Blogs > HNN > Ron Briley reviews Robert Cohen's Freedom's Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Jan 25, 2010 12:15 am

Ron Briley reviews Robert Cohen's Freedom's Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Recent memory of student radicalism in the 1960s tends to focus upon the 1969 split within Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) which led to formation of the Weather Underground. The division within the ranks of the student movement culminated in a Weather Underground bombing campaign and the loss of the high moral ground once occupied by student activists striving for civil rights, participatory democracy, economic justice, and ending the Vietnam War. The Weather Underground was denounced by former SDS leader turned professor Todd Gitlin as well as 2008 Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who attempted to link Barack Obama with former Weather member Bill Ayers and terrorism. Even former Weather leader Mark Rudd issued an apology for the group’s tactics in his recent memoir. But as Robert Cohen reminds us in his fine biography of Mario Savio and history of the University of California, Berkeley Free Speech Movement (FSM), there is considerably more to the radical legacy of the 1960s than the Weather Underground.
Cohen, who teaches history at New York University and chairs the school’s Steinhardt School of Education, argues that the eloquent Savio framed the rebellion of the 1960s in the broadest of terms with his 2 December 1964 speech, “Bodies Upon the Gears.” Calling upon Berkeley students to engage in acts of civil disobedience by occupying Sproul Hall, Savio urged them to place their sacrifices and struggles within the context of the civil rights movement and those battling for self determination and democracy. Suggesting that the corporate university was part of a bureaucratic state stifling the individual, Savio proclaimed:
There’s 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. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all.

Cohen concludes that the machine speech was “at bottom a passionate moral summons to stop evil” (178-179).
Thus, Cohen argues that Savio was a spokesperson for an idealistic crusade to assure that the promise of American life was available to all citizens. Cohen agrees with Savio’s view that the social movements of the 1960s “championed new freedoms, opening the American mind by pushing it into questioning the racism, sexism, homophobia, and imperialism that had predominated for so long” (12). Although Savio suffered from personal problems which forced him to withdraw from activism for much of the 1970s, Cohen chronicles that in the 1980s and 1990s Savio regained his voice and was championing democratic rights and freedoms when he died from a heart condition in 1996. Accordingly, for Savio and many in his generation the 1960s were “a seedbed for a lifelong commitment to a more democratic and egalitarian social vision and a nonviolent America” (313).
Savio, however, was a strange choice to lead such a crusade at an elite institution such as Berkeley, but his story exemplifies the possibilities of a more egalitarian society. Mario Savio was born 8 December 1942 to a working-class Italian-American family in New York City. Savio’s father pushed his son toward assimilation, while his mother hoped that Mario would become a Catholic priest. Savio was deeply influenced by Catholicism, and he tended to perceive the world in moralistic terms even after he left the faith for its rigidity and dogmatism. As a young man, Savio, noted for his oratory during the 1960s, struggled with stuttering and a speech impediment; perhaps the product of childhood sexual abuse by a family relative which Savio was reluctant to discuss. The essentially shy Savio was no student rebel during his high school days, focusing upon his studies in science and entering the prestigious Westinghouse Science Talent Search.
In the fall of 1960, Savio entered Manhattan College. While his father wished to see Mario become an engineer, the young student was increasingly drawn to the study of Greek philosophy and was restive at a Catholic institution. He transferred to Queens College the following year, and in 1963 he followed his parents to California, enrolling at Berkeley and pursing a major in philosophy. Savio became connected with the activist community at Berkeley and participated in several civil rights demonstrations. His first arrest was during a sit-in protesting the racial hiring practices of the San Francisco Sheraton Palace Hotel. He was especially drawn to the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and Savio volunteered for the 1964 SNCC Freedom Summer project in Mississippi. Savio’s experience registering blacks to vote in Mississippi was crucial to his political development, but Cohen maintains that Savio's commitment to social justice was already well documented before his pilgrimage to the South.
In the fall of 1964, Savio returned to Berkeley determined to complete his degree and work for civil rights in the Bay Area. Little did he realize that efforts by the Berkeley administration to alter the rules by which political advocacy could be disseminated at the Bancroft strip, which was technically viewed as being off campus, fostered a semester of discontent on the campus. Although much of FSM was spontaneous and grass roots-oriented, Savio emerged as a media figure when he climbed atop a police car in Sproul Plaza and urged students to block the arrest of protest leaders. Interestingly enough, Savio’s stuttering seemed to evaporate as he articulated the goals of student protesters against the Berkeley administration. Savio was elected to the FSM Steering and Executive Committees, negotiating with University of California Chancellor Clark Kerr, whom Savio viewed as representing the university as a knowledge factory in service of the corporate state. Although opposed to the cult of personality and advocating democratic leadership, Savio became the public face of the FSM when he was arrested December 7 for attempting to speak at a campus meeting organized by the administration. After finally gaining the support of the faculty, the FSM achieved their speech victory on 8 December 1964. While agreeing with Savio that Kerr often negotiated in bad faith, Cohen laments the growing hostility between liberals and radicals which the right would later exploit.
As for Savio, the triumph of free speech at Berkeley brought troubled times. He was expelled from Berkeley and sentenced to jail for his participation in the Sproul Hall sit-in. Seeking to avoid the glare of publicity, Savio resigned from the FSM, concentrating on his marriage to fellow activist Suzanne Goldberg. As the student movement expanded nationally in response to the escalating Vietnam War, Savio was often silent. While he was opposed to what he considered the imperialistic foreign policy of the United States, Savio was also impatient with the growing dogmatism of the student left. Savio continued to struggle with personal demons, suffering from depression. Drifting from job to job and often hospitalized, his marriage to Goldberg dissolved.
After a season in hell, Savio re-emerged during the 1980s, denouncing the foreign and domestic policies of the Reagan administration. He married again and earned a master’s degree in physics from San Francisco State University. In 1990, he was hired as a lecturer at Sonoma State University. Teaching classes in both the sciences and humanities, Savio also recovered his political voice; opposing state efforts to restrict affirmative action and immigrant rights in California. At the time of his death in 1996, Savio was leading a student revolt against an increase in campus fees. As Cohen notes, Savio died fighting for the democratic and egalitarian values he had championed in the 1960s.
Cohen’s volume is a valuable contribution to the historiography of the 1960s. It restores the voice of Mario Savio to the radical legacy of the 1960s which sought to expand the possibilities of American democracy. The book is well researched in the oral histories of the FSM as well as relying upon insightful interviews conducted by Cohen with Savio’s friends and associates. For access to Savio’s private papers, Cohen enjoyed the cooperation of Savio’s second wife, Lynne Hollander. Cohen also includes a selection of Savio’s speeches and writings from the FSM through his case against Proposition 209 to dismember affirmative action in California. Freedom’s Orator restores Mario Savio to his well deserved place within the political legacy of the 1960s which extends well beyond the exploits of the Weather Underground.

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