There are few more difficult tasks than writing an interesting biography, particularly if the subject is someone most people know very little about.
If the subject is Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War-historian James McPherson’s Tried by War comes to mind—the reader is likely to have an appetite for details.
But if the subject is Mario Savio, one of the leaders of the 1964 Free Speech Movement (FSM), then the writer needs to thread a careful path between the personal and the political, with an emphasis on the latter.
New York University historian Robert Cohen tries to do both, and at least partially succeeds. He does an admirable job of uncovering the experiences that turned a stuttering Queens, New York altar boy into a formidable orator, and there are times where the author does a brilliant job of capturing the passion and the power of Savio’s rhetorical style.
If there is a weakness in the book it is that the great social upheaval Savio was an important part of sometimes recedes into the background.
The core of Cohen’s book focuses on the FSM, although his examination of Savio’s political education in Mexico and Mississippi fills in how those experiences help mold a young man who had but recently broken loose from a powerful connection to Catholicism.
When Savio arrived on the Berkeley campus it was already a center of political activity. Berkeley’s progressive student organization, SLATE, helped chase the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) out of San Francisco in 1960, and Cal students had joined demonstrations challenging the racist hiring practices of San Francisco’s hotels and car agencies.
But in the fall of 1964 Berkeley was still tangential to the massive sit-ins and demonstrations around HUAC, the Sheridan Palace Hotel, and the big car sales outlets on San Francisco’s Van Ness Avenue. The city has a long history of political activism dating back even before the successful 1934 general strike, and it featured a strong Left and a powerful union movement that was highly political, and much of it racially integrated.
Cohen gives that history a nod—it should get more—but focuses on the FSM. Since this is a biography of a free speech leader, that is understandable, but it ends up sidelining some of the wider political and social tides that set the stage for the Berkeley uprising.
This is not to say that the author doesn’t attempt to place the FSM within a wider context. On one hand, he chronicles in detail the events and the decision making in the FSM. On the other, he tries to echo the rumbles of social unrest that eventually exploded into a generation of activism. One wishes Cohen had spent a little more time on the wider issues and trimmed some of the FSM minutiae.
One problem with contemporary history is that so much of it depends on with whom you talk. The FSM was a complex movement with dozens of currents and eddies. Cohen is particularly enamored with the New Left, which indeed played a very important role in the struggle. He is less so with the old Left, which also played a key role, particularly in mobilizing outside support for the students.
As one example, he talks at length with conservative faculty member John Searle, who while supporting the FSM, was a caustic critic of the Left, and later became a staunch opponent of student activism.
In contradistinction, biologist Leon Wofsy gets a single quote. Yet Wofsy’s political savvy and organizational experience played a key role in finally bringing the Academic Senate around to supporting the FSM. But Wofsy was “old Left” and one suspects his brevity as a source is partly related to that fact.
The book leans heavily on a few leaders, in particular, Jack Weinberg. While other leaders like Bettina Aptheker and Jackie Goldberg get a say, they feel extraneous. Yet they—and many others—played as important a role as Savio and Weinberg.
Focusing on a few misses the rank-and- file students who were the core strength of the FSM. Out of 800 students arrested in the great Dec. 2 Sproul Hall sit-in, fully 61 percent had never been involved in demonstrations before the free speech fight.
Cohen spends a lot of time on Savio as an orator, analyzing his speeches in sometimes exhausting detail. The man could indeed talk, but what made him so effective was less his rhetorical style than the fact that he channeled what people were thinking. It wasn’t quotations from Greek philosophers that fired the troops, it was the issues at stake and the inability of university officials to understand anything but the use of force.
Cohen correctly identifies what made Savio an effective speaker: he was thoughtful, honest and straightforward, breaking down what the issues were and exactly what the administration said during negotiations.
That deep-seated honesty was central to his character, and it resonated with his audience. When it came time to take the Bastille, you wanted Mario to make a speech and lead the charge.
The last part of the book deals with Savio’s later psychological difficulties, his withdrawal from activism, and his return to politics until his death in 1996. The book also includes many of Savio’s speeches and writings.
Is this a book for a general audience? One hopes so, because it is well written, and Cohen really does a good job of analyzing the tactics and strategy of the FSM, what worked and what didn’t. In that sense, Freedom’s Orator is a useful blueprint for how to take on one of the most powerful institutions in California.
True, the issues are different today—though one knows that deep in its dark little heart the university would love to roll back the gains of the FSM—but the beast in 2009 is pretty much the same as it was in 1964. Instead of trying to shut students up these days, the university is doing its best to exclude all but the well- to-do. In the end, it is much the same thing.
A new generation of activists has appeared on the campuses, fighting to keep the university open to all Californians. They too have marched and struck, and are finding that they are most effective when they tap into their allies outside the ivy tower. There are many of those.
The arrogance and elitism of the university has not changed a whit from the days when UC Chancellor Edward Strong and UC President Clark Kerr plotted and schemed against the FSM.
The students who are digging in to take on the university and the regents would do well to read this book. Because in the end its message is simple: get your politics right, recruit allies in the wider world, and mobilize enough students to pull down the walls.
Conn Hallinan was arrested in Sproul Hall on Dec. 2 1964.
Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s
By Robert Cohen
Oxford University Press