Looking Back at the Free Speech Movement



         This book includes most of my writing about the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of 1964, as a participant and later interpreter. Though it may serve as an introduction to that seminal episode, it is not meant as a proper history. Many broader accounts are available, from brief to voluminous, bumbling to splendid; some are considered in an appendix here. I hope the reader will be already somewhat familiar with the story of the FSM -- with the plot of its three-month drama, and with how it has been understood as an event in history -- and I suppose that interest in my views will be proportional to what he or she knows already.

         For this is a cranky, opinionated compendium, as idiosyncratic as the FSM itself -- spread over the map from then to now, from poetry to sociology, by turns dry as dust and soaked with tears, insightful and pompous, tedious and gripping, repetitive and novel. The worthy efforts of other historians have largely relieved me of obligation to be comprehensive, balanced, and fair -- though I hope how I've tried, in various ways, will be as apparent as how I have failed -- leaving me free simply to contribute what I can from my own voice and perspective, as limited, personal, and independent now as during the FSM.

         This collection may be of minor novelty in itself, since it is unusual for a participant in a single episode of social movement to record so much about it, from so many angles, for so long. After the FSM's climax, I was seized by dread of winding up as one of those dreary veterans who talk endlessly about the key battle of their youth in the Great War. By grace, I came for many years to live a life adventurous and vivid enough to save me from this caricature, and leave me with not much more obsession about the FSM than I have recorded, here and in occasional interviews. As a notable survivor and chronicler of the Sixties' youth movements, I could scarcely avoid these and sometimes sought them, concerned to bear witness; and so was led repeatedly, though with decreasing frequency, to consider the FSM in the setting of the history it influenced, as this broadened and stretched on and on. In time, my assessments became increasingly repetitive, or rather reiterative, though they continued slowly to develop in some ways.

         In the Eighties, though life by then had led me to work mainly as a science teacher, I became more systematically involved as a social historian of an odd sort, interpreting social movements through their posters, as I went about gathering a vast archive. This work did not bear directly on the FSM, since the domestic political poster renaissance began only the morning after; but it softened my dread of engaging more deliberately with this pivot of my life. By 1984 and 1994, my part in helping to organize the FSM's twentieth and thirtieth anniversary commemorations -- sprawling public affairs on the Berkeley campus, with many panels and speakers -- had made me one of the custodians of its history, a role expanded in grief as I helped stage the main memorial service for Mario Savio.  His untimely death in 1996 prompted some veterans to organize the Free Speech Movement Archives (www.fsm-a.org) to preserve the history of the movement and make it better known; and I became FSM-A's archivist and an editor of its website.

         In this way, I was led forward to consider the FSM's history again, as a whole and from many perspectives. While trying to be faithful to this responsibility in editing the website, I learned more about the episode and others' views, expanding and softening some of my own. But it's a relief just to kick back and speak as my own quirky self, with whatever I have to offer of personal testament and insight into what was, after all, one of the most vivid and significant events of its era, as well as of my life.

         In the tour here, I touch on many themes, probing odd angles and eddies of the affair as well as its central stream. Though many have been well-documented in others' accounts, some have not, reflecting my unusual perspective in person or in mind. Among these oddities are my stories of the production of the FSM's historical brief, which came to be called the "Rossman Report;" and of the paradoxical art project organized a quarter-century later to commemorate the FSM. But the most significant may be my attention to the dimensions of mystery that still attend this episode. My treatment of this theme is quite tentative and can hardly be called coherent; in several pieces here, you can see how I've clutched at a thread of marvel, fumbling to say even the little I've managed.

         Though such pieces have been welcomed by editors because they extend the variety of views about the FSM in interesting ways, I think their contribution is more specific. For the story of the FSM is so rich, in itself and in its pivotal character, that to close its sarcophagus is premature. Some signposts of humility should be left, to say that we know there may be even more to this (as to so much else) than we yet grasp. In the past century, as the natural sciences have reformed their visions fundamentally, historiography has paralleled this development in fair degree. It would be arrogant to imagine that less fundamental change will occur in either in time to come, in their grasp of the forces they consider. If no clearer signpost of the FSM's residual mystery can be found, I'll be honored for mine to stand; I imagine it will make more sense in a hundred years.

         The pieces here appear nearly in order of their composition. As they are so various, the table of contents includes brief descriptions. They appear as they were published or written, with only trivial editing -- not from laziness, but because the sense each makes is coherent, and is also in itself an artifact of history, poised somewhat delicately in the light of its particular moment. Necessarily, this treatment involves some overlapping among pieces, and a few things said over and over; but I trust that the variety of their expression and the whole will excuse this, or make it more bearable. (Students of the FSM will be soon inured to such repetition, whosoever's works they read.)

         In each piece here, in various ways and roles, I have tried to speak to the heart of the FSM, as I grasped it then and since. The affair was simple and complex enough to bear a democracy of views. Mine remains as limited as it is consistent; I was just another bozo on the bus, on a trip that transcended our expectations, which I hope my testimony will help to extend.


Michael Rossman

Berkeley, Fall 2007

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