The Passion of Mario Savio

The Passion of Mario Savio

Saint, saboteur, or square? Fifty years after the Free Speech Movement, a look back at its charismatic leader.

Mario Savio (center) at a rally, December 7, 1964 (Steven Marcus photograph, The Bancroft Library)

The Essential Mario Savio
Speeches and Writings that Changed America 

Edited by Robert Cohen
University of California Press, August 2014, 320 pp.

“What about Vietnam?” Mario R. Savio asked in a love letter he sent on July 3, 1964 from Mississippi to Cheryl Stevenson, a fellow civil rights activist and UC Berkeley student, in California. It was an uncharacteristic question from the twenty-one-year-old philosophy major and Freedom Summer volunteer who helped give birth to the New Left but never belonged to it and never called himself a New Leftist. Mississippi stayed with Savio his whole life. Vietnam doesn’t appear again in a single letter he wrote to Stevenson. In Mississippi in 1964, he saw good and evil and “the hand of God working in the world.” Apparently he didn’t see God in the anti-war movement.

Savio’s July 3 letter and a dozen more he wrote to Stevenson in the summer of 1964 appear in The Essential Mario Savio, a new collection edited by NYU professor of history and social studies Robert Cohen, who knew Savio and reveres him. Featuring a foreword by SDS cofounder Tom Hayden, an afterword by Robert Reich, and an epilogue by Savio’s widow Lynn Hollander, the book casts a warm glow on the Free Speech Movement (FSM) and its charismatic spokesman.

Mario Savio was the valedictorian of his high school class in Queens, New York, a scholarship student at Berkeley, and the first in his immediate family to attend college. He quickly discovered that Berkeley wasn’t what he wanted it to me. Big, sprawling, and impersonal, Cal thought of itself as a “multiversity.” The whole campus made Savio feel as though he was in a Kafka novel and that he had to act to keep himself from going insane or turning into an automaton.

Savio’s gift as an orator propelled him to the forefront of Berkeley’s student movement. Archival footage in Mark Kitchell’s documentary Berkeley in the Sixties gives a good sense of his speaking abilities. On his soapbox, he doesn’t read from a script and doesn’t need one; his words just pour out. While he looks and sounds collected, he’s clearly not cool and calm. His speeches start slowly and build in intensity; at the end he’s nearly screeching. At times, he eggs on crowds of students. One clip from Berkeley in the Sixties shows him towering—he was over six feet tall—above a group of undergraduates. “If you don’t stand up for your freedom you’re dead,” he exclaims. It sounds like a taunt. One demonstrator unfriendly to the FSM carries a sign that says, “Mario Savio is a dupe of communism.” Other students chant, “We want Mario, we want Mario.”

In the acknowledgements to The Essential Mario Savio, Cohen writes, “The history profession has done surprisingly little research on Savio or the FSM.” If you think of the Free Speech Movement as an event of world significance and Savio as a world historical figure, as veterans of the FSM often do, then perhaps there can never be too many books about the movement and its icon, whom scholars have linked together for the past fifty years. The Essential Mario Savio is Cohen’s third book about the movement. With Reginald Zelnik, who was an assistant professor at UC Berkeley during the FSM, he edited a 618-page book entitled The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s; he is also the author of Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s, a full-length biography. There are dozens more books about the FSM and Savio: Hal Draper’s Berkeley: The New Student Revolt, Max Heirich’s The Beginning: Berkeley, 1964, Margot Adler’s Heretic’s Heart, Bettina Aptheker’s Intimate Politics, and The Gold and the Blue and Political Turmoil by Clark Kerr, to name a few. (Kerr was the liberal president of UC Berkeley from 1958 to 1967 who demonized the FSM and was in turn demonized by it; student activists saw him as a bureaucrat who wanted to turn the university into a factory that mass produced students for the marketplace.) Unfortunately there isn’t yet a book by a historian who wasn’t alive in 1964.

In recent years, the most insightful account of the FSM and the government backlash it provoked is Seth Rosenfeld’s Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power. Rosenfeld, a journalist who wrote for the Daily Californian in the 1970s and later for The San Francisco Chronicle, fought the FBI for decades to obtain files on Savio and the FSM. His book describes the collaboration between J. Edgar Hoover and Ronald Reagan that led to the resurgence of the Republican Party, the removal of Kerr as UC Berkeley’s president, the gutting of the state budget for education, and the university’s decision not to reinstate Savio after his expulsion.

The great value of Subversive as history is that Rosenfeld connects the arc of Savio’s career as a radical to the arc of Reagan’s rise to power as a politician. Rosenfeld reminds readers that Reagan warned California voters about a group of Berkeley conspirators, including Savio, who were “bent on destroying our society and our democracy” and who would “go to any ends to achieve their purpose.” The image of Savio atop the police car sent a clear message all the way to Hoover in Washington, D.C. and to Reagan in California: students were out of control and the police were powerless to corral them. By the time of the protest in 1969 at “People’s Park,” as protesters called it, Governor Reagan would send in the National Guard to clean up “that mess in Berkeley.” Students trashed the Bank of America. Frank Bardacke called for chaos in the streets. At least fifty demonstrators were shot; one was killed, more than a thousand were arrested, and the campus was tear-gassed.

In the foreword to The Essential Mario Savio, Tom Hayden refers to Rosenfeld’s “troubling conclusions” and wonders, “Looking back, were we only pawns in a larger game?” He points out that Savio was “demonized as a virtual Fidel Castro” and that Hoover saw Berkeley as the prime target in his campaign against “agitational activity” on campuses across the country.

Yet the student leader who appears in The Essential Mario Savio is no bearded revolutionary. On the contrary, Savio’s clean-cut image, Catholic values, and reluctance to denounce imperialism or to throw himself into the anti-war movement put him out of step with the New Left radicals who followed him. It is perhaps his ambiguity that has helped ease him into the history books.

After Savio died in 1996, the university that had demonized him began to cherish him; Hayden points out with a sense of real alarm that in the last decade and a half, UC Berkeley has “incorporated the FSM and student activism in its brand promotion.” A $3.5 million donation from former FSM member Stephen Silberstein in 1998 created the Free Speech Movement Café. The steps to Sproul Hall have been renamed the “Mario Savio Steps.” Former UC Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien observed that Savio’s name “is forever linked with one of our nation’s most cherished freedoms—the right to freedom of expression.” He added, “We are proud that he was part of the community at the University of California.”

In his new anthology, Cohen describes Savio as “Berkeley’s most famous student,” though that designation probably belongs to Jack London, who attended Berkeley briefly in the 1890s, and who was arrested for speaking on the streets of Oakland, a short distance from the campus. “Today’s heresy is tomorrow’s orthodox,” London observed. Hayden echoes his sentiments. “The persecuted radicals of one era are venerated as prophets and saints in another,” he writes.

In the fall of 2014, the university sponsored half a dozen events—lectures, panels and concerts—to commemorate the Free Speech Movement. Moreover, the university bought and distributed Cohen’s biography of Savio for free to all 8,000 members of the first year class. As Hayden observes, “It is difficult not to be slightly cynical about this.” New Left godfather Herbert Marcuse would no doubt recognize the university’s appropriation of Savio’s legacy as “repressive tolerance” at work.

Meanwhile, UC Berkeley students and faculty members wondered whether the university genuinely supported the First Amendment, especially in the wake of an email entitled “Civility and Free Speech” that Chancellor Nicholas Dirks sent to the campus community. “We can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so,” Dirks wrote. “Courteousness and respect in words and deeds are basic preconditions to any meaningful exchange of ideas.” He added, “Free speech and civility are two sides of a single coin—the coin of open, democratic society.”

The email provoked a backlash on campus and across the blogosphere. But Mario Savio, the free speech hero himself, might well have agreed with Dirks. At the height of the FSM, Savio insisted that protesters adhere to basic rules of civility and proper deportment. He even removed his shoes before climbing atop the police cruiser at the center of the legendary October 1964 sit-in, as a sign that he meant no disrespect to law enforcement or state property. When I knew Savio in the 1990s, he was often a model of politeness.

What divided Savio from the radicals who followed him, including Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Mark Rudd, was in part the gap between his civility and their blatant refusal to adhere to good manners as defined by college presidents, federal judges, and other figures of authority. Unlike Savio, Hoffman, Rubin, and Rudd meant to shock verbally and visually; they often dressed outlandishly. (There were also substantial political differences—most notably over Vietnam—which divided Savio from the radicals in SDS [including Hayden, though they were both Catholics born before the boomers], the Yippies, and the anti-war coalition known as the MOBE.) As John Murray Cuddihy pointed out decades ago in The Ordeal of Civility, the sixties generation gap widened principally over questions of proper and improper speech, not over ideology. Yippies and SDS members would probably cheer Anity Levy, the associate secretary at the American Association of University Professors, who said, in response to Chancellor Dirk’s email: “That the university which gave rise to the free speech movement should celebrate it by embracing the notion of civility is patently absurd.”

One thing Savio did share with the Yippies who followed him was a belief in the power of theater, props, and costumes and the necessity of using “PR,” as he called it in a letter to Stevenson from Mississippi. His innate theatricality helps to explain the December 2, 1964 Sproul Hall speech for which he is best known—a speech that appeared to endorse the very opposite of civility:

There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels … upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!

In The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, Todd Gitlin likens the “bodies upon the gears” speech to a talk in which Hayden called upon young Americans “to stand in front of the war machine” and “to try to find some way to confront it where you would definitely pay a price.” Gitlin goes on to say that Hayden’s and Savio’s words both sound like “rationales for quasi-crucifixion.”

Soon after urging students to engage in apparent sabotage-cum-crucifixion, Savio backed down. He explained that he didn’t literally want protesters to throw their bodies into any sort of machine and bring it to a halt. Preventing the machine from operating “doesn’t mean,” he explained, “that you have to break anything.” From his own experience in the civil rights movement he extracted a single strategy. “One thousand people sitting down someplace, not letting anyone by, not letting anything happen, can stop any machine, including this machine, and it will stop,” he said.

Thousands of students believed him. They put their bodies on the line, filed into Sproul Hall and sat down after hearing Joan Baez sing “We Shall Overcome.” But if Berkeley students stopped the machine, they didn’t stop it for long. In the middle of the night, nearly 800 of the radicals in Sproul Hall were arrested; the university went on exercising the kind of “arbitrary power” and the “bureaucratized” style of communication that Savio denounced in the speech he made on December 2, 1964.

Who won the battle over free speech at Berkeley? Fifty years later, as students are testing the administration’s limits once again, it’s not clear. The Essential Mario Savio offers a clearer historical perspective on Savio as a personality and on the lessons he took with him from Mississippi. Savio’s letters from the summer of 1964 offer a self-portrait of the activist as a young “reconstructionist,” to borrow the phrase he used to describe himself and his fellow Freedom Summer volunteers. Even as they express the author’s conflicted emotions and ambiguities, they chronicle the ways that Freedom Summer helped to shake the foundations of segregation and to create a core of organizers like Savio—drawn from the best and the brightest students in America—who carried the seeds of protest home from the South, along with a fearlessness that enabled them to sit in, sit down, get arrested, and go to jail. The summer volunteers, Gitlin points out in The Sixties, brought back to Berkeley “a fierce moralism, a lived love for racial equality, a distaste for bureaucratic highhandedness and euphemism, a taste for intense mass meetings on the way toward consensus.”

For Savio, the moralism was especially pronounced. He was a “true believer,” as Rosenfeld notes in Subversives, who took on his “mother’s desire that he be a second Christ.” In response to the danger that he and his fellow volunteers faced, he wrote that while he didn’t go out of his way to seek death, he said that he could not “stand to be safe” while others risked their lives. Notions of sainthood were rarely far from Savio’s thoughts. His primary candidate for sainthood was Robert Moses, one of the organizers for Freedom Summer and a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Camus came second.

Grandiose, utopian, and self-absorbed, Savio told his pen pal Stevenson that “the history of the world is pivoting on the internal changes that are going on today in America.” He could also sound paranoid, but there were real reasons to feel a sense of paranoia, including the KKK. In August, near the end of his time in the South, he felt in the presence of a great awakening and at the start of a profound liberation movement. “People who had been denied the fundamental rights of self-government … were learning … to be FREE!” he told Stevenson, and added, “Someday white people will thank Negroes for saving America from the historical trashcan.”

Savio’s moral fervor fused with a feeling of vulnerability and self-doubt of the sort that the New Left usually disdained. “Mississippi has been making me do an awful lot of thinking about Mario Savio,” he told Stevenson. “Where do I fit in?” Along with intellectual brilliance and sense of messianic zeal, he carried the seeds of insecurity that might have derived from a combination of being sexually abused by a member of his own family as a boy, his stutter, and his attachment to the Catholic sense of original sin.

In the next-to-the-last letter that he wrote to Stevenson, he told her that he felt “increasing loneliness” but that he was “reasonably safe from myself as long as I keep busy.” Mississippi awakened old emotional wounds; one family that provided him with room and board reminded him of the dynamics in his own. “I feel returning all those old fears, the feelings I’ve had as a member of a family in which I always felt under foot, in my father’s way,” he explained. He had to find a job, he told Stevenson, so that he could afford to pay for therapy. This may help explain why Malcolm Zaretsky, who interviewed Savio for the Freedom Summer volunteer position, wrote in his report (which Cohen includes in a footnote at the back of the book), “Can’t decide if I were picking people if I would choose him.”

One of the things that’s missing from The Essential Mario Savio is a group portrait of the women who surrounded him. There were at least half-a-dozen Berkeley co-eds who helped create Mario Savio as a historical icon: besides Stevenson, there was Bettina Aptheker, a New Yorker and the daughter of Communist Party historian Herbert Aptheker, who was an important source of ideas and inspiration; Suzanne Goldberg, a graduate student in philosophy and a teaching assistant who became Suzanne Savio, Mario’s first wife, and who helped write FSM papers; Jackie Goldberg, a member of the FSM Steering Committee and a Young Democrat who often spoke in public; and Barbara Garson, the editor of the FSM newsletter and the author of the 1966 hit satire, Macbird, which portrayed LBJ as Macbeth. And there were dozens more women in the Free Speech Movement, including Jentri Anders, the star of Kitchell’s documentary, and Savio’s second wife Lynne Hollander Savio, who explains in the epilogue to The Essential Mario Savio that after the FSM he “withdrew from almost all active political participation” and that he was “uncomfortable with the rhetoric of the Left during the late 1960s and the 1970s.”

All his life Savio wondered where, if anywhere, he fit in. In his last years, he continued to question himself and his role on campus at Sonoma State University, where he was still deeply concerned about freedom of speech, censorship, campus climate, and political correctness. A Catholic humanist, an existentialist, and a visionary, he wanted to be in the world but not of it. Intensely serious, he could also be funny and even self-mocking. When Sonoma State faculty members thought they recognized him and asked, “Are you Mario Savio?”, he would reply “Somebody has to be.”

At a rally on October 1 on the campus of UC Berkeley to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, speakers said very little about Savio himself. Yes, there were moments of bombast. Jack Weinberg—who warned more than thirty years ago, “Never trust anyone over the age of thirty”—claimed that student protests in Hong Kong had been influenced by the Free Speech Movement. Still, there was very little self-congratulation and boasting. Jackie Goldberg, now 69, and Bettina Aptheker, 70, both spoke. Aptheker emphasized the challenges for today’s social movements and reminded the audience of the necessity for “face-to-face door-to-door grass roots organizing.” Amanda Armstrong, a graduate student in the Department of Rhetoric, reminded listeners that Berkeley students had won battles for decades, beginning with the formation of ethnic studies in the sixties and a successful campaign in the 1980s that persuade the university to divest from apartheid South Africa. Students would have to act again, Armstrong said, and quoted from Savio’s most famous speech. The words sounded a bit hollow without the man who gave birth to himself when he delivered them on December 2, 1964. At any rate, they seemed lost on the students who filed in Sproul Hall and into classrooms to take tests and listen to lectures.

Then, on November 19, a group of students calling themselves the Open UC at Berkeley occupied Wheeler Hall to protest tuition hikes ordered by the Board of Regents and opposed by Governor Jerry Brown. The day before Thanksgiving, after a week-long occupation, the protesters went home, but not before posting a statement on Facebook that read, “See you Monday.” The ghost of Mario Savio still seems to haunt the campus.

Jonah Raskin is the author of American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and the Making of the Beat Generation, the editor of The Radical Jack London, and a professor emeritus at Sonoma State University.

Corrections: The author of The Beginning: Berkeley, 1964 is Max Heirich, not Heinrich; the author of Heretic’s Heart is Margot, not Margo, Adler; Seth Rosenfeld wrote for the Daily Californian in the 1970s, not the 1960s; and former UC Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien is a he, not a she. The text of the article has been updated and we apologize for the errors.

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