Robert Cohen, author of The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960’s

September 23rd, 2002


“Berkeley in the sixties.”  Depending on your point of view, that phrase may recall thoughts of a place and time to run toward with enthusiasm, or flee from in fear. It was a place where the traditional university curriculum gave way to the students’ pursuit of the free exchange of ideas, and was the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement of 1964.

The Movement was the event that ignited the first clash of generations in a turbulent, historic decade.  Its values shaped who many in America are today, its actions the genesis of the new left and new right. Movement leaders employed tactics learned from the Civil Rights Movement of the south that ultimately resulted in the way the Vietnam war was opposed.  Its members went on to become activists in the feminist movement and Vietnam era protests. A key political opponent eventually became President of the United States.

New York University historian Robert Cohen, co-editor of The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960’s, visits with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita about one of the most celebrated and culturally significant events in 20th century America.




“Free speech…represents the very dignity of what a human being is…That’s what marks us off from the stones and the stars. You can speak freely…It is the thing that marks us as just below the angels.”  

– Mario Savio, 1964


The Kingston Trio sing Where Have All The Flowers Gone?


JJM  Who was your childhood hero?

RC  I grew up in New York City during the late sixties and early seventies, at a time when we were organizing against the war. I was heavily influenced by the Civil Rights Movement. I admired Martin Luther King when I was growing up, as well as the students in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, in particular Bob Moses. I was also very influenced by the generation of journalists who reported on the Vietnam War, and showed that our government was lying to us about the war, especially reporters such as David Halberstam. I also admired protest music and the people who made it, like Bob Dylan and Marvin Gaye. Those are the people who had the most influence over me.

JJM  You really followed that into your career, didn’t you?

RC  Yes. My first book, When the Old Left Was Young, is about student protest during the Great Depression, so I have always been interested in student activism. Since I grew up during the Vietnam protest era, I assumed everybody was somewhat politically active in high school. When I went to college in upstate New York, it was kind of jolt to me to find many people weren’t active in high school or even in college. It was an unusual political climate, one that was highly polarized by Vietnam.

JJM What was Berkeley like in 1960, prior to the Free Speech Movement?

RC  Before the Free Speech Movement, the campus that was still trying to recover from the anti-Communist loyalty oath of McCarthyism, which led to the departure of some faculty. It really scarred the campus. At the time, there was a group of student government candidates called SLATE, who, unlike most students or government candidates who are primarily about personalities and being in that social milieu, were running on a platform that was based on a kind of dissident view. All the SLATE candidates pledged to oppose discrimination in university organizations, many of which barred non-whites and in some instances non-protestants. So there was, at least on campus through the SLATE organization, an attempt to revive a free-thinking and dissident kind of student culture on campus, but they had a hard time of it because the majority culture was the traditional “Joe College” frats and football set. Fraternities and sororities really controlled the campus.

The other thing I would say about Berkeley is that it is more than a campus. There has always been in the Bay area a kind of dissident tradition that is linked all the way back to the Waterfront Strike of the thirties. Combine that with progressive radio station KPFA and the beat poets and you have evidence of a kind of cultural radicalism in the Bay area. That helped to build the student subculture that was pro-politics, but it was still a very difficult road. SLATE would run candidates again and again for office and usually lose. The administration was always after them, trying to throw them off campus. So, it was a really a tradition of a heroic minority tied to dissent in a student world that was not very hospitable to their cause.

JJM  Students for a Democratic Society leader Todd Gitlin said, “A social movement is never simply ‘about’ its object, but it is always ‘about’ the deeper identities of the participants who stoke it and shape it.” What was the typical identity of a Cal student in 1964?

RC  I have to answer that question by saying there wasn’t one identity at Cal. There were competing subcultures. There was the majority culture, which was the non-activist liberal, as well as a very powerful apolitical part of the campus that was into the traditional view of college life — the fraternities, the football. The Civil Rights Movement began to create an impetus for the more political culture, and to challenge the political culture on campus. In early 1964, students became active in the movement to end racial discrimination in the Bay area, visible in protests at the Sheraton Palace Hotel, on auto row, in the Lucky grocery stores, and at the Oakland Tribune. There was quite a lot of ferment in the Bay area that was connected to the inspiration provided by the southern Civil Rights Movement.

JJM  The movement gave them the opportunity to connect with the struggles of the civil rights people.

RC That’s right. Berkeley in 1964 was a predominantly white campus. There wasn’t yet affirmative action, and even though the activists were very much trying to support civil rights, it was still mostly a white campus. Thus, what the Civil Rights Movement did was provide a sort of inspirational proof that one could change society even without having power. The African Americans didn’t have power in the south, and students on the campus didn’t have power when it came to dealing with the bureaucracy there. The movement gave a sense of social purpose to students.

In that era, political advocacy was not allowed on campus. There was a strip of land just off campus that was used for political advocacy, raising money for the Civil Rights Movement and other political causes. This helped keep the students in touch with what was going on in the larger world. When the campus administration discovered that this strip of land was actually owned by the university, they cracked down on political organizing on that property. Well, you had students like Mario Savio, the leader of the Free Speech Movement, who had just come back from the south where they helped register blacks to vote, and he was not necessarily in the mood to have someone come along and tell him he couldn’t promote political advocacy on campus. He then brought the tactics learned from the Civil Rights Movement to the campus. So, to answer your original question about the identity of a Berkeley student, there was a kind of activist core of students whose work was inspiring to a larger group of sympathetic students.

Keep in mind the variety of perspectives. For example, when the activists were sitting around that police car in Sproul Plaza, preventing the arrest of activist Jack Weinberg, there was almost a riot because the fraternity set was throwing lit cigarettes in to the crowd. They were shouting, “We want the car,” in an attempt to get the demonstrators to leave. Thus on campus, there was a radical core of people, a larger liberal sympathetic group, and an anti-activist group. The Civil Rights Movement changed the dynamic between these groups, providing the activist group with a new sense of dynamism. People admired them. Mario Savio, for example, participated in the first demonstration involving civil disobedience at Berkeley in the spring of 1964 — before the fall Free Speech Movement — because he was sympathetic to the Movement, but also because he wanted to impress his girlfriend. He eventually said he was a little embarrassed by that, but on the other hand felt that when you try to create an alternative society, you do it by demonstrating that you are committed to alternative values. So, instead of trying to be a football hero or owning a big car, you demonstrate your commitment by getting arrested while protesting racial discrimination.

JJM I remember very clearly when I was a kid growing up in the Bay area that being politically active was a way to appeal to women. The old school was to be a football hero. Mario Savio and the political activists of Berkeley seemed to offer an appealing alternative.

RC  What it showed is that there was a new sort of social concern going on, and people did respect you for trying to improve society, and it became a quality that people admired. It was admirable to address social problems, and to become active and take time away from your own career to help improve society was becoming more popular. Savio was someone just coming into his own, studying philosophy and physics and sciences, in the process of trying to figure out what made the world work and sorting out his feelings about it. He was not a careerist, and since it was an affluent era with few financial pressures, he had the time and the opportunity to try to figure out how to improve society, and what kind of role he could play as a contributor to it.

JJM  What was his definition of free speech on college campus?

RC  He thought that a student should be able to express himself freely without anybody disrupting your speech.

JJM  So, what about that philosophy troubled the administrators?

RC   If you asked the administration, they would say that they believed in free speech too, but they felt that what he was asking for was free advocacy. In other words, you could talk about ideas but you couldn’t advocate an off campus political activity or raise money for it.  You could say, “Racism is bad,” but you couldn’t say, “Racism is bad so we are going to picket at that hotel across the Bay at 6:00 tomorrow and we want you all to come.” That was the distinction that they made, and the reason they made this distinction was basically out of fear. Number one, they were afraid of the Legislature in Sacramento, where there were many conservatives who they didn’t want to antagonize. Number two, they were afraid that these students could use their campus as a base for political advocacy, particularly advocating illegal protests which violate trespassing laws. The administration wanted to prevent the campus from becoming a base for a political operation.

Students felt that the First Amendment should not be sacrificed on campus, that you should have the same rights on campus that you have off campus. Ultimately, the Supreme Court agreed with the students more than the administration on this point. The late sixties Tinker decision resulted in a very famous phrase, “You don’t leave your constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gates.” You still have a right to express yourself on campus. The only limitation that the Free Speech Movement accepted with regard to free speech is what they called “time, place and manner” regulations. They agreed to conduct free speech in a way that does not disrupt the work of the university.

JJM University of California President Clark Kerr said, “The revolt of 1964 was basically about dissatisfactions with off campus conditions involving civil rights and the lack of on campus opportunities to expose them.” He considered it to be a student/faculty uprising. He also saw himself as being undermined by the Free Speech Movement, misunderstood and in fact, “demonized.” What is an accurate account of his role during these protests?

RC  The introduction to the book is titled “The Many Meanings of the Free Speech Movement” because an event as complicated as the Free Speech Movement has many different interpretations. For Kerr, this protest was the beginning of the end of his era of liberal reform at the university. He was shortly thereafter fired by Ronald Reagan, who became governor on the plank of cleaning up the mess at Berkeley. But Clark Kerr felt that he was a pro free speech, liberal administrator, and as head of the entire University of California system, was building a great educational program. He felt that rather than exercising patience and promoting the expansion of student rights, the Free Speech Movement was radical, extreme and demanded immediate change. When they didn’t get it, they took the civil disobedience tactic that alienated the electorate in California and created a climate for Reagan, who then kicked him out. So, while I and many other historians may say that the Free Speech Movement helped to build a new left which began a tradition of student activism on campus, Kerr felt that it built the new right, the rise of Ronald Reagan, ultimately throwing mainstream liberals out of power.

JJM  The irony is that, as Kerr points out, the radical left opened the door to Reagan’s conservative movement, who wound up taking over the state of California and ultimately Washington.

RC Yes, that’s right, but let me say this about Kerr. He was in Japan when these new regulations prohibiting free speech on the Bancroft Avenue strip were issued by Berkeley chancellor Edward Strong. When he returned, he expressed surprise that this decision had been made, but he didn’t overrule it, even though he knew it was a mistake. He admits that his failure to overrule the chancellor was the biggest mistake of his presidency.

JJM  He called it a “blunder.”

RC  Yes, and having admitted that, I don’t think he could completely blame the Free Speech Movement. It wasn’t the students’ job to take care that his administration was continued. That was his job. It may be that he didn’t want to overrule the chancellor, but there are times when the guy under you makes a big mistake like this was, and you ought to overrule him.

JJM  It’s also interesting that Kerr’s philosophy in dealing with the demonstrators was more lenient than what Governor Pat Brown wanted. Brown urged him to use the campus police to remove the demonstrators who were sitting in Sproul Hall, whereas Kerr really wanted to just let it run its course.

RC  Kerr wanted to negotiate a settlement, at least with the police car sit-in. There was recently a story in the San Francisco Chronicle that suggested Kerr was the subject of a secret campaign by the FBI to get him fired. Kerr was not liked by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who didn’t think Kerr was tough enough with what he called “the young punks” of the Free Speech Movement. There were people in the administration at the Berkeley campus who were more conservative and who wanted to go further with how the students were dealt with than Kerr did. I think it is true that while Kerr wanted to mediate, his first choice was not to use the police.

When people write these autobiographical things they may be trying to defend themselves. There certainly may be truth to what he says, but to me the issue is why are you in this mess to begin with? Why is the issue of police on campus even there? The issue is there because of these very archaic regulations restricting freedom of speech on campus. That should never have happened. The bottom line is that he was adhering to policies that could easily have been changed, and this issue about backing the chancellor’s bad decision turned out to be a mistake.

JJM He also created some problems with how the kids related to him by making a remark about how their movement was tainted by a Communist Party influence.

RC  Yes, that was another big issue. He claimed he was misquoted when suggesting that 49% of the protestors were communists, tarring the protestors with the communist label. That infuriated the students who felt they were being “red-baited” by their own college president. The fact of the matter was that his actions around this issue led to a kind of polarization between the liberals and the radicals who felt that the liberal administration of the campus slandered them. One of the things I did in my essay about the rank and file of the movement was to look at the statements students gave to the judge, just before they being sentenced. What I found was that most of the students were really standing up for their constitutional rights, trying to protect their right to free speech, and protect their idyllic university. Most of them were not communists or socialists or radicals of any stripe, they were what we would today call moderate liberals. A lot of them were very upset, and that was one of the rationales for their joining in the big sit in at Sproul Hall, to show that this was not a movement of a few radical agitators.

JJM  In fact, there was a reluctance of many of the demonstrators to engage in the act of civil disobedience, such as the sit-in.

RC  Yes, these were students who had been raised to obey the law and it was difficult for many of them to break it. The thing that is impressive about those statements to the judge is that they really agonized about this. They weren’t revolutionaries out to destroy the university, and that is why it was so upsetting to see themselves stereotyped that way.


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