“Berkeley in the sixties.” Depending on your point of view, that phrase may recall thoughts of a place and time to run toward with enthusiasm, or flee from in fear. It was a place where the traditional university curriculum gave way to the students’ pursuit of the free exchange of ideas, and was the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement of 1964.
The Movement was the event that ignited the first clash of generations in a turbulent, historic decade. Its values shaped who many in America are today, its actions the genesis of the new left and new right. Movement leaders employed tactics learned from the Civil Rights Movement of the south that ultimately resulted in the way the Vietnam war was opposed. Its members went on to become activists in the feminist movement and Vietnam era protests. A key political opponent eventually became President of the United States.
New York University historian Robert Cohen, co-editor of The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960’s, visits with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita about one of the most celebrated and culturally significant events in 20th century America.
“Free speech represents the very dignity of what a human being is That’s what marks us off from the stones and the stars. You can speak freely It is the thing that marks us as just below the angels.”
– Mario Savio, 1964
JJM Who was your childhood hero?
RC I grew up in New York City during the late sixties and early seventies, at a time when we were organizing against the war. I was heavily influenced by the Civil Rights Movement. I admired Martin Luther King when I was growing up, as well as the students in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, in particular Bob Moses. I was also very influenced by the generation of journalists who reported on the Vietnam War, and showed that our government was lying to us about the war, especially reporters such as David Halberstam. I also admired protest music and the people who made it, like Bob Dylan and Marvin Gaye. Those are the people who had the most influence over me.
JJM You really followed that into your career, didn’t you?
RC Yes. My first book, When the Old Left Was Young, is about student protest during the Great Depression, so I have always been interested in student activism. Since I grew up during the Vietnam protest era, I assumed everybody was somewhat politically active in high school. When I went to college in upstate New York, it was kind of jolt to me to find many people weren’t active in high school or even in college. It was an unusual political climate, one that was highly polarized by Vietnam.
JJM What was Berkeley like in 1960, prior to the Free Speech Movement?
RC Before the Free Speech Movement, the campus that was still trying to recover from the anti-Communist loyalty oath of McCarthyism, which led to the departure of some faculty. It really scarred the campus. At the time, there was a group of student government candidates called SLATE, who, unlike most students or government candidates who are primarily about personalities and being in that social milieu, were running on a platform that was based on a kind of dissident view. All the SLATE candidates pledged to oppose discrimination in university organizations, many of which barred non-whites and in some instances non-protestants. So there was, at least on campus through the SLATE organization, an attempt to revive a free-thinking and dissident kind of student culture on campus, but they had a hard time of it because the majority culture was the traditional “Joe College” frats and football set. Fraternities and sororities really controlled the campus.
The other thing I would say about Berkeley is that it is more than a campus. There has always been in the Bay area a kind of dissident tradition that is linked all the way back to the Waterfront Strike of the thirties. Combine that with progressive radio station KPFA and the beat poets and you have evidence of a kind of cultural radicalism in the Bay area. That helped to build the student subculture that was pro-politics, but it was still a very difficult road. SLATE would run candidates again and again for office and usually lose. The administration was always after them, trying to throw them off campus. So, it was a really a tradition of a heroic minority tied to dissent in a student world that was not very hospitable to their cause.
JJM Students for a Democratic Society leader Todd Gitlin said, “A social movement is never simply ‘about’ its object, but it is always ‘about’ the deeper identities of the participants who stoke it and shape it.” What was the typical identity of a Cal student in 1964?
RC I have to answer that question by saying there wasn’t one identity at Cal. There were competing subcultures. There was the majority culture, which was the non-activist liberal, as well as a very powerful apolitical part of the campus that was into the traditional view of college life — the fraternities, the football. The Civil Rights Movement began to create an impetus for the more political culture, and to challenge the political culture on campus. In early 1964, students became active in the movement to end racial discrimination in the Bay area, visible in protests at the Sheraton Palace Hotel, on auto row, in the Lucky grocery stores, and at the Oakland Tribune. There was quite a lot of ferment in the Bay area that was connected to the inspiration provided by the southern Civil Rights Movement.
JJM The movement gave them the opportunity to connect with the struggles of the civil rights people.
RC That’s right. Berkeley in 1964 was a predominantly white campus. There wasn’t yet affirmative action, and even though the activists were very much trying to support civil rights, it was still mostly a white campus. Thus, what the Civil Rights Movement did was provide a sort of inspirational proof that one could change society even without having power. The African Americans didn’t have power in the south, and students on the campus didn’t have power when it came to dealing with the bureaucracy there. The movement gave a sense of social purpose to students.
In that era, political advocacy was not allowed on campus. There was a strip of land just off campus that was used for political advocacy, raising money for the Civil Rights Movement and other political causes. This helped keep the students in touch with what was going on in the larger world. When the campus administration discovered that this strip of land was actually owned by the university, they cracked down on political organizing on that property. Well, you had students like Mario Savio, the leader of the Free Speech Movement, who had just come back from the south where they helped register blacks to vote, and he was not necessarily in the mood to have someone come along and tell him he couldn’t promote political advocacy on campus. He then brought the tactics learned from the Civil Rights Movement to the campus. So, to answer your original question about the identity of a Berkeley student, there was a kind of activist core of students whose work was inspiring to a larger group of sympathetic students.
Keep in mind the variety of perspectives. For example, when the activists were sitting around that police car in Sproul Plaza, preventing the arrest of activist Jack Weinberg, there was almost a riot because the fraternity set was throwing lit cigarettes in to the crowd. They were shouting, “We want the car,” in an attempt to get the demonstrators to leave. Thus on campus, there was a radical core of people, a larger liberal sympathetic group, and an anti-activist group. The Civil Rights Movement changed the dynamic between these groups, providing the activist group with a new sense of dynamism. People admired them. Mario Savio, for example, participated in the first demonstration involving civil disobedience at Berkeley in the spring of 1964 — before the fall Free Speech Movement — because he was sympathetic to the Movement, but also because he wanted to impress his girlfriend. He eventually said he was a little embarrassed by that, but on the other hand felt that when you try to create an alternative society, you do it by demonstrating that you are committed to alternative values. So, instead of trying to be a football hero or owning a big car, you demonstrate your commitment by getting arrested while protesting racial discrimination.
JJM I remember very clearly when I was a kid growing up in the Bay area that being politically active was a way to appeal to women. The old school was to be a football hero. Mario Savio and the political activists of Berkeley seemed to offer an appealing alternative.
RC What it showed is that there was a new sort of social concern going on, and people did respect you for trying to improve society, and it became a quality that people admired. It was admirable to address social problems, and to become active and take time away from your own career to help improve society was becoming more popular. Savio was someone just coming into his own, studying philosophy and physics and sciences, in the process of trying to figure out what made the world work and sorting out his feelings about it. He was not a careerist, and since it was an affluent era with few financial pressures, he had the time and the opportunity to try to figure out how to improve society, and what kind of role he could play as a contributor to it.
JJM What was his definition of free speech on college campus?
RC He thought that a student should be able to express himself freely without anybody disrupting your speech.
JJM So, what about that philosophy troubled the administrators?
RC If you asked the administration, they would say that they believed in free speech too, but they felt that what he was asking for was free advocacy. In other words, you could talk about ideas but you couldn’t advocate an off campus political activity or raise money for it. You could say, “Racism is bad,” but you couldn’t say, “Racism is bad so we are going to picket at that hotel across the Bay at 6:00 tomorrow and we want you all to come.” That was the distinction that they made, and the reason they made this distinction was basically out of fear. Number one, they were afraid of the Legislature in Sacramento, where there were many conservatives who they didn’t want to antagonize. Number two, they were afraid that these students could use their campus as a base for political advocacy, particularly advocating illegal protests which violate trespassing laws. The administration wanted to prevent the campus from becoming a base for a political operation.
Students felt that the First Amendment should not be sacrificed on campus, that you should have the same rights on campus that you have off campus. Ultimately, the Supreme Court agreed with the students more than the administration on this point. The late sixties Tinker decision resulted in a very famous phrase, “You don’t leave your constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gates.” You still have a right to express yourself on campus. The only limitation that the Free Speech Movement accepted with regard to free speech is what they called “time, place and manner” regulations. They agreed to conduct free speech in a way that does not disrupt the work of the university.
JJM University of California President Clark Kerr said, “The revolt of 1964 was basically about dissatisfactions with off campus conditions involving civil rights and the lack of on campus opportunities to expose them.” He considered it to be a student/faculty uprising. He also saw himself as being undermined by the Free Speech Movement, misunderstood and in fact, “demonized.” What is an accurate account of his role during these protests?
RC The introduction to the book is titled “The Many Meanings of the Free Speech Movement” because an event as complicated as the Free Speech Movement has many different interpretations. For Kerr, this protest was the beginning of the end of his era of liberal reform at the university. He was shortly thereafter fired by Ronald Reagan, who became governor on the plank of cleaning up the mess at Berkeley. But Clark Kerr felt that he was a pro free speech, liberal administrator, and as head of the entire University of California system, was building a great educational program. He felt that rather than exercising patience and promoting the expansion of student rights, the Free Speech Movement was radical, extreme and demanded immediate change. When they didn’t get it, they took the civil disobedience tactic that alienated the electorate in California and created a climate for Reagan, who then kicked him out. So, while I and many other historians may say that the Free Speech Movement helped to build a new left which began a tradition of student activism on campus, Kerr felt that it built the new right, the rise of Ronald Reagan, ultimately throwing mainstream liberals out of power.
JJM The irony is that, as Kerr points out, the radical left opened the door to Reagan’s conservative movement, who wound up taking over the state of California and ultimately Washington.
RC Yes, that’s right, but let me say this about Kerr. He was in Japan when these new regulations prohibiting free speech on the Bancroft Avenue strip were issued by Berkeley chancellor Edward Strong. When he returned, he expressed surprise that this decision had been made, but he didn’t overrule it, even though he knew it was a mistake. He admits that his failure to overrule the chancellor was the biggest mistake of his presidency.
JJM He called it a “blunder.”
RC Yes, and having admitted that, I don’t think he could completely blame the Free Speech Movement. It wasn’t the students’ job to take care that his administration was continued. That was his job. It may be that he didn’t want to overrule the chancellor, but there are times when the guy under you makes a big mistake like this was, and you ought to overrule him.
JJM It’s also interesting that Kerr’s philosophy in dealing with the demonstrators was more lenient than what Governor Pat Brown wanted. Brown urged him to use the campus police to remove the demonstrators who were sitting in Sproul Hall, whereas Kerr really wanted to just let it run its course.
RC Kerr wanted to negotiate a settlement, at least with the police car sit-in. There was recently a story in the San Francisco Chronicle that suggested Kerr was the subject of a secret campaign by the FBI to get him fired. Kerr was not liked by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who didn’t think Kerr was tough enough with what he called “the young punks” of the Free Speech Movement. There were people in the administration at the Berkeley campus who were more conservative and who wanted to go further with how the students were dealt with than Kerr did. I think it is true that while Kerr wanted to mediate, his first choice was not to use the police.
When people write these autobiographical things they may be trying to defend themselves. There certainly may be truth to what he says, but to me the issue is why are you in this mess to begin with? Why is the issue of police on campus even there? The issue is there because of these very archaic regulations restricting freedom of speech on campus. That should never have happened. The bottom line is that he was adhering to policies that could easily have been changed, and this issue about backing the chancellor’s bad decision turned out to be a mistake.
JJM He also created some problems with how the kids related to him by making a remark about how their movement was tainted by a Communist Party influence.
RC Yes, that was another big issue. He claimed he was misquoted when suggesting that 49% of the protestors were communists, tarring the protestors with the communist label. That infuriated the students who felt they were being “red-baited” by their own college president. The fact of the matter was that his actions around this issue led to a kind of polarization between the liberals and the radicals who felt that the liberal administration of the campus slandered them. One of the things I did in my essay about the rank and file of the movement was to look at the statements students gave to the judge, just before they being sentenced. What I found was that most of the students were really standing up for their constitutional rights, trying to protect their right to free speech, and protect their idyllic university. Most of them were not communists or socialists or radicals of any stripe, they were what we would today call moderate liberals. A lot of them were very upset, and that was one of the rationales for their joining in the big sit in at Sproul Hall, to show that this was not a movement of a few radical agitators.
JJM In fact, there was a reluctance of many of the demonstrators to engage in the act of civil disobedience, such as the sit-in.
RC Yes, these were students who had been raised to obey the law and it was difficult for many of them to break it. The thing that is impressive about those statements to the judge is that they really agonized about this. They weren’t revolutionaries out to destroy the university, and that is why it was so upsetting to see themselves stereotyped that way.
JJM What were their suggestions for alternative forms of protest? Many expressed a reluctant to demonstrate
RC Some were talking about taking part in a hunger strike, and different types of protest were discussed. Some of the protestors were adamant about clearing up the notion that they had been lured into sitting in by Mario Savio’s oratory or by Joan Baez’s music. They wanted to make it clear that this was not the case. They said they went in there because they were dedicated to the principals of free speech, not because they were lured into it by a Joan Baez concert. It was a politcal protest.
By the way, there is a sort of jazz connection in this story. Most of the press was pretty hostile to the student protestors. There were only a few in the press who weren’t. One who they really loved was the jazz critic Ralph Gleason, who wrote a very famous column called in the San Francisco Chronicle called “Tragedy at the Greek Theatre,” in which he very strongly endorsed the student protestors. Here is a short excerpt.
“In the face of a university which abandoned its nerve center to arm police, on the first university campus outside of Mississippi to be taken over by the cops, jailed by cops who removed their badges so as not to be identified, in the face of a torrent of apocalyptic outrage from the elders of the tribe who felt their positions as threatened, this generation has stood up and continued to speak plainly of truth. ‘When you go in, go in with love in your heart,’ Joan Baez said. Those words and Mario’s eloquent speech remain the only rhetoric of these ten weeks that history will remember. Literature, poetry and history are not made by the smooth jowl and a blue suit. They are made with sweat and passion and dedication to truth and honor.”
JJM Yes, because the media at the time didn’t focus so much on the issues, but on the unruly behavior of the kids.
RC In addition to “red-baiting,” there was what I would call “beatnik-baiting.” They tried to stereotype the kids as unruly and unclean. Kate Coleman’s essay in the book talks about how she was a fastidious dresser as a student during this era in part because she wanted to counter those stereotypes of the students as unkempt counter-cultural types. Although there was a little bit of a counter-culture element in the movement, this was 1964, so it was still a little early. It was not yet as it was in the late sixties, where men wore beards and long hair. In 1964, there wasn’t quite yet the full counter-culture element.
JJM In fact, Clark Kerr suggested that one of the two main themes of this Free Speech Movement is that it inspired a cultural rebellion. Do you think that the Movement led to the way the Vietnam war was protested?
RC I would say it contributed to the emergence of the sixties as an era of protest in a number of ways. One was, on the Berkeley campus specifically, that it opened up a political space for protesting other issues, because there was now the freedom to organize on campus. When the anti-war issue came up, there had already been a tradition of political organization, and what the Free Speech Movement demonstrated to those beyond Berkeley was that students and people without power — just like those in the civil rights movement — who band together on behalf of a cause, through their solidarity can win major political victories. That had a very powerful effect on the imagination of people in the sixties. It showed that you could not only be politically concerned, but you could win non-violently. Also, the general anti-authoritarianism probably contributed to the cultural ferment as well. In other words, if you break down the old structures of authority and hierarchy, that means you could challenge other aspects of it, like how you dress and how you have to conduct your life. It did plant a seed for a lot of change because people began to question their society, both politically and culturally. I don’t want to say that everything derived from these events of Berkeley of 1964, but I do think it contributed in ways that I am suggesting.
JJM How did the way that women were treated within the Free Speech Movement serve as a sort of building block for the women’s movement?
RC The Free Speech Movement, like other parts of the new left — for example the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC) and the early SDS — allowed women to participate, but did not really treat them completely as equals. Even though these movements were devoted to social change, they were still part of society, and American society in 1964 was still very much male dominated. So, while the female activists in the Free Speech Movement now reflect back on how sexist the Movement was, they didn’t always have it in their mind at the time because it hadn’t been raised until the women’s movement of the seventies. But, I see the second wave of the women’s movement in the late sixties and early seventies in part a reaction against the lack of gender equality in society, and also a lack of gender equality even within the movements attempting to change society, like SDS, SNCC and the Free Speech Movement. Many of the women who were political activists had their first experience in the Free Speech Movement, so some of the skills that they cultivated — from learning how to speak in public to leafleting — were learned in the Movement and transferred to a cause more fully devoted to gender equality. In that way I think it did contribute to the feminist movement, even though the movement itself was not free of sexism by any means.
JJM Did the Movement influence educational reform?
RC I think it did in a number of ways. It showed that big, impersonal universities needed to rethink how they were dealing with their students. Some of the discussions concerning educational reform that came out of the Free Speech Movement had to do with the students feeling as if they were computer cards, “do not bend, fold or mutilate, ” stuffed into this big, impersonal university with packed lecture halls. I think that critique made some faculty and administrators rethink the way the university had been dealing with students, particularly with undergraduates. It led to a number of reform efforts in an attempt to be more responsive to the students and not just treat them like cattle, and to seek an effective way to relate to students on a large campus. On that level it began to promote educational reform. Students, particularly student radicals, were involved in discussions regarding the setting up of alternative educational institutions. They talked about student power, student participation and ownership of their own education. Student initiated courses was another thing that came out of the Free Speech Movement.
On the other hand, part of the critique which never got fully acted on because it was so controversial had to do with this overall connection of the university and the off campus world economically. In other words, the question was raised concerning whether the university should be continuing to conduct research for the defense establishment and for private companies. Some of the reformers in the Free Speech Movement and their successors began to ask those questions. But even though they were asking those questions and protesting against these connections, they found it was much harder to do something about. If you look at this issue today, the connections between the university and the business community and the military are closer than ever, so this is one area where the Free Speech Movement and the reform movement that came out of it did not succeed.
However, you could say that there are many more places where students now at least get consulted where they did not in 1964. For example, at California a student sits on the Board of Regents, and students now sit on many university committees. That is an outgrowth of the Free Speech Movement.
JJM What were the defining moments of the Free Speech Movement?
RC There were at least three that come to mind. The first was the blockade around the police car. The police came on to campus to arrest Jack Weinberg for trying to raise money for a civil rights organization, which was in violation of the university ban on such activity. Normally, it would have been a simple procedure — the police would come and he would be arrested. But this time, things were different. You had sympathetic students who were active in the Civil Rights Movement, and who had witnessed the effectiveness of civil disobedience. They sat around that car and prevented it from moving for over a day. That really showed that something very different was taking place here. That moment is emblematic of what the sixties were all about. Think about the symbolism of it. The symbol of authority — a police car — blockaded by unarmed, peaceful students. In the midst of this, Mario Savio takes off his shoes so as not to damage the car, and climbs on top of it as if it were a podium. So there it is, a student protestor demonstrating liberty over order. What could be a more appropriate symbol of what the sixties were about than that?
Another defining moment was the occupation of Sproul Hall on December 2, 1964. It was a massive occupation, with over 1,000 people taking over the administration building of the University of California. Again, it was non-violent protest, and they took it over and were arrested demanding freedom of speech. That was a very important because it demonstrated that this was not a few radicals, but a movement of a very large coalition of mainstream students. That kind of solidarity was very important to the success of the Free Speech Movement.
A third defining moment took place at the outdoor Greek Theatre, when the administration, trying to find some alternatives to the Free Speech Movement, held a large rally designed to reach a compromise with the students rather than give them their full free speech rights. After all the administrators had spoken, Mario Savio attempts to speak, but before he could get to the podium, the police drag him away. That was an electrifying moment for the Berkeley students. The administration was attempting to show it is reasonable, and what happens when one of their protestors tries to get up? He gets dragged away by the police. Right then and there the administration was discredited before thousands of students.
The last pivotal moment I would say was Decmenber 8, when the faculty in the academic senate voted 7 – 1 in support of the students’ position, agreeing that the content of student speech should not be regulated by the university. That was an amazing thing, for the faculty to support the students rather than the administration. When they came out of that meeting, thousands of students were waiting outside, many of them in tears. They knew that the sort of oppression of the fifties was over, and that they had won their free speech rights. It was a great moment of student/faculty cooperation, a moment when they stood together and in effect governed their own university, as opposed to having professional administrators run it. I would say those are the very pivotal moments among many.
JJM What is Mario Savio’s legacy?
RC I think his legacy is that he showed that college students could be politically engaged, and could make a difference in trying to battle things like racism and standing up for free speech. He showed that it was possible for students to play a role in changing society. I must point out that there is also a negative side to that. Many people felt that the student movement was simply some kind of nihilistic revolt, and thought that any kind of protest was okay regardless of the tactics used. So, part of what Mario’s legacy on the positive side was modeling non-violent and determined protest. However, when conservative critics look at the Free Speech Movement, they may misunderstand his intent and instead see a more violent and radical history. So, in fairness I feel I need to mention that because otherwise we would think that everyone supports what the Free Speech Movement was about when in fact it has plenty of critics.
JJM I was going to ask you if you have considered writing a biography of Mario Savio, but in many ways you have here with this book.
RC At the request of Mario’s widow, Lynn Hollander Savio, I am editing his papers, so I am working on his speeches and writings. That in turn may lead to a biography. He is definitely someone who merits one.
JJM Maybe it’s inevitable that you will become his biographer?
RC Could be. He is a fascinating figure, a brilliant speaker, and somebody who was very moral and ethical. The thing about Mario, too, is that he took ideas very seriously. He wasn’t somebody who used empty rhetoric. He was a philosophy major who thought logically and clearly. If you were to tell him that you couldn’t have those tables on campus raising money for political causes, you had to explain to him why. If you didn’t have a good reason, he was going to question you about it. He was an activist who was always willing to question his own motives.
JJM I got the impression too that he wasn’t real comfortable being the Movement’s spokesman. I think he would have preferred it to be somewhat more egalitarian.
RC Yes, that is right. That came out of his experience with the Civil Rights Movement. He thought that if people wanted social change, they had to win it for themselves. They can’t have leaders do it for them. He didn’t want to be in the spotlight. By the way, he grew up with a stammer, so for him the Free Speech Movement was a pun because it was the free movement of his own speech. It happened to be that he was a great speaker, in part because the speech impediment he grew up with caused him to listen closely to the way people spoke and how they used their patterns of speech.
He had this gift for speaking, but was in conflict over how you deal with a movement where it is said all are equal when it comes to speaking, but some people are more equal than others. Consequently, there is a conflict between his own political egalitarianism, and his having all these skills and gifts. I think that tension, that he didn’t want to be in the spotlight, caused him to ultimately step down from a leading role in activism a year after the Free Speech Movement. He made a return of sorts in the nineties when he felt the gains of the sixties were being threatened by the right, and he realized his gift for oratory could be used for good things.
JJM What do you hope to achieve with this book?
RC For unknown reasons, the Free Speech Movement has been pretty much neglected by historians since the sixties. There has not really been a scholarly book on the Movement in a quarter of a century. So, we wanted to put the Movement back on the agenda of historians since we feel this is a very pivotal event in 20th century American protest, and in the history of the sixties. People tend to look back on the sixties and find only the stereotypes of drug-induced students burning down buildings. They don’t necessarily look at the decade in a serious light. What is frequently seen is a tradition on the right of looking at the sixties only to indict the people involved in such activism. Our hope is for readers to look at what the sixties were in a more serious way, and to think about the tradition of dissent in America. That is one hope for the book.
The other hope is to speak to a broader public about the value of the university, the value of freedom of speech, and the meaning of movements for social change. It is important, especially now with the crisis of war upon us, to cherish the value of freedom of speech, and voice our dissent even if the opinions may be unpopular. No view should be prevented from being spoken. No matter what situation we are in — war or peace — we should think twice about someone who is telling us that we can’t voice our opinions.
There is a quote from Diogenes at the beginning of the book that says, “The most beautiful thing in the world is the freedom of speech.” Possessing the freedom to air our opinions is not something you do just because it is tactically good for your side, but because, as Mario Savio said, “It represents the very dignity of what a human being is That is what marks us off from the stones and stars It is the thing that marks us as just below the angels.”
The Free Speech Movement:
Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960’s
Edited by Robert Cohen and Reginald Zelnik
Text of Mario Savio’s December 3, 1964 speech
“We have an autocracy which runs this university. It’s managed. We asked the following: if President Kerr actually tried to get something more liberal out of the Regents in his telephone conversation, why didn’t he make some public statement to that effect? And the answer we received — from a well-meaning liberal — was the following: He said, “Would you ever imagine the manager of a firm making a statement publicly in opposition to his board of directors?” That’s the answer! Now, I ask you to consider: if this is a firm, and if the Board of Regents are the board of directors, and if President Kerr in fact is the manager, then I’ll tell you something: the faculty are a bunch of employees, and we’re the raw material! But we’re a bunch of raw material[s] 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. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!
Now, no more talking. We’re going to march in singing “We Shall Overcome.” Slowly; there are a lot of us. Up here to the left — I didn’t mean the pun…”
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Interview took place on September 23, 2002
If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Pulitzer Prize winning author Diane McWhorter on the Civil Rights Movement.
* Photos permission University of California Press unless noted