Freedom's Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s (2009) is the title of a book by New York University professor Richard Cohen (b. 1955). I have not read Cohen’s large tome (more than 540 pp.), but I am interested in its subject.
Mario Savio (1942-96), was the brilliant leader of Berkeley's Free Speech Movement, the largest and most disruptive student rebellion in American history. He risked his life to register black voters in Mississippi in the Freedom Summer of 1964 and did more than anyone to bring daring forms of non-violent protest from the civil rights movement to the struggle for free speech and academic freedom on American campuses.
Savio is most famous for his passionate speeches, especially his “put your bodies upon the gears” address given in front of Sproul Hall at the University of California, Berkeley, on December 2, 1964. That day after giving his speech in front of 4,000 people, he and 800 others were arrested.
In his 12/2/64 speech, Savio said, “There’s a time when the operation of the machine [of corporate society] becomes so odious . . . 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.”
On 12/2/97, less than 13 months after Savio’s death, the steps in front of Sproul Hall were named the Mario Savio Steps. A Memorial Lecture Fund was also set up to honor Savio after his death. The first lecture was given by Howard Zinn in 1997, and other speakers include Cornel West (2001), Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (2008), and Elizabeth Warren (2010).
|Robert Reich, 11/15/11|
This year the Mario Savio lecture was given by Robert Reich, the Berkeley public policy professor who was Secretary of Labor (1993-97) under President Clinton. Reich (b. 1946) gave the lecture entitled “Class Warfare in America,” which can be heard at this link.
Reich, declaring that “the days of apathy are over,” linked the activities and interests of Savio in the 1960s to the Occupy Wall Street movement going on now. He praised the Occupy Cal protesters for their “moral outrage,” and said democracy depends upon “the ability of people to join together and make their voices heard.”
Not long before the 11/15/11 assembly on and around the Mario Savio Steps, Rachel Maddow had an 18-minute segment on her program comparing the OWS movement to the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s. She included clips of Savio’s speech as well as an interview with Reich. If you haven’t seen that segment, it is well worth watching (available at various websites including here).
Right-wing radio hosts and even potential Republican presidential candidates continue to badmouth the OWS movement. A Fox News host recently referred to the OWS protesters as “domestic terrorists.”
Peaceful protests and “speaking the truth to power,” though, are terrifying only to the powerful and those who seek to maintain the status quo for their own benefit. Just as the country needed to hear the message of “freedom’s orator” in the 1960s it needs now to listen attentively to the pleas of the protesters in the OWS movement.