Who was Mario Savio?” my teenage son asked. “Somebody from the ‘60s?” Yes, and it’s OK to not recognize the name; that was Savio’s intention. No campus activist of that era more deserved the notice of the media, and no one ran from it so hard and so fast.
At first, fame was unavoidable. In 1964, the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley launched a decade of youthful rebellion. The picture of Savio speaking to thousands of students from atop a police car that had been immobilized by the crowd turned him into an instant international youth hero. Inside the police car sat Jack Weinberg, a math major recently graduated “with great distinction,” who had committed the “crime” of handing out civil rights literature on campus.
Over months of confrontation with an administration that likened the university campus to a factory and the students to a product to be molded, Savio emerged as a modern Thoreau. The poetry of his language was compelling, the words raw, brilliant and authentic to the moment: “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 tacitly 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.”
Those who denigrate the student activism of the ‘60s as egotistical or anti-intellectual inevitably stumble over the lanky figure of Savio in his sheepskin coat, ever serious, responsible and in all ways an American original. Cerebral to a fault, he stammered awkwardly in private conversation and expressed thoughts so complex that they were often hard to follow. But in moments of confrontation with authority, he was possessed of the perfect articulation of outraged innocence.
How did it come to pass that this child of a New York machinist, a Catholic altar boy, first in his high school class, whose brilliance in physics earned him a scholarship to Catholic Manhattan College and the rite of passage to Berkeley, would risk his promising academic career in the free-speech rebellion?
Or that such sacrifice should have been required--800 arrested; for Savio, four months in jail--in support of a movement affirming that college students had the right to participate as citizens in the larger society? An obvious right today, but the ‘50s conformity still had a stupefying hold.
The civil rights movement soon shattered the university’s mindless celebration of the status quo and Savio was one of those caught up in its fervor. He was first arrested in a sit-in at San Francisco’s Palace Hotel, demanding that blacks be hired for positions other than maids. It’s a mark of some progress that Willie Brown, now mayor of San Francisco, was the lawyer for those arrested. Then Savio, Weinberg and other students went to Mississippi to participate in the dangerous voter registration campaign of the “Freedom Summer.” Three civil rights workers were slain the month before.
Savio returned and led the Berkeley chapter of Friends of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which had organized the Freedom Summer on campus, but political activity was banned. It was too much to expect students who had been shot at in Mississippi to shut up. “I witnessed tyranny,” Savio said. “Then I came back here and found the university preventing us from collecting money for use there and even stopping us from getting people to go to Mississippi to help.”
Savio understood well that the times had made him, rather than the other way around. When the Free Speech Movement had run its course, he stepped off the stage of history and led a low-profile life, shunning interviews. He cared for his three children, tutored in math and eventually returned to San Francisco State, where he graduated summa cum laude and earned a master’s in physics. In his recent years, he taught remedial math and physics at Sonoma State, where he organized to hold down student fees and against Proposition 187. Savio was working against Proposition 209 to save affirmative action on state campuses when his heart failed at age 53 on the eve of last week’s election.
I was among those disappointed that Savio, whom I knew and admired at Berkeley, was not more prominent in the years since the FSM, but I respected his demons. The man the media anointed a leader did not believe in leaders. In the end, he was true to his commitment to participatory democracy, and his refusal to be made into a celebrity is victory enough. Let others go down the path from fame to notoriety; for Savio it was sufficient reward to tend to the often solitary and sometimes maddening garden of his ideals.