Monday, March 24, 2014

The Free Speech Movement: 50th Anniversary

March 24—Today's post is provided by Ruth Tenzer Feldman and Bettina Aptheker 

There are no real women of note in The Ninth Day, my recent companion novel to Blue Thread, which highlights the woman suffrage campaign in Oregon. The Ninth Day  focuses instead on a fictional girl caught up in the free speech protests on the campus of  University of California (UC) Berkeley in 1964. To answer what many have asked me… No, I wasn't there. But Bettina Aptheker was. Now a Distinguished Professor in the  Feminist Studies Department at UC Santa Cruz, Dr. Apthetheker was a leader in what  became known as the Free Speech Movement. She's helping to organize the fiftieth  anniversary reunion at Berkeley on September 26 – October 1, 2014. I am honored and  delighted to e-introduce you to a woman who fought for civil rights during a pivotal moment in American history—and who continues to speak out for civil rights today.

The Free Speech Movement: 50th Anniversary

By Bettina Aptheker

We call ourselves “veterans,” not of a war, but of a movement. On October 1, 1964, hundreds of us surrounded a police car on the Berkeley campus of the University of California and refused to allow the police to arrest Jack Weinberg, a graduate student in mathematics who was ‘manning’ a table for the Congress of Racial Equality on the campus’s central Sproul Hall Plaza. We held the car for 32 hours with Jack inside and 950 police massed just outside the campus’s main entrance waiting for orders to commence an assault to break us up. Shortly before 7 PM on Friday, October 3, student negotiators led by Mario Savio, who was to become the primary spokesperson for the Movement, had reached an intermediary agreement with the University President. The Free Speech Movement was born. It lasted through mid-December. In the end, after a sit-in in the main administration building that resulted in the arrests of nearly 800 students, a strike of faculty, graduate students, and staff sanctioned by the local labor council that paralyzed the campus, and the support of the entire leadership of the Black-led Civil Rights Movement, beginning with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we won our central demands.  On December  14, the Regents of the University of California stated that, “henceforth, regulations governing freedom of speech on university campuses will not go beyond the purview of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.” Regulations governing freedom of speech changed on virtually every campus in the country, ending the Communist Speakers’ bans, and most importantly allowing students and faculty to engage in political dialogue and organizing with less fear of arbitrary administrative reprisal.

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.

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.

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!

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.

Berkeley students now study at the Free Speech Movement Café.
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.


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.


  1. I was there! I had just transferred to Berkeley from a small east coast women's college in the fall of '64, and the FSM jolted me into a different world. Thanks Bettina and cohorts! Ruth, I look forward to reading The Ninth Day.

    1. I was also there, part of the crowd, recently transferred from an eastern university. I felt proud at the range of the movement, from left to (initially, at least) Goldwater Republican. And that the Steering Committe as it evolved included, without comment, a member identified as communist.

      In my view, "free speech" was a great selling point. But it wasn't really about free speech. No one denied the right of students to speak freely. What the university relinquished, in response to student and then faculty demand, was its role of protecting students in loco parentis. The issue at the time was off-campus Civil Rights groups recruiting students on campus for off campus demonstrations where they were subject to arrest. For example, at the Cadillac dealership in San Franciso. I recall a discussion about the sidewalks at the edge of campus--did they belong to the city or the university. (Answer: the city. And tabling was unhindered there.) By the way, Jack Weinberg, the trigger, was not at the time a student. He was a recruiter for CORE (Congress of Racial Equality). But the question went back several years to the student organization SLATE and and a demonstration in San Francisco against hearings by HUAC (House Unamerican Activities Committee). The argument was, students are adults; let the civil authorities deal with any alleged criminal conduct. Of interest, there is now a resurgence of interest in university adminstration resuming its role in loco parentis to protect students from sexual assault by other students. -

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  3. I was there in 1964 and Bettina Aptheker's mind and self remain as unattractive now as they were then. Quit making a diseased person into some sort of hero. She wasn't and isn't.

  4. Miss Aptheker, you are a vile individual. People like you are the reasons for why democracies fail.

  5. I was not there. However, those are the kind of seminal events or moments that inspired me to come to America for my grad schooling and settle down here. Sadly, this country has been growing the wrong way for the past few decades. While conservatives' power continues, the increasing intolerance and perversion of the political correct is worse. In fact, I'm horrified and disappointed at how organic the PC culture has become to our life in the USA. It's disgusting. Aptheker and her logic is indeed scary and disgusting. She was right then. She is wrong now.

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