In the fall of 1964, with the Free Speech Movement roiling the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, 21-year-old Mario Savio felt, with some pride of ownership, that "this little place had become…one of the central places on the planet." Four years later, Savio was falling off the map–living a few miles from campus in the West Berkeley flats, working on the assembly line of an electrical parts firm and caring with his wife for their infant son, who’d been born with severe developmental problems. The man the New York Times had dubbed "the archangel of student revolt" was finding shelter in quiet anonymity. Even the FBI, which named Savio one of fifteen "key activists" in early 1968 and investigated his bank accounts, phone accounts and workplace, concluded in a report that maybe he wasn’t such a key activist anymore.
Yet the distinctiveness of Mario Savio–the particular tone and accent he lent to the New Left in its first years–is disclosed in a small set of details from this same FBI report. Savio, it seems, had taken to listing his phone number under false names (or what the Bureau called "aliases") in order to avoid harassing calls. In the phone book, Mario Savio was by turns José Martí, Wallace Stevens and David Bohm–which is to say, a late-nineteenth-century Cuban revolutionary-exile and poet who admired the US tradition of free speech yet scourged American imperialism; a Modernist poet who married philosophy and imagination ("We seek/The poem of pure reality, untouched/By trope or deviation, straight to the word"); and a theoretical physicist who, after helping Robert Oppenheimer develop the atomic bomb, defied the House Committee on Un-American Activities and lost his professorship at Princeton as a result.
The assortment of names plots the wide arc of Savio’s ambitions and identifies the tensions he struggled to master. Savio was a revolutionary and civil libertarian, logician and poet, scientific observer and self-aware partisan–and in his heyday a virtuosic extemporizer who seemed not so much to perform all these identities as to incarnate them. He was, in short, an icon of possibility for his generation of student activists; and so it’s a great historical riddle, tinged with pathos, why he was, in Berkeley in 1964, the lightning rod of his time and, almost immediately afterward, a man who couldn’t conduct the energy he’d summoned.
Robert Cohen dedicates much of Freedom’s Orator, his absorbing and even-keeled biography of Savio, to this very question, peeling back the layers of myth that have enveloped Savio and the Free Speech Movement while substantiating their achievement. By necessity Freedom’s Orator is a dual biography of a man and his movement, and almost half the book follows less than four months of Savio’s life, the pivotal fall semester of 1964. The FSM ran what we might call a textbook student-activist campaign in that interval–if we overlook the fact that the textbook didn’t exist yet. President Nixon’s 1970 Commission on Campus Unrest termed militant student protest "the Berkeley invention," and rightly so, since the FSM pioneered the use of civil rights strategies of direct action in a university setting, demonstrating how such disruptive tactics could mobilize a majority of students and even win the sympathies of a formerly passive faculty.
The FSM had the benefit of a cadre of experienced organizers, many seasoned like Savio in civil rights work, and a university administration that couldn’t shoot straight. What began as a seemingly minor dispute over civil liberties on campus–could students hand out political literature on a twenty-six-foot strip of land owned by the university?–spiraled quickly into a battle royal in which the meaning of the university and American liberalism seemed to be at stake. The central events have since passed into ’60s legend: the seizure of a police car, wherein thousands of students surrounded a police cruiser holding an arrested civil rights activist, immobilizing it for thirty-two hours while speaker after speaker used the car’s roof as their podium; the December 2 sit-in, wherein almost 800 students were arrested after occupying Sproul Hall, the central administrative building, to protest disciplinary action against four movement leaders; and the December 7 Greek Theatre incident, wherein Savio walked onstage to speak to the assembled student body and was immediately grabbed at his throat and arms by police and dragged offstage–an administration fiasco that UC president Clark Kerr called "an accident that looked like fascism."