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Free Speech Follies
Carolyn Cressy Wells
Perhaps everyone has a year in which cherished illusions are destroyed forever, and the world never again looks the same -- a year in which treasured values are trampled by powerful authorities yet survive, if battered, stronger than before. That is what happened during my senior year at the University of California, Berkeley.
The sequence of events leading to my awakening to a new reality was ironic. I had spent the previous summer participating in a work camp in Ghana, West Africa. At the time, Ghana was a dictatorship under Kwame Nkrumah. Free speech was not allowed. Any political discussions had to be held in private, with a very few trustworthy persons only. In Ghana I had proudly described our country to my fellow work campers, mostly Ghanaian students, as a wonderful democracy; I was almost swollen with pride as I talked about our history and freedom of speech.
When I returned to the UC Berkeley in the fall of 1964 to complete my senior year there, I was looking forward to enjoying professed American freedoms I had previously taken for granted. I was actually smiling to myself as I rode in a taxi up Bancroft Avenue toward Westminster House, a student co-op kindly provided by the Presbyterian Church where I would be spending my senior year.
UC Berkeley’s main campus entrance stood at the junction of Bancroft and Telegraph Avenues. As the taxi approached, I eagerly peered out the window to take in the happenings there. The little intersection of sidewalks was where students staffed tables of all sorts, advocating everything from voting rights for African Americans in the South to supporting the Red Cross.
But now no one was there. Where were all the tables? Where was the friendly little Win with Jesus man who cheerfully handed out his tiny Bibles with a warm smile, hopeful expression, and fervent “God bless you?”
It didn’t take long to find out. My new roommate, Lilly, told me that nothing involving any form of advocacy was allowed on campus any longer. The university had issued a total administrative ban. The new ban included everything from asking for donations for charity to protesting the war in Vietnam. The alleged reason was that the students’ information tables obstructed pedestrian traffic. But they actually did nothing of the sort—the tables were routinely set back a few feet from the main walkway; the little area they occupied came vibrantly alive through their presence, adding zest to the campus.
I reacted especially strongly because of my recent experience in Ghana; the situation reminded me horribly of what I had experienced under Nkrumah’s dictatorship, where free speech was denied. In addition, however, I was raised near Boston. To me, the University’s precipitous action felt something like the “taxation without representation” that had set off the American Revolution. Moreover, as I saw things the university’s edict was a clear violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution of my country.
Remembering how prideful I had been when I told the Ghanaian work campers how great, how democratic, the American system of government was felt almost embarrassing to me now. Salient questions kept swirling through my mind: what was the university trying to teach us? How could an edict barring political and other advocacy on campus be justified? A major national election was imminent! Students should have the right to express their views of the candidates openly! An important Presidential contest between Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson would be settled in less than two months, on November 2, 1964, and it would be my first opportunity to vote.
Of course I already knew that the United States was far from perfect. Sit-ins at lunch counters were ongoing at this time, even in the North, and freedom riders still risked their lives in the South. Moreover, in my home town I had experienced extremely troublesome mutual discrimination between Christians and Jews. This occurred despite the fact that everyone shared the same skin color, the same classrooms, and the same economic status. The fact prejudice still existed when no laws prescribed it confused me and made me pessimistic that full acceptance among differing peoples could ever be accomplished. I knew prejudice was wrong, and sadly, I knew I too possessed it.
Nevertheless, I had been proud of the passage of the American Civil Rights Bill during the previous summer, and I was looking forward to continued progress toward equality under the law for all Americans. Berkeley students at the political tables I had encountered during my junior year had demonstrated the possibility that we ourselves could serve as catalysts for social progress. But now it seemed as if the university wanted us to stop talking to each other. Why?
To complicate matters further, there was my personal problem regarding a handsome graduate student named Larry. Only a few weeks prior to the end of the previous spring semester, before heading off to Ghana, I had become madly in love with this intriguing fellow. Larry was to leave for Kenya in East Africa a few weeks before I was to leave for Ghana in West Africa; he had secured a prestigious summer grant to work with the famous physical anthropologist, Lewis Leakey, to search Olduvai Gorge and the East African desert for clues as to the origin of humankind.
Larry and I had begun dating sometime during the fall semester; oddly, I don’t remember when or where we met but it must have been at a gathering for Anthropology students. It wasn’t until toward the end of the spring semester, however, that our relationship ripened. Larry, to put it mildly, began to awaken the female in me in a way I hadn’t known possible. While I was thoroughly indoctrinated in the old adage “if he loves you, he’ll wait,” I found that waiting was anything but easy. Fortunately, Larry was a gentleman. I began to think about the “M” word, but Larry made no mention of such a possibility.
After Larry set off for Kenya, I felt completely bereft. Final exams were underway but instead of studying I hung out by my mailbox pining for a letter. These were times well before cell phones, and long distance phone calls were prohibitively expensive. Day after day my mailbox failed to produce a letter from Larry. Waiting became interminable. I felt as if I were living in slow motion, sure that if Larry loved me he would write—but what if he didn’t? No letter ever came. I began to feel crushed; sometime during those long, empty weeks something died. I convinced myself Larry must not have cared for me after all. By the time I left for Ghana, I was determined to put him out of mind.
But now Larry had telephoned me at Westminster House. The message he left was that he wanted to see me. I knew I should feel excited and happy, but instead my heart felt strangely dead. I tried to wake it up, but nothing worked. Still, this was my senior year at the university; in those times, for many coeds a major goal was to earn the MRS degree along with the BA. I was no exception. My mother, who had met my father in college, kept asking me hopefully if I had any prospects—what should I do?
There was no one else on my horizon, and there had been those few months the previous spring when I had thought Larry was truly the man for me. So I returned his call. We began dating again. I experienced deep confusion. Physically, everything was as before; Larry had a way of awakening so much new to me that had he not been a gentleman, I would soon have become a fallen woman. I respected Larry for many things: his graduate status, his experience with the famous Dr. Leakey (whom he called Leakey faucet) and his vision of career. Larry had a way of saying wonderful things like “you have to live with the living,” meaning that it was much more important to find meaningful work than to make money, and I liked that.
But the awful fact remained: I simply wasn’t in love with him anymore. I could not reawaken that indefinable something. Since this made no sense to me I kept trying; Larry didn’t help as when I got discouraged and tried to break things off he acted utterly miserable, almost physically ill. My own communication skills, and possibly his, were sadly lacking -- even at that time I related to Bob Dylan’s song lyrics: “We never did too much talkn’ anyway----.” A good deal went on in both our lives which we did not share.
Meanwhile, events at Berkeley were developing swiftly. Students were organizing, challenging the administrative edict banning advocacy on campus. On hindsight, I think the ban may have marked the beginning of the purging of moderates from the Republican Party: Berkeley students had demonstrated in favor of William Scranton, a political moderate, and against Barry Goldwater, a staunch conservative, at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco that summer. It was Goldwater’s campaign manager, William Knowland, who then persuaded the university to forbid any political advocacy on campus.
Knowland was a powerful man, Editor-in- Chief of the Oakland Tribune; he cunningly convinced Vice Chancellor Alex Sherriffs to issue the ban at a time when UC Berkeley’s president, Clark Kerr, was in Tokyo negotiating an international trade agreement.
This was the beginning of my introduction to real American politics. It took place entirely outside the classroom. The terms “liberal,” “moderate,” and “conservative” had no meaning for me at the time. I had grown up in a Republican family and was proud of my party’s role in freeing American slaves. I had joined the Young Republicans at Middlebury in Vermont, where I spent my first two years of college, and dated the president of the Young Republicans there. The president made quite an impression on me when he told me on our first date that he was a member of Mensah, and what that meant. Good heavens, this fellow was a genius! How impressive was that?!
As far as I knew, I was Republican. However, the first small fissure in this identification had already taken place at Middlebury when a film aired at a Young Republicans meeting showed protesters being washed down some steps with fire hoses in San Francisco. They had been protesting the dealings of the House of Un-American Activities. I was the only person at the meeting to express dismay and the president never asked me out again.
Back at Berkeley, my new roommate, Lilly, and I sometimes talked about campus events, but Lilly was very shy and quiet. A Japanese American born in this country, Lilly had just the slightest cadence in her speech indicating that her first language was other than English. It took me quite awhile to get to know her, even a little.
When petitions began circulating around campus opposing the political ban, I signed them all, but Lilly didn’t. I wondered why as I knew from even our limited conversations that her views on the ban were similar to mine. Then, when all the petitions were ignored by the UC administration, marches began by candle light, dramatic and inspiring as thousands of students sang freedom songs together which they borrowed from the civil rights movement. I marched, but Lilly didn’t. Lilly was clearly a private person and I wanted to respect her privacy, but finally I asked her why.
“Lilly, how come you aren’t marching?”
“You mean you don’t know?” She asked in her soft voice.
“Know what?” I replied.
“That it might not be as safe for me to do that as for you?”
“It wouldn’t? Why not?”
“You honestly don’t know?” Lilly asked again, beginning to sound just the slightest bit impatient.
“Know what?” I replied again, sounding stupid even to myself.
“About the camps!” She finally exclaimed.
“What camps?” I responded, even more stupidly.
It was at that point Lilly sat me down and taught me about what had happened to Japanese-American citizens during World War II. I was incredulous. No history teacher in Sharon, Massachusetts, nor at Middlebury College, nor even at Berkeley had ever mentioned this in any History class I had ever taken. My parents had never said a word.
I realized then, very humbly, why Lilly would not want to risk her freedom again if she could possibly avoid it. Her family had lost everything during the war; she herself had been born in an American concentration camp. It was another major shock for me; my country was certainly not what I had thought it was.
Larry comprised another mystery. I knew he was angry about the political ban on campus, but he didn’t protest either. He may have signed petitions, but he certainly didn’t march with me. Finally I insisted he tell me why, and I was in for another major shock. I had simply assumed that Larry was some sort of Protestant, like myself. After all, he was sandy-haired and blue eyed. His last name sounded English, like mine.
But when I pressed Larry about why he wasn’t marching, he told me slowly that he had been chased many times around his city block as a boy, and he had learned the hard way it made sense to avoid confrontations by taking circuitous routes home. Getting into fights, he said, usually led to hurting someone or getting hurt oneself. Better to avoid them.
I was confused. “Why on earth would people chase you around the block when you were a kid?”
Larry looked me in the eye, shook his head and replied slowly, “I thought you knew. After all, you’ve told me how it bothered you that people were prejudiced against Jews where you grew up.”
“Yes,” I said impatiently, “but what does that have to do with anything?”
“I thought you knew what I was,” Larry replied again, very softly.
Suddenly I did know. I was absolutely stunned. Larry was Jewish. For a very long moment a kind of physical purging, something like a strong electric shock, surged throughout my body; my unwanted prejudice fried itself to ashes on the spot. Larry was as familiar and dear to me as anyone on earth, regardless of the fact I was no longer in love with him. This was literally a purgative moment; the prejudice against Jewish people I had never wanted but absorbed by osmosis as a child gave up the ghost.
But still, day by day, I was becoming depressed. The university administration’s clear intention to continue the ban on political action on campus was discouraging. What I was learning about my country was discouraging. What I was learning about myself was discouraging—I simply could not make myself fall in love when I so wanted to do so. Perhaps if Larry had proposed marriage I could have overcome the emotional block I developed during the weeks after he left for Kenya, but he did not.
As my own internal stress increased, pressures on campus for removing the ban on political action increased even more. In late September, five students defiantly set up a table right in front of the university administration building, close to the campus walkway known as Sather Gate. Then they bravely sat and waited. Deans approached the students taking names, and they were ordered to report for disciplinary action. Several hundred students soon signed a petition that they too had manned the tables; we all reported en masse to the Dean for disciplinary action! It was after midnight that day that the Dean finally persuaded us to disperse, but eventually eight students who appeared to be leaders were suspended from the university.
On October 1, only a few days after the mass student visit to the Dean, a young alumnus named Jack Weinberg defied the campus ban by setting up another table near Sather Gate. Jack had graduated the previous year and spent the summer in the American South working to register African Americans voters. He displayed information on his table describing the work of CORE, the Congress on Racial Equality.
A police car soon drove onto campus and parked near Jack’s table. Its driver, an officer, climbed out, walked over to Jack, arrested him unceremoniously, and escorted him back to the car. He pushed Jack into the back seat. Spontaneously, students surrounded the car and sat down on the pavement, preventing it from moving. I happened to be there and sat down myself. This felt good! The police car was trapped—we students had captured it!
We were soon surrounded by police, but the seriousness of the situation still didn’t strike us. These were campus police, and the relationship between these officers and students had always been cordial. After a couple of hours, an inspired student named Mario Savio asked the driver of the police car if he could climb up onto the roof and make a speech. Permission was granted, on condition Mario would take off his shoes. Mario complied and atop the car issued a stirring protest against the campus ban on what he called “free speech.” Dozens of speakers followed Mario in close succession.
The listening crowd grew to thousands, and some on the fringes couldn’t hear due to the distance. An enterprising student managed to secure loudspeakers and a microphone. The Berkeley campus became a veritable Hyde Park. I was awestruck by what was happening. I looked around hoping to see someone I knew, especially Larry, but I couldn’t see him anywhere and I didn’t see any other familiar faces either.
Night fell. Students still spoke from the top of the car. Jack Weinberg was still imprisoned inside, and the car itself was still imprisoned by the students. Some students left temporarily to get sleeping bags or find a restroom somewhere. I didn’t have a sleeping bag so I just shivered through the night. The proximity of all those bodies made the cold a little more bearable.
Sometime during the long cold night we heard an ominous sound. It was the approaching roar of motors. What seemed like hundreds of police cars were arriving and parking along Bancroft Avenue. Hundreds of helmeted officers were climbing out and walking toward us in a menacing manner, clubs in plain sight. What would happen next? We all braced for attack, holding hands and vowing to hang on no matter what. Word spread that we should to take off our watches and earrings, because they could be grabbed and pulled. Thankfully, however, the new arrivals simply spread out and joined the campus police.
When morning came, students around me began pointing anxiously toward the sidewalk running along Bancroft Avenue, rapidly approaching the campus entrance at Telegraph Ave. I turned to look and was stunned. What looked like fifty, maybe even a hundred huge male students were striding down that sidewalk; they were wearing football helmets, carrying baseball bats, chanting and catcalling. For the first time, I began to feel really afraid. These were fraternity boys according to the rumors circulating all around me, and they apparently supported the university ban. It began to look as if we were truly going to be attacked, and by our own peers.
At this point, Mario Savio again climbed up onto the police car. He tried to explain the philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience to the unwelcome intruders. They responded by tossing lighted cigarettes into the seated crowd of students and yelling obscenities. The atmosphere became thick with fear. Campus police courageously began to move between the student demonstrators and the angry fraternity men.
The officer who had arrested Jack Weinberg allowed him out of the car so that he could help calm the situation. Jack climbed up onto the car and tried to explain the purpose of the sit-in to the interlopers, but they shouted him down. The President of the ASUC (Associated Students of the University of California), a fraternity member himself, then climbed up to ask his brothers for peace. It didn’t work; nothing seemed to calm the situation. Trouble hung in the air like a cloud. I began to breathe shallowly with fear.
Then, astonishingly, a Catholic priest climbed up onto the police car. He introduced himself as Father Fisher. His calm manner and gentle way of speaking created a small miracle. He begged all the students to respect their differences without bloodshed; he eloquently quoted John Kennedy’s famous words, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” By the time Father Fisher climbed off the car the mood of the crowd had changed completely. Silence settled in; the fraternity boys melted away.
Behind the scenes, negotiations between ad-hoc student leaders such as Mario Savio and university administrators continued throughout the night and well into the next morning regarding how to resolve the situation of Jack Weinberg’s arrest. The students wanted Jack released unconditionally before they would agree to disperse; administrators wanted Jack taken to jail. A stalemate developed. Those of us sitting around the police car received only tense rumors regarding ongoing developments. We wondered how long we could stay where we were before being driven off by police. It was obvious that more and more officers were arriving every minute.
As day moved toward the next evening we heard a roar so loud it seemed to reverberate throughout the entire campus. We turned in horror and saw hundreds of motorcycles approaching. Seated on each huge machine, gunning each powerful engine, was a massive helmeted policeman. Each officer guided his metal steed onto the campus with a terrifying roar, parking it right alongside others to form a tight line between students and Bancroft Avenue, blocking any easy escape.
Armed with guns and impressively big clubs, faces set and angry, the newly arrived policemen marched toward us. Word spread instantly that these officers belonged to the infamous Oakland police force: Oakland, the city where resided the powerful William Knowland, the man who was directly responsible for the campus administrative ban.
The approaching phalanx looked almost humanoid. Never before had I feared policemen—I had never had any cause. I knew by name both of my home town’s two policemen, and one, Officer Cornell, was the father of a tall, beautiful blond girl whom I knew. Powerfully built, handsome and silver-haired, Mr. Cornell literally did help old ladies cross the street, and he did it with a kindly smile. But this new version of policeman I feared; they had faces set like masks. Darth Vader had not yet been invented, but these horrors may have served as prototypes. The terrifying line stalked closer to the seated students, swinging clubs. Those of us who were nearest grabbed hands and clung to each other, barely breathing.
At last, we were saved. Ad-hoc student leader Mario Savio suddenly re-appeared; he climbed back up onto the slightly squashed police car and read the agreement that had finally been reached with the university administration: prisoner Jack Weinberg would be booked by police, but the university would not press charges. A committee would be established to make recommendations to the administration about political behavior on campus. Those of us sitting there sighed a great collective sigh, stood up, stretched, and went back to our dormitories, apartments or co-ops; to say we were hugely relieved would be the understatement of the century.
The following morning William Knowland’s Oakland Tribune ran screaming headlines about student “riots” on campus. But I was there, and I did not experience anything like a riot. Students simply sat still around the police car. Even the fraternity boys who threw cigarettes never attacked any one person, and they went away after Father Fischer’s appeal. Yet Tribune reporters found a few disheveled students to photograph and labeled them rioters. Newspapers across the country quoted the Tribune’s version of the event; serious accounts as to the cause of the students’ protest and their actual conduct on campus were rare. This was another unwelcome lesson about American reality.
But more was to come. The committee established to advise the university administration regarding political action on campus eventually became deadlocked and was terminated. The administration would agree to allow political tables to return to the Sather Gate area but only if nothing “illegal” was advocated. On the surface today this might look reasonable, but at the time, to the students, it was not. Among the most salient reasons: In the South it was still illegal for African Americans and whites to sit together at lunch counters, or for African Americans to use most public restrooms, or to ride in the front of a bus. Protests against such laws were ongoing, and in addition, protests against draft laws were escalating as the Vietnam War pulled more and more American youth into deadly Asian jungles against their will.
Newspapers such as the Oakland Tribune began introducing words like “communist” and “off campus agitator” to discredit the students. Then, in late November, Mario Savio and three other student leaders of what became known as Free Speech Movement, Brian Turner, and Art and Jackie Goldberg, received alarming letters from the university’s Chancellor, Dr. Strong. Dr. Strong announced new disciplinary actions regarding their role in the October sit-in trapping the police car. It looked as if all four were about to be expelled.
This would prove to be an unwise move on the part of the Chancellor, and it was to cause him as much distress as he brought on the students. Not long afterwards he was hospitalized for serious abdominal pain. In those days I’m not sure people made the connection, but today it is known that abdominal pain can be caused by emotional stress alone.
Those of us who were at Berkeley at the time knew the students Dr. Strong singled out for discipline were no more responsible for the protest around the police car than we were ourselves. We knew we had not been “led” by anyone to take part in the demonstration — it was spontaneous, and we were responding to our own consciences, in defense of the freedoms we thought America stood for. Had these four courageous students not taken on leadership roles the day Jack Weinberg was arrested, others would surely have taken their place.
It was almost inevitable that more protest would follow, given that many students felt Dr. Strong’s disciplinary actions were unfair. Sure enough, a few days later a rally was held at Sproul Hall, the university’s administration building. Many inspiring student speeches were heard that day, but in particular I will never forget Mario Savio’s stirring words: “--- there is a time 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 indicate to the people who run it, who own it, that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all.”
About a thousand of us walked into Sproul Hall after that speech, determined to remain as long as it took for the administration to drop disciplinary action against the four student leaders and to permit free speech on campus once again. Still, when police arrived in force threatening to arrest us all, Mario and other student leaders urged anyone under eighteen to leave, because of the limited legal rights of minors. About two hundred of the younger students left the building at that point.
What I experienced that night in Sproul Hall changed me forever. Smiling Officer Cornell as my mental image for a policeman was replaced by a scowling, helmeted, club-wielding giant (that is how an angry policeman looks to someone sitting down). The police entered Sproul Hall around midnight and covered all the windows with newspaper so that no one could see in or out. I heard one of them say “make ‘em walk.”
The policemen (they were all men) then proceeded to hurt the students as much as possible without leaving incriminating marks. They twisted arms, bent thumbs back, knelt on the small of students’ backs, pulled hair, snarled. I heard one boy scream, turned and saw an officer stamping on his heel. These were days before feminist protests and probably for this reason the police were a little easier on the girls—at least I was lucky—I was simply dragged to an elevator. Some students were pulled down the stairs with their heads bumping.
No student who stayed in Sproul Hall after police arrived actively resisted or put up any kind of protest; but none stood up and walked voluntarily either. The courage and self-control I witnessed that night on the part of students was phenomenal. The coldness and distain I read in the faces of the policemen was equally phenomenal, and left a lasting mark. Eight hundred students, including myself, probably foolishly stayed in place to be arrested. It was a salient education about power -- its use and abuse.
After being dragged to the elevator and taken down to the basement of Sproul Hall, I was arrested, formally booked, and taken to jail. Eventually, I was transported to three different jails as the first ones filled up with hundreds of other students. The entire experience was terrorizing. Never, never in my life before had I experienced such total scorn from adults. Being searched by the prison guards left me feeling defiled, sick in some serious way. Women students were actually screaming as they underwent body searches at Santa Rita, the last prison to which I was taken.
Totally unprepared for such contempt by prison officials and their complete lack of understanding or respect for what we protesting students represented, I found the last vestiges of pride in my country, so recently alive in Ghana, dashed to dust.
On December 7th , four days after the mass arrests, university president Clark Kerr called a university-wide meeting to propose a policy adopted unanimously by 75 department chairmen. The policy proposed to offer amnesty to the four student leaders (including Mario Savio) who faced disciplinary action for their role involving the police car. It also proposed not to further discipline the 801 students arrested in Sproul Hall. It failed, however, to address the issue of free speech on campus. When President Kerr finished speaking, Mario bravely stepped up to the microphone to address this omission.
Instantly, police swarmed onto the stage, grabbed Mario by his necktie, and dragged him away bodily in front of the nearly 16,000 students, faculty, and staff attending the meeting. A spontaneous chant arose, “Let him speak, let him speak!” After several chaotic minutes police released Mario, who walked back to the microphone and called for another rally at Sproul Hall that very day.
As disheartening as this story may sound so far, there thankfully is another side to it, a side it took me many years to appreciate, given that I was so traumatized and dispirited by my encounter with raw political force and police violence. I can now recognize and be grateful that myriad other people cared about what happened to us and came forward en masse to help. Concerned students and faculty raised enough bail money to get all of us out of jail within 24 hours. They organized car pools; total strangers took the time to drive us back to campus upon our release. A vast strike shut down the entire university. Then, on December 8th , the day after Mario was dragged off stage by police, the university Faculty Senate voted almost unanimously to support free speech on campus. The Senate also called for the firing of Chancellor Strong, who had sent the letter to student leaders threatening further discipline (the letter that had precipitated the massive sit in in Sproul Hall). The Chancellor resigned shortly thereafter.
Our cause was won! Free Speech was once again an established right on Berkeley’s campus, to be regulated only according to “time and place and manner.” Content of speech was no longer to be restricted at this great university.
However -- although the important battle had been won on campus, it had not been won in the wider community or the courts. My mother’s response to my arrest was fairly typical of parents of students who endured that fate. She immediately sent me a letter in which she wrote, in a fit of abject fury, that I was “a thoughtless rabble rouser among horrid looking beatniks.” Obviously, Mother had seen the screaming newspaper headlines publicizing “student riots” at Berkeley and had seen the pictures the newspapers published, not exactly flattering (students who stayed up all night and were dragged down hallways looked pretty unkempt). Mother was terribly ashamed of me and afraid to face the neighbors. She threatened to cut off her financial assistance. I was devastated. I wrote back but could not seem to reach her with my explanations.
The Westminster House Board, which administered the co-op where I lived, was appalled by our actions, and called the four of us residents who had been arrested to a special meeting to explain ourselves. We were threatened with eviction. This was another frightening experience, Looking back, however, I appreciate the courage of the Board. They did not throw us out. In fact, after our discussion they opened Westminster House for regular meetings by the evolving leadership of the Free Speech Movement. There was much effort still needed—801 students faced severe punishment by the courts.
Attorneys stepped forward to handle our cases “pro bono.” I was a volunteer at the YWCA, and my supervisor there sent me to see her attorney who offered to represent free of charge any Y volunteers who had been arrested. The attorney told me he feared “the beast” was on the loose now and that things would only get worse; I would protect myself best with a “nolo” (no contest) plea to the criminal charges we all faced: unlawful assembly, trespassing, and resisting arrest.
While I’m not certain exactly what this thoughtful attorney meant by “the beast,” in my mind’s eye I pictured something dangerous, like a saber tooth tiger. I knew we students had been vilified by the press and given appalling labels. I appreciated his offer of assistance very much and thanked him sincerely. Yet I declined to accept as other attorneys had previously told an assembled group of all arrested students that if we stuck together and took our case to court as a group, more students would benefit. If we were to split up, these attorneys feared the courts would single out the students who had become leaders and give them harsher punishments.
And then, in the midst of all this confusion—there was my on and off boyfriend, Larry. I couldn’t help but feel forlorn that he hadn’t tried to join me at the sit-in, but I was glad that when the university went on strike, he donned a suit and tie and joined the picket line. I saw him walking there after I got out of jail, so handsome in his uncharacteristically elegant clothes. When we finally got together again, I literally clung to him: I felt so sullied by the prison experience that I desperately needed to be with someone who was uncontaminated.
But a huge part of me had shut down. Something deep inside had broken. I simply couldn’t handle the shock of arrest and still deal with my confusion regarding our relationship. And while I didn’t know it yet, my energy was further sapped because I was coming down with mononucleosis.
I wasn’t the only student to react in curious ways to the shock of the police brutality we had witnessed and the physical searches in the jails. Each of the four students arrested at Westminster House, for example, underwent distinct changes. Perhaps the mildest change was Charlie’s: he grew a beard. But Barbara, previously something of a religious skeptic, converted to fundamentalist Christianity and began speaking in tongues. George, previously an opponent of the growing war in Vietnam, applied to join four different military services to prove his patriotism (he was turned down by all four). Then there was me: I got mono. I could barely function I felt so physically sick. My mother’s letter made me feel worse.
Important help was on hand on the home front, however: Dr. and Mrs. Burch. They were parents of my high school friend, Sue, and lived right down the street from my mother. Dr. Burch was a mathematics professor at a college in Boston who apparently had some contacts with faculty at Berkeley. Mrs. Burch regularly read the Saturday Review. Dr. Burch received eye witness reports about the sit-in from faculty he knew at Berkeley, and the Saturday Review included an article explaining the origins of the Free Speech Movement. Dr. and Mrs. Burch took the time to talk with my mother.
At about the same time, UC Berkeley campus ministers sent letters to all parents of students who had been in Sproul Hall the night of the arrests, explaining the situation from their perspective and affirming that they respected our actions. It was a special offering on their part and certainly helped my case at home.
As a result of the thoughtfulness of Dr. and Mrs. Burch and the campus ministers, Mother finally telephoned me (a very rare event in those days). She said she had changed her mind: she had decided I was not a rabble rouser. I was lucky; I needed a mother badly then because I had gotten sick, and soon was able to go home for the Christmas vacation.
Home was a welcome respite. Mother put me to bed and called our family doctor, so that by the time Christmas break ended, I could go back to the university in fair enough health to pass my fall semester final exams, which at that time took place in January. I was lucky Mother let me return to Berkeley, as to my surprise, Chuck Wentworth, who had become my substitute father after my real Dad died when I was 15, told me that he’d have yanked me out of the university immediately had I been his daughter. He was very serious, and talked with my mother about doing just that. Suddenly I became aware of some possible consequences of my actions that I had not considered before: my protest could cost me my education. Fortunately, Mother allowed me to return to school.
Back in Berkeley, there were a great number of people who wanted to yank students like me out of the university, although for very different reasons than Chuck’s, who just wanted to protect me. Sympathizers with William Knowland loudly and persistently called for expulsion. University President Clark Kerr refused to be intimidated and did not do so. It has taken me years to appreciate his courage in protecting us from such drastic action, as at the time, given that Kerr was part of the mechanism that tried to expel student leaders, he was not viewed as any friend of the Free Speech Movement. But Ronald Reagan, who was soon elected governor of California, considered Kerr too liberal, and fired him.
One of the first things I did when I returned to Berkeley after Christmas that year was to break up with Larry. I did not do it well, and I thoughtlessly did so right before final exams. It certainly did not help either of our academic performances that semester, and Larry’s personal response was so distressing that even today it’s hard to think about. Basically, Larry alleged he would die alone on a sand dune; he literally writhed in pain while at the same time telling me not to worry about him. But I did worry about him and I missed him – so a couple months later I unwisely went back to him. I still could not fall in love, and he still did not ask me to marry him. A month or so later we had our final break-up.
These were my last months as a college student; I was distraught as I had no viable career plans and no marriage partner. I was still operating on half a battery due to the mono. And I fretted about my imagined future as a convicted criminal. What helped was a telephone call from another student who had been arrested. The call came right at the beginning of the second semester from a young man named Lee. I can’t remember exactly how we met, but it was during the Sproul Hall event, perhaps on the bus to one of the jails. I accepted his offer of a date, and we became friends, although the relationship was not a serious one. Lee told me he thought the reason we got along so well was we had no responsibility to each other. We shared stories of our common trauma and the latest rumors about the workings of the court. We went to attorneys’ meetings together. We played folk songs on our guitars together to keep up our spirits. It was a relationship that felt right for the time.
The fears of the attorney who helped the Y volunteers came true. Indeed the “beast” was loosed after the student arrests and it grew fiercer. The pro-bono attorneys did all they could to have our criminal charges dropped, but despite support from the UC Berkeley faculty and the campus ministers, it was not to be. Prosecution continued full speed ahead. And despite most students hanging together to be represented as a group, it became clear that those who had become leaders were being singled out for special punishment.
A small sample of arrested students was selected to represent the whole; I was not one of them. Most of us were tried in abstentia before Judge Rupert Crittenden, who was by reputation a fair and impartial judge according to our attorneys. The attorneys were initially happy he was to be presiding. But then Judge Crittenden’s verdicts began to come forth. The beast had won. All arrested students were ruled guilty, and the judge punished the leaders much more severely than the rank and file. Many leaders were sent to prison for extended periods of time, Mario Savio for a full three months. The judge gave the students who pled “nolo” the lightest sentences, fining them $50.00 and assigning 6 months probation. Rank and file students such as myself, who stayed with the group through trial, were fined $150 each and assigned a full year’s probation. Those who had the nerve to appeal were later fined $250 and sentenced to even longer terms of probation.
In 1965, when these fines were issued, $150 was one whole lot of money. By comparison, I paid $25 per month to live at Westminster House. Considering that we students were almost all first-time offenders, the punishments surely were unnecessarily harsh. I for one didn’t have $150 dollars, but thankfully my mother came through again. The alternative to paying the fine for me was 10 days in jail, and I’m afraid I would have had a psychotic breakdown if I had had to spend one more hour in that dehumanizing setting.
The esteemed Judge Crittenden thus provided my introduction to American justice, including the practice of “plea bargaining,” in which the same offense is punished differently depending on how hard one pursues one’s case. I was not impressed. It was another blow to my pride in my country.
When the ban on political advocacy on campus was first issued, I had wondered what the university was trying to teach us. I had always assumed that the primary purpose of a university was to teach, so I thought very hard about this. Still, recognition of any lessons eluded me for many years. Only recently have I come to realize that the university did, although unintentionally, teach me several things through its banning of free speech on campus.
Important lessons included reading newspapers critically, paying attention to political issues, and keeping away from police. The most positive lesson was: with persistence and passion, a relatively powerless group can win an important cause despite opposition from those who consider themselves all-powerful. Costs for individuals may be high, but the overall achievement makes the overall effort worthwhile.
The Free Speech Movement emboldened other movements including civil rights, women’s rights, disability rights, gay and lesbian rights, and anti-war. Unfortunately, however, fighting for important causes can contribute to unhappy and unanticipated results. For example, Ronald Reagan, a staunch conservative, was elected Governor of California partially in response to campus unrest at Berkeley (media tales of “student riots” worried a “law and order” public). Reagan later became President of the USA—and one of his first actions was to remove solar panels from the roof of the White House, where they had been thoughtfully placed by former President Jimmy Carter -- in Reagan’s restricted view, the environment was in no danger.
In the spring of 1965 I graduated from the university with my BA but without an MRS degree. A few weeks earlier I had applied to take part in a new national program introduced by President Lyndon Johnson, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA). I would spend the next year, while on court probation, in New Mexico, tutoring children and adults, working a day care center, and trying to learn something about community development.
During the time I was in VISTA, in Spring 1966, Judge Rupert Crittenden would die. He was only in his mid-fifties. I can’t help but wonder if the judge’s death wasn’t related to a stress known as cognitive dissonance—the knowledge that he would likely have joined us had he been a student himself, clashing with the more compelling knowledge that he had to satisfy “the beast” if his judgeship were to survive. It didn’t, anyway.
After a year in VISTA I moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where the university was offering grants to attend graduate school in social work. That very fall, fair housing marches began in the city (Milwaukee to its shame remains largely segregated today). The next year I transferred to the University of Wisconsin at Madison where other marches took place to protest the war in Vietnam. I marched and marched, but still I melted into the scenery if helmeted monsters appeared on the scene wielding clubs or tear gas. Thus UC Berkeley also taught me to be a coward in some ways, but I console myself that many Americans in the late 1700’s survived to fight for freedom only because they melted back into the forest when redcoats arrived in force.
About the Author: Carolyn Cressy Wells is a professor of social work at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she developed the social work program during the mid 1970's. She has served as program director from 1978 until present, except for the years 1990-1993. She is an active member of the Council of Social Work Education, the National Association of Social Workers, the Association of Baccalaureate Program Directors, and the Academy of Certified Social Workers, and has participated in a number of CSWE site visits. She is author of two other social work texts, SOCIAL WORK DAY TO DAY, THE EXPERIENCE OF GENERALIST SOCIAL WORK PRACTICE, & SOCIAL WORK ETHICS DAY TO DAY-A GUIDE TO PROFESSIONAL PRACTICE, published by Longman. She is co-author with Mary Ann Suppes of THE SOCIAL WORK EXPERIENCE-AN INTRODUCTION TO THE PROFESSION AND ITS RELATIONSHIP TO SOCIAL WELFARE POLICY, published by McGraw-Hill. She maintained a part-time private practice in marriage and family therapy for many years. She received an undergraduate degree in anthropology from the University of California at Berkeley, and an MSW and Ph.D. in child development and family relationships from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She is a Wisconsin-certified marriage and family therapist and independent clinical social worker.
The Berkeley Free Speech Movement began on this date in 1964 when Jack Weinberg, an alumnus of the University of California at Berkeley, was arrested for violating new campus rules forbidding solicitation for “off-campus political and social action.” Weinberg, who had a long record of civil rights activism, went limp and was carried to a cop car, but then Mario Savio climbed atop the car and aroused his fellow students to protest. They surrounded the car, deflated its tires, and kept it there for 32 hours. Among the leaders of the student protest movement that emerged were Bettina Aptheker, Steve Weissman, and Art and Jackie Goldberg (a brother and sister; she went on to be a founder of the LGBT Caucus of the California State Legislature). Months later, the new acting chancellor of the university, Martin Meyerson, restored the right of students to organize on campus — and the Free Speech Movement morphed into the Vietnam Day Committee, led by Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, and Stew Albert, among others.
“There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes 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.” —Mario Savio
“There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes 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.” —Mario Savio
Photos from: http://www.fsm-a.org/galleryindex.html
"We are going to say if there are things you care about, do something about it. That's what we did," said Jackie Goldberg, 69, a leader who became a Los Angeles school board member, city councilwoman and state Assembly member.
Then: Had graduated from UC Berkeley and was pursuing graduate studies in math.
Now: Semiretired activist. Advises organizations in developing countries that address issues of toxic chemicals and human exposure to it.
Q: What is the one thing or event you remember the most?
A: "Sitting in a police car for 32 hours, from noon on Oct. 1, 1964, until 8 p.m. on Oct. 2. I was arrested on charges of intentionally violating the ban on campus organizations to set up tables and communicate on off-campus issues. The demonstration ended with a negotiated truce and part of that truce is that I would not be charged. It took four months, but we learned that we could fight for a just cause and win."
Q: What does it all mean now?
A: "Rights that were won on the Berkeley campus spread to other parts of the country and free speech in America and on university campuses was deepened. There are still attacks on it, but the Free Speech Movement commemorates a victory and is a symbol that encourages people to keep defending that idea."