Mario Savio, the First Free Speaker
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because one speech changed the course of student activism forever — and the man behind it deserves his due.
The young man standing at the top of the university steps was trembling with fury. His frizzy hair stood on end. His shoulders heaved as he leaned into the microphone and spat out his words. Below him, a crowd of students hummed and yelled their agreement as he spoke of the various injustices of the university administration. But suddenly, his own words caught him up, and raw, timeless rhetoric came tumbling out of this 22-year-old’s gangly form.
“There is 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.”
He started not just protesting, but organizing efficiently and to devastating effect.
This young man, UC Berkeley philosophy student Mario Savio, would be hauled away to jail with nearly 800 other people that day in December 1964 — but his words would shake up an emerging, politically charged generation and create a mainstream protest movement. Across the country, people of color were fighting against years of legalized oppression. But many people Savio’s age — especially white students — were unaware of many of the nation’s worst issues. Today we associate the ’60s with student protest, but for many, forming a picket line or taking to the streets was still a fringe activity in 1964.
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy a year before had taken the fire out of many young people’s political drives; Bob Dylan’s protest songs couldn’t compete with the surging popularity of the Beatles. There would be no draft to Vietnam for another five years, and for many university-educated white students, politics was not the most pressing concern.
Fifty years later, UC Berkeley welcomes the protesters back as heroes.
But Savio thought differently. As a student at the University of California, Berkeley, he started not just protesting, but organizing efficiently and to devastating effect. If any campus needed a shot of radicalism, it was Berkeley. In echoes of Joe McCarthy — or Dolores Umbridge — the university dean had promised to enforce a ban on students’ on-campus political activity. Savio and other students promptly organized protests that drew hundreds of people. Students found themselves suddenly involved in politics whether they liked it or not, and many of them found it intoxicating. The charismatic speaker Savio became a figurehead.
Mario Savio was the New York son of working-class Italian-Americans. Despite his young age, he was a veteran of social justice movements, having campaigned for dignified living conditions in Mexico and against segregation in California. He entered the FBI’s casebooks in the summer of 1964 while working in Mississippi as a voter registrar and teacher.
During a 36-hour stand-off with police, he clambered barefoot atop a police car and dispersed a whole angry crowd with a few words. “I ask you to rise quietly and with dignity, and go home,” Savio called out to the sit-in protesters — and they did just that. Four thousand of Savio’s fellow students came out to see him speak on Berkeley’s steps in opposition to UC President Clark Kerr. With his incandescent “bodies upon the gears” speech, Savio’s righteous anger and a willing audience gave birth to what would become known as the Free Speech Movement — and prompted the largest mass arrest in California’s history.
But despite his hard-fought battles, successes and even jail time, Savio oddly fell out of the public spotlight once he left Berkeley, and his name remains little known. Writing about him days after his memorial service, friend and colleague Julia Stein said, “When he became famous at twenty-one, he rejected everything about celebrity. He didn’t want to became famous. … He wanted a more just world.” Savio continued activism efforts on behalf of students, immigrants and affirmative action, but mostly kept his head down working as a university professor. He had three sons, was married twice, suffered a mental breakdown in the ’70s, re-emerged to earn a degree in physics and eventually died of a heart attack at 53.
Savio’s power to inspire came from a clear-cut philosophy and a firm belief in solidarity, especially with civil rights activists who’d been fighting long before white students joined in. During the Occupy movement, his son Nadav hinted that protesters might learn a thing or two from his father’s ability to articulate a powerful argument. Though his own organizations were short-lived, Mario Savio proved that a few passionate words really can change the course of history — even when they outlive their speaker.