Berkeley’s Legendary Radicalism

Ted Vincent, Special to the Planet
Tuesday September 05, 2006

Berkeley’s role in radical ideas, movements and programs is often thought to date from the 1960s—that decade of the Free Speech Movement and of assorted demonstrations that led to the town nickname, “plywood city” for the boarded-up broken windows. 

Our city was considered ground-zero in the anti-Vietnam war cause. There was, for instance, the telegram sent from peace movement leaders in Toronto, Canada, to the main Berkeley anti-war office. The Toronto activists were hosting a debate between representatives of North and South Vietnam. The North Vietnam contingent pulled out.  

The Toronto telegram, composed in frantic terse telegramese, told Berkeley to tell North Vietnam to sit down with the South at the Toronto forum. Activists in the Berkeley office were flabbergasted. “Toronto thinks we can order North Vietnam around. Where’d they get that idea?” 

One could say it came from our town’s rep as the place that supported the causes: student freedom, free love, pacifism, ecology, women’s rights, disabled rights, coop living, senior rights, marijuana rights, and, among others, dramatic support for African American struggle—notably the Black Panther Party and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Selma Spector-Vincent recalls from her days as secretary in the office of the East Bay Friends of SNCC that national headquarters informed Berkeley that its office was accounting for one of every three dollars sent in from around the United States. 

When did the activism begin? Apparently, well before our city was officially incorporated in 1878. During the 1850s, Mexicans angry at their land being seized repeatedly burned the homes of the first Anglo settlers. The first movement for a modern cause was in the spirit of our Center for Independent Living. A group of crusaders led by Frances Augusta Clark of San Francisco pushed for the establishment in Berkeley in 1865 of the state School for the Blind and Deaf, an institution the founders emphatically declared was “a school, not an asylum.” The school predated the University of California as a state educational institution in our city.  

Intense political party fights date from the election of Berkeley’s first city council, then called Board of Trustees. The 1878 election was won by the Workingmen’s Party—the proto-socialist party that was a power in those times in many a mine and mill town back East, and in San Francisco (a city where it detoured from class struggle into anti-Asian racism). 

The Berkeley contest featured our eternal split between “flats” and “hills.” The local Advocate newspaper said the victors represented “the working class” Western neighborhoods of the city, while the rival “aristocrat” party represented “the Claremont.” 

According to the Advocate, the Workingmen overcame a late rise in support for the rival Citizen’s Party by what we call today a get-out-the-vote campaign. In this case, the Workingmen “traversed from one end (of the town) to the other with fast horses to obtain every available vote.”  

In 1883 Berkeley became nationally prominent in a move against the mighty railroad companies, then buying up whole towns in monopolistic maneuvers. Anti-corporate militants gathered at the foot of Berkeley’s wharf to break ground for the western terminus of a cross-continental “People’s Railway of America.” 

The idea originated in the Knights of Labor on the East coast. That Berkeley should jump to the then visionary idea is suggestive of our traditions. The P.R.A. died with few miles of track laid.  

Two UC professors were in the first Workingmen’s Party government in Berkeley, their presence reflecting our town’s long tradition of intellectual activism. It may be noted that the Unitarians, those thoughtful agitators, opened Starr King School for Religion in 1906, and a year later the Berkeley Unitarian Club hosted the founding meeting for the city’s government reform movement, which successfully made Berkeley one of the first cities to adopt the commission system, a form of governance which was intended to curtail the power of the “political bosses,” and which swept the nation and was part of “The Progressive Movement.” 

Under the new form of government Berkeley got an openly “socialist” mayor. Jack London wrote sarcastically of Berkeley leftists of this time. In a biographical sketch he describes going from working-class Oakland to Berkeley for the fun of spouting this and that revolutionary slogan that would make the Berkeley “socialists” squirm.  

Between 1913 and 1923 mayors and involved citizens in Berkeley were instrumental in the fight to create a municipal water system, notes William Warren Ferrier in his history of the city. 

Corporations then dreamed of running the local water system in the manner of the gas and electric company today. Strong arguments against the capitalists were needed to push through what came to be the East Bay Municipal Utility District. 

The decade of the Great Depression began with Berkeley’s “hill” crowd in political control, to the extreme that in the 1932 presidential election, while Franklin D. Roosevelt swept most of the nation, Berkeley was one of the only cities in Alameda county to vote for Herbert Hoover.  

Under F.D.R., however, Berkeley politics switched back, notably in the city endorsement of a plan Roosevelt pushed for cities to endorse W.P.A. funding for schooling. Today, Berkeley High School is the only high school in the state primarily built through the W.P.A. and its New Deal successor agencies. Being a poster child for the movement, the grounds came to include our revered Berkeley Community Theater and Florence Schwimly Little Theater. 

The post-World War II years were a boon to higher education and the University of California grew significantly. Then a dark episode interrupted the good spirits. McCarthyism swept the nation. Paranoia over “communists,” “pinkos” and “fellow travelers” infected the trade unions, city governments and the academic community. 

In 1949 UC President Robert Gordon Sproul joined the anti-red crusade. He convinced the Regents to adopt a Loyalty Oath that all UC employees had to sign. Led by brave professors at Berkeley, 31 profs of the UC system refused to sign and were fired. A number sued and ten years later retained their positions. 

Talk about the professors who stood up to the witch hunters continued on UC campuses throughout the 1950s. Distaste grew over the intimidation factor in loyalty oaths (sign and shut up or someone might finger you for that night your date took you to a Communist Party party). 

Distaste turned to revulsion as evidence mounted that the government used paid liars to claim they saw this or that person at such a party. In San Francisco in May of 1960, a meeting of the House Un-American Activities Committee was brought to a halt by a gathering of angry young people, including many from Berkeley, and some from the old brown shingle homes along Haste and Dwight that would soon be torn down to create the large vacant lot that, thanks to later struggle, became People’s Park. 

The 1960 San Francisco HUAC protest is often considered the start of our Great Radical Tradition, which we have seen, actually goes back much further.