Berkeley in the 1960s

by W. J. Rorabaugh

W.J. (William Joseph) Rorabaugh is a professor of history at the University of Washington and the managing editor of Pacific Northwest Quarterly.

(This excerpt printed from Berkeley at War:  the 1960s is for academic purposes only.)

The Question from your Final Exam Study Guide for this article is:

W.J. Rorabaugh in his essay "Berkeley in the 1960s" admits that at one level the turmoil of the 1960s was the reflection of a social crisis in the country; but an even more important underlying issue, he argues, was the battle over the "exercise of power."  Explain what he means by this by focusing your attention on the Free Speech Movement, the Black Panther Party, and the Third World Liberation movement in Berkeley.

    In the sixties Berkeley was a city at war.  Students revolted against the University of California, blacks demanded their rights, radicals surged into prominence, and a counterculture of major proportions blossomed.   White, black, red, and green - these movements coincided, fed into one another, and reacted against each other in myriad and sometimes surprising ways.  The decade began with President John Fitzgerald Kennedy's Camelot; it ended amid chaos.  Berkeley, no less than the country, went through a crisis.  On the surface this crisis revolved around turmoil generated by quite specific social issues; it was, at that level, a social crisis.

        The underlying issue, however, was one of power.  During the sixties, conservatives hated communism, both abroad and at home, rejected socialism, distrusted all government, disliked labor unions, and abhorred the high level of domestic government spending that was called the welfare state; they admired Barry Goldwater and, later, Ronald Reagan.  Berkeley's conservatives, who had long held power in the city, refused to compromise and became paranoid reactionaries.  Liberals hated communism and rejected socialism, but they trusted the government, liked labor unions, and favored the welfare state; they admired Franklin Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson, and, to a lesser extent, John Kennedy.  The city's liberals built an unstable, biracial political coalition, used government programs to maintain their power, and ultimately lacked principle.  Radicals hated anticommunism more than communism, usually accepted some elements of socialism, were ambivalent about government, liked labor unions, and favored either an expanded welfare state or a drastic reconstruction of society; they admired (in varying degrees) Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Mao Tse-tung, or themselves.  In Berkeley white radicals and black militants tried to seize control and, failing that, were determined to make it impossible for anyone else to hold power.

        College students, young blacks, members of the New Left, and hippies believed that power should flow from the bottom up rather than from the top down.  This is an important point, and it suggests that the history of the decade needs to focus on those at the bottom.  Historians, however, have written few local studies, and those who have concentrated on the national picture, overly influenced by events at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, on CBS News, or in the New York Times, have found society to be unraveling.  In reality, it was only centralized authority that was in decline.  At the local level, those on the bottom saw less a disintegration of society than a rebirth of community spirit and individual liberty in opposition to a corrupt, bureaucratic social order.  It is the emergence of this latter vision and its implications for the exercise of power in American society that is the most profound legacy of the sixties....

oakland_CR_protest_1964.jpg (66339 bytes)         By 1964 the world's premier example of multi-university was the University of California, and the University's crown jewel was its campus at Berkeley.  No other campus had such close ties to the government, such a heavy emphasis upon government-sponsored research, or such a neglect of undergraduates.  Students were alienated and ripe for revolt.  The revolt began in September 1964, when the administration suddenly banned political activists from passing out literature, soliciting funds, or organizing support from card tables set up at the edge of campus.  This ban led 
the activists, largely civil rights workers, to attack the new rules and, following the administration's reprisals, to demand that all sorts of political activity be permitted throughout the campus.  The activist students called themselves the Free Speech Movement (FSM).  They rallied wide support from alienated students and, after the largest sit-in and mass arrest in California history, gathered overwhelming faculty support.  In December 1964 the FSM triumphed.  It was to be the greatest success of the student movement during the 1960s.... FSM_button.jpg (6306 bytes)

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        When the University opened...[in] September [1964], activists looked forward to recruitment and fund-raising.  Over the summer thirty to sixty students had worked for civil rights in Mississippi, and they returned to campus with renewed dedication and determination.  These activists, including Mario Savio and Art Goldberg, were dumbfounded in mid-September when the University suddenly issued new rules that banned tables from the edge of Bancroft and Telegraph, where they had been placed in growing numbers for two or three years.  When the activists placed sought an explanation for the change, the could get no answers.  The dean of students, Katherine A. Towle, talked with the activists but declared her own lack of power, while those who held the power refused to talk....

        The activists...knew what they wanted.  Although their specific demands changed over time, they demanded an end to the regulation of political activity on campus.  This was called free speech....[They] identified the issue as a traditional American right in order to appeal to large numbers of students,...some of the activist leaders were battle-tested veterans of the civil rights movement.  "A student who has been chased by the KKK in Mississippi," observed one student, "is not easily scared by academic bureaucrats...."  They knew when to advance, when to retreat, how to use crowds, how to use the media, how to intimidate, and how to negotiate.  The activists understood their ultimate weapon, the sit-in, and were prepared to use it.  Although the leaders were not close to one another, they spoke a common language gained through a common experience....Finally, activist leaders knew how to maintain discipline over their troops.  Mass psychology, song, theater, and other techniques long favored among revivalists and street politicians accompanied innovative mass meetings at which people freely spoke and at which collective decisions were made by a kind of consensus that came to be called participatory democracy.  Through these techniques and by focusing on the simplicity of the demand for free speech, activists created an environment within which followers were disciplined.  They created an army.  In contrast, [University of California President Clark] Kerr badgered his beleaguered bureaucracy until it could barely function.

       Throughout September 1964 skirmishes continued as defiant activists set up tables and were cited by irritated deans.  The angry students escalated the conflict by moving their tables to Sproul Plaza.  This protest led to a mill-in inside Sproul Hall and the summary "indefinite suspension" of eight students - Mario Savio, Art Goldberg, Mark Bravo, Sandor Fuchs, David Goines, Donald Hatch, Brian Turner, and Elizabeth Gardner (Mrs. Sydney Stapleton).  Finally, on October 1, University police went to the plaza to arrest a farmer student, Jack Weinberg, who was manning a CORE table.  The police drove a car onto the plaza to take Weinberg to be booked, and as Weinberg got into the car, someone shouted, "Sit down."  Suddenly, several hundred students surrounded the car.  The police did not know what to do, because they had never encountered such massive defiance.  Kerr's bureaucracy became paralyzed.  This event launched the Free Speech Movement.  Participants later recalled the spontaneity of the sit-down, the thrill of power over the police, and the feeling that something important was happening.  For thirty-two hours Weinberg sat in the back of the police car.  Although students came and went, there were always at least several hundred surrounding the car....During the night students who disapproved of the sit-down - many from nearby fraternities - molested the protesters by tossing lighted cigarettes and garbage into the crowd.  The activists responded by singing civil rights songs.

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        During the sit-down the demonstrators used the roof of the police car (with police permission) as a podium to speak to the crowd.  People aired all sorts of views, and the discussion moved from the rules banning political activity to analyses of the University's governance.  Students expressed their powerlessness, which contrasted with the power that they held over the immobilized police car.  So many people stood on the car's roof that it sagged; the FSM later took up a collection and paid the $445.01 damage.  Several times a twenty-one year old junior, Mario Savio, removed his shoes to climb atop the car, and when he spoke, his words seemed especially to energize the crowd.  He became a celebrity and was identified by the crowd as the leader of the activists.  From then on Savio battled Kerr....

savio_2.jpg (23406 bytes)         [Savio's] power came from his ability to articulate a tone that expressed the frustrations and anxieties of his generation.  While others were as angry as Savio, they found it impossible to articulate their anger.  Savio had the gift, perhaps the result of his Catholic education, to discourse rationally.  Even as he did so, there was an undertone of anger.  This powerful projection of personality contrasted with his private conversation, which was often marred by stuttering, hesitancy, and coldness.  Self-doubts and inhibitions dissolved when Savio spoke to a crowd.

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        Much of Savio's appeal came from his ability to blend alienation, sexuality, and politics....Students, said Savio, were oppressed by the "organized sadism of the power structure."  The University forced students to suppress their "creative impulses."  What was the result?  He declared, "The University is well structured, well tooled, to turn out people with all the sharp edges worn off...."  In other words, the University emasculated students.  Indeed, taking away the right to place tables at the edge of campus had been an act of "emasculation, or attempted emasculation."  By talking about politics in this fashion, Savior guaranteed an audience.  Few students cared about political rights, by many felt alienated, and no males wanted to be emasculated....[N]o student could accept the administration's position without risking a perceived loss of his own sexual potency.   After the Free Speech Movement was over, Savio was asked what had been most important in leading him to oppose the administration.  Without hesitation he answered, "Balls."

        While the police car was trapped, Kerr's bureaucrats dithered, and the activists came to realize that they could extract concessions from Kerr in exchange for quietly ending the sit-down.  Both sides picked negotiators....For the first time, some faculty members became involved, and they encouraged both the administration and the activists to accept a compromise.  Kerr's terms appeared to be generous.  Jack Weinberg, still in the police car, was to be booked and then released with the University not pressing charges.  The eight students suspended summarily by the administration for activities prior to the sit-down were to face discipline before a faculty committee.  Another committee, to be composed of administrators, faculty members, and students appointed by the administration, was to negotiate permanent rules for political activity on campus....After much internal debate...the student leaders accepted Kerr's offer.  Savio then returned to the police car to announce the settlement.  He invited everyone to rise up and go home quietly.  To many, the crisis appeared to be over....

        [But d]uring October and November the pact of October 2 unraveled.  One irritant involved a final resolution of the discipline for the eight students suspended prior to the capture of the police car.  The activists, who distrusted the administration, had rejected the normal disciplinary process because it forced them to submit their cases either to the very deans who had cited them or to a faculty committee controlled by the administration.  The activists believed that the pact of October 2 required Kerr to send the disciplinary cases to an independent faculty committee appointed by the faculty senate....Kerr insisted on sending the cases to a faculty committee that he controlled,...[but] Kerr finally yielded and let the faculty senate name an ad hoc committee to consider these cases....

        Meanwhile, the second committee formed as a result of the October 2 pact also bogged down....The activist students on the committee rejected an administration proposal for limited political rights on campus, while an activist counterproposal that rights be based on the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution got no support from faculty members or administrators.   The activists, in the end, rejected a faculty compromise....

        [N]either side was prepared to settle because each believed that it could get more later.  Kerr, convinced that in time support for the activists would decline, calculated that in the end the administration could grant limited political rights that would satisfy the administration, the faculty, and a majority of students.  Kerr did not understand the FSM strategy, which was to continue agitation to build wide student support.  The agitation, however, had to be controlled so that escalation only took place after a mass student based had been prepared....

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FreeSpeech2.JPG (25240 bytes)         In order to gain student support, the FSM began to hold rallies almost every day at noon on the steps of Sproul Hall.  Large numbers of students passed through the plaza, and sunny days brought a large audience.  As many as five thousand students sometimes attended.  These events both bolstered the confidence of the FSM leaders, whose self-doubts were reduced by mass approval, and ratified and legitimated the FSM demands.  Not surprisingly, some administrators proposed eliminating the rallies, but such an act would have driven moderate students into solidarity with the most hotheaded activists....

        During rallies the FSM leaders often led mass singing of civil rights songs or union songs from the 1930s.  The FSM also created it own songs, published a songbook, and made recordings, which provided a major source of funds.  Most songs expressed alienation....        

        While students sang, administrators quarreled among themselves.  Some urged new disciplinary action; others opposed it....When the Regents finally met to discuss the issue, the FSM organized a march of several thousand students from the Sather Gate across campus to a rally in front of University Hall, where the Regents met....

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        Just as matters were quieting down, Kerr intervened maladroitly.  In late November 1964, with the disciplinary cases settled amid bitterness and the political rules committee suspended, Kerr decided, perhaps under pressure from certain Regents, to punish the FSM leaders for their role in the events immediately preceding and surrounding the capture of the police car.  Kerr's grant of amnesty in the pact of October 2 had excluded the events that took place during the actual seizure and holding of the car....Four activist leaders - Savio, Art Goldberg, Jackie Goldberg, and Brian Turner - were singled out, and it appears that Kerr intended to suspend Savio and Art Goldberg on the grounds that on October 1 and 2 they had violated the terms of retroactive probation that had been recommended by...[the] faculty committee and imposed...in late November.  "They are trying to pick off our leaders one by one," said Steve Weissman, an FSM spokesman.  Kerr's petty act rallied both the faculty and large numbers of otherwise uninvolved students to the FSM cause.  The activists, in a spirit of rage, decided to confront Kerr with their ultimate weapon.

        From the beginning the activists had considered a sit-in....One of the most important functions of sit-ins was to win converts.  Friends would join, and then friends of friends, and the feeling of camaraderie experienced in the sit-in gave the movement what it needed most:  bodies.  The fellowship of a sit-in promised a vast expansion of the activist population on campus and the beginnings an activist community.  Berkeley would not have dozens of activists but hundreds, possibly even thousands....[I]f a sit-in brought police, and the FSM leaders calculated that Kerr was not shrewd enough to avoid the outcome, then the bringing of police onto campus could generate benefits.  The presence of police would both demonstrate Kerr's failure to manage the University and generate publicity that would bring sympathizers to Berkeley.  Above all, the faculty could not tolerate the University run as a police state.  Thus, a large sit-in would demonstrate widespread support for the FSM and push the faculty to act.  The activists set a trap to humiliate Kerr and to bring the faculty to the rescue of the FSM....

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        [F]aced with one of the largest sit-ins in history, Kerr was pushed toward a decision he did not want to make.  Painfully aware of the faculty's disdain for the use of police on campus, a disdain enhanced by the large number of European war refugees on the faculty, Kerr did not want to be remembered for using police to make arrests.  So he kept his role in the unfolding events secret....Throughout the crisis Kerr had consulted with the chairman of the Regents, Edward Carter, and Carter in turn had frequently talked by phone with Governor Pat Brown.  The liberal Democratic governor had long been an admirer and supporter of Kerr's.... Free_speech1.jpg (41030 bytes)

        The governor...issued the order to arrest the protesters.  Brown, a former prosecutor and attorney general, did not need to be persuaded of the virtue of law and order.  His action, however, and his high visibility were politically unwise.  The arrests enraged the protesters...and failed to appease those Californians who came to consider Brown as part of the problem of Berkeley's disgrace....

            [T]he police came.  The FSM leaders had urged students under arrest to refuse to walk in order to force policemen to carry them from the building.  The police obliged, although not necessarily in the gentlest manner.  While females who refused to walk were taken down the elevator, males were tossed from officer to officer and hurled down the terrazzo stairs....[D]espite the 367 police officers who took part, the building was not cleared and the last of 773 arrests made until 4 p.m. on the afternoon of December 3.  It was the largest mass arrest in California's history....

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        During 1966 the idea of Black Power swept through the nation's black communities.  The word "Negro" began to disappear, and "black" came into common usage.  The Negro had been polite and obsequious; the black was angry and proud....

        [I]n Berkeley...[n]either Malcolm X nor [Martin Luther] King [,Jr.] had been local heroes, and both the SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference] and the SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] seemed far away.  The black-white liberal coalition that had come to power in Berkeley had given blacks more influence than in any other mostly white city in the country.  In 1965 the coalition had won a smashing victory and swept all four council seats for a six to three majority....In 1966, however, the coalition began to disintegrate.  The war in Vietnam split white liberals, while the race issue split blacks....

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        Politics aside, Berkeley was unusual in its commitment to biracial ventures.  The city YWCA had been integrated for years, and the ad hoc committees to end job discrimination had been biracial.  A local biracial theater company had taken a militant black position....

        Here was the paradox:  the strength of the liberal coalition and the biracial community ventures in Berkeley made it difficult for blacks to articulate a position of Black Power.  Power in Berkeley was destined to be shared through a coalition rather than through any claim to exclusive use of power.  Yet the black need to escape the suffocation of white benevolence was just as great in Berkeley as in the rest of black America....The result was that black extremism in Berkeley took a peculiar form.  At one and the same time, black militants had to articulate a sense of black autonomy that resonated with the Black Power rhetoric of Stokely Carmichael while acceding to the pattern of biracial cooperation that had become a hallmark of Berkeley politics since 1961.  The movement would have to be both autonomous and non-racist.

        Such a movement did emerge in the Berkeley-Oakland area.  It was called the Black Panther party, and while it achieved national fame, it largely remained a local institution.  Its leaders were a group of young blacks who had grown up in the Berkeley-Oakland ghetto.  Caught up in Carmichael's demand for autonomy, they retained a faith in cooperation with white people (at least certain white people)....The Panthers came to this position not from an optimist assessment of society but from a shallow Marxism that led them to envision themselves as black revolutionaries.  Being revolutionaries, they considered it their duty to cooperate with other revolutionaries, regardless of race.  Radical ideology enabled the Panthers at one and the same time to call for black self-determination and to urge black-white cooperation.  It was an ironic use of revolutionary ideology. panthers.jpg (26994 bytes)

        Two students at Merritt College, a largely black junior college then located in North Oakland, founded the Panthers.  One was Bobby Seale, who had been born in 1936 in Texas, but who had grown up in Berkeley's Codornices Village.

seale_and_newton.jpg (7368 bytes)         While at Merritt, Seale met Huey P. Newton....Born in 1942 in Louisiana, Newton had grown up in Oakland....Newton...spent much time on the street, where he had a reputation for being tough....Although Newton's formal education was poor...he had enrolled at Merritt and started to read on his own....Seale introduced Newton to the work of the radical black author Frantz Fanon.  Fanon's attack upon the French exploitation of the colony of Algeria struck a sympathetic chord with the two young blacks.  They noted parallels between French exploitation of the Algerians and white exploitation of American blacks; they began to think of white America as the mother country and the black ghetto as a colony....

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        The Panthers knew how to attract attention.  They wore black trousers black leather jackets, and black berets that vaguely suggested a Castro connection, and they carried firearms in the streets.  In 1966 California law provided it was legal to carry unloaded weapons openly in public places.  At a time when race riots were occurring in almost every black ghetto in the country, the Panther's arms alarmed not only whites but also the police....When the police harassed the Panthers by stopping their cars frequently for traffic violations, the Panthers responded by harassing the police.  
Whenever a patrol car entered the Oakland-Berkeley ghetto, it was tailed by the Panthers, who had their own communications system.  After Don Mulford, the conservative Republican who represented Berkeley hills in the legislature, introduced a bill regulating guns, the Panthers decided to lobby the legislature.  On May 2, 1967, they drove to Sacramento in a caravan, marched with their unloaded weapons into the capitol, and after getting lost inside the building, accidentally walked onto the floor of the Assembly bearing their arms.  The legislators were frightened, the media became hysterical, and the Panthers, some of whom were arrested, never again lacked publicity....

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        As the Panthers grew in numbers, the leaders became somewhat distant from their followers.  Newton and Seale gave speeches, wrote party propaganda, and mediated disputes, but they never succeeded in building a structured organization.  A number of Panthers were caught in robberies, and some though the Panthers nothing more than a crime gang....

       The [Panthers'] most important recruit was Eldridge Cleaver, who had lived more than half his thirty-one years in California prisons.  While in prison the former resident of Los Angeles had become a Black Muslim and, like Malcolm X, had broken with the Muslims.  He had also written a startling account of his desire to rape white women.  When published in 1968, Soul on Ice topped the best-seller list....

soulonicetn.jpg (26040 bytes)         On October 28, 1967, Huey Newton was stopped late at night by a policeman on an Oakland street.  Exactly what happened next is unclear, but there was a shootout; one white officer was killed, while Newton went to the hospital with a bullet wound.  He soon faced a murder charge, which pushed the Panthers onto the front pages day after day.  When the prosecutor asked for the death penalty, some blacks recalled the racist southern justice of their own childhoods....In the black community declarations of support for Newton became a badge of racial honor.  Many blacks who had previously ignored the Panthers joined the Newton defense effort....

        On September 8, 1968, a group of students at the University invited Cleaver to teach a course on racism.  They did so under the auspices of the University's Board of Educational Development, which had been established after the Free Speech Movement to generate innovative and experimental courses.  When the appointment was announced, the public, Governor Ronald Reagan, and the Regents fumed.  Although Chancellor [Roger] Heyns privately lamented that Cleaver had been invited to teach, he defended the appointment to the Regents.  by one vote the angry Regents allowed Cleaver to give a single lecture in a hastily reconstructed course.  An enraged Cleaver then barnstormed the state's campuses.  He seemed to get a particular thrill out of cursing the governor....[B]efore the school term ended, Eldridge Cleaver's parole had been revoked, and he jumped bail and fled to Algeria.

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sf%20strike%20button.jpg (6432 bytes)         In early 1969...militant black students at San Francisco State College struck over the issue of a black studies program on that campus.  Support for the strike spread to the Berkeley campus, where militant black students joined militant Chicanos, Asians, and native [sic] Americans to form the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF).  The TWLF presented the administration at Berkeley with a list of demands, which included the establishment of student-controlled minority programs.  "The real issue," said the TWLF, "is the right of people to determine their own destinies."  The administration could not accept the demands, and they were presented in such a way that no acceptance was anticipated.... yellow_button.jpg (4135 bytes)

police_3d_world.jpg (62381 bytes)         TWLF leaders then joined white radicals to declare a student strike.  As the strike began, one of the University's main lecture halls, Wheeler Auditorium, burned.  The fire turned many students against the strike, which drew little support from whites on campus....[The] militants blocked entry to campus at Sather Gate with a closely formed picket line, threats, and blows.  The University advised students to enter campus elsewhere.  Plainclothesmen beat the TWLF pickets with blackjacks....On February 27, police severely beat Ysidro Macias, a key Chicano leader, and the next day the National Guard arrived.  Although this strike...failed, the ill-will that it left behind cannot be overestimated.  The University administration felt besieged, minority students were frustrated, and everyone was weary.

 

        By the end of the decade both race relations and society were in disarray....Except for school desegregation, the liberal program [had] failed.  Its failure disillusioned many blacks, who drew away from white paternalism and toward black autonomy.  For blacks, the decade had combined hope with frustration....But soaring hope invites great disappointment, and the decade ended with Malcolm X and Martin Luther Kin, Jr., dead, with a number of black leaders exiled or imprisoned, with young blacks trapped in the ghetto, and with white Americans increasingly distracted from black problems by the war in Vietnam.