The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s

By Howze, Glenn | Academe, September/October 2003 | Go to article overview

The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s


Howze, Glenn, Academe


The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s Robert Cohen and Reginald E. Zelnik, eds. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

Almost four decades after sit-ins at Sproul Hall launched the free apeech movement on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, historians Robert Cohen and Reginald Zelnik have published an edited volume documenting the importance of this event for Berkeley and for American higher education. The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s is an uncommon mixture of scholarly essays that provide valuable analysis of existing documentation on the subject and personal memoirs by participants in the movement. While most of the articles present the movement in positive terms, some are critical of its goals, tactics, and results.

The book is dedicated to Mario Savio, a charismatic student leader and the best known of the movement's activists. Regardless of what he accomplished later in life, Savio would always be defined by his mesmerizing speeches to Berkeley student demonstrators in fall 1964. Throughout the book, contributors pay homage to his leadership, and the final few essays, written after Savio's death at the age of fifty-three in 1996, are essentially eulogies.

As good historians, Cohen and Zelnik include essays exploring the historical context of the free speech movement and its roots in two opposing forces: 1950s McCarthyism and 1960s civil rights activism. At the time that the free speech movement mushroomed, Berkeley, like other universities in California and around the country, had experienced attacks on civil liberties in the name of anticommunism. Despite a pretense that academic freedom and free speech were protected on campus, loyalty oaths were required of employees. The university was careful not to hire or tenure faculty with unconventional political views. Communists and other left-wing activists were banned from speaking on campus. The preface to the book quotes a president of Yale as having made a statement that might have applied to many campuses in the 1950s: "There will be no witch-hunts at Yale because there will be no witches."

In the early 1960s, McCarthy-era restrictions began to disappear. In one of the book's more interesting essays, Clark Kerr, who was president of the University of California system at the time of the free speech movement, describes his administration's attempts to rid Berkeley and other campuses of the vestiges of McCarthyism. The loyalty oath was removed and communists and other controversial speakers were allowed on campus. From Kerr's point of view, great progress had been made, and he notes that he and the University of California Board of Regents were awarded the AAUP's Alexander Meiklejohn Award for Academic Freedom in 1964 for their efforts to rid the university of undemocratic practices.

But despite Kerr's efforts, one questionable practice remained in place at Berkeley: "advocacy actions"-raising money and recruiting participants for political activism-were banned on campus, although they were permitted on a sidewalk close to campus. The sidewalk was heavily used. Like other students across the country, many Berkeley students had participated in the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 or other aspects of the civil rights movement, and their eyes had been opened to racism and discrimination. …

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