Mario Savio: The Voice of the Free Speech Movement

4 Aug
Mario Savio under arrest during his participation in the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkley, circa 1964

Mario Savio under arrest during his participation in the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkley, circa 1964
Image from

In between shocking exposures of unconstitutional surveillance and harassment, Seth Rosenfeld’s 2012 book, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power, offers a fairly comprehensive biography of everyone from Ronald Reagan and Herbert Hoover to University of California president Clark Kerr. In fact, Rosenfeld has a habit of launching into the life story of every figure he introduces. Although this was at times tedious, it helped illuminate one of the most fascinating figures of the 1960s: Mario Savio, the UC student who helped lead the Free Speech Movement (FSM) at UC Berkley at the age of 22.

On October 1, 1964, a man named Jack Weinberg was arrested on the Berkeley campus while attempting to distribute political literature. He was put into a police car, but never made it to the station. As many as 3,000 students sat down to block the car from leaving, refusing to budge for more than 32 hours until the charges against Weinberg were dropped. During that time, students stood atop the car to advocate for the right to free speech on campus. Mario Savio was one of them.

Mario Savio stands atop a police car to speak out on behalf of free speech on campus, October 1, 1964

Mario Savio stands atop a police car to speak out on behalf of free speech on campus, October 1, 1964
image from

I admit that story led me to make some judgements about Savio. Even though I agreed with his cause, my mind had him pegged as a bit of an attention seeker and perhaps an opportunist. I basically put him in the same box as many of the political figures and talking heads that dominate the world today. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Raised in a Catholic family in New York City, Savio was by all definitions brilliant. He showed a knack for physics and worked hard to overcome a debilitating stutter. He thought a lot about morality, and at times turned his focus away from science to study philosophy. He participated in the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer, an effort that registered 17,000 blacks to vote (of these, only 1,600 applications were accepted). For his participation, he was brutally beaten.

So it makes sense that a man so passionate about constitutional rights would stand up when he sees them violated. “I don’t know what made me get up and give that first speech,” he said later in an interview, “I only know I had to. What was it Kierkegaard said about free acts? They’re the ones that, looking back, you realize you couldn’t help doing?”

It was that first dramatic act that catapulted Savio to the national spotlight—and onto a secret FBI list of “subversives” who, by order of Hoover, were to be illegally rounded up and detained in the event of a national emergency. Unbeknownst to him, Savio was placed under surveillance for several decades, the FBI tracking his every move.

But despite the FBI’s view of Savio as a Soviet-influenced radical, Savio himself was deeply conflicted about his status as an FSM leader. This tension heightened as a faction of the Free Speech Movement became the Filthy Speech Movement, one dedicated to provoking the campus authorities with dirty words. Though Savio supported the rights of the Filthy Speech individuals, he knew they were damaging to the larger cause (there’s always someone to ruin a good thing for everyone, isn’t there?).

And so, mere months after the FSM was launched, Savio decided to publicly step aside from it. “The campus must organize itself. If the student rights movement at Berkeley must inevitably fail without my leadership, then it were best that it fail,” he wrote in a letter to The Daily Californian. “I should do a great disservice to our community if I were to make myself indispensable.” It was at this moment that my preconceived notions about Savio were blown out the window. What leftist or Tea Party leader today would voluntarily walk away from a position of power?

Interviews Rosenfeld conducted with Savio later in his life portrayed someone deeply disturbed by our culture’s need to cast social and political leaders in a messianic trope. Of his media portrayal, Savio lamented, “It would be like I was some ‘maximum leader’ or something like that. Then I would feel real shame facing the people in the movement.’” Savio went on to say, “After a while, it’s possible to become seduced by your own press image. It’s like living in a house of mirrors. All you see is your own image.”

Although Savio remained involved in campus causes and local political struggles for the rest of his life, he never again sought to cast himself in a leadership position. He struggled with depression and obsessive thoughts, even spending time in a mental institution. He died of heart problems in 1996 at the age of 53. He did not live long enough to see Rosenfeld uncover the full evidence of the FBI’s campaign against him (the bureau had even interfered with his employment, getting Savio fired from at least one position).

Despite Savio’s aversion to his leadership role, he possessed all the qualities of a great leader: thoughtful and fiercely democratic, he was a powerful public speaker with an unshakable moral compass. I did not agree with all of his beliefs or methods on behalf of the FSM (it seemed to me that a little bit of compromise with President Kerr would have gone a long way. Kerr wasn’t exactly the conservative bureaucrat the movement made him out to be; he was considered an enemy of the FBI and was essentially ran out of office in a Hoover- and Reagan-sponsored smear campaign). However, it’s a true tragedy that we have no comparable leaders today—ones willing to give up their own power if it means advancing the struggle for civil rights and preserving a true democracy.

Please stay tuned for my follow-up post, which will discuss a few of the most moving Mario Savio quotes and shed more light on this incredible man.


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