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.