March 24—Today's post is provided by Ruth Tenzer Feldman and Bettina Aptheker
The Free Speech Movement: 50th Anniversary
By Bettina Aptheker
Berkeley students dress in their best to support First Amendment freedoms on campus, 1964.
I was 20, a sophomore at the University of California, Berkeley at the FSM launch. I came from a prominent Communist family, raised in Brooklyn, New York, in the 1950s, through the worst of the McCarthy Era. I went to Berkeley intent on a pre-med major and escape from parental strictures. Steeped in politics all my life, myself ‘manning’ a table for the W.E.B. Du Bois Club (a socialist organization I had helped launch two years earlier) I was in Sproul Hall Plaza as Jack was arrested. As cries went up, “Sit down! Sit down!” I did, and launched my foray into the Movement.
My first public speech was from the top of that police car at night, the guys helping me to scramble up to the roof of the car and offering encouragement, television news camera lights blinding my view of the students around it. When I quoted abolitionist Frederick Douglass, “Power concedes nothing without a demand,” the crowd of thousands roared its approval. The roar soared through my body with an energy that propelled me into co-leadership of the Movement, and most importantly into a sense of personal and political empowerment I was never to forget. A year later my picture appeared in the Sunday New York Times under the headline, “The American Communist Party’s Foremost Ingenue”! None of the male leaders of the movement ever received the “ingénue” distinction!
|FSM leader Bettina Apthecker sits on the police car housing Jack Weinberg, October, 1964. Students surrounding the car prevented the police from taking Weinberg off campus.|
On the occasion of this 50th anniversary of the FSM, and as we recognize March as Women’s History Month, it is worth pausing for a moment to consider the ways in which gender, race, class, and sexuality may effect one’s access to freedom of speech. Although the First Amendment embraces a universal ideal in its wording, it was written by white, propertied men in the 18th century, who never likely imagined that it might apply to women, and/or people of color, and/or all those who were not propertied, and even, perhaps, not citizens, and/or undocumented immigrants. A woman’s freedom of speech is often inhibited by fears of reprisal, for example, if she reveals sexual or domestic violence. There is almost always denial, her speech vilified, her character assassinated. Incest survivors seeking acknowledgement of their suffering and redress are viciously attacked virtually without exception, even the men who as boys were molested by their parish priests, until it became too many, the evidence too overwhelming to sustain the denial. In other words, freedom of speech is a Constitutional guarantee, but who gets to exercise it without the chilling restraints of censure depends very much on one’s location in the political and social cartography.
We veterans of FSM were too young
and inexperienced in 1964 to know this, but we do now, and we speak with a new
awareness, a new consciousness, and a new urgency that the wisdom of a true
freedom is inexorably tied to who exercises power and for what ends.
Berkeley students now study at the Free Speech Movement Café.
Bettina Aptheker is a Professor of Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz where she has taught for more than 30 years. Her most recent book is a memoir, Intimate Politics: How I Fought for Free Speech, and Became a Feminist Rebel (Seal Press, 2006). She is married to Kate Miller, her partner of 34 years. They have three children, three grandchildren, and live in Santa Cruz, California.
Ruth Tenzer Feldman has been an attorney, editor, research analyst, ticket seller, and keypunch operator. After writing ten nonfiction books on history, she turned to historical fiction/fantasy. Blue Thread (Ooligan Press, 2012) features the woman suffrage campaign, and won Oregon's top literary award for young adult literature. A companion novel, The Ninth Day (Ooligan Press, 2013) features the 1964 Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, California. Ruth lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and numerous dust mites.