First Person: Remembering the Free Speech Movement On its 45th Anniversary

By Raymond Barglow
Thursday December 03, 2009 - 08:57:00 AM

I walked onto the UC Berkeley campus today, Wednesday, to attend the noon rally, in commemoration of the Free Speech Movement. On this day 45 years ago, I also came to the campus, and got arrested along with 800 others because of our occupation of Sproul Hall. This was the day that Mario Savio gave his famous speech from the steps of Sproul: “There is 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 ...”  

So I was thinking about Mario and wishing he were walking alongside me this morning. I knew him only as a fellow student in the Cal philosophy department, not as a friend. We took several courses together and would talk sometimes about philosophical matters: Is the mind identical to the body? Can ethical value judgments be rationally justified? One of the philosophers whom Mario admired was Immanuel Kant, whose ethics enjoins us to always respect others as ends in themselves, never merely as a means to the satisfaction of our own interests. 

In his recent biography of Savio, Robert Cohen writes that Mario and the FSM “embodied a mass movement rooted in moral principle rather than in political calculation or opportunism, standing up for freedom despite the odds of succeeding against a powerful university administration.” That sounds right to me. And although I’m mostly an observer these days, no longer an active participant in campus protest activities, I recognize in talking with this generation’s activists a similar moral impulse. “No cuts, no fees; education should be free!” they chant. At issue today is whether everyone has the right to an education. Forty-five years ago, the issue was students’ rights to organize on campus on behalf of the civil rights and anti-war movements. 

The Free Speech Movement didn’t win all of its demands, but we made substantial progress. Students and workers on campus are now permitted by the UC administration to organize support for political causes. Can today’s campus community win its demands? Can we throw open the gates to a college education to every qualified high school graduate who wishes to enter them? 

The social forces that we face today tell us that money for higher education simply is not there. We’re up against not only a self-serving Board of Regents and Governor, and overpaid administrators reluctant to bite the hand that feeds them, but also against a federal government that starves public schools at the same time that it provides a banquet to the weapons manufacturers. And now the President aims to escalate the war in Afghanistan, costing many more hundreds of billions of dollars and many lives. 

Forty-five years ago was, it seems to me, a more hopeful time in our nation’s history. Can today’s protest movement on college campuses up and down the state keep hope alive? I don’t know. But I’m encouraged when I perceive the Kantian community-mindedness that links the generations. My guess is that Mario would have appreciated that too. 


Raymond Barglow is the founder of Berkeley Tutors Network.