He began his impromptu speech with a quote from Book One of Aristotle’s Politics: “He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god.” He was speaking to the crowd in his stocking feet, having dutifully removed his shoes before climbing atop a police car parked on the university campus. The car was surrounded by close to a thousand students. In the back seat sat his colleague, Jack Weinberg. Weinberg had been arrested by the police for failing to identify himself while he sat at a table distributing literature in support of the local civil rights efforts of Campus CORE (Congress of Racial Equality). It was October 1, 1964. The speaker was Mario Savio. This was the beginning of the Free Speech Movement (FSM) on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. The police car blockade lasted for 32 hours.
Savio was, by all accounts, a brilliant undergraduate philosophy student. Born of a Catholic working-class Sicilian immigrant family in New York City, he had grown up in Queens. Two of his aunts were nuns. His devout mother wanted him to be a priest, a vocation he seriously considered in his youth. He graduated valedictorian from Martin Van Buren High School in 1960 and then attended Manhattan College, a small Catholic school in the Bronx, on a science scholarship. Although he excelled in physics and math, he spent most of his first year studying classical Greek authors, putting distance between himself and the dogma of the Catholic church, a dogma that raised more questions for him than the Christian Brothers at Manhattan College were able, or willing, to answer. The next year he transferred to Queens College, a public school. For all that, in the summer of 1963, after his sophomore year at Queens, he joined a group on a mission trip organized by the Cardinal Newman House to Taxco, Mexico, to build a laundry facility in the city’s slum. There he witnessed first-hand the wide and socially corrosive gap between the rich and the poor. He worried that the Church and the privileged, in turning a blind eye to the plight of the poor, were preparing the ground for a communist revolution.
While Savio labored in Mexico, his parents moved to Glendora, California. Upon his return, he applied and was accepted at UC Berkeley for his junior year, entering as a philosophy major. After arriving on campus, he soon connected with the University Friends of SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) and got involved in a tutoring program in a predominantly Black neighborhood on the west side of Berkeley. In the spring, he participated in a protest at the San Francisco Sheraton Palace Hotel over its discriminatory hiring practices. Fully qualified Black people were routinely consigned to low-wage, menial jobs largely hidden from public view. The protesters staged a sit-in in the hotel lobby. Savio was arrested for trespassing and spent the night in jail. There he learned of the Mississippi Freedom Project being planned for the upcoming summer, the summer of 1964. He immediately decided to volunteer.
The Mississippi Freedom Project was a grass-roots effort in voter education and registration among Black citizens carried out by an alliance of civil rights organizations—SNCC, CORE, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). In the early 1960s, less than 7% of eligible Black citizens in Mississippi were registered to vote. Bob Moses, an African American who grew up in Harlem and received a master’s degree in philosophy from Harvard University, coordinated the drive to register Black voters, and set up Freedom Schools for voter education. His emphasis on grass-roots organization, in contrast to charismatic leadership, greatly impressed Savio, who taught in the Freedom Schools and assisted in the voter registration efforts at Black churches and businesses.
Predictably, the Mississippi Freedom Project met with much resistance. In addition to numerous arrests, beatings, church burnings and bombings, three civil rights workers that summer—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—were killed. The three had gone to investigate the burning of Mt. Zion Methodist Church in Longdale, Mississippi, where they had intended to set up a Freedom School. On their return trip to the town of Meridian, they were arrested for an alleged traffic violation by deputy sheriff Cecil Ray Price, handed over to the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and killed. (Price himself was a member of the Klan.) Schwerner and Goodman, Jewish students from New York, were shot once in the heart. Chaney, a man of color from Meridian and a lifelong member of the Catholic church, was whipped, castrated, and shot three times. After the victims were buried at the edge of a rural pond, Price congratulated the assembled group of Klansmen led by Edgar Ray Killen, an ordained Baptist minister: “Well, boys, you’ve done a good job. You’ve struck a blow for the white man. Mississippi can be proud of you. You’ve let those agitating outsiders know where this state stands.” Savio himself was attacked on the streets of Jackson, Mississippi.
Savio returned to Berkeley in September to find that the university had invoked a ban on political speech and advocacy across campus. Bay Area civil rights protests, often organized and promoted by students, were upsetting members of the business community and raising concerns among California legislators, who held the purse strings of the University of California budget. The “Bancroft Strip,” located on the southern edge of campus, was thought to be public property and functioned as a political free speech zone for both the right and the left. University administration moved to close that platform down in September of 1964. In response, students moved their information and recruitment tables for civil-rights activities further into campus, on Sproul Plaza. Tensions escalated. The university called in the police to arrest students in violation of its policy. This set the scene for the 32-hour police car blockade.
The blockade ended when Savio and the President of the University of California system, Clark Kerr, reached a temporary agreement. Negotiations followed, but, within weeks, broke down. In essence, the students were asking for nothing more than the free exercise of their First Amendment rights. Kerr maintained that extra-curricular political discussion, debate, and advocacy on campus were somehow at odds with the aims of university education. The FSM then called for a rally on the steps of Sproul Hall, the administration building, on Wednesday afternoon, December 2. It was there that Savio gave his famous and oft-quoted “Bodies Upon the Gears” speech, which was largely a critique of what had become of university education.
In his book, The Uses of the University, Kerr characterized the university as a “knowledge industry” in service of the national economy. Savio found the industrial metaphor all too appropriate. The university, it seemed, had been converted into a massive knowledge factory, the structure of its organization resembling that of a business corporation. The Board of Regents acted like a Board of Directors, the President like a CEO; administrators were the managers, faculty the subservient employees, and students the raw materials run through a production process that would put out compliant functionaries for a Cold War economy and the administrative state.
Savio’s reaction was clear and impassioned. In the prevailing view, he claimed, “the faculty are a bunch of employees, and we’re the raw material! But we’re a bunch of raw materials that don’t mean to have any process upon us. Don’t mean to be made into any product. Don’t mean to end up being bought by some clients of the University, be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone! We’re human beings! There is 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 . . . upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop!”
The rally was immediately followed by a sit-in in Sproul Hall, bringing university administration to a grinding halt. At 3 o’clock the next morning, county deputy sheriffs, highway patrol officers, the Berkeley police, and the campus police—some 440 in all—were called in to clear the building. 800 students were arrested, hauled down to the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department, and booked. They spent the rest of the night in the Santa Rita jail.
Kerr recognized that UC Berkeley was in a state of serious crisis. He suspended classes on Monday, December 7, in order to hold a meeting open to all faculty, administrators, and students at the outdoor Greek Theater on the east side of campus. Savio asked for permission to speak but was denied. When he took to the stage anyway, he was seized by the police and unceremoniously dragged off the stage in front of the assembled university community of some fifteen thousand. The next day, outraged, the Faculty Senate came out in support of the FSM demands for free speech on campus. The vote was 824 to 115.
For his efforts in lifting university restrictions on the political content of speech, Savio was quickly labeled a left-wing radical. He was saddled with the moniker “Fidel Savio”—this on the heels of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. A San Francisco newspaper claimed that the Free Speech Movement was really about drawing “young blood for the vampire which is international Communism.” A pastor from Canoga Park wrote that “such brazen anarchy” on the university campus “could only be fostered by Communism.” The fact-challenged fearmongering fueled Ronald Reagan’s run for the Governor’s office of California in 1966, promising “to clean up the mess at Berkeley.” He won. In 1969, he sent the National Guard in to occupy the city.
As Savio’s name hit the headlines in the mid-sixties, a newspaper reporter made a call on his family’s home in southern California for a background story. He asked his father, Joseph Savio, where his son had picked up his radical ideas. Joseph said it was from a book Mario read at home. The reporter perked up in keen anticipation. This may be something of a scoop. Joseph went back in the house and retrieved the family Bible. He understood—Mario’s alienation from the institution of the Catholic church notwithstanding—that his son’s motivations had been indelibly formed by the moral teachings of the church. And his son agreed. In a Life magazine interview of 1965 he explained, “I am not a political person. My involvement in the Free Speech Movement is religious and moral.” The same held for his involvement in the civil rights movement. In Queens, still a teenager, he saw his first civil rights protest outside a Woolworth’s store. After reading the leaflet handed out on the sidewalk, he joined the picket line because, as he put it, he “felt an immediate rapport based on the justice of it.” Raised on “the basic Catholic ethical doctrine: do good and resist evil,” joining the picket line, he said, “seemed to me to be a very clear-cut, straightforward thing.” Later he reported that having witnessed the work of the Freedom Project in Mississippi as a university student, the Black struggle for equality “had a quality of, for me—and it’s hard for me to say this—sort of like God acting in history.” Despite his disaffection from official Catholic dogma, he continued to follow the social thought of contemporary Thomists like Jacques Maritain, Emmanuel Mournier, and leading contributors to Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker, especially the essays of Peter Maurin. Fritz Eichenberg, a woodcut artist, was a regular contributor the Catholic Worker as well. One of his best-known woodcuts depicts, in the spirit of Matthew 25, the figure of Christ standing in a breadline. For Savio, it conveyed the idea of “an absolute duty to embrace the rejected person.” “It’s difficult for me,” he admitted, “to even mention it . . . without choking up a little bit.”
Savio’s experience with Catholic theology and social teaching also inoculated him against the lure of Marxism. On the one hand, as a movement, it was too much like a religion. It struck him as a totalizing ideology that oversimplified reality, demanded uncritical allegiance, and at the same time provided a predicate for the abuse of power. On the other hand, it wasn’t enough like religion. In a 30-year anniversary reflection on the Free Speech Movement, he faulted Marxism for its materialism and underestimation of “the importance of spiritual values.” In addition, as he indicated from the steps of Sproul Hall in a speech on that same occasion, it seemed just wrong to him to fan the flames of class conflict—the interests of one group over against the interests of another—rather than working to build up a “community of compassion” around the common good, where “we want to relieve suffering because we feel that suffering.” On that point, before a skeptical audience, he defended the track record of the Catholic laity: “There is probably no other institution in the United States in which there is a heavier representation of righteously working-class people than in those churches, in that Church.”
The day following the Faculty Senate endorsement of the FSM demands, on December 8, 1964, Savio spoke at a victory rally in front of Sproul Hall. There he brought up a question: in this conflict over the nature of university education: who are the revolutionaries and who are the conservatives? “It’s been said that we’ve been revolutionaries and all this sort of thing. In a way that’s true. We’ve gone back to a traditional view of the university. The traditional view of the university is a community of scholars, of faculty and students, who get together with complete honesty, who bring the hard light of free inquiry to bear upon important matters in the sciences, but also in the social sciences—the question of what ought to be, not just what is. Now that traditional view of the university, that’s the one that has been attacked by the revolutionaries, by those who would make it into a kind of adjunct to industry, to the government and so forth. Really, the people—us—who fought this fight are maybe the most conservative people on campus.”
Days after the rally, in a written piece entitled “The Berkeley Knowledge Factory,” Savio said that “our conception of the university, suggested by a classical Christian formulation, is that it be in the world but not of the world.” That is: not completely accommodated to the way things are. The university was to be a place of serious cultural self-reflection and social criticism, a place where the gap between the way things are and the way they ought to be is laid bare, a place where ways to move the former in the direction of the latter are explored, a place where students are prepared to “think deeply and act justly,” one might say.
Savio’s vision for what university education ought to be, beyond professional preparation, was more than an airy idea. It found substance and detail in the “Tussman Plan.” Amid the tumultuous academic year of 1964-65, Joseph Tussman, chair of the philosophy department at UC Berkeley, proposed a small-scale experimental program for lower division undergraduate liberal arts instruction. Savio supported its adoption. What was this plan endorsed by the wild-eyed campus radical? A series of plenary lectures, small weekly seminars, and writing assignments devoted to the rigorous study of Great Books drawn from the long history of the European and American canon. It consisted of a two-year sequence: classics from Ancient Greece in the fall of the first year followed by readings from 17th century England in the spring; American writings surrounding the establishment of a constitutional order in the fall of the second year followed in the spring by a sequence devoted to contemporary American and European authors. In the course of the program, students would work through selections from Homer, Thucydides, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Plato; the King James Bible, William Shakespeare, John Milton, Thomas Hobbes, Edmund Burke, J. S. Mill; The Federalist Papers, The Constitution, key Supreme Court cases, Henry Adams, Henry David Thoreau, Alexander Meiklejohn, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Malcolm X. The periods of history selected—5th century Athens, 17th century England, 18th century America—were times of deep crisis, civil war and revolution that called forth the brightest and most penetrating minds to reflect on perennial human problems of communal life and the achievement of political order.
The aim of the program was not to produce well-rounded people or interesting conversationalists, but to prepare students for democratic citizenship—the original aim of liberal arts education. Such education, wrote Tussman, is “to fit us for the life of active membership in the democratic community; to fit us to serve, in its broadest sense, our common political vocation.” Its curriculum is designed “to prepare successive generations to carry on and develop the life of the culture, to provide for both continuity and change, for appreciation and criticism, for transmission and creation.” That was to be the signal contribution of the university to the society that sponsored it.
No doubt the reading list of the Tussman Plan, an artifact of the mid-1960’s, would be criticized today for being entirely male, overwhelmingly white, and Eurocentric in its orientation. Many would recommend the inclusion of other, typically disenfranchised voices, say, of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Frederick Douglas’s speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?,” Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, or N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn. But to alter the list is not to reject the aim of the plan. One can retain the end while adjusting the means.
After its four-year trial period between 1965 and 1969, the program was, for a variety of reasons, shut down. Some twenty years later Tussman reflected on his failed effort in educational reform. The purpose of the program was “to provide for our present crises the cultural context with which they are to be understood.” But now, “you can see that the attempt to impose the Tablets of the Law upon the worshippers of the Golden Calf is the same struggle as is involved in our attempts to make the Constitutional Covenant and the Law prevail over our hedonic impulses and narrow partialities. The failure to provide this great context is to send our students, robbed of their proper clothing, of their proper minds, naked into the jabbering world.”
The events related here occurred almost sixty years ago. Yet: voter suppression, race-based discrimination and violence, politically motivated censorship in the schools, and gratuitous red-baiting remain depressingly familiar features of our present-day situation—but arguably worse, now aggravated by segmented cable TV and social media, mainstreamed by elected officials, and fortified by the proliferation of self-styled paramilitary groups itching for civil war; and getting worse, in part because the current trend of eliminating the arts, closing down the languages, gutting the humanities departments, and reducing the liberal arts requirements in our colleges and universities systematically deprives students of the opportunity to understand the present crises at a crucial point in their civic formation. The crises intensify as the means for comprehending them are removed from our schools. The disease enters a new phase when it covers up its own symptoms. We now face the prospect of a democratic electorate that is historically ignorant, comically gullible, morally confused, and incapable of meaningful political debate.
Scholars and educators among us, consider the cultural moment. Dare we send out our students, robbed of their proper minds—to use Tussman’s words—naked into this jabbering world?
Material for this essay is based on the work of Robert Cohen, Freedom’s Orator (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); Robert Cohen and Reginald Zelnik, ed., The Free Speech Movement (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002); Howard Ball, Murder in Mississippi (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2002); Joseph Tussman, Experiment at Berkeley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), Joseph Tussman, “A Venture in Educational Reform” (1988); and film recordings of Mario Savio’s speeches now available on YouTube. Text of the speeches lightly edited for clarity. Tussman’s “Venture” essay is available on the internet. Eichenberg’s woodcuts can be viewed in Fritz Eichenberg, Works of Mercy (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1992). “Think deeply, act justly, live wholeheartedly” is the current tag line of Calvin University.