Saturday, 25 October 2008

Behind the Songs: I'm Going to Say It Now

"I've read of other countries where the students take a stand
They've even helped to overthrow the leaders of the land
Now, I wouldn't go so far to say we're also learning how
But when I've got something to say, sir, I'm gonna say it now"
--Phil Ochs, "I'm Going to Say It Now" (1965)

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

Were it not for Mario Savio, the book...would never have been written. As a young man, Savio played a key role in leading the Free Speech Movement (FSM) to victory in its struggle to end the restrictions the University of California had placed on campus political activity. He was the Berkeley student rebellion's most eloquent orator, the one who first spoke from atop the police car that his fellow protesters surrounded and immobilized on October 1, 1964, to prevent the arrest of Jack Weinberg, a civil rights activist whose only crime had been to defy the administration's prohibition against political advocacy on University property. Savio's rousing words and the mass protest around the police car on Sproul Plaza (the central campus thoroughfare) helped to launch the Free Speech Movement. And Savio's "operation of the machine" speech, just before the December Sproul Hall sit-in, not only set the tone for the nonviolent occupation of the administration building--which culminated in the largest mass arrest of students in American history--but also became the most famous oration in the early history of the New Left. Savio's daring attempt to speak at an administration-run meeting in Berkeley's Greek Theatre days after the sit-in electrified thousands of students, who were shocked to see campus police drag him from the podium. As both a speak and a symbol, then, Savio helped to make the Berkeley student rebellion a memorable event, one that inspired campus activists across the country and the globe in the 1960s and that still has the power to attract the attention of scholars and writers such as those represented in this book. Savio refused, however, to present himself as the Berkeley rebellion's indispensable leader. Like so many other FSMers, he preferred to see the movement as too democratic to need leaders, stressing instead that its strength came from the moral principles that gave it mass appeal. When, soon after the start of FSM, Savio heard that Dean Arleigh Williams credited him with having "organized" the first Sproul Hall sit-in, he used humor to rebut the dean's claims, quipping that while it was "gratifying" to receive such credit, there had been "little to 'organize.' For students who had shown themselves to be well-apprised of their rights the act of crossing one's legs and reclining was a relatively simple matter." Despite such disclaimers, Mario's organizational skill, intelligence, and oratory helped to breathe life into the FSM; much as he longed to escape the spotlight, he would always be seen as the central figure of the Berkeley rebellion.

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