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 on 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 machines will be prevented from working at all.
--Mario Savio, Berkeley, Dec. 2, 1964
Those words, which exemplify Mario Savio’s passion and eloquence, became the touchstone for a generation of student activists committed to making the world a better place.
That speech, a valedictory of months of protest, also played a key role in Savio becoming the symbolic leader of the Free Speech Movement--a role that both ennobled and burdened him.
Savio maintained that he was one of many who stepped forward with their voices and their bodies to fight for justice.
After all, he reminded people, he was merely one of 800 students who took over the Cal administration building that 1964 day, leading to the largest mass arrest in California history and ultimately winning for students the right to engage in political activity on campus. That victory empowered students around the country and set the stage for resistance to the Vietnam War.
On Sunday, the day he would have turned 54, nearly a thousand of his friends, comrades and admirers--including UC Berkeley’s only Latino vice chancellor--packed a campus ballroom to memorialize Savio, who died of heart failure on Nov. 6.
In speech after moving speech they recalled his commitment to eradicating racism, his vision of free speech as a tool to unmask evil, his generosity and his egalitarianism. And they urged one another to carry on.
“His legacy is here for us to see every time we walk through Sproul Plaza,” site of the Free Speech rallies, said Vice Chancellor Genaro Padilla, presenting unscheduled good tidings from Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien--a stark contrast to Savio’s relationship to university officials in the ‘60s.
“His great strength as a student leader was his absolute and transparent integrity,” said fellow FSM leader Bettina Aptheker, who teaches women’s studies at UC Santa Cruz. “He wasn’t interested in personal power.”
Several speakers stressed that Savio should be remembered for what he did in recent years--forceful opposition to Proposition 187 in 1994 and Proposition 209 in 1996--as for what he did as a student activist three decades ago.
Savio’s heart attack came as he was working on his last successful cause: beating back a proposed student fee increase at Sonoma State, where he was teaching at the time of his death. Savio blasted the proposed fee hike as an assault on the ability of working people to send their children to college.
Mette Adams, a Sonoma State activist who was not born at the time of the Free Speech Movement, said that during the fee battle Savio stressed that ordinary people, banding together, “can make change happen.” That was one of the primary lessons Savio brought back to California from the 1964 summer project in which he worked with poor, black Mississippians struggling to gain the right to vote.
For a few moments Sunday, that period came back to life as a video of Savio and other FSM veterans was shown for the first time. Savio recalled the horror of seeing young black people being attacked by dogs and water canons wielded by Southern sheriffs.
“They faced their fears, they overcame their fears by holding one another. Against the snapping and snarling dogs, against the torrents of water. They held one another. That was a lesson that what we need we can find in one another, the strength that we need.” Savio said he felt “shamed and inspired to do what I could do.”
Often, he felt he hadn’t done enough. Some of the speakers acknowledged how Savio fought off personal demons brought on by the burden of unwanted fame that he acquired in 1964.
“His job was never to betray the history he and others had once made. . . . His job was never to trade away whatever moral authority had attached itself to him--not for power, respectability, comfort or peace of mind,” said Savio’s close friend and key FSM activist Michael Rossman, quoting a recent essay by Berkeley writer Greil Marcus.
For some years that burden got the better of Savio. He experienced deep depression and self-doubt and was divorced. After a long struggle, he overcame those troubles, resumed his political life and his education--graduating with high honors in physics--remarried, and raised a family with wife Lynne Hollander, also a veteran of the Free Speech Movement.
Hollander reminded the crowd that Savio was more than a political being. Among the things he loved were calamari and candlelight, geraniums and Gerard Manley Hopkins, snuggling and “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
She and others, particularly Truston Davis, a onetime inmate of an Alameda County jail where Savio and others served time after the occupation of Sproul Hall, provided moments of laughter. Davis described how he and Savio became friends after they almost came to blows when Davis challenged Savio’s right to walk on a wet prison floor. “He thought about it and then said, ‘What are my options here?’ ”
Savio’s son Nadav provided one of the most poignant moments when he read portions of letters his father had written to him, exploring such topics as “trying to understand the world in the absence of religious faith.”
In one letter, Savio wrote, “Some part of me wanted to be a priest. For me, the old civil rights movement had a religious quality about it.” Nadav said his father stressed that “We have a very hard task: We have to educate on the basis of moral values, of what justice is.”
Afterward, standing in Sproul Plaza, Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, who worked with Savio in 1964, said Nadav’s speech was the most striking part of the memorial for her and gave her a sense of renewal: “The FSM had its warts and flaws, but we were pushing for justice.”
As part of a campaign to perpetuate Savio’s legacy, a World Wide Web site has been created and a nonprofit fund has been established by several people, including Savio’s first wife, to sponsor an annual lecture at Berkeley to remind people of what he stood for. Ralph Nader made the first contribution.