Two major forces dominating American society in the 1950s—one waning, the other waxing—collided in Sproul Plaza 40 years ago today, Oct. 1, climaxing in an epochal moment.
“The connections to the civil rights movement are extensive, along with a continuation of the organizing against McCarthyism,” said Bettina Aptheker, a participant in the events of that memorable day and today a professor and chair of Women’s Studies at UC Santa Cruz.
Many of the activists on Sproul Plaza that day had been active in the movement against McCarthyism and its embodiment in the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
Four years earlier, another UC Berkeley student coalition, SLATE, organized another memorable protest when HUAC came to San Francisco looking for Reds under beds in Berkeley and elsewhere around the bay, said Peter Franck, one of the group’s leading activists.
Hundreds of Berkeley students arrived outside San Francisco City Hall on the morning of May 13, 1960 to protest the HUAC hearings underway inside.
After denying students admission to the building, police brought in high pressure fire hoses and blasted them down the steps, arresting dozens, including 31 Cal students.
The next day brought 5,000 demonstrators.
Repercussions of the protest included the resignation en masse of the Daily Californian staff after a university crackdown on the publication for urging students to join the protest, the banning of SLATE from campus activities and the sowing of seeds that would burst forth four years later on Sproul Plaza.
Aptheker had arrived on campus two years after the HUAC protest, and she was on that plaza that day, Oct. 1, 1964, to set up a table for the W.E.B. Dubois Club, a prominent civil rights organization of the day with extensive ties to the Old Left.
As the daughter of leading Marxist journalist Herbert Aptheker, long reviled by the FBI, she knew first-hand the repressive passions nurtured by Wisconsin Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and her childhood friendship with future African American organizer Angela Davis had deepened her sympathies with the rising demands for equality that were shaking the nation.
Tables on Bancroft Way at Telegraph Avenue had been banned by university officials on Sept. 14, but organizers for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and other civil rights organizations defied the ban, Aptheker among them.
In retaliation, campus deans later came out and took the names of all those who were sitting at the tables—Aptheker included—for possible administrative action.
“For every person whose name was taken, another person would then sit down at the table,” she said. “The deans had taken the names of over 800 students by the end of the day.”
In response, members of the United Front, a coalition of 18 groups of all political persuasions, held a meeting where Mario Savio, a junior recently arrived form New York, spoke out.
“I remember him saying that the principle was freedom of speech on campus, not the tables. So he suggested moving the tables to Sproul Plaza. That was when the police car came,” she said.
Among those who had set up tables directly in front of the administration building was Jack Weinberg, a UC alum with a long involvement in civil rights who was organizing for CORE.
Bruce Africa, now a psychiatrist on the staff of Napa State Hospital, was one of those at the tables. “It was the first time in my life I ever did anything overtly against the law,” he recalled. “Jack Weinberg was one of those who emerged as a leader, and he’s been one ever since.”
When police asked Weinberg for his name and non-existent student ID card, the young radical stood mute and the officers arrested him. He went limp, and was carried into the car.
“I don’t know who shouted ‘Sit down!’ I was standing right by the driver’s side front fender, and sat,” Aptheker said. “There were thousands of us.
“And that was the beginning.”
In a brilliant bit of improvisation, the students quickly deflated the tires and the police car was trapped.
For 32 hours, thousands of students continued the sit-in.
It wasn’t long before they realized that the roof of the captive car offered a perfect soap box, and it was from there that Savio emerged as the voice of the movement, a figure who had in a few short hours captured the attention of the world.
“I remember him sitting on top of the police car, talking to a Chronicle reporter in his stocking feet,” said Marilyn Noble, who was to play a unique role in the ensuing events.
“I said, ‘Who does your laundry? You don’t have time any more.’ Then I got his address,” she said.
Before the sit-in ended, campus officials released Weinberg, refusing to press charges.
Yet at the moment, Aptheker and her friends had no sense they were participants in an historic moment. “None of us understood that until much later.”
For her, the recognition came on Nov. 20., when the UC regents met in University Hall on Oxford Street.
“We organized a rally on the Sproul footsteps and we marched to the regents’ meeting. There were 5,000 of us, and for me that was when I understood that we had a huge movement and I began to feel that we were part of something that was historic,” she said.
In the interim, Marilyn Noble had emerged as the caretaker of the core leadership of what had become the Free Speech Movement.
She fed them and kept them in clean clothes—suits and ties for Savio and the other men in those short-haired, clean-shaven pre-Hippie days.
When it came time for the November march on the regents, “I took one of Jackie Goldberg’s sorority bed sheets and made a sign” that students carried at the head of the march as the paraded through Sather Gate and on to the regents’ meeting.
Perhaps the most fitting memorial to those events of 400 years ago will come Friday noon, Oct. 8, during the upcoming Free Speech Movement 40th anniversary, from atop the roof of another police car in Sproul when FSM participants will seize the moment to dissect the latest challenge to free speech in America, the Patriot Act.
“That’s the best way to commemorate the signal victory of the Free Speech Movement,” said Michael Rossman, a key organizer of the week-long celebration. ª