Although Sproul Hall at UC Berkeley is a well-known spot on Cal’s campus, it’s hardly a setting for major news these days. But 50 years ago, it was the loudest place in America. The place fucking erupted. UC Berkeley is where the Free Speech Movement (FSM) began. It is the birthplace of modern activism on American college campuses.
A plaque on Berkeley’s campus memorializes the event. In 1964, Cal students — students who spent summers in buses with the Freedom Riders, working for the NAACP and pursuing racial and social justice on a variety of fronts around the country — returned to campus to learn that the last “free speech zone” on campus had been designated off-limits for political protest. Activism was officially silenced. But it didn’t stop. Massive protests erupted in October and culminated in December with an enormous sit-in in Sproul Hall: Thousands of students took over the building. For two days, the country turned its attention to the front steps of Sproul and listened as student leaders gave fiery speeches. The sit-in ended with the mass arrest of almost 800 students, but the protest only grew. As Cal’s campus began to resemble a sustained riot, the powers at be finally gave in: In the early days of the New Year, Cal adopted provisional measures to allow political activity, and designated the steps of Sproul Hall a free speech area. Students regained their ability to advocate for what they believed in, and, to this day, you can still find student groups distributing literature and advocating in front of Sproul.
In the decades to follow, the FSM spread to campuses across America, and morphed into anti-Vietnam protests, marches for racial justice and divestment campaigns from Apartheid South Africa. Because these movements have become inextricably associated with liberal causes, we tend to remember the Free Speech Movement as yet another liberal protest. But it was so much more than that.
The FSM was not just a movement of liberals — it was a movement of young people. Last year, an NPR article commemorating the 50th anniversary of the protest recalled how the sit-in at Sproul was non-partisan: “Young Socialists and Young Republicans” stood together to demand free speech on campus. And while this unity may baffle the modern student, it was possible because the Free Speech Movement did not erupt to promote any political agenda. Rather, it sought only to advance an ideal: Young people ought to be able to stand up for what they believe in.
Fifty-one years ago, students across the country refused to be insulated from the strife and division that faced the nation. The Free Speech Movement demanded that young people be given the dignity to stand as full citizens. They were to be given a voice to advocate for what was right. That year — 1964 — was the year a new generation announced itself, and declared that the future of our country would be very different from its past.
At first glance, the legacy of the FSM seems to survive: On campuses all over the country, students take advantage of the freedom to advocate. But we’ve lost the sentiment of the movement — the passion is gone. While today students still advocate in front of Sproul Hall, demonstrations are tepid and small compared to the fiery protests of the ’60s. Activists hand out pamphlets, or stand with signs. Here at Stanford, advocacy groups work hard, but represent small, specific groups of students.
While justice movements persist on Cal’s campus and our own — and on campuses countrywide — student protests register quietly, quickly or not at all in the news. Activism, as an average, is now a quiet smolder dulled by the apathy of mass opinion. There are passionate folks, loud and brilliant people standing up for what is right at Stanford and elsewhere, but their energy does not mirror the sentiments of their peers — student populations are no longer excited. There are few powerful causes that hold our attention, and a protest is unlikely to bring us out in force (unless there is a promise of free food or a celebrity speaker).
It shouldn’t be this way. Injustice and strife never disappeared, but something happened over the years — the passion to fight them left us. “Activism” became a dirty word, marred by the unprecedented political divisions of the new century; passion was dulled by the advent of social media. Today, it feels impossible for us to find consensus on anything, and advocacy feels hopeless when minds are shut vice-like around a partisan ideology, and locked to new ideas.
When people do raise their voices, we’re often vexed: Activism has become unavoidably self-promotional when its most visible platforms are Facebook and Twitter, where calls to action sit on manicured profiles, graced with self-portraits. Like so many of my fellow students, I often feel discouraged by activism, or even annoyed by it.
But while we are indeed deeply divided politically, the goal of the Free Speech Movement was never for students to agree on everything: The goal of the Movement was to get students to stand up for what they believe in, and to face the adversity that threatens our nation with ardor and hope. While we should continue to debate politics and argue about ideas, we should never endeavor to stifle the passion of the people with whom we disagree: When we get annoyed at bad activists, we ought to criticize bad methods, but not activism in general.
Caring is apolitical, and apathy is equally dangerous to us all. Our generation faces unprecedented adversity, and we handicap ourselves when we spend our time trying to silence opposition rather than encouraging everyone to fight for what they think is right.
The legacy of the Free Speech Movement survives in our sustained ability to speak out. Let us use it to declare what young people have declared for decades: We are this country’s next generation, and things must change. We may be divided by ideas, but we will strive to remain united in our yearning to do what is necessary, and what is right.
Contact Jack Herrera at herreraj ‘at’ stanford.edu.