KCBS Cover Story: UC Berkeley Celebrating The 50th Anniversary Of Free Speech Movement

BERKELEY (KCBS) — Fifty years ago Wednesday, a small campus protest at UC Berkeley exploded into what came to became known as the “Free Speech Movement” paving the way for Vietnam War demonstrations, the Occupy protests, and more. Now it’s being celebrated by the university.

It all began Oct. 1, 1964 when UC police tried to stop students from handling out leaflets on campus in violation of a ban on political activity.

One of those passing out leaflets was Jack Weinberg, who was thrown into a police car on Sproul Plaza that was quickly surrounded by students.

There was a 33-hour-long standoff with students speaking through a megaphone from the roof of the police car. Eventually they occupied Sproul hall were Joan Baez sang in the stairway.

Almost 800 protesters were arrested and student Mario Savio emerged as the charismatic leader.

“There’s a time when the operation of the machine become 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,” he famously shouted to the crowd.

“He was kind of an unexpected hero because he had a speech defect…but it was really bad. But when he would get on top of a police car, it would go away, ”Alix Schwartz, who is the director of Academic Planning at UC Berkeley, said.

Schwartz told KCBS that they are marking the 50th anniversary with a full calendar of campus events and every incoming student was asked to read a biography of Savio.

“I had a student from Singapore who said they don’t have freedom of speech there. We have a lot of international students and their minds are being blown,” she said.

Later in 1964, the students won when the faculty sided with them over the demonstration; free speech became the norm on college campuses which turned into the crucible ant-war unrest for the rest of the decade.

Rising conservative Ronald Reagan made it the signature issue of his campaign to defeat California Governor Pat Brown.

“He rose to power on the promise to put those radicals in Berkeley down—to squelch the radicals,” Schwartz said.

She said the Free Speech Movement’s impact still resonates with today’s students inspired by what happened five decades ago to protest income equality or climate change.

“To the students it’s a very live legacy. I think they’re still inspired by this and they still feel that they can make a difference,” Schwartz said.

More from Doug Sovern
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