The spark that lit the 1960s campus revolt
The spark that lit the 1960s campus revolt

Fifty years ago this week, the Free Speech Movement at the University of California Berkeley reached its high point with a mass campus protest followed by an occupation of the administration building. When police moved in against protesters, the call for a student strike went out, and the campus was shut down in the coming days.

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 organisations. 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, organised 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. He talked to‘s Dan Riazanov about the making of the Free Speech Movement and the lessons it holds for today.


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 organised 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.

So the radicalisation began with the civil rights struggles of 1963 and 1964, and the Free Speech Movement further catalyzed student radicalisation in particular – not just in Berkeley, but internationally. And the antiwar movement represented a further radicalisation 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 organising 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 collaboration between the Young People’s Socialist League and the Communist Party. This helped to instil 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, symbolised 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 mobilised 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 mobilisation 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 organise 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 organising 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 behaviour 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 labour 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 organisation 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 radicalised 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 US 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 centre 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 organisation 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 favour of a student strike. They sent three people, myself being one of them, out with instructions to organise 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 organisation 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.

Today, in places like Britain and Chile and Quebec, there are established and ongoing student unions. Was there ever any talk about trying to build an undergraduate student union during the Free Speech Movement?

Not too much during the course of the Free Speech Movement, but there was toward the end of it.

The free speech movement ran from September to the big December sit-in and student strike. After that was Christmas break, and when students came back, there were exams. The new semester began in February, and there were attempts to hold mass civil rights demonstrations in Jack London Square in Oakland, just south of Berkeley. In cities like Oakland and Richmond, there was a strong, all-Black movement, which the Berkeley CORE chapter worked with.

So there was an attempt to engage in civil rights activity, with mass picket lines and so on, but it petered out, as did the organising around a kind of student-union formation. There are ups and downs in any movement, and the Free Speech Movement was no exception. After the huge struggles of December, there was a kind of letdown – lots of people want to go back to their normal lives, or at least try to assimilate the lessons of what happened.

But then the war in Vietnam escalated. In February, the US began Operation Rolling Thunder, the bombardment of North Vietnam, and massive numbers of troops began to be deployed – by the end of the year, there were already 200,000 US troops in Vietnam.

The first activities of the antiwar movement were teach-ins, and at Berkeley – because of the Free Speech Movement that came before it – you had the biggest turnout of anywhere in the country. The first teach-in was at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, which had about 1,000 or 2,000 people – when they got Berkeley, 30,000 people attended.

Next came the formation of the Vietnam Day Committee, also started in Berkeley. It began with the troop train demonstrations. Soldiers were brought by railroad to the Bay Area and shipped out to Vietnam from there – so the Vietnam Day Committee called demonstrations to try to stop the trains. This became the largest of direct-action anti-Vietnam groups in the country at this point, and it was a direct product of the radicalisation of the Free Speech Movement.

There has been an attempt to institutionalise the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley. There are official, campus-approved celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement anniversary this year, and an annual Mario Savio award is given to a local student activist. But at the same time, there’s a backlash on campuses like UC Berkeley against Palestinian rights activists. What are your thoughts on this kind of the institutionalisation of the free speech struggle?

I think it’s in the introduction to State and Revolution where Lenin talks about how there’s an attempt, after the death of revolutionaries, to turn them into harmless figures and celebrate them. I think some of that is going on here – they’re taking a mass protest movement, which represents the early stages of the radicalisation of the left of the 1960s, and turning it into a semi-establishment thing. You have a radical leader like Mario Savio turned into an icon, but with his radical content destroyed.

There is an enormous free speech fight going on in this country right now around Palestine solidarity. The case of Steven Salaita is the best-known aspect of it – he’s a professor fired because of his criticism of Israel and its war on Gaza this summer. If that wasn’t recognised at the official 50th anniversary celebration as one of the main battles going on in this country, then I think you do have something that’s becoming institutionalised.

The message of the free speech movement was against the liberal establishment of this country, which was fighting against the civil rights movement when it stepped on the toes of American capitalism. I would say that Steven Salaita is the Mario Savio of this year, and Students for Justice in Palestine are the legitimate heirs of the Berkeley struggle of 1964.

How has the role of the university under capitalism changed in the last 50 years, and has that changed the relationship between students and society, compared to what existed at the time of the Free Speech Movement?

We have to start from the enormous change between universities before the Second World War and the universities of the postwar period – the era where Clark Kerr was the theoretician of their economic and social role.

Universities before the Second World War were, for the most part, elite institutions to train and educate the ruling class. In the postwar period, with the expansion of American capitalism, universities had become institutions that created middle management and technicians for an expanding capitalist system and imperialist state.

By the mid-1960s, the University of California was doing a lot of research for the military, along with other universities, to develop the weapons of mass destruction that were used in Vietnam. I think that Kerr was one of the first theoreticians of this, and that was something that was highlighted in the Free Speech Movement.

What we’ve gotten in the last 40 years is the neoliberalisation, not just of the economy, but of the universities. I told you that when I went to school at Berkeley, tuition was affordable for working-class students if they worked 10 hours a week or worked over the summer.

The universities still produce white-collar workers for American capitalism on an even more massive scale, but it’s capitalism that has changed – it has become much more neoliberal, and with it, there is much more of a class differentiation between the 1 Percent and the 99 Percent.

I got my bachelor’s degree at the University of Chicago. In 2011, the president of the University of Chicago made $3.4 million – on par with the head of a corporation. Large numbers of university presidents and administrators make the salaries of the 1 Percent – this is in order to assure that they have the same ideological outlook as the 1 Percent.

So universities are much more institutionalised, and with the absence of a radical movement like the one that existed in the 1960s, they have been able to put in place all sorts of policies that leave graduating students today with enormous debts. They’re indebted to the corporations from the beginning, so it’s more difficult for them to resist.

The goal is to force them into a mode where they don’t step out of line, but I think the Occupy movement and the campaign around the Salaita case are the first initial steps to try to challenge this. But these are still minority movements on campuses in terms of where most people stand. Occupy was a tremendous step forward, but it didn’t leave behind any organisation or lasting power.

I think that Clark Kerr was a forerunner of what was going to occur with neoliberalisation. And the Free Speech Movement was an early rebellion against this direction. It won in the 1960s, but since then, neoliberalisation has been carried out on a much wider scale, and US politics has been dragged to the right.

Right now, there isn’t a student movement that can challenge the priorities of what has gotten to be a much, much worse situation, for students and for faculty – or at least those faculty who are adjuncts and barely scrape by, not the small layer that is paid big salaries. A class differentiation that has gone on inside the university reflects the changes in US society over the last 40 years.

What lessons should we take away from the Free Speech movement today?

The Free Speech Movement came out of the civil rights movement, which had created a small but significant layer of leftists on the campuses. It showed that, at different points in time, it’s possible for radicals to win over their generation. That’s the significance of what took place.

The Free Speech Movement acted as a catalyst for this to take place throughout the country as people got the courage and the confidence they hadn’t had before the free speech movement won. It spread across the US and internationally. Berkeley was the centre of the international student radicalisation, at least through 1968, when it shifted to Europe and took on more radical forms.

I think it’s important for people to understand that those circumstances repeat themselves, though it may be a long time between the high points. Nothing like this took place between the 1930s and the 1960s, and it hasn’t taken place for a long time now.

It was possible to break through at Berkeley because there was already a political layer that was different from all other campuses. That was why there was both a crackdown by the university and state authorities, and a successful fight against it. That political layer that came out of both activism and an ideological struggle, and that’s what we’re engaged in today – rebuilding both of those things.

Rebuilding a left means showing that struggles can break out like in Ferguson or Occupy, but also waging an ideological struggle to win people over – not just against the right wing, but against the liberal currents of American capitalism. We need to carry out an ideological struggle to create a radical cadre and a radical political culture on campuses, so when things do open up, they can lead to much bigger battles and bigger successes.

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