The History of Cal Berkeley in the 60s

For these ten years -- from roughly 1964 to 1974 -- Cal captured the imagination of the United States in a way that happens once a lifetime, if that. Though we, for convenience's sake, group "the 60s" together, it was really two separate ideas and spirits manifesting themselves, related only in time and place.

The first of these sorts of protests, that of 1964, is now known as the "Free Speech Movement." University of California President Clark Kerr long insisted that the University wouldn't interfere with student's lives off campus, but, by the same token, that students must keep their political activities off campus. In the fall term of '64, the administration asks students to stop their political activities on the "Bancroft Strip," in front of Sproul Plaza. Some students defy it and then, on September 30th, organize a 10-hour sit-in in Sproul Hall. A few days later, however, a bigger and more significant demonstration takes place after non-student Jack Weinberg is arrested for distributing political literature on campus. Mario Savio emerges as the student leader when he jumps on top of the police car, in Sproul Plaza, in which Weinberg is sitting (and the students sitting around the car won't let drive away).

This moment is the most perfect microcosm of the Free Speech movement. After Savio jumped on the police car, the students, almost 10,000 of them, sitting around the car, passed around a collection to pay for the repair of the police car. These Cal students, in other words, wanted to prove above everything that they are good Americans, and fighting for these liberties only as part of their duty as citizens.

Over the following months, and year, the protests spread. After Chancellor Edward Strong gives Savio and some other student leaders new discipline letters, Savio gives him back an "ultimatum" on December 1st. Savio leads a rally the following day, where he says, "you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels," then leads one thousand students in Sproul Hall while Joan Baez sings "We shall overcome." The police arrest 814 of the students. A few days later, however, Kerr leads a mass meeting in the Greek Theater, but the scene almost erupts when the police drag away Savio as he attempts to address the audience at the end of the meeting. The following day, the faculty members on the Academic Senate pass overwhelmingly a resolution urging there be no more campus discipline.

By this time, however, the Free Speech Movement had changed character. No longer were young, idealistic citizens fighting for their rights, but the demonstrations turned into parties. It was fun, it was cool, it was now the time of Haight-Ashbury and the hippies and drugs and rock-and-roll. Idealism -- how it all began -- was quickly forgotten when the first cast of characters were graduated. The student protests still had political purposes, of course -- and powerful ones, at that -- but the movement became increasingly radicalized.

We see the first glimpse of this new character in 1965 with the so-called "Filthy Speech Movement," when nine people shouted some dirty words, nearly toppling University's administration. But then, the Vietnam War came to Cal's attention.

With the Vietnam War demonstrations, the character of the protests had changed, just one manifestation of the new spirit of these later protests. The nonviolent, peaceful spirit of student activism of 1964 had given way to violent and confrontational politics. The students were now looking for riots. Marches into Oakland ended in riots.

From here, the demonstrations only get more violent. In 1967, the police have to use, extensively, chemical Mace to control the crowds which, though increasing in size, include fewer and fewer Cal students and more outsiders attracted to Berkeley looking for a good time. Campus buildings begin to get firebombed over ROTC crisis and soon the Free Huey movement (fighting for Huey P. Newton, arrested for shooting a police officer) begins. By 1969, students are demonstrating -- and still being arrested by the hundreds -- demanding the creation of a "Third World College."

And then People's Park. The University purchased a plot of land a few blocks to the south of campus, hoping to build student dorms on that site. Cal students et al in effect claim the land for themselves, working together to turn the plot of land into what they called a "People's Park." When the administration decides to go ahead with the construction plans -- 30,000 students (and denizens) march on the "Park" in Mid-May 1969 and confront 2,000 National Guard troops which Governor Ronald Reagan has called in. Chancellor Heyns eventually backs down and decides to build a playing field on this plot of land instead.

For a decade, Berkeley captured the imagination of a nation. But this change in character -- the two separate student protests, united only by our common grouping of them into the same decade, each with lives and philosophies of its own -- is a microcosm of the two sides of human nature: both idealistic, but easily gone awry.

Some Sather Gate Handbills from the 1960s.

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