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Hearing echoes of Berkeley in student activism today

In 1964, the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley, became the first large-scale campus student movement in the country. The demonstrations set the stage for the anti-Vietnam War movement, the campaign for women’s equality and others. Special correspondent Spencer Michaels looks at the evolution of student protest at Berkeley and beyond.

Read the Full Transcript

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now: a look back at a movement some historians believe profoundly changed American culture, politics and education.

    “NewsHour” special correspondent Spencer Michels reports has the story.

  • WOMAN:

    We’re going to start off by playing a little speech some of you may remember.

  • MARIO SAVIO, Free Speech Movement:

    And I will tell you something. The faculty are a bunch of employees, and we’re the raw material.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    The sounds of a familiar past blared over Sproul Plaza on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley. The voice, from 1964 was that of the late Mario Savio, the most famous leader of the free speech movement, the first big on-campus student movement in the country.

  • MARIO SAVIO:

    And you have got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, pile on the apparatus, and you have got to make it stop.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    These were 20-somethings in the ’60s, civil rights activists who were protesting a university policy forbidding political activity on campus.

    Now they were back to keep the past alive and relate it to the present.

  • JACK WEINBERG, Free Speech Movement:

    The most significant student movement of our era is taking place in Hong Kong.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Graduate student Jack Weinberg sparked the rebellion 50 years ago, when he was arrested for refusing to take down an organizing table.

  • JACK WEINBERG:

    They made the mistake of bringing a police car onto campus. This give me five, 10 minutes to stand up, to draw a crowd, make a speech.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Weinberg spent 32 hours in the car as the crowds swelled to 6,000 and the movement was born. The university eventually eliminated the restrictions on political activity.

  • JACK WEINBERG:

    It was a turning point and sort of helped set the stage for what became the anti-Vietnam War movement, women’s equality. Other liberation movements were all sort of set in motion by the activities in Berkeley in 1964.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    For years, the university tried to downplay what happened here in 1964 and afterwards. The administration wanted no part of the 25th anniversary of the free speech movement.

  • WOMAN:

    Fifty years ago today.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    But, today, the university has embraced the free speech movement as its own. In 1997, the administration even named the steps on Sproul Plaza after Mario Savio, whom it expelled in the ’60s.

    His widow, Lynne Hollander Savio, took part in the movement as well.

  • LYNNE HOLLANDER SAVIO, Widow of Mario Savio:

    The free speech movement had very limited goals. It was totally nonviolent. It had a very high level of intellectual discourse.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Today, students flock to the on-campus Free Speech Movement Cafe, where they essentially ignore the reminders of the past that surround them.

    In Sproul Plaza, where the movement began, a few tables, some political, some selling donuts, try to attract a share of the 35,000 students who attend Berkeley. For the most part, the students skirt the tables on their way to class and to careers. But this semester, even for them, it was hard to ignore the events of 50 years ago.

  • RAMSES PRINGLE:

    Sure we have free speech, but no one is listening.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    In dozens of classes this semester, students are studying the free speech movement, reading a biography of Savio, trying to find its relevance to the present.

  • SHANNON MCDONALD:

    The whole ability to exercise your free speech in the Occupy movement is because of what Mario Savio and the others were doing for the free speech movement in the ’60s.

  • RAMSES PRINGLE:

    Our main issue is the ubiquity of free speech, because it’s too much.

  • WOMAN:

    There can be too much free speech.

  • RAMSES PRINGLE:

    Too many voices…

  • WOMAN:

    Too many voices makes for drowning out of any message.

  • RAMSES PRINGLE:

    Yes, of any actual message.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Visiting Professor Robert Cohen, who wrote Savio’s biography, is teaching 80 students about the movement.

  • ROBERT COHEN, Savio Biographer:

    You read a bunch of Mario’s speeches and also Reagan’s speech.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    He brought a group of former free speech members to his class.

  • JACKIE GOLDBERG, Free Speech Movement:

    We were called communist dupes. That was the big expression, dupes.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Cohen is convinced that Ronald Reagan, who ran for California governor in 1966, attacked the free speech movement to garner votes.

  • RONALD REAGAN, Republican Gubernatorial Candidate:

    And it began a year ago, when the so-called free speech advocates, who in truth have no appreciation for freedom, were allowed to assault and humiliate the symbol of law and order of policemen on the campus. And that was the moment when the ringleaders should have been taken by the scruff of the neck and thrown out of the university once and for all.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • ROBERT COHEN:

    The electorate in California was so hostile to the student movement. People saw this as like disorder and chaotic and disobedience, and the administration is being too permissive.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    A few of those who took part in demonstrations years ago have turned their backs on the movement or what it became and are speaking out on the anniversary.

    In New York, conservative writer Sol Stern, who was a radical in ’64, wrote articles this fall calling the FSM the un-free speech movement.

  • SOL STERN, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research:

    It was free speech for our views, but not free speech for your views. The movement should have been over, but it just branched out into all sorts of other radical objectives.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    John Searle, as a graduate student, helped lead protesters in a march through the campus. Today, at 82, he is a well-known philosophy professor at Berkeley.

  • JOHN SEARLE, University of California, Berkeley:

    We created a model for what people thought they should do on a university, and that’s a big mistake, to think the way to change, the way to run the university is through mass demonstrations.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Large-scale demonstrations have mostly faded on this campus and elsewhere. Instead, some students use a different kind of activism.

    Caitlin Quinn is vice president of the Associated Students.

  • CAITLIN QUINN, Vice President, Associated Students of the University of California:

    I think the way that we have perceived campus activism has definitely changed. It takes on a lot of different forms now. There are lots more social media campaigns. There are a lot more online petitions and kind of more tech-driven social activism.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Anthropology graduate students analyze why today’s students aren’t as active as their predecessors, even if they want to be.

  • ANTHONY WRIGHT, Graduate Student:

    Many students have a lot to lose, and they don’t have much of a buffer to fall back on. They are taking out a huge amount of loans just to stay in college. And so in a sense, they have to be careerists. And that stifles freedom of speech.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    The free speech movement anniversary drew just a few hundred onlookers. But word of the old movement’s resurrection and new respectability doesn’t obscure the fact that what came down here in ’64 remains a point of contention.

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