The Essential Mario Savio: Speeches and Writings that Changed America

The Essential Mario Savio: Speeches and Writings that Changed America

by Robert Cohen

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The Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, California, was pivotal in shaping 1960s America. Led by Mario Savio and other young veterans of the civil rights movement, student activists organized what was to that point the most tumultuous student rebellion in American history. Mass sit-ins, a nonviolent blockade around a police car, occupations of the campus administration building, and a student strike united thousands of students to champion the right of students to free speech and unrestricted political advocacy on campus.

This compendium of influential speeches and previously unknown writings offers insight into and perspective on the disruptive yet nonviolent civil disobedience tactics used by Savio. The Essential Mario Savio is the perfect introduction to an American icon and to one of the most important social movements of the post-war period in the United States.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520959262
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/28/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Robert Cohen is Professor of History and Social Studies in New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. He is an affiliated member of NYU’s History Department. His books include Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s, The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s (coedited with Reginald E. Zelnik), and Rebellion in Black and White: Southern Student Activism in the 1960s (coedited with David S. Snyder).

Tom Hayden is an American social and political activist, author, and politician. He was a founder of Students for a Democratic Society; the primary author of the SDS’s manifesto, the Port Huron Statement; and a member of the California State Legislature for eighteen years. He is director of the Peace and Justice Resource Center in Culver City, California.

Robert Reich was the U.S. Secretary of Labor in the Clinton adminstration. He is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

Lynne Hollander Savio is a Free Speech Movement veteran who coauthored the Rossman Report. She is the widow of Mario Savio and heads the board of directors of the Mario Savio Memorial Lecture and Young Activist Award.

Read an Excerpt

The Essential Mario Savio

Speeches and Writings that Changed America

By Robert Cohen


Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95926-2


The Making of a Berkeley Civil Rights Activist

For Mario Savio, college never represented a mere career track; it was part of a moral and intellectual quest, a path toward meaning and identity, a crucial part of what he called a "period of personal transition [that] revolved about [his] breaking away from the Catholic Church." At the behest of his parents, he had, as a star science student, accepted a scholarship in 1960 at a local Catholic institution, Manhattan College. Majoring in physics, his first act of intellectual rebellion grew out of his study of the classics, taking "a full year course in ancient history, literature, and philosophy," and using ancient Greek culture as a kind of counterculture that helped him move further away from the church. "I fell in love with the Greeks," Savio recalled, "because they represented a pre- and really a non-Christian culture.... For me Greek philosophy and literature provided a first vantage point from which to examine the Church critically."

After a year at Manhattan College, as another step away from the church, Savio transferred to Queens College, in the New York City College system, which he found attractive because its "secular, predominantly Jewish," liberal student body reminded him of the friends he had grown up with in Floral Park. Even though he left the church, he still was connected to its social action wing or, as he termed it, "Social Catholicism, which would culminate in the Second Vatican Council [that] was [then] approaching flood tide." And under its auspices, Savio took up his first venture in social activism, volunteering for antipoverty work in Taxco, Mexico, in the summer of 1963. This was part of what he called a "private peace corps project" initiated by the Newman House at Queens College—building a laundry facility and starting work on a school for the poor.

During this pre-Berkeley period, Savio was already drawn to the civil rights movement, which he saw as a meaningful alternative to the materialism, repressiveness, and boredom of the America he had grown up in during the 1950s. The movement's moral seriousness, its struggle for justice, left Savio "deeply impressed" when he first encountered its activists "on the nightly news." The black freedom movement would soon fill the void left by Savio's break with the church.

For me it [the freedom struggle] was in some ways a religious movement I could believe in.... I was not a careerist. I was someone who took good and evil exceptionally seriously.... I could have been a priest. And, suddenly there's the Civil Rights Movement. And since I'm breaking with the Church I see the Civil Rights Movement in religious terms.... [In the] Civil Rights Movement there were all those ministers; ... it was just absolutely rife with ministers. And so to me, this was an example of God working in the world.... The spirit of "do good" and "resist evil" was an important part of my religious upbringing. I saw that present in the Civil Rights Movement—and I wanted to ally myself with that.

Savio's first in-person encounter with the civil rights movement occurred when he observed the picketing of a Woolworth's store in his Queens neighborhood. Even though the protest was nonviolent and "absolutely respectful, decorous," the protesters picketing the store were, in Savio's words, "behaving differently" than the conformist norms of the world in which he was raised.

You see, people in those days obeyed the rules. All the rules ... that were written down ... [and] a whole bunch of rules that weren't written down.... How you're supposed to dress. Everything was so rigid.... There was an internally imposed regimentation.... So just the idea of people walking around in a little oval in front of Woolworth's was massively non-conformist for the time. Something's going on here. That has to be seen against the background of absolutely day after day nothing going on. So it was attractive, because it was real.... I'd never seen anything like it before.

Savio later saw the civil rights movement as working with other strands in his intellectual and political development to ready him for an activist role at Berkeley: "The liberal Jewish culture of my high school friends, a deep encounter with the Greeks, and the opening acts in the civil rights drama were the three forces leading me away from home and toward Berkeley, already a center of activism in 1960."

When Savio transferred to UC Berkeley in the fall of 1963, drawn by its reputation for student activism, John F. Kennedy was president. But Savio was not impressed with JFK and looked not to the White House but to the streets and the civil rights movement for inspiration. Kennedy, in Savio's eyes, "failed ... at crucial places ... to connect with reality somehow. He wasn't leading.... He was the official leader, but he wasn't leading," and seemed more flash than substance. By contrast, "the Civil Rights Movement," as Savio put it, "wasn't flash. It wasn't a fake. It wasn't fantasy land.... The Civil Rights Movement was leading America," morally and politically, to an expanded and more inclusive vision of freedom.

Savio's first academic year at Berkeley (fall 1963–spring 1964) coincided with a surge in the Bay Area civil rights movement that he found "amazing." Hundreds of students would be arrested that year in protests against racially discriminatory employers, protests that, for the West Coast, seemed unprecedented in their size, frequency, and militancy. The dynamism of the Bay Area movement was obvious, and so was the role of Berkeley students in it. Berkeley had not one but two activist student groupings, which, despite their differences, cooperated with each other in leading major civil rights actions. Campus CORE was especially active and militant and had connections to the local black communities' CORE chapters. Leadership in Campus CORE tended to come from students in or close to UC Berkeley's Independent Socialist Club. Its main competitor was Berkeley's Communist-led W. E. B. Du Bois Club. The Communist Party had connections in the Bay Area's black communities, and Du Bois Club organizers used those to link Berkeley's predominantly white student activists with such black organizations as Youth for Jobs in Oakland and dynamic young African American civil rights activists such as Tracy Sims.Out of this collaboration came the Ad Hoc Committee to End Discrimination, the organization that coordinated student and black community protests against the Sheraton Palace Hotel and other racially discriminatory employers.

Berkeley's stores and San Francisco's auto dealers, restaurants, and hotels proved attractive targets for these protests, because all of these employers—facing little state and no federal governmental pressure to hire on a nondiscriminatory basis, since this was before the Civil Rights Act of 1964—had terrible records of employment discrimination. The U.S. Civil Rights Commission, for example, found that in 1960 less than 2 percent of the employees of downtown Berkeley's stores were African American. The few blacks hired tended to be relegated to the most menial, low-paying jobs. The Bay Area civil rights protests usually proved quite effective. When confronted with their hiring record by sustained protest, most of these businesses were forced to capitulate.

As a transfer student at Berkeley, it took a little time for Savio to get sufficiently settled. Living in a noisy student apartment building and attending large and impersonal lecture courses, Savio went through a rough transition to his new academic home that first month. In October, however, he made connections with the local activist community. Savio began "tentatively to walk the picket line" in protest against racially discriminatory hiring at Mel's Drive-In, even though he did not yet have friends in the movement. Nor did he know much about the protest other than the worthiness of its fair-hiring goals.

But by the middle of the fall semester, Savio had become more active with University Friends of SNCC, helping with its inner-city tutoring program. Savio later recalled that, for him, SNCC embodied the Southern black freedom movement at its best and was America's most "unsullied" and moral form of social activism. He compared his attraction to SNCC to "a moth to a light."

But while committed to the goal of banishing the scourge of racism from America, Savio, in his first six months at Berkeley, was not yet a radical when it came to protest tactics. He thought CORE's use of sound trucks in its protests was foolish and a poor way of communicating with the community. Savio also disliked the "shop-in" tactic used in February 1964 to pressure Lucky supermarkets to end its discriminatory hiring practices, because he found that tactic—which involved disruption of the store by protesters carrying groceries to the check-out stands and then just leaving them there—"messy" and lacking in "self-restraint and dignity."

Given Savio's later political trajectory, it may sound strange to characterize him as a moderate, but tactically that was what he was in his early Berkeley days. The bulk of his activist energies were devoted not to risky protest activity but to tutoring young black students. Savio soon became aware, however, that the tutoring project was a "finger in the ... [dike] operation," and that whatever good it was doing was undermined by the poor schools that seemed to beat down whatever enthusiasm the tutors managed to inspire in their students.

Savio's leap from tactical moderation to radicalism came suddenly, in the spring semester, and it was linked to his deepening connection to the student activist community. He began to make friends with students who, like him, were attracted to civil rights activism, including Cheryl Stevenson, the first woman he would date at Berkeley. In March, while socializing with this circle of activist friends at a party, Savio and some of the others decided to drive across the Bay Bridge to join the protests for fair hiring at San Francisco's Sheraton Palace Hotel—protests he had first read about from leaflets he had been given at Berkeley's free speech area on Bancroft Way and Telegraph Avenue. In light of Savio's later fame as a critic of university education for breeding conformity, it is ironic that he would later credit his education with paving the way for his decision, and that of fellow activists, to join their first sit-ins in these civil rights protests. As Savio explained, "Civil disobedience was studied in class in discussions of Socrates and Thoreau, and acted out at Bay Area businesses in demonstrations that were frequent, massive, and often successful."

In this chapter, the details of Savio's decision to engage in civil disobedience at the Sheraton Palace Hotel will be told in his own words, through the documents he wrote soon after his arrest for participating in this mass sit-in. Savio's subsequent reflections on this event are worth considering as you read those documents. Unlike today, when symbolic arrests for nonviolent civil disobedience are quite common, in March 1964 this was not the case. Risking arrest and prison by sitting in was far from a casual act, especially if it was your first arrest—as it would be for Savio. Thus he saw the arrest as an important symbol of a deepening commitment to the civil rights movement, a rite of passage, which he likened to a Native American brave killing and bringing home his first bear. Since the struggle to eliminate racism in the hotel's hiring "had the stamp of morality on it," for Savio, "the issue wasn't whether this was the right thing to do, but whether you had the courage to do it."

Equally significant, this sit-in was the first protest at which Savio experienced the deep sense of solidarity and community of mass protest. It had "a righteous, even sanctified power," which had a profound impact upon him. Under its influence, Savio, who had previously been so moderate on tactics, not only opted to sit in and face arrest, but even favored more militant tactics, such as going to the upper floors of the hotel and waking up hotel guests. While aware that this would have disturbed these guests, Savio thought they ought to be disturbed by the hotel's racism. Savio was also growing more sensitive to political process and the need for protest movements to make decisions democratically, even in the heat of battle, and so was willing to reflect critically on the movement's deliberative style even as he supported its ends. Finally, Savio was aware that his deepening civil rights activism and that of his friends served not only the community, in battling racism, but the activists' humanity and character. "The civil rights movement" enabled the committed activist "to be an agent in ... [his or her] own life." Those so committed, "more than anyone else, are causing things to occur rather than having things occur to them." Savio concluded, "It's very different from watching television or being a spectator at spectator sports. There seemed to be a real wedding of thought and action; that's a very abstract way to think about it, but I think that's a lot of what was attractive" about civil rights activism.


MARCH 1964

Written for the attorneys representing Savio and his fellow protesters arrested in the civil rights sit-in/sleep-in at the Sheraton Palace Hotel in San Francisco on March 7, 1964, Savio's defendant statement is the first document generated by his civil rights activism. The demonstration at which Savio was arrested was the largest civil rights protest in the Bay Area, involving several thousand demonstrators. Savio was one of 167 protesters arrested, the majority of whom were students. Fair hiring at San Francisco's hotels had been an issue for years in the black community, because African Americans encountered persistent discrimination when seeking jobs in the hotels. The sit-in was the culmination of a surge of militant fair-hiring agitation at the hotel that had begun in February, which the Sheraton Palace initially resisted with an injunction and lawsuit. The pickets and sit-in spurred San Francisco mayor John Shelley to intercede. He presided over negotiations that resulted in the Sheraton Palace and more than thirty other hotels agreeing to adopt a nondiscriminatory hiring policy—a major victory for the movement. Savio's defendant statement is his only contemporary account of the events leading to his first arrest, and it reflects his solidarity with the goals of the protests, his criticism of its tactics, and his disdain for police misconduct at the sit-in.

A. Why I took part in the Demonstration

1. To protest the racially unfair hiring practices of the hotel.

2. To protest the previous arrests at the hotel.

3. To support those negotiating to obtain—

a) from the hotel, assurances that its hiring practices would be liberalized.

b) From the hotel owners' association, assurances that city-wide hotel hiring practices would be liberalized.

4. To focus community attention on the racial injustice in San Francisco, and, in particular, in the hotel industry.

B. What I Was Doing Prior To the Arrests

With a large group of those demonstrators who had entered the hotel I was sitting on the floor blocking the main entrance. We were waiting there for a decision from the demonstration leaders on whether we should be arrested. Conflicting reports reached us regarding this decision, but finally Tracy Simms announced to us that those who themselves chose to undergo arrest should continue to sit in the entrance (behavior which, she said, the police had said they would reward with arrest), whereas those not desiring arrest should "sleep-in" in the hotel lobby, the hotel having assured that none sleeping-in would be arrested.

I felt that this proposed splitting of the demonstration members would weaken the overall effectiveness of our protest. Although I could not decide whether all sleeping in or all being arrested was the better (i.e. more effective) procedure, nevertheless I did believe that making it a purely individual decision was a tactical error.

Undecided as to what I should do, and even deciding for a while to sleep-in, I finally went to the side entrance where arrests had begun. After watching the arrests for some time, I concluded that although unanimity would have been best, nevertheless, lacking unanimity, a large number of arrests would still be quite effective in focusing public and government attention on our demonstration and its aims. However, it seemed that in comparison with the great size of the demonstration, the number of those arrested was quite small. Deciding, therefore, that increasing this number was the best course of action, I lay down with those blocking the side entrance.


Excerpted from The Essential Mario Savio by Robert Cohen. Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Editor’s Note
Tom Hayden
1. The Making of a Berkeley Civil Rights Activist
2. Going South: Freedom Summer, 1964
3. Leading the Free Speech Movement: Protest and Negotiation, September–November 1964
4. "No Restrictions on the Content of Speech": Savio and the FSM Win, December 1964
Robert B. Reich
Lynne Hollander Savio

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