|Mario Savio is arrested, Dec. 7, 1964.|
The anniversary was marked today by the Writer's Almanac founded by Garrison Keillor, citing a 2014 retrospective NPR article.
At the time, I was employed as an economist by the Federal Reserve Board and was also a Ph.D. student in economics. I wrote an article for a student newspaper about the Berkeley incidents that was sympathetic to the students. But I was assured by several of my elders that the demonstration was surely organized by Communist sympathizers. That was the Cold War state of mind in Washington, D.C. in the mid-1960s.
From today's perspective, the students can be considered to have won their battle on campus, and surely on the specific civil rights issues for which they fought. But they also set in motion a reaction that we still live with...
The activist Berkeley students had spent their summer in the South on drives to enroll more black voters. When they returned to the campus, they set up information tables to tell their fellow students about civil rights issues, collect donations and sign up volunteers.
Berkeley's administrators were distraught about the controversy and shut down the tables. They were within their rights, since the University of California had a system-wide ban on political speeches and fundraising because it was supported by tax dollars. Campus police arrested a graduate student (Jack Weinberg) on October 1 for refusing to show his ID. A spontaneous crowd formed and trapped the campus police car for 32 hours. People climbed on the car to give speeches, including Mario Savio, one of the leaders of what came to be called the Free Speech Movement.
On December 2, an estimated 1,500 students peacefully occupied the main Berkeley administration building, Sproul Hall. Joan Baez sang songs. Some graduate students taught ad hoc classes. Savio proclaimed:
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.Gov. Pat Brown was under pressure to do something about the lawlessness. At 2 am on Dec. 3 he ordered the building cordoned off. The police, frustrated by days of having their hands tied behind their backs, began vigorously arresting the protestors. Journalists reported seeing them drag some protestors down the stone steps by their feet, with the students' heads banging on every step.
The negative press coverage of the arrests meant that the Free Speechers won hands-down on campus. By the spring, university officials reversed themselves and allowed wider political discussion on campus. Sproul Plaza now hosts informational tables that open up political discussion on the left and the right. The steps of Sproul Hall are now called the Mario Savio Steps, rentable for a speech or a rally.
However, folks, that is not the end of the story. Gov. Brown (father of Jerry Brown, California's present governor since 2011) had defeated an assault on his incumbency by Richard Nixon in 1962 with a surprising 5 percent margin. Nixon had been opposed by a John Birch Society candidate in the GOP primary, and that weakened him. Nixon famously said after his defeat, in his "last press conference":
Barry Goldwater made an unsuccessful run for President in 1964. One of his supporters was a young Hillary Rodham. Another was...
William Buckley, Jr., founder of National Review in 1955, had already spotted widespread unrest in the ranks of working-class Catholics, upset by changes in the Catholic liturgy (he himself went out of his way to continue attending a Latin Mass). In his well-researched and influential 1965 run for Mayor of New York, unsuccessful like Goldwater's, Buckley predicted correctly that working-class Irish Americans could be peeled away from the Democratic Party as a reaction against too much change. The social conservatives joined in a marriage de convenance with libertarians (who oppose market and social constraints).
Ronald Reagan rode the law-and-order issue into the governorship of California in the 1966 election,
Richard Nixon into the White House in 1968, and in due course Reagan and George H. W. Bush into the White House in 1980...