Remembering Mario Savio, ‘Freedom’s Orator’

Remembering Mario Savio, ‘Freedom’s Orator’

Remembering Mario Savio, ‘Freedom’s Orator’

The man who helped spark Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement fifty years ago would have championed today’s activism, from the Dreamers to Occupy to Ferguson.


This essay is adapted from Tom Hayden’s foreword to The Essential Mario Savio: Speeches and Writings That Changed America, edited by Robert Cohen and published this past September by the University of California Press.

It is a worthy time to study and treasure the eloquent speeches of Mario Savio—“freedom’s orator,” as the historian Robert Cohen rightly calls him.

I didn’t know Mario well, mainly because of our separate geographic orbits, but our paths were intertwined. As a student editor from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, I hitchhiked to Berkeley in the summer of 1960, where I stayed in an apartment belonging to activists from Slate, the campus political party that was demanding a voice for students stifled by university paternalism. Slate activists were among those who had been hosed down on the rotunda steps of San Francisco’s City Hall after protesting the House Committee on Un-American Activities that spring. The FBI opened a file on me simply for writing an editorial in The Michigan Daily supporting the student critics. I remember interviewing the aptly named Alex Sherriffs, the aggressive University of California vice chancellor who wanted to shut down the tiny Bancroft strip where I was first leafleted by that friendly student who found me a place to stay. In a memo at the time, Sherriffs called the Slate activists “office seekers and publicity hounds…misfits, malcontents and other politically oriented individuals who do not conform to the normal political activity in the university community.” My kind of people.

This was the dawn of the 1960s. A countercommunity was forming, and the simple idea of student rights was infectious. The Slate leaders pushed me to create a similar campus political party in Ann Arbor, which I helped to do that fall; known as Voice, it became the first chapter of the national SDS (Students for a Democratic Society).

Our strategy in SDS was to excite students nationally through the model of students putting their lives on the line down South. It worked. In late 1961, I was a Freedom Rider in Georgia and was beaten and expelled from McComb, Mississippi, while writing a pamphlet about a voting-rights campaign. By spring semester in 1964, Berkeley activists—Mario among them—were copying the Southern sit-ins against Jim Crow lunch counters with their own sit-in against racist hiring at San Francisco’s Sheraton Palace Hotel. That experience propelled Mario to volunteer in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer Project in McComb, where he was also subjected to the radicalizing violence I had experienced in 1961.

The links kept being forged. In June 1962, the first SDS convention, in Port Huron, Michigan, adopted a lengthy statement calling for students to forge a participatory democracy based on the direct-action model of SNCC (the black-led Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) and the radical notion that students could be “agents of social change” and universities the laboratories of reform. That abstract Port Huron vision was realized when the Free Speech Movement (FSM) burst into history in 1964. Mario himself spoke favorably of participatory democracy, and activists like Jackie Goldberg carried the Port Huron Statement in their backpacks.

I lived in Berkeley later (1968–70), during the post-FSM years, when the rhetoric was more revolutionary. The campus was often choked by tear gas, student strikes were frequent, and armed Black Panthers sold Mao’s Little Red Book on the Sproul steps. The early utopian moment was clouded by internal strife, and the community was anything but blessed. During the People’s Park march of 1969, I witnessed sheriff’s deputies coldly kill one bystander and blind another with buckshot while they sat on a rooftop overlooking Telegraph Avenue. This lethal moment came just four and a half years after the FSM’s rise, and one year before the murders at Kent State and Jackson State. The Berkeley free-speech area was looking like a war zone. The idealistic movement that first gave Mario his magical voice—after having grown up with a stuttering shyness—now left him stranded and alone amid its fragmentation and demise.

* * *

Looking back, I have wondered: were we merely pawns in a larger game? That’s the troubling conclusion of Subversives, a 2012 book by former Daily Californian reporter Seth Rosenfeld, based on FBI documents that were finally divulged by federal court order many years after the events in question (some of which were published in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2002). Altogether, the files came to over 200,000 pages, including thousands from an FBI secret counterintelligence program, COINTELPRO.

Thanks to Rosenfeld’s dogged Freedom of Information Act demands, we know that the FSM was targeted by FBI and CIA operations intended to improve the political fortunes of Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, both of whom rose to political power on promises to crush Berkeley radicalism. Mario was demonized as a virtual Fidel Castro, with the Berkeley hills as his Sierra Maestra. Here is J. Edgar Hoover from a 1966 memo: “Agitators on other campuses take their lead from activities which occur at Berkeley. If agitational activity at Berkeley can be effectively curtailed, this could set up a chain reaction which will result in the curtailment of such activities on other campuses throughout the United States.”

This was a full decade before Congress held its explosive inquiry, known as the Church Committee hearings (after the committee’s chair, Senator Frank Church), which uncovered widespread and illegal spying and disruption against domestic protest in the United States. Nothing revealed in those hearings could fully match what happened in Berkeley in the 1960s. Hoover’s FBI, along with UC Regent Edwin Pauley and former CIA director John McCone, plotted to uncover alleged “Reds” on the Berkeley faculty; remove the university president, Clark Kerr; conspire with Reagan, a onetime informant; and alter the course of American history. All these deeds, of course, were far beyond the bureau’s legal mandate. The FBI could get away with its crimes because of the climate of opinion in those Cold War times.

Led by Hoover, the political elite looked at “campus unrest” through a Cold War lens, completely missing the rise of millions of idealistic young people with their demands for relevance, justice, equal treatment, peace and a voice in the decisions affecting their lives. If this was only a Cold War misunderstanding, perhaps the dreadful mistake could be forgiven. But there was another agenda that began at Berkeley as well: after being elected California governor in 1966 to “clean up” Berkeley, Reagan quickly imposed tuition for the first time in the history of the university. The conservative attack on “permissive” UC officials and “communist” professors shielding the “spoiled brats” was also an assault on the liberal tradition of public-sector institutions. The current era of privatization and neoliberalism was born in Berkeley as a countermovement to the ’60s.

We have not recovered, but America’s progressives have survived to fight back. It took three decades, but UC Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien wrote in 1996 that Mario was “a gifted leader whose passionate conviction and eloquence inspired a generation of students across America. His name is forever linked with one of our nation’s most cherished freedoms—the right to freedom of expression. We are proud that he was part of the community at the University of California.” The Sproul steps were renamed for Mario, too. This year, in memory of the fiftieth anniversary of the FSM, the university is distributing 8,000 copies of former Berkeley graduate student Robby Cohen’s comprehensive Savio biography, Freedom’s Orator, as suggested reading for students and faculty. The FSM is being acknowledged as a leading example of America’s own democracy movement.

It is difficult not to be cynical about this latter-day praise. Many of Mario’s worst fears have come to pass—for example, in the skyrocketing tuition and room-and-board, now reaching $35,000 per year for in-state students and more than $50,000 for nonresidents. In recent years, UC police have pepper-sprayed student tuition protesters and shut down tents meant for Occupy Wall Street protests (the tents were deemed to have no protection under freedom-of-expression rulings). Perhaps the United States needs to brandish the FSM’s heritage in the new Cold War competition with China and its rigid system of thought control.

But I think American history provides a different lesson: again and again, the persecuted radicals of one era are venerated as prophets and saints in another. Consider Tom Paine, whose rhetoric ignited the American Revolution, but who was castigated as a scoundrel by the Revolution’s elite and buried without honor by a small handful of friends. John Adams denounced Paine as “a mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf.”

* * *

I sometimes saw Mario after his media stardom had declined, after he spent a period in a psychiatric hospital coping with post-traumatic stress disorder (which afflicted movement veterans, not simply GIs), and after UC rejected his application to resume his studies. When I saw him last, it seemed to me he was in a fitting phase of a noble life. Mario was teaching at Sonoma State University, focused mainly on remedial work with students of color, in a program called the Intensive Learning Experience. Immigrants were being scapegoated for the state’s woes. It was the early 1990s, and California was cutting its higher-education budgets while building one of the world’s largest prison systems. Mario joined those fights, for what was free speech if universities were unaffordable and inaccessible to working people?

Many are unaware that Mario was returning to his roots among those young students at Sonoma. During 1963, the year before the San Francisco hotel sit-ins, Mario spent a summer immersed in a Catholic antipoverty project in central Mexico. There, he naturally applied the basic techniques of community organizing, even before his training by the Mississippi summer project. Listening to villagers recount their needs, Mario and his student band began the construction of a community laundry where the poor could wash their clothes during Mexico’s dry season.

That summer experience planted in Mario a lifelong connection to the Third World, from Mexican peasants to Mississippi sharecroppers, to his resistance to the US military interventions in Central America. The circle was closed in his organizing against California’s anti-immigrant initiative, Proposition 187. When the burden of confronting anti-immigrant hysteria was falling mainly on Latinos in border states like California and Arizona, Mario was one of those few on the white radical left standing with them. He wanted to rearrange America’s vision, from a nation caught up in an East-West Cold War framework to one centered in the Americas, from South to North. Mario realized clearly very early on what only a few—Cuba’s José Martí, The Nation’s Carey McWilliams and today’s Juan González of Pacifica—had realized: that our ultimate destiny lies here in “Our America.” Mario was a prophet of our permanent destiny in the Americas.

What does it mean to declare that he was “freedom’s orator”? His philosophical and mathematical training prepared him to communicate in plain but lucid language, rich with references to past great thinkers. His podium, however, was on the top of a police car or from the Sproul steps. Mario did not deliver “the Word” from a mountaintop, or dictate official dogma for listening devotees to memorize, go forth and spread. He was given the gift of speech—that is, he stopped stuttering—by the movement community. In return, he gave them the gift of being heard, of thinking aloud, for the first time. Amid the pandemonium of awakening all around him, Mario could sift the good arguments from the bad, engage the crowd in dialogue, and crystallize whatever consensus was needed at the moment. It’s almost unfortunate that his most famous speech—calling on the students to place their bodies on the gears and stop the machine—was more like a call to battle than the usual Socratic speeches he gave almost daily at mass meetings. Oratory implies a solo performance; a speech by Mario was an exercise in reasoning out loud, essentially unrehearsed, yet perfectly clear in the end. It was a participatory oratory that left the listeners better informed and empowered. In later times, with the movement gone, many of his speeches and articles were sharply reasoned and on the cutting edge, but lacked the exciting vitality that comes when many minds are in motion at once.

* * *

Mario was an original thinker, not a stylist. He attacked the premises of the Cold War before others did. He went on to challenge the neoconservative assumptions about the “end of history” after the Cold War was over. Perhaps his most interesting and still-relevant speculations were about Marxism and liberation theology, leading him to identify with what he called “secularized liberation theology.” How did he arrive there? First, Mario and the New Left could not abide the traditional liberalism of many in the Democratic Party. Liberalism had reached a compromise with corporate capitalism that delivered a welfare state, but within the context of a Cold War corporate state dominated by distant elites. Liberals, at least as we knew them, were late to join the civil-rights movement, had rejected the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964, opposed the Cuban Revolution and supported the Vietnam War.

That seemed to leave only varieties of Marxism, an important tradition without deep roots in the American past. Mario acknowledged that Marxism was essential to being politically literate, yet he hesitated to embrace it philosophically. His reasoning was that “Marxism, even at its most poetic, is a kind of economism.” The thesis of Marxism, he believed, was that the very workings of the capitalist system led to mass immiseration, which in turn led to an oppositional consciousness.

But capitalism, spurred by the New Deal and the threat of socialism, developed a white-collar middle class represented by the likes of Mario and myself. As the opening sentence of the Port Huron Statement declared: “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.” This was hardly The Communist Manifesto. Shortly thereafter, the FSM began issuing its grievances against the “multiversity,” in which students were treated like IBM punch cards. These were not narrow, privileged middle-class sentiments alone, since the movements were aligned with struggles for voting rights, farmworker rights and “the other America” brought to light by Michael Harrington in his groundbreaking 1962 book. But we wanted something more than the New Deal. We also realized that any immiseration of workers under capitalism could drive them far to the right.

Whereas the Marxist model produced an inherent sense that history was on our side, Mario instead argued that “we have to be prepared on the basis of our moral insight to struggle even if we do not know that we are going to win.” He believed the antidote lay in having spiritual values, and was therefore inspired by the rise of liberation theology in Latin America. His skeptical nature, however, required a “secularized liberation theology.” It is only my conjecture that the strains of Catholic and Greek philosophy in his intellectual upbringing perhaps led him to an alternative to the dialectic, a deep belief that we all might dwell in a spiritual realm of truth and beauty.

For whatever mix of reasons, during the immigrant-rights struggles in the 1990s, Mario pointed out that the Catholic Church was in the forefront, and noted that there “is probably no other institution in the United States in which there is a heavier representation of righteously working-class people than in…that church. We ought to be talking to them as well as to one another.”

One can only imagine what Mario would have thought of the rise of Pope Francis, who seems to be the left wing of the world in 2014. As important as the pope’s moral denunciations of capitalism are, even more interesting is when he said, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” In those few simple words, Pope Francis was subverting the whole doctrine of an infallible center. Marxism had long since experienced the same loss of doctrinal infallibility, opening a chapter of history that Mario would have delighted in.

Equally, he would have delighted in the emergence of the Dreamers movement on UC campuses and in communities across the country—young immigrants born in the United States of undocumented parents, acting in the spirit of the militant civil-rights movement, demanding their constitutional rights and willing to face deportation.

He would also have delighted in the Occupy movement as a harbinger of the next wave of economic populism. He would salute those who fight against soaring tuition and debt. He would have reveled in a dialogue with these new young American rebels. He would have exchanged reading lists with them. He would have happily joined their ranks.

He has been missed. Thanks to the Free Speech Movement’s fiftieth anniversary, however, Mario’s challenging words can be felt among us once again, sermons and parables for an unpredictable dawn.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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