This fall will mark a half-century since the Free Speech Movement (FSM) erupted on the University of California, Berkeley campus. “After decades of ambivalence, UC Berkeley is finally embracing this important part of its history,” writes longtime Bay Area newspaper columnist Martin Snapp in the summer issue of California, Berkeley’s alumni magazine.
The FSM began on September 14, 1964, when the University of California at Berkeley, under pressure from Senate Majority Leader William F. Knowland ’29, who was angered by Civil Rights sit-ins, announced that existing University regulations banning political activity on campus would be “strictly enforced.”
The resulting protests, unprecedented in scope, were the harbinger of the student power, civil liberties, and antiwar demonstrations that convulsed college campuses throughout the country for the next decade. They also triggered a voter backlash that many believe led to the election of Ronald Reagan, who campaigned on a promise to “clean up the mess at Berkeley,” as governor of California in 1966.
An FSM reunion will take place September 26–October 3, climaxing with a rally at Sproul Plaza on October 1, anniversary of the arrest of former grad student Jack Weinberg, which triggered the movement. Robert Reich, United Farm Workers founder Dolores Huerta, and FSM veterans will deliver speeches from the Sproul steps, which were officially renamed the Mario Savio Steps in 1997, after the late beloved FSM leader. Celebrations will continue throughout the fall, including a concert by Mavis Staples, a hootenanny, exhibits at the university’s Bancroft Library and the Berkeley Historical Society, documentaries at the university’s Pacific Film Archive, a political poetry night at the FSM Café on campus, freedom-of-speech symposia at the law school, and the Academic Senate’s commemoration of its historic vote in support of the student demands for free speech on December 8, 1964. And then there’s FSM: The Musical, produced by Stagebridge in association with Berkeley Repertory Theatre. This full-length musical production will have its first performance September 27, with two more performances the following day. The musical was composed by Mario Savio’s son Daniel in collaboration with two veterans of The San Francisco Mime Troupe, Joan Holden and Bruce Barthol, the original bass player in famed Berkeley ’60s band Country Joe and the Fish. Barthol sat in at Sproul Hall when he was a 16-year-old freshman.
Snapp’s article about the FSM and its upcoming commemoration at Berkeley is well worth reading, both for those whose memories stretch that far back and for those somewhat (or a lot!) younger, for whom the FSM should be an historic inspiration. It is full of fascinating quotes from FSM veterans, including from some students who opposed the movement at the time. The full article is available here: