The Free Speech Movement

by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA

October 30, 2005, | Revolution Newspaper #020 |


November 22, 2019: In light of the demonstrations last night, where students have fought to drive Ann Coulter from the campus, and fascists have targeted Berkeley for its radical history, this excerpt from Bob Avakian’s memoir, From Ike to Mao and Beyond: My Journey from Mainstream America to Revolutionary Communist, is very relevant. In the course of recalling his involvement in the famous Free Speech Movement of the early 1960s as a student the UC Berkeley, he gets into what the terms of the struggle actually were, what the students were fighting for and the response of the university.

The following is an excerpt from Chapter Six, “Your Sons and Your Daughters...,” in Bob Avakian's memoir, From Ike to Mao and Beyond: My Journey from Mainstream America to Revolutionary Communist, A Memoir by Bob Avakian.

The Free Speech Movement

Despite the administration’s rule that you couldn’t do “on-campus organizing for off-campus issues,” people at Cal were organizing on the campus to protest against local businesses which they identified as practicing racial discrimination in their hiring, such as the Oakland Tribune and this drive-in restaurant called Mel’s Diner. Everybody on campus was aware of this, it was becoming more and more of an issue that people were debating and talking about and getting involved in—or not getting involved in and opposing, because there was polarization. To jump ahead for a second in order to give a sense of this, at a later point in the FSM, during one of the nights when people were sitting in around a police car, 500 fraternity boys came to throw things at the people sitting in and shout insults at them. I’ve often said that in the ’60s even ­fraternity boys grew brains, but that was later in the ’60s—at the time of the FSM they didn’t have them yet.

So the administration sent the campus police to put a stop to this on-campus organizing for “off-campus issues.” A guy named Jack Weinberg was sitting at a table organizing for this and he refused to fold up the table. They arrested him, put him in a police car to drive him off, and then a bunch of students came and surrounded the police car. While this sit-in was going on, I was at a reception that the Chancellor, Chancellor Strong, was having for honor students at the university. At that reception, one of the students asked him what was going on with the sit-in, and the Chancellor basically said: “Well, the area in which they were originally organizing wasn’t the area where the police car incident took place, but where they were originally organizing, we thought that was actually city property, because it was right at the entrance to the campus. But then we looked into it and found out that it was university property, so we decided we should put a stop to it.” And why did they look into it? Well, he went on to tell us, because of pressure from the Oakland Tribune, which was owned by William F. Knowland, who was a well-known reactionary.5The Tribune called up, the Chancellor told us, complaining about the organizing of civil rights demonstrations against the Tribune for discriminatory hiring practices. “So,” Chancellor Strong concluded, “we cracked down on that organizing.”

I was just stunned. I was shocked, first of all, that this was actually how this came about and, second, that he was just saying this so baldly as if everybody would accept it. As I’ve said elsewhere,6 I guess his idea was this: since we had good grades, we must be “grade-grubbers,” in training to become money-grubbers, and we wouldn’t find anything objectionable in what he told us. But a lot of people there did find this very objectionable, including myself. I immediately went over to the sit-in around the police car and got in line to speak—the police car had been surrounded by the protesters and transformed into a speaking platform while Jack Weinberg was still sitting inside. It was really great! So when my turn came, I got up on the police car and told this story and explained how it led me to support this whole thing, and I donated my $100 honorarium for being an honor student to the FSM. And that’s how I first got directly involved.

Stepping back, I think the FSM expressed the general feeling that students wanted to be treated as adults and citizens, they wanted to have the same rights as other people. Phil Ochs had this song where the refrain went something like, I’ve got something to say, sir, and I’m going to say it now. And as it was in that song, so it was in reality with students and youth at that time. But, beyond that, there were a lot of big things going on in the world. Vietnam was already beginning to heat up in the fall of ’64, and there was the civil rights movement. People wanted to be actively involved in or debating about these things, they wanted to be part of the larger world—they didn’t want to be treated like little children just because they were students. So all this was going on and mixing together: the general resistance against treating college students as if they didn’t have any minds, against the whole bureaucratization of the university and the functioning of the university as machinery to serve the corporate world and the military, and against the depersonalizing effects of all that on the students, on the one hand, as well as the big things going on in society and the world, like the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, that people wanted to be involved in. It was all that together.

The university tried to claim that it was all being fomented by “outside agitators.” There were some people who weren’t students who were involved—and they were welcomed, it was good that they were involved. But it was overwhelmingly students who were involved. This came out, for example, when people were arrested in the big sit-in at the University Administration building. In the aftermath of these arrests, this claim was made: “Oh, these are just ne’er-do-wells, these are just disgruntled students and non-students.” But the records showed that overwhelmingly those arrested were students. Then, since they couldn’t deny that most of those arrested were students, they claimed that they were students who were failing or getting poor grades anyway, so they were just being troublemakers. In response to this, the FSM committee took a survey of the people who’d been arrested, and among other things asked the grade point average of the students who were arrested. This survey revealed and confirmed that the students who were arrested had higher grade point averages than students in the university overall, and were generally not failing or getting poor grades.

At this time Liz was more politically aware and more of an activist and radical than I was. She had a family background of people who’d been involved with the Communist Party, and even though that ultimately meant revisionism—reformism in the name of communism—it still gave her a broader political outlook than I had at that time. And she had a big influence on me. It was partly the political discussions we had and partly, to be honest, the fact that I was interested in her romantically and she wanted to be very active in the Free Speech Movement, that led me to be so consistently involved.

When we went into Sproul Hall for the big sit-in, and as the sit-in went on, I was trying to help keep the morale up. At one point I went from floor to floor organizing singing to keep the spirits up. But, at the same time, this sit-in lasted several days and I was still a serious student, so I was also trying to keep up with my schoolwork during the sit-in—until at one point I just decided, “Oh, the hell with it,” and threw my homework away. I literally took my homework and threw it down the hall. But this also had a larger symbolic meaning, even though I myself wasn’t fully aware of it yet.

Another one of those ironies of “straddling two worlds” happened to me at the end of the sit-in, when people were arrested in almost an assembly line fashion. As they were arrested, a lot of people were thrown down the stairs, and the women in particular were grabbed by the hair and thrown down the stairs. I was on the top floor and saw many people brutalized like that and, of course, this was only a few months after I had finally recovered from being sick. So besides being outraged generally, I was also a little worried about what would happen to me if I got thrown down the stairs or otherwise brutalized, especially if I got hit in the area of my kidneys. And as my turn came to be busted, I recognized the cop who was arresting me as someone who had played basketball for a local college. I saw his nameplate said Gray, so I said, “Aren’t you the ‘Gray’ who played basketball for St. Mary’s?” And I kind of shrugged my shoulders as if to say, “So what you gonna do?” And he replied, “Sorry, can’t do nothin’ for you”—and off I went.

Of course, I was very happy to be arrested, to put it that way. I wanted to be part of this, and there was a great camaraderie. When I did this thing with this cop Gray, I wasn’t trying to not get arrested, I just didn’t want to get thrown down the stairs or hit in my kidneys. But I was very happy to be part of this.

At the same time, my whole involvement in the Free Speech Movement came shortly after my dad was appointed as a judge by the same governor, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, who sent the police in to arrest us in Sproul Hall. So that kind of captures a sharp contradiction. My dad was saying to me and also to my younger sister, “Look, I just got appointed...” In effect, he was saying: “Don’t do anything to screw up my getting established as judge.” My sister and I both had the attitude: “Well, we’re not gonna go out of our way to make trouble for you, but we’re also not gonna hold back from doing the things we think are right or important.”

When I did get arrested, it was another case where both of my parents agreed with the principles of free speech, and even agreed generally with what the students were fighting for, but I think were made very nervous, not only in a personal sense but in a larger sense, by the whole turmoil that was being created—the shutting down of the university, in effect, and people getting busted and all that kind of thing, as well as the personal dimension of how this might affect my dad’s standing as a judge. On the other hand, as soon as they learned that I got arrested, my parents called up my doctor, since I had just gotten over this very serious illness, and I was still in a precarious position. And my doctor, who I later learned was sympathetic to protests like this, told my parents: “This could be very dangerous for him. Even if he spends just one night on a cold floor, it could kick back in his whole kidney disease.” Actually, my doctor felt so strongly about this that he insisted that my dad get me out that night, so that I wouldn’t have to spend the night on a cold floor under jail conditions. So I was surprised to get out a little earlier than some of the other people did, though most everybody was out by the next morning or the next day sometime.

Mario Savio

Mario Savio, who led the FSM, had a big effect on me, though I ­didn’t really know him personally. I was active and involved in FSM pretty much all the way through, from the beginning; I went to all the rallies and heard Mario and others speak. Like everyone else who was involved, or who heard his speeches, I was very moved by them and felt they spoke very penetratingly to how we saw things and what was motivating us. But while in general I was very moved by his speeches, I remember one time right before we all got busted in Sproul Hall, Mario gave a speech. I think this was just when we found out that the governor, Pat Brown, was sending the troopers to bust us, and Mario talked about the duplicity and the double-dealing of the university administration and the governor and so on—that they hadn’t negotiated in good faith and that they’d done these back-handed things—but then he said, “And this is just like what our government is doing in Vietnam.” This was in early December of 1964, and I was actively looking into the Vietnam War and trying to figure out what stand to take on it, but I ­hadn’t made up my mind yet.

As I referred to earlier, I was troubled by Mario’s saying this at that point, because I felt like we had a certain level of unity in the Free Speech Movement, but it didn’t include opposing the Vietnam War. You didn’t have to be opposed to the Vietnam War to be actively and enthusiastically involved in the Free Speech Movement, though probably if you took a survey, the overwhelming majority would have been opposed to the Vietnam War. And, within a short time after this, I myself became convinced that it needed to be very actively and strongly opposed. But at that time I was still in the process of wrangling with this—debating and studying and trying to learn enough to make up my mind about it. So this was a little troubling to me—although, as I’ve said before, as I was trying to make up my mind and come to a decision about Vietnam, the things that were said by people like Mario Savio, for whom I had great respect in general, obviously had a big influence and played a role in convincing me to oppose what the U.S. was doing in Vietnam. So it was that kind of contradictory thing.


5. William F. Knowland was nicknamed William “Formosa” Knowland because of his big-time support for Chiang Kai-shek, who had ruled China with the backing of the U.S. and other imperialist powers but had been driven from power in 1949 by the Chinese revolution, led by Mao Tsetung, and forced to retreat to the island of Taiwan, which was formerly called Formosa. [back]

6. For more on the author’s views on the Free Speech Movement, see “FSM Reflections—On Becoming a Revolutionary,” by Bob Avakian, Revolutionary Worker, #882, November 17, 1996, available at [back]