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Campus rebels with a cause

The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s, Edited by Robert Cohen and Reginald E. Zelnik, University of California Press: 620 pp., $55; $19.95 paper

October 20, 2002|Jonathan Kirsch | Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer to Book Review, is the author of, most recently, "The Woman Who Laughed at God: The Untold History of the Jewish People."

If there is a single place where the counterculture of the 1960s first snapped into focus, it is Sproul Plaza on the Berkeley campus of the University of California. There, on Oct. 1, 1964, a crowd of students gathered around a police car to prevent the arrest of an activist who had defied a newly imposed university policy that prohibited political advocacy on campus. And so began the so-called Free Speech Movement, a spontaneous act of protest that was soon eclipsed by other expressions of the same spirit of rebellion -- the struggle for civil rights, the campaign against the war in Vietnam and the miscellaneous grotesqueries that fall under the heading of "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll."

That is exactly why "The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s" comes as a healthy corrective to the trivialization of the counterculture in American pop culture. Nowadays, the aging hippie is literally a joke, a stock character in sitcoms and 30-second spots. To understand what it was like to come of age in the '60s, to understand how America was changed in profound and even revolutionary ways, we need to be reminded of what was really at stake when the banner of the Free Speech Movement was first raised in Sproul Plaza.

"There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part," declared Mario Savio, a 21-year-old philosophy major who was one of the movement's founders and quickly emerged as its face and voice. "[Y]ou'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." The book's editors have assembled a kind of colloquium-in-print on the subject of the Free Speech Movement, an anthology that allows us to hear the voices of the men and women who figured so prominently in the events, ranging from Savio to Clark Kerr, then serving as president of the University of California, as well as the scholars who have studied the Free Speech Movement and reflected on its effect on history.

The book is an impressive work of scholarship, enlivened by moments of bittersweet memoir that will resonate for readers of a certain age. Kate Coleman, for example, recalls what was on her mind on the night in December 1964 when she participated in a sit-in at Sproul Hall: "How was I going to dress for the revolution in such a way that I would reflect well upon the aesthetics of a movement about which I was very passionate?" Margot Adler shares the letters she wrote to her mother about her experiences in jail after being arrested at a demonstration: "I tried reading Thucydides but I just couldn't concentrate," she wrote. "I will try to sleep until we go to

The Free Speech Movement, as we are reminded, was not merely a manifestation of what was beginning to be called the New Left. The original coalition ranged across the spectrum of political activism from the College Young Republicans and Youth for Goldwater to the Young People's Socialist League and the W.E.B. Du Bois Club -- the point was to open the campus to debate and even confrontation over issues that really mattered. "Groups that would shout at each other from card tables at Bancroft and Telegraph were suddenly potential allies," recalls Jackie Goldberg, then a member of the movement's steering committee and now a member of the California Assembly. Ironically, the fact that she was "pledge mom" of Delta Phi Epsilon served to assuage the suspicions of right-wing members of the steering committee, who joined with left-wing members in electing Goldberg the movement's first spokesperson.

"To reduce the FSM's story to a chapter in the history of the New Left is to fail to see that the historical moment cannot be compressed into a single meaning," insists co-editor Robert Cohen. And Berkeley history professor Leon F. Litwack makes an even broader claim for the achievements of the movement in his preface to the book: "In the 1960s, first on the Berkeley campus and then nationally and internationally, students tested the limits of permissible dissent, challenged the conventional wisdom in unprecedented ways, and insisted on participating as active agents in the shaping of history."

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