chinese generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.

His newspaper led a campaign against the “Berkeley Reds” who were hurting the interests of the Oakland business community, as in the case of the restaurants that were being frequently picketed in Jack London Square, Oakland’s principal tourist attraction, to force them to hire black workers.

These right-wing pressures found a strong echo among the Board of Regents at the head of the university, who were appointed by the governor of California, the majority of whom were prominent businessmen and supporters of the status quo.

The then-governor was Edmund “Pat” Brown (the father of recent governor Jerry Brown) was a liberal and free speech advocate in places where such advocacy had little chance of having practical consequences, like in the case of a speech he gave in defense of the abstract concept of free speech at the politically uninvolved Santa Clara University in 1961. However, when confronted by the FSM protest, Governor Brown adopted a hard law and order line.

Following the triangulating strategy characteristic of many liberals, Brown accommodated to the forces of the Right, putting himself forward as the defender of “law and order” for fear that he might otherwise lose electoral support to the politically conservative right-wing. (As it turned out, his accommodation to the Right was enacted to no avail and did not save him from losing his reelection campaign to Ronald Reagan in 1966, who promised to take a hard line against the protesters.)

Headed by conservative Berkeley chancellor Edward Strong and Clark Kerr, an establishment liberal technocrat, the campus authorities did not need much pressure to cave in to those outside conservative forces. Long before the fall of 1964, the campus authorities had established limits on political activity that made it close to impossible to hold a political meeting on campus, an important remnant of the McCarthyist influence on California politics of the fifties. As a result, political student organizations were forced to meet off campus in rented spaces, primarily at the nearby YMCA’s Stiles Hall.

This time, however, the campus authorities decided to go much farther in limiting political activity by taking advantage of a legal technicality — the “discovery” that part of a sidewalk was actually campus rather than city property, and thus not open to unauthorized political activity — to ban students from leafletting and staffing literature tables at the busiest campus corner at Bancroft Way and Telegraph Avenue.

Initially, the campus administration adopted a hard line, rebuffing the demands of the nascent FSM coalition to continue using the now-famous strip of sidewalk for the dissemination of political literature. Then, forced by the growing militancy of activists and support from graduate and undergraduate students that developed in response to the administration’s position, the University of California authorities and those of its Berkeley campus embarked on a series of negotiations, making concessions and then subsequently withdrawing them when they felt that the protesters had lost strength.

As Draper notes, the recalcitrant moves of the campus and university administrations were in part influenced by the growing pressure from conservative forces outside, but also by the administration’s misplaced confidence, based on their past unchallenged assumption that it could ride out student protests without much difficulty. Not surprisingly, this self-confidence led to crude and political tone-deaf responses that greatly undermined the trust the administration still retained among a section of students and faculty.

However, if the growth of the FSM was propelled by the administration’s back and forth maneuvers that progressively delegitimized its authority, it was the movement’s leadership that played a key role in building up and cementing the students’ and faculty’s support for the FSM.

As Draper shows, this leadership, constituted in the main by radical and socialist undergraduate and graduate students with considerable political experience and skills, was able to follow a clear course that avoided, on one hand, the liberal and social-democratic tendencies among the students and faculty to compromise the principal goals of the movement, and on the other hand, any ultra-leftism that may have discredited the movement in the eyes of the great majority of supporters who would have rejected any unnecessary provocation of the campus authorities unrelated to their just grievances.

As Draper notes, not only did this leadership have to contend with the university authorities, but it also had to deal with internal splits within its own ranks that were concerned not necessarily with the free speech demands themselves — primarily focused on reestablishing the right of students to freely distribute political literature on the disputed sidewalk and inside the campus itself — but the increasingly militant means that the leadership adopted as a means to pressure the arbitrary and manipulative tactics of the university authorities, which were primarily advocated by socialist and radicals in its ranks.

The most important of these potential internal splits, Draper writes, arose from initiatives undertaken by prominent Berkeley sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset. Along with leaders of the Young Democrats of America and the right-wing social-democratic Young People’s Socialist League, Lipset arranged a meeting at his house with Clark Kerr. At that meeting, Kerr urged the moderates to split from the FSM so there would be a group with whom he could negotiate. Having agreed to do so in exchange for Kerr’s promised concessions on the free speech issue, the moderates left the meeting with the understanding that Kerr would fulfill his promise.

But at a second meeting the next day with Kerr and UC vice president Earl Bolton, and the inclusion of student representatives from the conservative Young Republicans, they found out with great disillusionment that Kerr was not contemplating any concessions at all. Draper cites the indignant comment of one of the social-democratic participants after the meeting: “He wanted us to sell out without even offering anything.” (97) It was this action by Kerr, as the head of the university, that moved many of these moderate forces toward supporting the militant actions led by the movement’s leadership, which included various mass rallies, sit-ins, and the strike it called for in December 1964.

It wasn’t that the splits in the ranks of the movement vanished, notes Draper. As the movement approached its climax, when the leadership called for a strike, some individuals and groups of students were actively opposed to it. They failed to elicit any significant support even among the students who did not like the idea of or who were ambivalent about going on strike. As Draper put it:

In a dynamic conflict, there is not merely a majority and a minority: the opposition is not a homogeneous whole. A section may be neutralized, dropping opposition altogether, without coming over to the active side. Another section, while remaining in opposition, may be so infected by uncertainty — so tacitly impressed by the appeal of the position which it formally opposes — that its opposition is enervated in practice. Just as a given force exercises a leverage proportional to its distance from the fulcrum, so a fighting force exercises a leverage in conflict which is proportional not simply to its numbers but also to the strength of its convictions and the firmness of its followers. (131)

That was the correlation of forces that, as Draper describes it, ended up moving the faculty, which had initially occupied the middle, moderating position in the conflict, toward supporting the FSM. Thus, while about two hundred faculty members had initially supported the movement in the fall, by December, in the face of the massive student strike, the faculty senate adopted a resolution clearly favorable to the demands of the student movement with a resounding vote of 824 to 115, and therefore implicitly endorsed the student strike.

But Draper notes that, in contrast with the increasingly militant and politically radicalized student body, the victory of the FSM faculty sympathizers was merely conjunctural. That is, it did not reflect an actual radicalization of the faculty body. This was indicated by the results of an election called by the faculty senate to form an Emergency Executive Committee. To deal with “problems arising out of the present crisis,” a majority of the “moderates” who had not been members of the group of two hundred ended up being elected. (152)

In the end, the FSM won all of its most important free speech demands, making it possible for registered student organizations to meet not only on the disputed stretch of sidewalk but anywhere on campus, and to hold political events free of charge and subject only to relatively minimal limitations. Moreover, FSM graduate activists formed one of the very first teaching and research assistant unions in the country (AFT Local 1570), of which I was a founding member as a graduate research assistant at Berkeley at the time.

And, for the first time ever at the Berkeley campus, a slate composed of FSM undergraduate activists won the elections to the formally established Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC), from which the graduate students had been barred years earlier by the administration who saw their disenfranchisement as a way to limit left-wing influence in the organization.

Given those wins, and the thousands of students that became involved in the movement (including some eight hundred who were arrested at a sit-in at Sproul Hall, the administration building), Hal Draper may legitimately claim, as he does in his book, that the FSM “was probably the mightiest and most successful single effort of any kind ever made by an American student body in conflict with authority.” (135–36)

Its effects were even felt after it was over: the radicalization of hundreds of students, and their defeat of the university administration, fed into the growth and development of the radical movement against the war in Vietnam that took off in the Bay Area during the following semester in the spring of 1965.

The Turn Toward Radicalism at Berkeley

When I arrived on campus in the fall of 1963 to join the Sociology Department as a new graduate student, there were only about two hundred active student militants campus-wide. Being a relatively small number, I got to know most of them by sight, if not by name, as I began to participate in the civil rights rallies, demonstrations, and leafletting on the later disputed sidewalk on Bancroft and Telegraph. By the end of the fall of 1964, however, I was no longer able to recognize most of them; their number had probably multiplied by a factor of ten.

A similar process took place at the more immediate level of my department, where I started as one of only a dozen or so radical, socialist, and politically active graduate students, and ended surrounded by a significantly larger number of them as a result of the Free Speech Movement and the related debates and events organized by the Graduate Sociology Club throughout the fall of 1964.

I also witnessed how many moderate students in my department, who had earlier in the semester resisted and actively debated against the initiatives and proposals of the radicals, became radicalized under the impact of events and came over to our side.

This is why contemporary interpretations of the FSM, such as Robert Cohen’s book The Free Speech Movement, that posit the movement as a fundamentally liberal movement in pursuit of a liberal goal, are mistaken. This might have been the case at the beginning of the 1964 fall semester, when the protest started. But as the fight with the authorities unfolded, hundreds of FSM activists became radicalized as they turned to increasingly militant actions that went way beyond the boundaries of campus legality.

This included civil disobedience to resist the police, and radical questioning of the politics of the Berkeley campus, the university authorities, the Regents of the University, and the powerful business interests opposing the student movement and the fight for civil rights that brought it about. After having started as a movement composed of mostly liberal students, by the end of the semester in 1964 it had turned into a radical democratic movement that went way beyond the politics and methods of American liberalism.

To be sure, this movement was led from the beginning mostly by radicals and socialists who, like Mario Savio, acquired their political skills in other struggles, such as the Civil Rights Movement, in the years preceding the FSM. In particular, Savio and many others had recently become radicalized by their experiences in the Mississippi Freedom Summer movement, which occurred during the summer vacation preceding the fall of 1964.

At the head of a very democratic FSM federation of groups, these experienced leaders, through their many rallies, leaflets, and informal discussions in classes and other school activities, successfully persuaded and exhorted the students to take increasingly radical actions.

Like other interpreters of the FSM, Cohen also underestimates the key role played by socialists of various tendencies in the movement. Unlike the rest of American campuses, where the radical Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) had become the predominant left organization by the mid-sixties, the presence of the organized left on the Berkeley campus was predominantly socialist. The Berkeley SDS played a very minor role during the FSM, and mostly as SDS members’ individual activity, not as the activity of an organized group.

Three socialist groups comprised the organized left’s presence there. One was the Independent Socialist Club (International Socialists, or IS after 1969) under the ideological leadership of Hal Draper. It had a left-socialist “Third Camp” revolutionary politics that was historically rooted in the Trotskyist movement, but from which it had deviated from almost twenty-five years earlier when it adopted the view that the USSR was a new form of class society rather than a “degenerated workers’ state,” as Trotsky had maintained.

The second socialist group was the Young Socialist Alliance, the youth group of the “orthodox” Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party. The third group was the W. E. B. Du Bois Club with close ties to the American Communist Party. Together, these three groups had approximately a hundred active student members.

Although many of them were young and still politically inexperienced, they were organized and led by a highly politically experienced cadre in each of those groups. Leaders of these three groups also became leaders of the FSM, and were joined by other leaders, such as Mario Savio, who were also socialists although not affiliated with any of the three groups. Thus, the political weight of the FSM leaders who were socialists, whether organized or unorganized as such, was critical in determining the militancy, tactical experience, and shrewdness of the movement.

Cohen pays even less attention to the numerous students — mostly graduate students working on their master’s and PhD degrees — who, like Savio, were not members of any of the three organized socialist groups on campus, but were nevertheless politically experienced socialists. These students were very active in the movement and played important roles in the FSM as activist cadres and organizers, particularly in academic departments such as sociology, history, and mathematics, as well as in the newly founded AFT local and the antiwar movement that grew dramatically on campus beginning in the spring of 1965.

They, along with many of the undergraduate and especially graduate students that belonged to the three socialist groups, had deliberately come to Berkeley because of its political reputation, in addition to its academic reputation and generous funding provided by the state and federal government, and numerous foundations, at a time when public higher education was booming in California and elsewhere. In the 1960s, the Berkeley combination of radical and socialist politics, high academic standing, plentiful financial support, and excellent climate were hard to resist.

There were other factors that contributed to make Berkeley a pole of attraction in the 1960s. At the time, the great majority of Berkeley undergraduate students came from California, while the graduate students came from elsewhere throughout the United States and from many countries abroad. Undergraduate admission was limited to those who had obtained an average of B+ or higher in high school; however, tuition for both undergraduate and graduate students was very low for those with California residency (which US citizens and immigrants to the US holding “green cards” could acquire within one year of living in the state). This made Berkeley accessible to undergraduate students of working-class and lower middle-class background (at the time, most graduate students were financed through fellowships, or teaching and research assistantships).

Since Berkeley had not yet become gentrified, the great majority of students, both undergraduate and graduate, lived within walking distance of campus, paying relatively moderate rents and surrounded by a dense network of cafes, bookstores, food, and residential co-ops. A couple of years later there was also a radical weekly newspaper, the Barb, primarily oriented toward the campus community, all of which greatly facilitated communications for and the organization of the student movement.

For example, I was part of a “telephone tree” that informed me of emergency actions organized by the FSM. Since I lived only seven blocks from campus, I could show up in a very short time, as was the case with thousands of other students.

To be sure, there were major holes in the radical Berkeley universe. As was generally the case with higher education in California and in the rest of the United States, except for many community colleges, it had an almost lily-white composition in its faculty and student body — with the important exception of a significant number of Japanese-American students who were the children of those who had been interned in camps during World War II, and thus constituted the third or “Sansei” generation of that group.

Neither the substance nor the term “affirmative action” was widely known yet, although I was an active member of the campus chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) that had begun to organize student actions based on that notion in 1963 and 1964, forming student committees (of which I was part) to visit Berkeley and Oakland stores to ask them to sign agreements pledging to hire one black worker for every two hires. The unspoken understanding was that they would be picketed if they did not sign or failed to comply with their pledge. Thus, we were practitioners of “affirmative action” politics (in fact, quotas) even before we knew the term itself.

For some FSM leaders, like Michael Rossman, it was not primarily politics, but discontent and alienation from Berkeley’s educational practices at the undergraduate level that inspired and fueled the FSM movement. The student alienation that Rossman talked about was real. Much of Berkeley’s undergraduate education, at least in the humanities and social sciences, took form as large, impersonal lectures.

Except for some stars like Carl Schorske in the History Department, many of the famous professors, who were the magnets of attraction for many students, were frequently unavailable to teach and left the teaching to unknown faculty members. Smaller discussion sections usually accompanied large classes but were handled by graduate students acting as teaching assistants (TAs), usually only slightly older than the undergraduates.

Students also had to contend with a suffocating administration. At the time, Berkeley had close to thirty thousand students, and well over a thousand faculty members and an even larger number of staff. All of them were under a correspondingly large bureaucracy, often very frustrating and difficult to navigate. There were many papers to fill out and the processes were so convoluted that it was often hard to discern who was in charge of what.

This bureaucratic reality lent itself to student criticism and scorn, which was expressed with the popular slogan “Do Not Fold, Spindle, or Mutilate” [the students], which satirized the instructions students were requested to follow when punching their personal and academic information into rectangular cards, a key feature of the IBM technology used for administrative purposes at the time.

However, Draper counters Rossman by citing the conclusions of two surveys conducted at the time by Prof. Robert Somers from the Sociology Department. These surveys showed that although there might have been a latent dissatisfaction with the quality of education provided by the university, it was the students’ anger at having been deprived of their right to political activity that clearly motivated their participation in the FSM. (179–180)

The FSM and the New Left

Notwithstanding the important role socialists of all kinds played in the FSM, only a minority of student FSM activists could be considered, or considered themselves to be, socialists. But the leadership encompassed a larger proportion of socialists. As Draper accurately describes, the nonsocialist activists and leaders were, for the most part, newly politicized, issue-oriented radicals reluctant to make connections between various issues to adopt an all-encompassing view of society. This was what they saw as a “pragmatic” nonideological approach.

To illustrate this approach, Draper cites one student radical who describes his politics as the sum total of the positions he had adopted on a number of discrete issues such as civil rights and the war on Vietnam. (184) In his excellent analysis and discussion of this new radicalism, Draper notes that, rather than rejecting ideology and theory as such, this “pragmatic” radicalism specifically spurned “old” ideologies and radical theories like communism and, though to a much lesser extent, social democracy. (184–87)

He adds that this happened as a reaction to “the failure of all previous wings of American radicalism to become mass movements,” (185) particularly among the many radical students raised in formerly communist homes. This is the kernel of what became labeled the “New Left.”

For these New Leftists, rejecting communist ideology without falling into the rut of establishment anti-communism was to reject their parents’ ideology — not because it was communist, but because it was ideology. Their nonideological position also resolved their concern that ideological differences might impair the unity of the movement.

And in fact, the FSM, which was originally established as a coalition of organizations, avoided drawing too many broad conclusions about what it was doing, and so it was left to socialist groups like the ISC to take on that task. On the other hand, this limited and constrained the political development of the movement (in the sense of connecting itself to other ongoing struggles), and narrowed its scope. Thus, as Draper sums it up, “the FSM could play an action role, but not an ideological role.” (186)

My experience in the FSM influenced my political development as I lived and witnessed the politicization and radicalization of students, campus staff, and even some faculty members through their experiences in the struggle against the administration and against the police unleashed on us by Democratic governor Pat Brown.

I learned in practice that, unlike leftists who think people are more likely to fight and revolt when they have been defeated and ground into the dust, winning — and especially winning big — empowers people, raises their expectations, and wets their political appetite. Defeat, on the other hand — and there were temporary defeats in the course of this struggle — tends to demoralize people, limit their expectations, and encourages them to want to conserve what they have instead of striving to emancipate themselves and expand their political power.