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Celebrating Mario Savio

Forty-five years ago this week, Mario Savio – a 21-year-old student at Berkeley and leader of the Free Speech Movement – gave a speech before a massive sit-in on the steps of Sproul Hall that would go down in history. As an intriguing article in In These Times explains:

The movement was a protest against the university’s clampdown on political speechmaking and recruiting for civil rights activism on campus. President Clark Kerr and various bureaucratic intermediaries disdained the movement as a disruption of the modern “multiversity” (Kerr’s own term) as a smooth-running, quasi-corporate knowledge factory.

Savio was apparently not your typical charismatic leader. He periodically suffered from depression, struggled with a stammer, and “was a shy, modest person who was uncomfortable in any position of leadership and never craved the public spotlight.”

Savio’s orthodox Catholic upbringing gradually morphed into sympathy with liberation theology and Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement. At Queens College in 1963, he spent the summer on a project organized by the campus Newman House, assisting the poor in Taxco, Mexico. That fall, his parents moved to California and he transferred to Berkeley. Baptized by San Francisco protests for civil rights and against the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1963-64, he became active in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, whose campaign he joined for the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi.

His efforts with other students to continue civil rights activism when they returned to Berkeley that fall set off the Free Speech Movement (FSM), which, with Savio as its most eloquent leader, eventually prevailed over administration opposition.

The rest of the article is worth a read, and mentions a new book – Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s, by NYU professor Robert Cohen – for anyone who wants to delve deeper into this fascinating (and largely forgotten) figure.