Summary & Analysis
From Berkeley to New York: The Beginning and the End of the Movement
On 1 October 1964, thousands of students at the University of California at Berkeley spontaneously surrounded a police car as it attempted to carry away a young political activist in handcuffs. The university and student political associations had been arguing for weeks over where student political organizing could take place. When the university declared that it must occur off campus, student organizations from across the political spectrum defied the decision by placing their tables in Sproul Plaza, one of the main thoroughfares through campus. Jack Weinberg, staffing the CORE table (Congress of Racial Equality), refused to budge when the police ordered him to take his table off campus. As he was being arrested, students began to gather, and by the time he was placed in the squad car, hundreds had begun to plant themselves around the vehicle.
In the next 32 hours, crowds swelled to 3000 students who locked the police car in place. As student leaders met with campus officials to negotiate an end to the stalemate, the student protestors held their own mass forum over the philosophy and tactics of civil disobedience. One by one, they removed their shoes and climbed to the top of the squad car where they addressed the crowd. They quoted Thoreau, Gandhi, and Socrates, among others; students invoked the lessons learned in history and philosophy classes in debating the appropriate way to pursue human rights and social justice.
Six years later, three members of the Weathermen, an offshoot of the Students for a Democratic Society, were killed when the bomb they were constructing in their lower Manhattan apartment exploded. The deaths of Diana Oughton, Ted Gold, and Terry Robbins, which occurred shortly before the tiny radical faction declared war against the United States, announced to many the end of the student movement. This may have been premature. More than 50,000 young activists would march on the Pentagon the following spring to protest the Vietnam War. And the Weathermen would persist in their campaign against “Amerikan imperialism” despite little ostensible success; for the next year they would explode bombs in courthouses and police stations across the country. Still, the self-immolation of the three idealistic radicals struck many as a pathetic commentary on the deterioration of the student movement that had begun with such idealistic confidence in 1964. Or perhaps more precisely, the deaths of these students suggested a tragic conclusion to the debate initiated in Sproul Plaza over the philosophy and tactics of political resistance.
The Free Speech Movement: The Power of Persuasion
Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement dominated campus affairs through December of 1964. Negotiations between campus officials and student leaders over campus speech policy were interrupted by periodic student marches and rallies. Mario Savio, a 21-year-old philosophy major, quickly emerged as the most powerful speaker and, consequently, leader of the movement. He had just returned from the South where he had joined hundreds of other students in the Mississippi Summer Project. Sponsored by SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), this project had enlisted students to register voters and run “freedom schools” aimed at increasing literacy and empowering the black community through education.
With his sense of the times and his obligations sharpened by recent experience, Savio demanded that students not temporize in their pursuit of free speech on campus. “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,” he urged Berkeley students. “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!33
Inspired by Savio’s eloquence, student protestors persisted in their challenge to university policy throughout the semester. A critical moment arrived in early December when 1000 students occupied Sproul Hall—the university’s administration building. California’s governor, Ronald Reagan, dispatched 600 police officers to arrest the students who responded with the non-violent tactics they had rehearsed during the sit-in. The building was cleared, but the next day the campus was virtually empty as roughly 70% of the student body boycotted classes and sympathetic departments cancelled instruction.
With the campus paralyzed, the faculty organized to force concessions from the administration. On 8 December, the faculty’s Academic Senate voted overwhelmingly in support of student demands for rights of speech subject only to reasonable time and place requirements. And in January, the administration accepted the faculty recommendation. The steps of Sproul Hall were designated an “open discussion area.” From 12-1 and 4-6 p.m. students could address, advocate, and debate any issue; the university would even provide microphones and amplifiers. In addition, several areas of the campus were set aside for student organizations interested in staffing recruitment and advocacy tables. In short, the students won on almost all counts. Always recognizing that the university had a right to set reasonable time and place requirements, they now enjoyed the right to speak and organize, without restrictions on content, in the heart of the campus.
It was a tremendous victory for the students—and an inspiring one. They celebrated their success by immediately shifting their energies to other issues… in particular, the war in Vietnam. But to a certain extent, their victory proved somewhat misleading for it gave students an inflated sense of what mass protest and oratory could accomplish. Using only rallies, speeches, and peaceful sit-ins, they had forced a powerful public institution to bend to their will. But in this battle they had faced a relatively like-minded opponent. The students and the university administration may have disagreed over the particulars of campus policy, but in the larger scheme of things they were partners within an educational project that placed great value on rational discourse. In fact, their disagreement was largely over how best to preserve productive dialogue.
Traditionally-minded university officials nursed a vision of the university as an intellectual sanctuary—a refuge for the objective pursuit of knowledge. Politics, according to these traditionalists, poisoned the intellectual atmosphere and compromised the pursuit of truth; campuses should remain removed––even above––this sort of contentious discourse. The university’s president, Clark Kerr, realized that this was a dated vision. The modern university was not, nor should it be, an intellectual island. The university was engaged in preparing professionals and technicians for the outside world; it was dishonest to suggest that it was apolitical. But he also realized that the modern university, or multiversity, as he called it, had to balance the needs and demands of various constituents—the business community that underwrote research grants, the politicians that appropriated university funds, as well as the students who wanted to pursue their educations outside as well as inside the classroom. All of this translated into the need for a student speech policy that balanced the concerns of all parties.
But for the students, with visions sharpened by a sense of historical imperative, this sort of calculation was immoral. The times and the issues required a clear, strong response. Racial barriers had to be destroyed and the war had to be stopped. In order to achieve this, absolute free speech had to be protected.
From FSM to the War in Vietnam: The Limits of Persuasion
The Free Speech Movement, thus, was about philosophy, not just about power, and in the end, the students succeeded because they convinced the faculty that their philosophical position was correct. But when the students, inspired by their victory, stepped off campus to tackle other issues, they encountered a different sort of opponent. When they marched through the streets of Berkeley in opposition to the war, and when they tried to shut down the army induction center in Oakland, they found opponents less moved by their intellectual and rhetorical powers. They encountered local residents who were offended rather than moved by their commitment; they confronted draftees who were annoyed rather than swayed by their arguments; and they were driven back by a police force that was not held in check by a frustrated but philosophically sympathetic university president.
The challenge faced by Berkeley’s activists when they stepped off campus was echoed throughout the country. Student leaders engaged in endless debates about how to grow and educate the movement, what issues to pursue, and what tactics to employ. And at the center of this debate was the recognition that once they stepped off the college campus, they encountered huge organizational and tactical problems. Local authorities were hostile, sometimes violent. But this was to be expected. More problematic was the fact that many of the constituencies they hoped to mobilize—racial minorities and working class youth—were indifferent to their efforts.
Students for a Democratic Society: The Tactical Debate
The evolution of the Students for a Democratic Society was symptomatic of these difficulties. Founded in 1962, the movement grew during the middle of the decade as college students were politicized by the Vietnam War. For SDS leaders, this was something of a mixed blessing. They welcomed these new members but they objected to their narrow focus on the war. According to these more ambitious reformers, the war was only one of the many problems rooted in America’s capitalist and imperialist system. Beyond ending the war, America needed a much deeper social and political transformation—one that re-distributed wealth and political power.
But among the masses of students drawn to the SDS by their opposition to the war, there was little interest in this more broadly focused message. As a result, the SDS split into differing interpretive factions. One group argued that real change would come only when the most oppressed members of American society—African Americans—took to the streets. White, middle-class sympathizers, they believed, could not bring the revolution about on their own and, therefore, they would have to wait. But they should be prepared to join and assist the revolutionary efforts of America’s most oppressed minorities when they rose up.
Another faction within the SDS argued that there was a more immediate role that students could play to bring on revolutionary transformation in America society and politics. America’s blue-collar working class may be indifferent to their appeals but there was a “new working class” comprised of low-wage professionals like teachers, nurses, social workers, and journalists who could provide the vanguard for a revolutionary movement. These people could be easily reached for they were being trained in the universities where the SDS had its greatest influence. In other words, radicals did have an immediate and more receptive audience right in their midst. But this audience would need to be made aware of the systemic flaws in the American system. And the way to do that was by turning local grievances into educational opportunities. Complaints about rising textbook costs should be used to raise awareness about corporate financial power. Student complaints about class rankings used to determine draft status should be used to raise awareness about the collusion of political, military, and educational authorities in capitalist societies.
Columbia University: The Revolutionary Moment
These two interpretive and tactical strands placed their hopes for revolution in very different historical processes. But they came together briefly at Columbia University in 1968. Members of the SDS launched a campaign against a handful of university policies. CIA and Marine recruitment on campus, and the university’s membership in the Institute for Defense Analysis, a military think tank, were publicized in hopes that student dissatisfaction with these practices would lead toward a more comprehensive critique of American political and economic power. But this protest took a sudden new turn when the Student Afro-American Society interrupted a SDS rally to denounce university plans to build a new gym at Morningside Park. This park was located just off campus on the edge of a black neighborhood, and the university’s decision to build there struck African-American students as yet another example of a privileged white institution encroaching on black communities without consultation or compensation.
With cries of “to the park,” black students commandeered the SDS rally and led the crowd down to the park. After tearing down a chain-link fence and briefly battling with police, they marched back to the campus, seized a university building, and took one of the deans hostage.
For some SDS strategists, this sort of locally oriented, cross-racial alliance was exactly what they thought the movement needed. But the coalition proved fragile. The black student organization correctly suspected that their local issue was being used to galvanize support for a broader revolutionary agenda. And the white student groups feared the intervention of more militant and more violent black organizations from Harlem. Within a day, the coalition had fractured and the Student Afro-American Society had ordered the SDS to “take your own building."34
But despite this split, and to a certain extent because of it, the SDS gathered strength. Over the next week the students seized several buildings and brought the normal business of the university to a halt. Faculty attempts to mediate the dispute failed. And when the police entered the occupied building a week later, the students resisted. More than 100 students were injured in their clash with the police. More than 700 were arrested.
In the weeks that followed, the university capitulated to the student demands. Plans for the gym were abandoned and the university dropped its affiliation with the Institute for Defense Analysis. Most of the student protestors were readmitted to school and almost all of the charges against the students were dropped. Furthermore, flush with victory and romantically embraced by young activists impressed by the nerve of the Columbia students, the SDS grew. Across the country chapters were opened on college campuses—even community colleges and high schools formed chapters. Within a year, the SDS claimed 100,000 members in 500 chapters.
Yet ironically, and perhaps predictably, this sudden growth created even deeper tensions within SDS. And within the more general student movement, the explosion of student participation threatened to transform it into a cacophony of different philosophies and agendas. The Yippies launched a protest that was as much cultural as political; they largely abandoned serious political action for street theater and symbolic cultural commentary. At the 1968 Democratic Convention, philosophy-laden oratory was replaced by a rally for Pigasus—a pig that was nominated for president. Local organizations adopted their own analyses and strategies—the confrontational and militant Jesse James Gang at Ann Arbor, the cultural revolutionary White Panthers in Berkeley, and anarchistic collectives like the San Francisco Diggers and New York’s Up Against the Wall Mother F------.
It was within this growing but splintering movement that the Weathermen emerged. In the fall of 1969, the SDS dissolved, but a faction within the organization regrouped. Adopting a line out of a Bob Dylan song––“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”––they named themselves the Weathermen.
The Weathermen announced a new agenda that was shaped by the old questions about who to organize and what methods to employ. Concluding that the working class, as traditionally defined, had been co-opted and could not be expected to respond to the call to revolution, the Weathermen argued that the revolution would have to rely on the truly oppressed—African Americans in this country and the millions victimized by imperialism and capitalism abroad. In addition to these, the Weathermen suggested that America’s cities were filled with alienated young people who were sick of being oppressed by their parents, teachers, and police, and who could also play a role in the revolution.
To recruit these nascent revolutionaries, the Weathermen staged events in northeastern cities. They rushed local high schools, setting off the bells and calling students from class with the cry of “jailbreak.” Gathering the students outside, they then tried to hold “rap” sessions with the supposedly alienated teenagers about imperialist greed and the exploitation of labor. And to demonstrate to black Americans that they were committed to violence, that they were not just another weak-kneed student organization, they organized the Days of Rage in Chicago in October 1969. They announced their intentions to terrorize the city’s streets weeks in advance, and expected thousands of revolutionaries to descend on the city. Instead, only a few hundred showed up to smash store windows and snarl traffic. One group dynamited the statue honoring the police killed a century earlier in Haymarket Square. The Women’s Militia led by Bernardine Dohrn marched on the army induction center and fought a four-minute battle before being carted off to jail.
The Weathermen Go Underground
It was after these efforts failed, after America’s “alienated youth” failed to respond, and after black militants failed to be impressed by the Weathermen’s demonstration of muscle, that the Weathermen went underground. They split into cells, and plotted a series of targeted bombings designed largely, they said, to shock Americans into awareness of the calamities being inflicted on the people of Vietnam by America’s war. But they also hoped to avenge and bring attention to the injustices they perceived on American soil. As Bernardine Dohrn explained, after Black Panther leader Fred Hampton was killed by Chicago police, the Weathermen needed to be “more grave, more serious, more determined to raise the stakes and not just be the white people who wrung their hands when black people were being murdered.”35
Weathermen sympathizers found it easy to justify the violence of the radical faction. Despite years of protest and oratory, hundreds of rallies, demonstrations, and sit-ins, the war in Vietnam continued. For these activists, the escalation into violence was compelled by events outside the movement. But for other observers, the decision to go underground and launch a campaign of guerrilla bombings signaled an admission of failure—a failure to grow the movement and expand its base to the point that it could effectively challenge the political establishment and a failure to convince the supposed victims of racial and class injustices that the movement offered something to them. In sneaking from safe-house to safe-house and setting off bombs in the middle of the night, the Weathermen implicitly admitted that their cause was not the people’s cause and that their appeals could not win mass support in the public forum.
On 6 March 1970, Diana Oughton, Ted Gold, and Terry Robbins were killed when they crossed live wires while constructing a nail bomb. In the months that followed, the Weathermen detonated bombs at carefully selected targets that they linked to the war or domestic oppression. They exploded their bombs at night and took care to see that buildings were empty—in fact, no one was killed by a Weathermen bomb after the Greenwich Village townhouse explosion. Even so, by the end of the year, members had grown shell-shocked by their own revolution. In a remarkable statement, they announced a new tactical direction. In a communication labeled “New Morning –Changing Weather,” they admitted that they had succumbed to the “military error” of believing that “only bombing and picking up the gun was revolutionary, with the glorification of the heavier the better.”36 They confessed that they had been swept up in a romantic fantasy about violence and martyrdom, and they urged activists to maintain faith in more traditional forms of protest and mass demonstration. It was “time for the movement to go out into the air, to organize, to risk calling rallies and demonstrations, to convince that mass actions against the war and in support of rebellions do make a difference.”37 The Weathermen did not renounce all violence against property; in fact, shortly after the release of this statement, the Weathermen placed bombs in the nation’s Capitol to protest the invasion of Laos. But they insisted that ultimate success would depend on growing the movement through education and dialog, and that change would occur only after more had been persuaded that change had to occur.
The Movement Comes Full Circle
To a certain extent, with the “New Morning” statement the movement had come full circle. Hints of the argument advanced by Berkeley students––that reform, or even revolution, could be achieved through free and rational discourse––could be gleaned in the new Weathermen statement. This confidence was reflected further in the paths taken by student activists. It is perhaps no surprise that Mario Savio, the leader of Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, became a teacher. But so too did Weathermen leaders Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn. Ayers is currently a professor (in the school of education, no less) at the University of Illinois. Dohrn teaches law at Northwestern. Of course, not all activists concluded that education was the pathway to change. Many denounced the New Morning statement and the Weathermen’s “loss of nerve.” Having accepted the need for violence to achieve change, they ultimately could not stomach the deaths of three of their own, these charged.
Perhaps they were right. Or perhaps these Weathermen had just come to accept the realities attached to reform in America. And indeed, despite the student movement’s challenges and problems, despite its unresolved debate about tactics and constituencies, the movement did achieve a great deal. In the most immediate terms, student activism did contribute to the advance of the civil rights movement and the end of the Vietnam War. President Richard Nixon entered the presidency resolved to end the social and political threat represented by campus rebellions. His decisions to replace the draft with the lottery system and reduce the number of troops in Vietnam were aimed at deflating the student movement and quieting the campuses.
More broadly, an entire generation moved from campus activism to more mainstream efforts to advance social progress. Jackie Goldberg, one the FSM’s leaders, taught for several years before entering politics. She sat on the Los Angeles School Board and City Council and was elected to several terms in the state assembly and senate. She was also a founding member of the California Legislative Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Caucus. Frank Bardacke, another Berkeley leader, has spent decades as a labor and community organizer in Watsonville, California. Tom Hayden, one of the founders of the SDS while a student at the University of Michigan, later served in California’s state assembly and senate. He currently mixes teaching and writing with political involvement in issues ranging from the war in Iraq to abusive labor practices. And Jack Weinberg, the Berkeley activist who launched the Free Speech Movement when he spent 32 hours in the back of a squad car, devotes much of his time to environmental issues. In 2005, he and other Greenpeace activists were arrested in the Philippines.
The “movement” may not have achieved all that many of its participants hoped for—but it achieved a great deal. America is a different place for it. And beyond its impact on specific issues, the movement left a series of narratives and lessons. The next time students climb on top of a police car to debate the best way to redress some social or political injustice, they might quote Thoreau, Gandhi, and Savio. The next time a group gathers to debate the tactics best suited to advancing reform in America, they might draw upon the lessons learned at Berkeley, Columbia, and Greenwich Village.