A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Remembering Mario

(Above: Mario Savio addressing the crowd while atop the police car holding Jack Weinberg at Sproul Plaza. If you look carefully, you'll see he removed his shoes first before climbing up so he wouldn't harm the roof of the car.)

From all over the country, veterans of the 1960s will return to Berkeley next week to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the event that transformed a generation: the Free Speech Movement of 1964.
Dec. 2 is the anniversary of the great sit-in at Sproul Hall, when Joan Baez led 1,000 young people into the building, singing "We Shall Overcome."
Dec. 7 is the anniversary of the movement's tipping point, when campus cops dragged Mario Savio off the stage of the Greek Theater as he was trying to give a speech, shocking and radicalizing the thousands of previously uncommitted middle-class students who saw it.
And Dec. 8 would have been Savio's 67th birthday.
Even today, opinions of the Free Speech Movement - aka FSM - are split. A few months ago, I wrote a story about the new Center on Civility in Public Discourse at Cal, funded by donations from the Class of '68, who were freshmen during FSM.
Half the donors told me FSM was the greatest thing that ever happened, and they were contributing because they considered the new center to be the logical extension of all the good things about FSM.
The other half said FSM was the worst thing that ever happened, and they were contributing to make up for all the bad things about FSM.
Curiously, there has never been a biography of Mario Savio - that is, until now. "Freedom's Orator," by NYU Professor Robert Cohen, has just been published, and it's well worth the wait.
Cohen, who in 2002 co-edited the first scholarly take on FSM - "The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s" - with the late Cal history professor Reginald Zelnik, probably knows more about FSM than anyone alive, even though he was only nine when it happened.
It's a warts-and-all biography that doesn't gloss over Savio's personal problems, including the depression he struggled with during the post-FSM years.
But in the end, Savio comes off as a deeply sincere person who did what he did not because it was expedient, but because it was right.
One of the book's most fascinating revelations is that Savio's legendary eloquence may have been the result of a severe stutter that left him virtually mute during his childhood. But when the time came for him to step forward during FSM, the stutter miraculously disappeared.
"He grew up waiting all his life to express himself, and while he was waiting he studied elocution and developed a love of poetry so that when he was finally able to speak, he didn't sound like any one else," Cohen told me last week. "It's such a metaphor for the '60s - people finding their voices."
Savio stepped away from a leadership role after FSM, but he never lost his relevance. His last cause, just before he died in 1996, was supporting students at Sonoma State who were protesting fee hikes - the same issue that led Cal students to sit in at Wheeler Hall last week.
So was he a great man? I don't really know what the term means, but I know this: He tried his best to be a good man. And that led him to do great things.