Who Stole My Country – 67 Freedom Summer’s Legacy

We-Shall-OvercomeEveryone who spent time in Mississippi in the summer of 1964 shared a certain feeling of guilt and longing when the summer was over and they returned to safety. In Mississippi they had taken part in a huge leap forward by an abused but proud people.  Some had paid a heavy price. Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney were found dead in early August. Three other civil rights workers were killed that summer, 80 people were badly beaten, 35 were shot at or injured, 35 churches were burnt down and 30 homes and buildings were bombed.  At least a thousand Civil Rights workers were arrested.

What stayed with those who took part was not primarily the violence nor the voter registration nor creating alternative educational institutions.  What remained was the idea of empowering people to control their own destiny and the overwhelming sense of being part of something larger than themselves.  Registering to vote, creating educational institutions, going to Freedom Schools were all means to an end: personal and community empowerment.  Freedom Summer was about urging young people to shape their own future.

As the summer volunteers returned to their colleges and universities, that goal began to raise inevitable questions.  They had been fighting for the rights of Mississippi African-Americans.  Maybe they should be struggling for the right to determine their own destiny.

Tools used by organizers in the South quickly spread to college campuses across the country.  What young people had in mind was a transformation of American society.  James Foreman said the “New Negro,” ready to shape his own destiny, would be joined by “new whites” ready to shape theirs.  As the decade continued, women, Native Americans, Hispanics, all the margins of American society began to insist on their own empowerment.

Among the veterans of Freedom Summer in 1964 were Jack Weinberg and Mario Mario-Savio-SpeakingSavio, University of California Berkeley students. On October 1st, 1964, Jack Weinberg was sitting at a CORE table raising money for the Civil Rights Movement. When he refused to show his identification to campus police, they arrested him and shoved him the back of a patrol car.  Before the police could drive away, students surrounded the patrol car.  It was stuck for 32 hours, as students used the car’s roof to make speeches. Mario Savio encouraged people to stay until three demands were met: release Weinberg, reinstate eight other suspended students and meet with students  to discuss free speech issues.

The university dropped charges against Weinberg, but refused to budge on its policy that only official Republican and Democratic student organizations could engage in political activity on campus.  Protests continued and on December 2, on the steps of Sproul Hall, Mario Savio  told a crowd, “We have an autocracy which runs this university. …  Now, I ask you to consider: if this is a firm, and if the Board of Regents are the board of directors, and if President Kerr in fact is the manager, then I’ll tell you something: the faculty are a bunch of employees, and we’re the raw material! But we’re a bunch of raw material that don’t mean to have any process upon us, don’t mean to be made into any product, don’t mean to end up being bought by some clients of the University, be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone! We’re human beings!”

Mario-Savio-ArrestedAfter wild applause, Savio went on, “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!”

Fifteen hundred students rushed in and occupied Sproul Hall. The students dismissed regular employees and locked the doors.  In all, four thousand students staged a sit in at Sproul Hall, hoping to re-open negotiations with campus officials on issues of free speech.  They studied, watched movies and sang folk songs led by Joan Baez.  Teaching Assistants taught “Freedom classes,” like the freedom schools in Mississippi.

They were still there the next day.  At midnight, Alameda County deputy district attorney Edwin Meese III telephoned Governor Edmund Brown, Sr, asking for authority to proceed with a mass arrest. The arrests began at 3:30 am.  Eight hundred students were dragged away to spend time in the Santa Rita Jail about 25 miles away. Later that month, the university brought charges against them, which in turn led to larger student protests.  Even conservative fraternities and sororities joined the Berkeley Free Speech Movement.

“At the beginning, we didn’t realize the strength of the forces we were up against. We have learned that we must fight not only [the] Dean, Chancellor and President Kerr, but also the Board of Regents with their billions of dollars and Governor Brown with his army of cops.  But neither did they realize the forces they were up against. At the beginning, they thought they had only to fight a hundred or so ‘beatniks,’ ‘Maoists,’ and ‘Fidelistas.’ But they put eight hundred of the ‘hard core’ in jail and found they still had to face thousands of other students and faculty members.”

“The source of their power is clear enough: the guns and clubs of the Highway Patrol, the banks and corporations of the Regents. But what is the source of our power?  It is something we see everywhere on campus but find hard to define. Perhaps it was best expressed by the sign one boy pinned to his chest: ‘I am a UC student. Please don’t bend, fold, spindle, or mutilate me.’ The source of our strength is, very simply, the fact that we are human beings and so cannot forever be treated as raw materials–to be processed.” 

The University eventually backed down, appointing a new acting chancellor who made the steps of Sproul Hall an open discussion area for students of all political persuasions.  

Under Elsa’s guidance, KPFA became the place to go to find detailed information about Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement.  WBAI’s listeners in New York followed her broadcasts eagerly, and we watched as the fever of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement spread to Columbia University in New York City and college campuses across America.

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