A Tribute to Mario Savio and the FSM

Against the Current, No. 66, January/February 1997

Mike Parker

“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 tacitly take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears, upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus 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.-Mario Savio prior to FSM sit-in, December 2, 1964

WE TEND TO remember our own history by flashy events and significant people.  Media coverage magnifies this distortion many times.  Even still, the 1964 Free Speech Movement (FSM) in Berkeley, California certainly was a critical marker in the student and radical movements of the 1960s.

Mario Savio symbolized the FSM. He died on November 6 following a heart attack.

“Was Mario a media creation?” an insightful San Francisco reporter asked me. A good question, since I could think of too many “’60s leaders” who represented much less than their press coverage.  But Mario was both a genuine leader and a symbol, because he reflected what was best in the movement he led.

Savio’s Place in the FSM Leadership

Mario emerged as an undisputed leader in a movement which had a complex and often negative view of leadership.

The FSM executive committee consisted of two representatives from each campus group, ranging from revolutionary left groups to Campus Republicans for Goldwater to non-political religious groups, plus delegates from the unaffiliated and from a graduate student organization.  The committee met for extended meetings, sometimes daily, and made the real policy of the FSM.

The FSM steering committee elected from this group made decisions between meetings of the executive committee.  The lengthy meetings and seemingly unwieldy structure turned out to be an extremely important part of establishing the legitimacy of the leadership of this body over a broad university community.

When the FSM first formed, the issue was over narrow university regulations regarding the use of university facilities affecting a small minority.  The FSM responded to and created change at a blurring pace. Within two months the issue had grown to one of deepest principle, affecting the entire student body, unleashing the hopes and actively involving many thousands, and bringing into question the role of major social institutions.

The cause attracted countless talented leaders both off and on the committees.  The movement tapped commitment and latent abilities and brought out the best in people.  Leaflet central took care of getting publications out; telephone central took care of phone banking; fundraising committees sprang to life.

Somehow the sound system almost always showed up at the right time. Fast and selfless volunteer action quickly overcame the few glitches.  These were leadership jobs. People took initiative, and motivated others and organized them to accomplish amazing feats.

The atmosphere was one of activist democracy.  The FSM did not designate an overall leader.  Much was accomplished simply by individual or group initiative interpreting votes of the leading committees, disciplined by a common conception of and commitment to a larger movement.

The leading committees would designate different people for different tasks at different times.  Wherever possible, delegations-not individuals-represented the FSM in negotiations and presentations.  Wherever possible, questions would be brought back to the Steering and Executive committees for decision.  It was our conception of democracy, and it was necessary to maintain the broad coalition.

Many people far more experienced in organization and politics than Mario were assertive leaders on the FSM executive committee and frequently carried that body. Jack Weinberg was generally recognized for his leadership in determining strategy and tactics.  Yet in this group of dedicated leaders, Mario Savio became the chief external leader and spokesperson.

Mario’s job was no easy one. In this battle for the hearts and minds of the Berkeley Campus, the administration, defending the status quo with mild reforms, had everything on their side. The chief administrators were liberals-not reactionaries-who won awards for defense of academic freedom, had opposed McCarthyism, and joined the ACLU.

They were skilled negotiators and administrators.  They had an army of liberal professors to make pronouncements about agreeing with our goals but warning that we did not really understand subtleties and that our methods were counter- productive.  In addition, looking out for our interests to be sure, they “warned us” that we were risking our careers.

The media dutifully played their part by reporting absurdities as scientific fact (example: quoting administration charges about “49% Mao-Marxist” leadership).  And the media never stopped reminding us that this so- informed “tax paying public” demanded that we be chopped off at the knees or shipped back to Russia.

Since the forces were so one-sided, all the administration had to do to win was provide some confusion and wait us out. Yet, we won. Twenty years later Mario expressed our feelings: “Through two decades of some joy, but marked with much sadness and personal tragedy, it has remained for me a brilliant moment when, as a friend put it, we were `both moral and successful.'”

One reason we won was because the liberal leaders served other interests, forcing them into numerous mistakes and glaring contradictions.  But to draw the lessons from these, we had to provide an alternative framework.

In the ideological battle against Goliath, Mario had a lot of crucial assistance (see note at the end).  But if Mario stood on the shoulders of others he stood tall above them. He came up with the formulations that focused the sentiment and direction.

His metaphors drew on his range of knowledge and intense interest in ideas and logic.  He was able to combine with his precise words deeply held feelings from his own immediate experiences.

The Education of Mario Savio

Unlike most of the student body, Mario came from a working- class family.  In 1963 Mario was part of a school-building project in Mexico.  During the school year he had been arrested as a participant in a series of demonstrations to end hiring discrimination by San Francisco area hotels.

In the summer of 1964 Mario was a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) volunteer in Mississippi-the same projects which saw the murder of SNCC workers Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner, the registration of tens of thousands of voters, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and its betrayal at the Democratic Party convention.

When he returned to the Berkeley campus that fall Mario’s commitment to the civil rights struggle specifically and democratic struggles in general had deepened.  He was also looking at implications for the society as a whole.  He had a heavily religious background that clearly influenced many of his views about personal sacrifice and obligation.

Mario attended a founding meeting of the Independent Socialist Club (a predecessor to Solidarity) and was considering joining when the FSM story began.  His anger that the institutions of ideas and learning were at the service of the oppressors and defended by a hypocritical liberalism was real and deep-felt.  So also was his conviction that we were all obligated to stand up against injustice.

The Public-and Private-Savio

In one sense his public persona was the “creation” of the movement.  He stuttered severely in private but in speaking to and for the movement he spoke both eloquently and fluently.  Mario’s conversational speaking method-which, by taking the audience through his own experiences, his own logic, and his own feelings (“Can you believe that?”), made thousands feel like they were also part of the process-conveyed that his experience and feelings were just more intense versions of theirs.

It went far beyond style.  Mario believed and lived what he said and his listeners knew it. The bond between Mario and the crowds was one reason that the administration’s attempt to pick-off leaders, more than anything else, unified and galvanized the student body.

As much as he loved articulating the ideas of the movement, he was genuinely uncomfortable with his position as celebrity.  He opposed the personality-cult politics that was growing in the left at the time and tried to resist attempts by both followers and media to put him on a pedestal.  But he also understood that he was a leader and that his words and actions had an effect on others.

During the FSM, he (as most FSM leaders) would sometimes agonize that an error in judgment or his words might cause harm to those who followed.  Mario was a brilliant leader because he was careful to lay out the principles and choices before you. To follow Mario was to make your own choice, to know what you were doing and take responsibility for yourself.

Mario did his best to push others forward.  For an interview with the prominent “New York Times” writer A.H. Raskin, Mario showed up with a group of FSM leaders and insisted that they be interviewed equally.  (The article came out subtitled “Mr. Kerr vs. Mr. Savio & Co.”) He also felt that his leadership imposed restrictions on his own behavior.  Some months after the FSM he said he could not consider joining the Independent Socialist Club because it would feed into the red-baiting by the enemies of the FSM.

In the years to follow he tried to find roles in politics that fit. In 1968 he was the California Peace and Freedom Party State Senate candidate.  The base of the P&F politics grew from the anti-war and Black power movements.  Mario’s idea was to use his campaign to connect to the needs and aspirations of white working people whom mainstream liberalism had increasingly alienated.  Unfortunately a combination of Mario’s personal problems and collapse of the P&F party prevented what might have been an important model of left politics.

The qualities that served him so well in mass movements sometimes came across as arrogance in personal relations and may well have contributed to his personal burdens.  Both he and family members had medical problems to cope with.

The `70s were apparently a very hard time for Mario.  He seemed to pull his life back together again in the `80s.  He applied his brilliance, intensity, and commitment to principle to other intellectual areas.  He went back to school in physics (his original love) for his bachelor’s and master’s degree (1989) and awed and won the respect of the San Francisco State University physics department.  (See www.physics.sfsu.edu for a moving insight.)

As far as I know, his politics remained consistent throughout his adult life. In a 1988 speech at his son’s graduation, he described himself: “I never could become a thorough-going Marxist.  But a Socialist of sorts, a gentle Socialist, I became, and remain.”

During the last years of his life he taught logic and math at Sonoma State University.  He also returned to political activity, campaigning against the 1994 California ballot proposition that attacked illegal immigrants.  He was more intensely involved in organizing college communities to fight the 1996 so-called Civil Rights Initiative that scraps affirmative action programs and in a campaign against tuition increases.

Throughout his life Mario turned aside possibilities to use his stature as FSM leader for self promotion and aggrandizement.  He remained true to his beliefs and principles.  To my knowledge no one was ever ashamed to follow Mario in politics.  As our symbol and spokesperson he made us proud to be part of the movement ever since that first day on the police car.

Thanks, Mario.

Memorials for Mario were held December 8 in Berkeley and New York For more about Mario Savio go to the Internet www.hooked.net/~anya. The best reading on the Free Speech Movement remains Hal Draper, “Berkeley: The New Student Revolt,” introduction by Mario Savio, Grove Press, 1965.

A Brief History of the Free Speech Movement

THE 1964 UNIVERSITY of California rules governing student activities are so restrictive that virtually all student groups avoid them by operating “off-campus.”  On a narrow strip at the south campus entrance thought to be Berkeley public property, in the midst of a crowded pedestrian stream, groups conduct small rallies, fund raising, literature tables, and recruitment for activities.

The most active during the 1964 summer are moderate Young Republicans mobilizing against Goldwater at the Republican Convention and civil rights activists engaged in a variety of demonstrations and sit-ins in the surrounding community.

In September 1964, under pressure from the conservative publisher of the “Oakland Tribune”, the university notifies student groups that this narrow strip of land is actually university property and henceforth all university restrictions apply.  Student political groups form a united front to negotiate with the University and get the area restored.  The university modifies the regulations to allow activities except those organizing for off-campus social action-militant civil rights demonstrations.

The united front decides that if we are illegal at the edge of campus, we may as well be illegal in more convenient parts of campus with greater visibility and less restriction of pedestrian traffic.  The university cites five students for staffing tables against the rules on September 30.  Over 500 students sign a statement of complicity and request for equal punishment and accompany the five to disciplinary hearings.

Late that night the Chancellor announces indefinite suspensions for the original five plus three leaders of the complicity action (including Mario Savio).  The next day, the person behind the table of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the organization that led most of the local militant civil rights demonstrations, refuses to leave or identify himself to university officials.

The university police arrested him and Jack Weinberg-a math graduate student, who had taken time off from his studies to be active with CORE-went limp. They brought a campus police car into the middle of the plaza to remove Jack. Hundreds of students sat down and kept the car captive for 32 hours listening to speakers using the car as the platform.  With police massed for an attack, a delegation of students, including Mario reach an agreement with Administrators: Administration-faculty-student committees will look into the rules and the discipline.  The university will not press charges against Weinberg.

The next day the united front reorganizes itself as the Free Speech Movement.  The Student Government, the editors of the Campus newspaper and most of the faculty take firm stands against the FSM (“its methods-not its goals”).  The tone becomes clear early when we find out that although the university is not pressing charges against Weinberg, the District Attorney is.

Two months of complex negotiations, organization, and demonstrations follow.  The FSM taps into deep student idealism combined with alienation and grievances about university paternalism and bureaucracy.  At the same time, under heavy pressure from liberal faculty, and in the name of reasonable compromise, the FSM gets mired in deeper technicalities of procedures to regulate penalties for on- campus advocacy of what may be illegal direct action off- campus.

“No Restrictions”

In early November, the committee charged with recommending rules-changes seems to reach impasse; FSM resumes tables; the university disbands the committee.  The FSM develops its “radical” position: there should be no university restrictions of speech or advocacy on campus.  If something is illegal then it should be handled by legal institutions.  “No prior censorship.”  “No double jeopardy.”

The outcome of the November 20 University Regents meeting appears to be as far as we are going to get: a further liberalization of the rules and some light penalties.  Thanksgiving, academic quarter finals, and Christmas break are looming.  The weather is getting bad for outside rallies and tables.  The FSM is badly divided over how to proceed.

Some FSM leaders talk about disbanding, a small minority propose a provocative action to force an escalation.  They are soundly defeated but the future course is unclear.  Just when most people think it is all over, during the Thanksgiving break, four FSM leaders receive letters announcing that they are being brought up on disciplinary charges from actions two months earlier.

The apparent betrayal by administrators of the great university compromise and the use of the now discredited tactic of trying to pick off the leaders, galvanizes far more than the hard core of the movement.  (It was later clear that the Regents’ compromise had included the proposed new discipline.) Graduate Students vote for a strike to begin December 4.

Stopping the Machine

On December 2, over 1200 sit in at the Sproul Hall following a moving speech by Mario Savio and “We Shall Overcome” led by Joan Baez. Despite words of “stopping the machine” the actual policy is to leave aisles and offices unblocked.  Although liberal administrators and faculty were urging a policy of waiting out the students, after midnight liberal California Governor Pat Brown orders mass arrests.

The arrests of the 800 who refuse to leave drag well into the day and the spectacle assists in making the campus strike exceptionally effective.  The strike is scheduled to go until December 8 when the Faculty Senate will meet.

The administration announces cancellation of classes and a university-wide convocation on December 7 to hear university President Clark Kerr make a new compromise gesture and bring the community back together.  Over the weekend the administration works feverishly with leading faculty to line up support.

On December 7, at the University Greek Theatre, Kerr “accepts” the proposal of the Department Chairpeople: liberalized rules, faculty committee interpretation, no university discipline for any events up to now (civil court judgment would determine the total punishment).  The concessions, the “reasonableness,” and the intense desire to return to normal pursuits might have been enough for all concerned but …

As the meeting is concluding Savio mounts the stage at the far end. When Kerr finishes, the chair announces the meeting is adjourned.  Mario calmly walks to the podium and prepares to speak when two police rush him from behind.  One had his arm around Mario’s neck as they drag him off in front of an estimated 16,000 students, faculty and staff.  This picture of the actual state of “free speech” and reasonableness was worth any number of speeches.

What remains of the liberal middle ground completely collapses.  On December 8 the Faculty Senate meets.  Loudspeakers carry the proceedings to the students massed outside the building.  Overwhelmingly the faculty resolution endorses the FSM “radical” position: “The content of speech and advocacy should not be restricted by the University” except “That the time, place, and manner shall be subject to reasonable regulations to prevent interference with the normal functions of the University.”  For most intents and purposes we won the battle.


One of the important aids in this was the newly formed Independent Socialist Club, which did much to expose the corporate power relations in the Multiversity-community relations.  The widely distributed ISC pamphlet by Hal Draper, ” The Mind of Clark Kerr,” was often called the bible of the FSM, and helped inspire Mario Savio’s speech on “the machine”.

Mike Parker was a leader of the FSM. He is an activist in the labor movement and is co-author with Jane Slaughter of “Working Smart: A Union Guide to Participation Programs and Reengineering,” Labor Notes, 1994.

ATC 66, January-February 1997

1 comment

  1. Winning a suit brought against the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act, Berkeley alum Seth Rosenfeld came out with a killer book last year (2012), “Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power” showing that the FSM was up against opponents much more sinister than the school administration. Hoover and the FBI were simple evil int heir attempt to link imaginary Communist agitators with the FSM. And the marriage of Hoover and Reagan (who was an FBI narc in the early ’50s), leveraging public opinion against the Berkeley students, is a sorry tale of civil rights abuse. As a Freshman at UCLA in 1964, I watched with great admiration the courage of the FSM–their impact lives on.

Comments are closed.