The spark that lit the 1960s campus revolt

December 2, 2014

Fifty years ago today, one of the most famous demonstrations of the 1960s took place: the protest and occupation of Sproul Hall at the height of the Free Speech Movement at the University of California (UC) Berkeley. This struggle was the start of the student rebellion of the late 1960s, in the U.S. and around the world.

The movement had taken off two months before when police attempted to arrest an activist for defying a ban on student groups using a campus plaza to ask for support and donations for off-campus causes, like the civil rights movement. Before the arrested activist could be taken away, students surrounded the police car. A demonstration went on continuously for the next 32 hours--with the blockaded car serving as the speakers' platform--until UC President Clark Kerr was forced to negotiate with students.

Talks continued in the following weeks, but UC officials took a hard line, threatening strict punishment for students and organizations. The pickets, protests and occupations culminated on December 2 with a huge rally that took over Sproul Hall, the headquarters of the administration. In the early morning hours, police moved in and arrested close to 800 people. A student strike, organized as the arrests were taking place, took hold in the coming days, paralyzing the campus.

Joel Geier was a central participant in the Free Speech Movement. The Independent Socialist Club he cofounded in the midst of the Berkeley struggle later became the International Socialists, and for more than two decades, he has been a member of the ISO. He talked to Dan Russell about the making of the Free Speech Movement and the lessons it holds for today. This is the first half of a two-part interview--the second can be found here.

CAN YOU start by giving an overview of the role of the Free Speech Movement in how the 1960s developed into a decade of protest and struggle?

THE FREE Speech Movement is a link in the chain that connects the Berkeley campus to the Black civil rights movement of the early 1960s and the anti-Vietnam War movement of the late 1960s.

The years 1963 and 1964 were the high point of the direct action phase of the civil rights movement, nationally as well as in Berkeley, and the Free Speech Movement broke out over a four-month period between September and December of 1964. Then, in February and March of 1965, the antiwar movement took off. The bombing of North Vietnam and the deployment of massive numbers of ground troops took place in the spring of 1965.

In Berkeley, the antiwar movement was more massive than anyplace else because of the Free Speech Movement before it. For example, the teach-in organized by the Vietnam Day Committee in late May lasted for three days at Berkeley, and 30,000 people participated in it. It began as a mass movement because of what had come before.

The Free Speech Movement on the march at UC Berkeley
The Free Speech Movement on the march at UC Berkeley (Don Kechely)

So the radicalization began with the civil rights struggles of 1963 and 1964, and the Free Speech Movement further catalyzed student radicalization in particular--not just in Berkeley, but internationally. And the antiwar movement represented a further radicalization from there.

Why did this take place at Berkeley? First of all, Berkeley wasn't the elite school then that it has become today. It was an excellent school, but the student body was mainly middle class--both lower-middle class and upper-middle class, but with more working-class than upper-class students. The upper class sent their kids to elite schools or to Stanford. Tuition at Berkeley in those days was $600 a year. In today's dollars, that's about $4,500, but it was still a school where the lower-middle class could afford to send its kids.

As I mentioned, a minority of Berkeley's 25,000 students had already become engaged in political activity through the civil rights movement, and also in organizing opposition to Sen. Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist witch hunts.

In May 1960, hundreds of mostly college students protested outside San Francisco's City Hall when McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) planned hearings there. It was the first time that HUAC had faced such mass dissent. The anti-HUAC demonstration in San Francisco was really the start of the Berkeley student movement.

Those protests were the result of a collaboration between the Young People's Socialist League and the Communist Party. This helped to instill a radical political culture on the campus, so that when the Free Speech Movement began in 1964, there were eight or nine radical political clubs on campus that defined themselves as socialist in some form or another. They had a membership between them of 200 to 300 people and a periphery of another 200 people. Plus there were a couple hundred more people who had been involved in the civil rights movement and other sorts of groups, such as the campus chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) or the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

We were a minority, to be sure, but a significant minority. We were 600 or 700 people on a campus of 25,000, but during the Free Speech Movement, we were able to win the vast majority of the campus--and really, the vast majority of our generation. We started by winning a majority during the Free Speech Movement itself, and through the anti-Vietnam War movement, the vast majority.

But let me return to the beginning and the connection with the civil rights movement during the height of its nonviolent direct action phase. This began with the success of Martin Luther King's Birmingham campaign in 1963 to challenge legal segregation in practically every aspect of civic life. You had the spectacle of mass confrontations between Black youth and the white political establishment, symbolized by Birmingham Police Chief Bull Connor--and what's more, the movement prevailed on every front in Birmingham, which is why people everywhere looked to that event.

Then came the Freedom Summer campaign in 1964 to register as many Black voters as possible in Mississippi. During that year, throughout the country, civil rights groups were cropping up, and civil rights demonstrations were taking place everywhere.

In the Bay Area, there was a large civil rights movement, primarily focused on questions of employment--in large part because of the significant presence of socialists and communists inside the movement. Practically everyone thinks of the Bay Area as a very liberal part of the country, but in 1963 and 1964, Blacks couldn't be hired in virtually any public position. They couldn't be clerks in stores, they couldn't be cashiers in supermarkets, they couldn't be salespeople in auto dealerships, they couldn't be bank tellers.

Because of the radical current inside the civil rights movement in the Bay Area, the main focus became employment and jobs for Black workers, and there were a series of militant demonstrations and sit-ins along those lines. At Mel's Drive-In, at the Sheraton Palace Hotel, at San Francisco Auto Row, at Lucky Supermarkets, hundreds of people were arrested.

The largest single component of those who were arrested were Berkeley students, who were either members of or mobilized by the Berkeley CORE chapter, which became the largest CORE chapter in the country. Its weekly meetings had 75 or 100 people at them. Six people had founded the campus CORE chapter in August or September of 1963--within the next year or two, three of those six would join the Independent Socialist Club (ISC).

The dominant group in the campus CORE chapter was the ISC, whose political line on the civil rights movement, on the Democratic Party, on American politics, became the view accepted by campus CORE members. And those campus CORE members became the cadres of the FSM.

This connection to the civil rights movement is necessary to understanding the Free Speech Movement. It wasn't just about the right of unrestricted free speech. It was about the university response to the political pressures from the capitalist establishment of California, which was trying to crack down and stop the mobilization of campus activists taking on the racist hiring practices of California corporations. It was an attempt to shut down the civil rights movement on campus that was engaging in off-campus activity that was "illegal" by holding sit-ins against the "legal" right of the employers not to hire Blacks.

So the Free Speech Movement began in reaction to the university's attempt to say that students could no longer organize around these issues on campus. Basically, the university said: You can't even raise any money to support the civil rights movement in the South. You can't do anything that supports any "illegal activity," like sit-ins or opposition to segregation in Alabama.

That's the content of "free speech" that the Free Speech Movement was about, to begin with. Plus, the right of the university to carry out what we called "double jeopardy"--that is, to impose university discipline on students who had already been arrested and sentenced by police for participating in the Bay Area civil rights actions.

For example, I was arrested at the Sheraton, in the Cadillac showroom on Auto Row, and in a number of sit-ins, and I was sentenced to jail time for it. And the university came along and said that it was going to discipline us as students--that it could suspend us.

In order to do this, the university had to ban all political activity on campus. Even though the point was to ban civil rights movement organizing on campus, the university couldn't say that--so it had to shut down all political activity, affecting even Republican student groups.

I want to make another point here. For most people who took part, the Free Speech Movement was the first political thing that they ever engaged in--so they were shocked by the behavior of the liberal establishment on campus and in the state government.

Clark Kerr, the first chancellor of UC Berkeley--who had become the president of the entire UC system by the time of the Free Speech Movement--was a liberal with labor movement credentials. He was raised a Quaker and had a social democratic background--he had been in the Student League for Industrial Democracy, which was the predecessor organization of Students for a Democratic Society.

The governor who called in the police to break up the protests and thus became the students' prime antagonist was Pat Brown, a liberal Democrat.

In other words, the Free Speech Movement was taking place in opposition to a liberal establishment, not right-wingers. And this was the first experience in political activity for many liberal students. They were shocked at how the people they had looked up to or thought highly of were treating them--and that radicalized them over the course of the movement.

This took place over the course of the Free Speech Movement, which was a mass upheaval from below, but it also took place in waves. It began with the four months from September through December in 1964, with some magnificent struggles combined with setbacks, but it continued developing from there.

The significance of the Free Speech Movement is that it won over the campus generation to radical politics. It shows that radicals could win the sympathy and the support of the bulk of their campus generation. After the Free Speech Movement, the left was no longer a small but significant minority at Berkeley. Its politics became the dominant politics of the whole generation.

And from there, the Free Speech Movement was the catalyst for the spread of radical student politics to campuses throughout the U.S. and internationally. For the next four or five years, the American student movement would be the largest and the most radical in the world--and Berkeley was at the center of it.

WHAT WAS it about the Independent Socialist Club that allowed it to play a leading role in the Free Speech Movement when there were eight or nine other left groups at Berkeley?

THE ISC was formed first at Berkeley. When it became a national organization five years later, with a number of other Independent Socialist Clubs in other parts of the country, it changed its name to the International Socialists (IS).

The ISC began the same night as the FSM did. It was a split of the left wing within the Shachtmanite movement, which was then inside the Socialist Party and its youth wing, the Young People's Socialist League. This was a continuation of the wing of American Trotskyism that had developed the idea of supporting "Neither Washington nor Moscow"--that was committed to socialism from below and an analysis of the class nature of Stalinism.

Shachtman and some of his supporters had moved to the right--they were supporting the Democratic Party and the union bureaucracy. The wing of the Shachtmanite movement that would form the ISC remained committed to the left. We had a history at Berkeley. We had already been instrumental in forming the CORE chapter, which was one of the largest political groups on campus, and winning it to our views on American politics.

The ISC was successful both because of the deep roots it had inside the civil rights movement and because of the activist and the ideological role it played on campus. It had a wide influence because of its role in CORE. Everyone in the Free Speech Movement knew that CORE and the ISC were the left wing of the movement.

There were other left-wing groups like the Young Socialist Alliance, which was affiliated with the Socialist Workers Party. But they didn't have the political influence or the cadres that we did. The two main leaders of the Free Speech Movement were Mario Savio, who had come out of SNCC and YPSL, and Jack Weinberg, who joined the ISC the night it was formed.

The ISC was an activist group--we were totally involved in every aspect of the Free Speech Movement, building it and taking part in it. But we also played an enormous ideological role. We could explain the political context and justifications for the Free Speech Movement's actions and responses better than anyone else, and so activists looked to us for those explanations.

Hal Draper was very important in this regard. He was a founder of the ISC who laid out an analysis of Clark Kerr's view of the university that we published as a pamphlet titled The Mind of Clark Kerr. That really became a bible for Free Speech Movement activists. It explained how Kerr thought the role of the university was as a "knowledge factory"--that was Kerr's term--to prepare people to be white-collar workers and middle-level managers for the corporation.

So it was very clear how Kerr envisioned the universities to be part of the American corporate establishment. We laid this out for students--that they were seen as the raw materials for this knowledge factory. In particular, Savio and Weinberg carried those views into the broader student movement. So did Hal--he spoke at many of the Free Speech Movement rallies.

So the ISC carried out an ideological struggle on the campus. It was the group that held meetings, not just on Kerr's views, but on every unfolding aspect of the Free Speech Movement struggle. Those meetings didn't just have our own speakers, but other left- wing leaders, and they discussed and oriented the movement on campus. We carried out the ideological struggle against Kerr, against the Democratic Party and Governor Brown, against the liberal establishment

For example, we exposed who the UC Regents were--the board of trustees for the university. Marvin Garson wrote a pamphlet called "The Regents" to explain to people exactly who they were--that almost all of them were leaders of the main corporations and banks and newspapers of California. We laid it out to people that the people setting the policies of the university were the leaders of California capitalism.

It was this ideological role as well as our activist role and our influence in the campus CORE that gave us the ability to play a leading role in the struggle, in collaboration--very important and critical collaboration--with other leftists and people moving toward the left inside the Free Speech Movement. Large numbers of activists didn't join us immediately, but they did so in the wake of the Free Speech Movement, a year or so afterwards.

CAN YOU talk about the role the ISC played in the student strike that came on December 3 after the mass arrest of those sitting-in in Sproul Hall? The campus movement in California today has talked about attempting to build strikes in the last five years or so, but we haven't seen anything like what happened at that point.

IT WAS important how the strike developed out of the struggle itself. Our general view was to try to win over campus opinion. Not to denounce people for not being radical enough, but to win over the bulk of the students by going through all of the aspects of what was going on and winning them politically.

We had proposed a student strike for some period of time, but the main view of the Free Speech Movement, coming out of the civil rights movement, was to engage in sit-ins. Most of these sit-ins took place with around 300 or 400 people. The last one in December was most successful, with between 700 and 800 people arrested during the occupation of Sproul Hall.

Our proposal for the strike was a way of involving not just the activists, but winning over broader layers of the campus to take part in the Free Speech Movement. The goal was to win over enough students that it would shut down classes on campus. And if not the students, then we could win over the teaching assistants to shut down the ability of the university to function.

It's important that we weren't just announcing a strike--we thought we could win students to participate.

We had been proposing this inside the Free Speech Movement in the fall of 1964 and lost the votes. But in the midst of the Free Speech Movement, graduate students formed a coordinating council that worked in collaboration with the movement. Since many of the graduate students were teaching assistants or research assistants or readers, this led to the formation of a campus union to represent them.

The union came over to the idea of a strike before the Free Speech Movement did. Then, in the middle of the December 2 occupation of Sproul Hall, the steering committee of the Free Speech Movement called a meeting and also decided in favor of a student strike. They sent three people, myself being one of them, out with instructions to organize for a student walkout. The reason I was a part of that team was that the ISC had been arguing for some time that this was the way to involve the whole campus--involve people who weren't activists and weren't prepared to engage in a sit-in and get arrested.

The strike came after the mass arrests and it was successful. It lasted for a total of three days. On the first day, around 50 percent of the students went out--by the third day, it was around 80 percent.

One reason why the strike was so successful was because of the TAs--their organization had meetings every day of the strike to discuss how it was going, with reports from every department. In the social sciences and humanities, it was 90 percent effective, with 90 percent of the TAs out. The strike also spread to math and biology and physics--though it was a failure in places like business administration and engineering.

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