Mario Savio Wrote the Handbook on How to Lead a Successful Student Movement

Mario Savio atop police car.
Mario Savio atop police car.

I’ve always had an interest in Mario Savio, icon of the 1960s Free Speech Movement and a Catholic. When Savio died in November 1996, I wrote a short news item about him in Sojourners.

In December 1964, after three months of student resistance to the curtailing of political activity on the Berkeley campus, Mario Savio climbed atop a police car and shouted the words that became a preamble to the 1960s’ student movement. Savio’s whole life had prepared him for that pivotal moment. He grew up in Queens, New York, in a strong Italian Catholic family; attended Catholic schools; considered becoming a priest. He trained with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Mississippi, saying, “I became involved in the Civil Rights movement because of the one moral principle foundational to my Catholic upbringing: Resist evil.”

In 1964, Clark Kerr, president of the University of California, described the university as a “factory” for filling students’ empty minds. Savio, son of a machine punch operator, responded by putting his body “upon the gears” and stopping the machine. He was arrested and served 120 days in jail, with students ranging from Democratic Socialists to Goldwater Republicans. In the end they secured their rights to free speech and political activity; they went from being children of the “factory” to citizens of the nation. Savio was a leader, a movement friend said, “not because of anger or eloquence but because he spoke with an indelible moral clarity that was rooted in his Catholic faith.”

Last year, Robert Cohen published Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s, the first comprehensive biography of Savio. Not only does Cohen lay out the groundwork for the education of this thoroughly American radical, but he also gives a generous look at Savio’s commitment in the second half of his life: against “Reaganite Imperialism” in Central America and the corporatization of higher education.

Knowing Mario Savio’s life, strategies, and motivations is necessary for activists leading the new student movements happening on campuses today. Scott Saul published good review (A Body on the Gears) of Freedom’s Orator in this month’s The Nation. Here’s an excerpt from Saul’s analysis:

By necessity [the new Savio biography by Robert Cohen] Freedom’s Orator is a dual biography of a man and his movement, and almost half the book follows less than four months of Savio’s life, the pivotal fall semester of 1964. The [Free Speech Movement] FSM ran what we might call a textbook student-activist campaign in that interval–if we overlook the fact that the textbook didn’t exist yet. President Nixon’s 1970 Commission on Campus Unrest termed militant student protest “the Berkeley invention,” and rightly so, since the FSM pioneered the use of civil rights strategies of direct action in a university setting, demonstrating how such disruptive tactics could mobilize a majority of students and even win the sympathies of a formerly passive faculty.

The FSM had the benefit of a cadre of experienced organizers, many seasoned like Savio in civil rights work, and a university administration that couldn’t shoot straight. What began as a seemingly minor dispute over civil liberties on campus–could students hand out political literature on a twenty-six-foot strip of land owned by the university?–spiraled quickly into a battle royal in which the meaning of the university and American liberalism seemed to be at stake. The central events have since passed into ’60s legend: the seizure of a police car, wherein thousands of students surrounded a police cruiser holding an arrested civil rights activist, immobilizing it for thirty-two hours while speaker after speaker used the car’s roof as their podium; the December 2 sit-in, wherein almost 800 students were arrested after occupying Sproul Hall, the central administrative building, to protest disciplinary action against four movement leaders; and the December 7 Greek Theatre incident, wherein Savio walked onstage to speak to the assembled student body and was immediately grabbed at his throat and arms by police and dragged offstage–an administration fiasco that UC president Clark Kerr called “an accident that looked like fascism.”

In all these events, Savio played no small part in the theater of protest. It was he who first mounted the roof of the police car, taking off his shoes so as not to dent it–a quite sincere act of decorum, though not one that prevented him from comparing the police to Adolph Eichmann (they all “had a job to do”). It was Savio who, before the sit-in, famously urged students to put their “bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and…make [the machine] stop”–updating Luddism for the age of the Organization Man. And it was Savio who, at the Greek Theatre, publicly offered his own body to the cause, making his “machine” speech seem much more than mere metaphor.

Read Scott Saul’s complete review here.

One response to “Mario Savio Wrote the Handbook on How to Lead a Successful Student Movement”

  1. Some synergy at work today! My e-friend Bob just sent this link to your post after our group discussion about stuttering provoked my comment:

    “Mario Savio is my favorite stammerer. He would ask precise and interesting (but agonizingly prolonged) questions in a Philosophy class I often attended at UCB- and the whole room was focused and anxiously waiting for each word to emerge. Of course in the passion of the moment he didn’t stutter a bit, so those who listened in Sproul Plaza or the streets didn’t have that experience. He also had an integrity and lack of interest in the spotlight that is rare in any era.”

    He was a singular and remarkable man. Glad to read about the bio and to know he is remembered.

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