Civil Rights and the Free Speech Movement

by Michael Rossman


Preface (1971)

            The perspective of these perceptions is pretty weird. They were written in a state of controlled hysteria, after the FSM climaxed in 800 arrests and the first successful campus strike, as background material for an ACLU group preparing briefs for our legal defense. Yet the view of new radical activity with which they open is abbreviated from a paper written in 1960 (for a SLATE-sponsored conference at Mount Madonna, which turned out to be the first national meeting of New Left groups). For the character the white Movement would have through the first five years of the Sixties was already clearly defined. It remained to be elaborated, and this article goes on to  trace its development in connection with Civil Rights. All that l wrote then was true enough. As I explained when the article was published in the campus literary magazine, (1)"lt has recently become fashionable to explain away the events of the FSM in terms of alienation, the Multiversity, etc. Surely such factors are important, and my own thinking runs more or less along such lines. Still, a balanced explanation should give proper weight to the political atmosphere in which  the FSM occurred." But it's also true that l was leaning over backwards to give a rational account, and to not appear a raving apocalyptic tormented by visions. I was a young intellectual pot-head, my mind absolutely shattered by a new experience, trying to speak plausibly about what led up to it, to a pretty straight group of liberal lawyers. At that time we had scarcely any words of a new vocabulary, other than "trip" and "community," and l think it was as much for my own reassurance as for theirs that I tried to explain us so familiar.


[The new radicals]

           The "new radicals" came out of a landscape of fear. They had a moral ideology and were willing to take action to support it. In post-McCarthy America, to do more than send a letter to a congressman was to be "radical." To picket or to sit-in was to protest with a new voice.

           The trademark of old radicalism was a political ideology with historical roots and structural goals. The trademark of the new radicals is a primitive, moral ideology. Their activity is aimed at issues, not at political or economic goals. And the issues are moral ones: peace, Civil Rights, capital punishment. This is often mistaken by onlookers whose thoughts are tied to the past, since some issues (like HUAC) have political overtones and are still the concern of the old radicals. But always, if one listens, one hears the simple, naive, and stubborn cry that distinguishes the new radicals: "This is wrong, it must stop!"

           The old radicals are still here, though the pressure of the new radicals has made them less programmatic, more issue oriented. Their numbers have grown: at Berkeley now (1964) there may be 200 members in the splinter Socialist groups, of whom perhaps fifty are active. The record of the past five years of student activity shows that the new radicals set the pace and choose their own tactics and specific goals. In general, it seems that the old radicals have been co-opted by the new, rather than conversely.

[Why the new radicals?]

           They are young, and come from a grab-bag of backgrounds. Of those arrested in San Francisco and Berkeley in 1962-1963, over half were twenty or under, and most came from politically inactive families.

           Why do they appear? The answer seems to lie in their education, in the broad sense of the term. Mass media have left marks on them. Newspapers and television brought them, inescapably, a childhood of scandal: McCarthy, contaminated cranberries, Bobby Baker, fixed fights, the U-2 flights, Stevenson lying in the U.N. . . . the list is endless. The paperback revolution brought them Walden on the one hand and, on the other, The Organization Man, James Baldwin, The Hidden Persuaders, Growing Up Absurd, and dozens of similar books, in millions of copies. An improving educational system, and the growing willingness of teachers to speak out again after the .McCarthy Era, made discussion of social problems commonplace in the high-schools.

           Other factors are involved. It seems reasonable to connect the eight televised years of Eisenhower's Presidency with the lack of faith the new radicals have in purely political solutions, and to link civics classes at the time of the Southern sit-ins with the recent Civil Rights arrests in San Francisco. However complex the factors, the new radicals are a force on the American scene, and the size and frequency of their protests will continue to increase. Dramatic events like the HUAC and Sheraton-Palace demonstrations are not isolated incidents, but are part of a moving and growing social change.

[The beginning: a new kind of silence]

           Strong forces built up the potential for the sudden emergence of the new radicals in the North. Their appearance was triggered by a new kind of silence in the South, the silence of young people in buses and at lunch counters. It was a waiting silence, not a fearful silence; and it said, "Now it is time." The bus boycotts of 1955, the sit-ins at lunch counters, and the students waiting lonely at classroom doors were visible to the whole country. They carried a special message for the new radicals.

           By the end of the McCarthy Era, it seemed that no effective action toward social and political goals was possible: in particular, the young had never known any. But suddenly, in the South, people were taking action. It was a new kind of action, morally unquestionable, and often illegal. Its tactics were dramatic and unprecedented. Its goals were limited and clear. It produced instant and dramatic heroes and leaders. It broke with all the established frameworks, and the spectacle of the NAACP trying to hold back the bus boycotters made a lasting impression.

           What happened in the South between 1955 and 1957 left an indelible stamp upon the new radicalism of the North. It said what kind of action was possible, and that such action had for the first time a fighting chance for success. This lesson took some years to catch on: Southern tactics were not adopted until the chanting of the 1960 HUAC protests. At present, new radical activity in the North follows the Southern pattern. It is issue-oriented, it depends heavily upon the drama of its protests, and its voice throughout is one of moral outrage. It uses civil disobedience as a tactic, not as an ideology. It has little faith in the established institutions of social and political change, even though it often functions within them, as in doing precinct work. It is resigned to having to step outside the legal framework.

           Drama is a constant element of the new radical protests, South and North, and causes much criticism. Many people find it distasteful and claim that emotion in not a "legitimate" weapon of protest. But drama is essential to the organizing of some activities, and to their success. Its emotional component is not aimless. The sight of seated demonstrators waiting for police to descend is meant to evoke the moral nature of the protest. This dramatic aspect is usually criticized for being "socially acceptable," i.e. faddish. But to the extent that many feel such action to be the only effective ("acceptable") form of action, the drama has a moral and an historical sanction rather than a "social" one. For this reason, the dramatic aspects of new radical action are more likely to increase than to decrease in the future.

[The consequences of action being possible]

           The new radicals' continual concern with the Civil Rights struggle is more evidence that the Southern protests continue to influence the Northern ones. Throughout the North, action focuses more consistently on this issue than on any other. Participants are led to take action on other issues, and their sense of purpose and tactics shapes this action. Conversely, Civil Rights ranks are swelled by recruits from other areas of new radical activity. There is, in short, a continuum of activity, in which it is impossible to isolate Civil Rights. Many student organizations which participate in Civil Rights activity -- SLATE, DuBois Club, YSA, Young Democrats, SDS, etc. -- have equally intimate participation as organizations in other issues. In organizations which do not participate formally (e.g. Women For Peace) most members are frequent Civil Rights activists.

           Thus the Civil Rights struggle interlocks with and binds together the whole spectrum of new student activity. The most obvious reason is the seriousness of the problem and the extent to which it has penetrated the nation's consciousness. But there are subtler reasons. Clancy Sigal says, "The liberals, unable to solve the priorities on their plate, . . . have turned to the one problem that does look as if it can be solved within the context of contemporary American existence." (He goes on to speak about broader problems that are being neglected in favor of this one, e.g. how to live a human life with the things we've created.) (2) The moral legitimacy of protest and action is most clear on this issue. In a society with a recent history of crushed protest, and no recent history of action, this is important. The fact of any action having an effect is tremendously impressive. So far new radical activity has had little effect on other issues (perhaps it can't?), and the new radicals keep turning to the Civil Rights issue for reassurance.

           But not only the radicals are concerned with Civil Rights. Many students who have never walked picket lines have an active and vital interest in the Civil Rights movement. They have followed it closely for years and were deeply involved in the recent trials in San Francisco. They see, in student involvement in this movement, the best and most vital expression of their generation. That students form the core of the struggle, and make unprecedented changes, is for them a promise, and the only such promise, that they will be successful in the broader struggles they may in the future undertake (and on which, in many cases, they are already embarked).

           The Civil Rights movement represents a symbolic promissory note upon their own futures, upon the chances that their own lives (in areas seemingly far removed from Civil Rights) will be less futile than they feel those of the previous generation to have been. The strength of this feeling must not be underestimated, though it is subterranean. Many students who do not normally participate in the Civil Rights movement will fight for it when it is threatened, not only because it is meaningful per se, but also because it is a promise of meaning in their own lives and work.

[Civil rights: 1957-1964]

           The involvement of Berkeley students in Civil Rights activity proceeded in three phases. The first depended on traditional tactics: resolutions, investigating committees, and, at its end, pickets. The numbers of students involved were generally small.

           In 1957, the year of the Montgomery bus boycotts, the student government here introduced its first bill concerning discrimination (in the fraternity system), and SLATE began to organize. SLATE sponsored forums and discussions, and led the first real student activity in Civil Rights: support of a 1959 Fair Housing Ordinance. As if to set a precedent for later years, the first real difficulties between student political activists and the Administration began with this issue, when the Administration tried to take disciplinary action against SLATE for holding a rally on campus. Student protest quelled this action, but the further disagreements between SLATE and the Administration led to SLATE's being thrown off campus in summer 1961.

           February 1960 marked the first adoption of the more moderate Southern tactics in Berkeley: a picket of Woolworth/Kress stores, in sympathy with Southern boycotts. Berkeley CORE took it on as a project, and lines of fifteen to sixty marched twice a week in Oakland until March 1961.
            Spring 1960 saw the first general peak in student activity. In March, the student government formed Students for Racial Equality to collect money and food for Southern students. SRE tried to function for thirteen months, but Administration regulations totally crippled its efforts: despite raising several thousand dollars and a great deal of food and clothing, the regulations forbade using these fruits for their intended purpose. In frustration, SRE disbanded. Since then, with one abortive exception, student Civil Rights work has abandoned any effort to function as part of the University (though some "off-campus" organizations enjoy limited use of campus facilities).

           For the next two years, the pattern of escalation of tactics, commitment, and membership was interrupted. There were many reasons for this. Student activity in general suffered a severe blow when SLATE was suspended in June 1961. New and more restrictive Administration regulations handed down during that summer proved a severe impediment to the functioning of extant groups and the organization of new ones. Student groups had to adapt themselves to a minimal dependence upon the campus.

           Perhaps the major reason, however, was the crisis in world politics. The problems of disarmament and Cuba fused during these two years, and the new radicals, sensitized by previous crises which threatened nuclear action, reacted strongly. Thousands gathered to protest the blockade of Cuba and the imminence of war. To speak personally, there were times when we half believed that our lives were numbered in days. Such an atmosphere of trauma and its aftermath were not conducive to active concern with gradual social change -- to put a deep matter briefly --  and serious Civil Rights activity resumed only after this atmosphere of nuclear tension had been for some time settled.

           This may explain the moderate nature of Civil Rights activity during this period. The Freedom Rides began in summer 1961. A SLATE conference that summer led to fund-raising efforts and committees to investigate discrimination in local housing. A number of Berkeley students joined the Freedom Rides, and interest ran high on the campus. A SLATE Conference in summer 1962 led to the formation of Bay Area Friends of SNCC, which later branched into eleven chapters. During the next year, Civil Rights activity was largely confined to work for an anti-discrimination Housing Ordinance and for candidates with strong Civil Rights platforms.

           Their defeat helped prepare the third phase, in which the local Civil Rights struggle has, in its essential characteristics, finally identified completely with the struggle in the South. In August 1963, 200,000 people, including many Berkeley students, staged the March on Washington. The next month, the Birmingham bombing shocked the nation and galvanized the campus. One thousand students heard CORE's James Farmer at a campus rally, and several days later 5,000 gathered in San Francisco to hear him speak again.

           A referendum to send student  government funds to SNCC failed narrowly. In October, Campus CORE was formed, with fifty members. It immediately moved against discriminatory employment, picketing downtown Berkeley businesses. That month, action was launched against Mel's Drive-In. Of the ninety-three demonstrators arrested, thirty-seven were Berkeley students. Following the arrests demonstrations continued, forcing an eventual agreement.

           In February 1964, demonstrations began in San Francisco against the Sheraton-Palace Hotel. From 300 to 2,000 people took part and well over 300 were arrested, many from Berkeley. During a marathon sit-in in March, the Hotel Owners Association capitulated and signed an agreement which resulted in a considerable number of jobs. Immediately, the NAACP initiated its Auto Row campaign, which resulted in 330 arrests and another agreement.

           Meanwhile, there were sit-ins at the Richmond Welfare office, and demonstrations against the hiring practices of the Oakland Tribune. Not all of the activity has been this dramatic: one-to-one teaching programs in the Oakland schools have received considerable support from Berkeley students, and during the summer and fall over five hundred worked actively to defeat Proposition 14, a measure protecting discrimination in residential rentals.

[The problems of a new movement]

           The new radicals have created a broad movement of social and political action. Many of the movement's problems depend on its nature, rather than on its goals. It is centered on the campus because the students' lives are centered there. The campus is the center for communication, organization, and non-academic education: at Berkeley these activities do not exist detached from the campus. In this respect, the movement is over-dependent upon the University, and is extremely sensitive and vulnerable to any change in its formal policies.

           Since the movement is issue-oriented, its functioning depends on rapid and flexible means of communication and organization: sudden issues or crises will result in large gatherings mobilizing on several hours' notice. Issue-orientation also determines the educational activities it depends upon: speakers, forums, debates, and distribution of literature. These are directed to a broad audience and are, again, very vulnerable to interference.

           The student groups which undertake these activities must function on or near the campus. They lead precarious lives. Their sources of money and facilities are slim and center on the campus; likewise, they recruit members on the campus, particularly at events they sponsor. Once a group's ties with the campus are weakened or broken, it ekes out a minimal existence or dies.

           These problems affect all groups. The FSM protests this semester must be viewed in this light. Since the characteristics of the new student activity are embodied most clearly in Civil Rights activity, these problems, which stem from them, are most important for precisely these Civil Rights groups. Thus the "reinterpretations" of the Administration's regulations this semester (and in the past five years! ) hit most strongly at the organizational heart of the Civil Rights movement on campus. Both the vehemence and the breadth of the protest stemmed partly from this fact.

[On advocacy and identity]

           The most important single substantive issue was the problem of advocacy. Though restrictions on the form of campus political activity are onerous, regulation of the content of speech is a death blow, since the movement depends so heavily on possibly illegal tactics. The students did not protest in favor of illegal advocacy, but in favor of the principle that determination of alleged illegality must be left to the courts. They particularly feared restraints by the Administration on speech which was not illegal but led to possibly illegal acts. Such speech was vital to the Civil Rights movement.

[The Free Speech Movement and Civil Rights]

           The initial change in regulations came in mid-September at a time of unprecedented student involvement in election work (five hundred strong) which had gone on all summer. The immediate effect was to cripple the ten student groups working to defeat Proposition 14. Beyond this, it was clear that the new regulations would cripple the Civil Rights movement entirely, since SNCC and CORE were entirely dependent upon the campus, and other groups were largely dependent.

           The feeling was widespread that this was not accidental. The entire campus was aware of the intense hostilities and pressures generated in the outside community by the events of this spring. Within a week after school began, it was the common supposition, supported by uncautious statements by the Chancellor, that pressure from the Oakland Tribune had caused the crackdown. Evidence of discrimination against the Civil Rights movement continued to mount, when tables were set up in violation of regulations. Only students sitting at tables sponsored by groups particularly active in Civil Rights were singled out for discipline by the Administration, and all eight suspended students were active in Civil Rights work.

           It is important to understand that the students' concern with free speech was not abstract. The recent successes of the Civil Rights movement left a deep impression as to the immediate practical relevance of Constitutional rights: free speech had been used, and was (so the feeling went) being taken away because it had been used. Likewise, many students involved in new radical activity see it as being more relevant to their lives, and to the society, than the necessary evil of amorphous and a-moral formal education. The sense that new radical activity is properly a student activity is widespread. By crippling this activity, the Administration was striking at what many felt to be the only "real" part of their education. This feeling was reiterated throughout the semester and helped provide the emotional force behind the FSM.


(1Occident, Spring 1965 . See also "New Faces on the Picket Lines," Occident, Spring 1961 .

(2)  If you want to learn what happened to the last American Left, read Clancy Sigal's novel Going Away, recently reissued in paperback -- the only book I know that paints a broad portrait in human depth of the effect of the midcentury Repression.


December 1964

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