Free Speech Movement Nonviolence

September, 1964: The Campus CORE-Lator""

10/15/1964: FSM Leaflet: Where does the FSM stand today?


12/13/1964: The Berkeley Free Speech Controversy (Grad student report)

1997: Margot Adler: A Heretic's Heart, Chapter 4

Book by FSM Participant Michael Nagler, "The Nonviolence Handbook, A Guide for Practical Action"

12/3/1964 Steve Wesisman organizing Strike.
photo by Jim Jumblatt

We Shall Overcome
Steve Weissman, 2012

Joan Baez was having second thoughts. The popular folksinger had promised to come to Berkeley to take part in our Free Speech Movement sit-in the following day, December 2, 1964. But, the evening before show time, her mentor Ira Sandperl rang. As a member of the FSM steering committee, I took the call. “Would we commit ourselves to remain strictly nonviolent?” asked Ira, a Gandhi scholar who had marched for civil rights with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“No,” I replied. “We can't.”

My bluntness surprised us both, but Joanie was stepping on our toes. FSM was an irritatingly democratic and anti-authoritarian movement and we would make our own decisions. Nor did we need any pacifist noodging. Most of us were fighting for the right to use free speech on campus to organize nonviolent civil disobedience against racial discrimination and other ills, primarily in neighboring Oakland and San Francisco. As diplomatically as I could, I reminded Ira that we were a broad coalition of groups, from revolutionary socialists to Goldwater Republicans, and I could hardly speak for them all. But, I told him, at our last meeting, we had voted overwhelmingly to use non-violent tactics to occupy Berkeley’s administration building, Sproul Hall.

A great soul with a superb sense of whimsy, Ira heard what he needed to hear. Joan came the following day, sang beautifully, and had her say. “Muster up as much love as you possibly can, and as little hatred and as little violence, and as little ‘angries’ as you can – although I know it's been exasperating,” she told us. “The more love you can feel, the more chance there is for it to be a success.” With those words, nearly 2,000 of us marched into Sproul Hall, and Time magazine named Baez “the Joan of Arc of the Free Speech Movement.”[i]

By contrast, our own Mario Savio had already launched us onto a less loving path. “There is a time,” he declared, “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.”[ii]

My own take differed from both. While a graduate student in Ann Arbor in the early 1960s, I had taken part in nonviolent demonstrations, but had given little serious thought to Gandhian ideas until one night at the home of Tom Hayden, one of the founders of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). A group of us were sitting in his basement discussing the civil rights movement in the South, when an earnest young woman asked in all seriousness, “Would it be nonviolent if I pushed away an attacking police dog?” I did not know whether to laugh or cry, and I felt the same about Joan's nonviolent faith. As a secular Jew who had grown up in the shadow of the Holocaust, I could not see how getting rid of my “angries” would have stopped Hitler. Nor was it going to dissuade university administrators who had just initiated disciplinary measures against Mario and three others. As for Mario's truly eloquent cry of anguish, most of us in the graduate student leadership saw the Sproul Hall sit-in less as an expression of existential outrage and more as a trigger for further escalation. We expected the authorities to react by bringing outside police onto campus, as they did, and we had prepared to respond with a student strike that our graduate teaching assistants would lead. The strike, we hoped, would shut down the university, force the faculty to get off their backsides, and give us a famous victory for free speech, which is how it all turned out.

From soul force to human obstruction to political jujitsu, these different approaches to nonviolence appealed to individual activists in varying degrees. But, as a group, we came to a post-Gandhian mix and match, never codified except in practice. We barely gave it a name, except perhaps for “tactical nonviolence,” which is what I called a free university course that I later gave at Stanford. By hit or miss, we combined FSM’s tactical brilliance with the strategic bent of the graduate students. We transformed Joan’s call for love into a pragmatic openness toward potential antagonists, whether Christian evangelists, football cheerleaders, or even the police. And, far more consequential than most observers have realized, we followed Mario’s lead in rejecting for all time the conservatizing Socratic call to uphold the state’s authority by willingly accepting punishment for any laws we might break. Goodbye bitter hemlock, catch us if you can.[iii]

Our thinking continued to evolve as we used our hard-won freedom on campus to launch nonviolent demonstrations against the rapidly escalating war in Southeast Asia. Students on other campuses did the same, as university administrators across the country gave new freedom to speech, in part out of fear that our example would spread. Those were heady days. Our Berkeley contingent stopped troop trains and held marches that brought dramatic confrontations with the Oakland Police and chain-wielding Hells Angels whom the cops encouraged to attack us. All the way we remained irritatingly democratic and transparent, used peaceful negotiations and the intercession of poet Allen Ginsberg to dissuade the Hells Angels, tried our best to give individual participants control over how much risk they wanted to take, and used our nonviolent direct action only against those on the Dark Side, never on their behalf.


[i] Max Heirich, The Spiral of Conflict: Berkeley, 1964. (Columbia University Press, 1971). p. 272

[ii] “Mario Savio’s speech before the FSM sit-in,” Free Speech Movement Archives.

[iii] For the persistence of the Socratic view, see, for example, Bill Keller, “Private Manning’s Confidant,” International Herald Tribune, March 10, 2013. “When the government moved to prosecute Ellsberg, we felt no obligation to assist him,” Max Frankel, who was The Times’s Washington bureau chief at the time, recalled the other day. “He was committing an act of civil disobedience and presumably knew that required accepting the punishment. We were privately pleased that the prosecution overreached and failed, but we did not consider ourselves his partner in any way.”