Mario Savio

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Mario Savio on Sproul Hall steps, 1966

Mario Savio (December 8, 1942November 6, 1996) was an American political activist and a key member in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. He is most famous for his passionate speeches, especially his "put your bodies upon the gears" address given at Sproul Hall, University of California, Berkeley on December 2, 1964.


[edit] Early life

Mario Savio was born in New York to a Sicilian steel worker father. Both his parents were devout Catholics and, as a young altar boy, Savio was planning to be a priest.[1] He graduated from Martin Van Buren High School in Queens at the top of his class in 1960 and then went to Manhattan College on a full scholarship as well as Queens College.[2] When he finished in 1963, he spent the summer working with a Catholic relief organization in Taxco, Mexico helping to improve the sanitary problems by building facilities in the slums. His parents had moved to Los Angeles and that autumn he enrolled at University of California, Berkeley.[3] In March the following year he was arrested while demonstrating against the San Francisco Hotel Association for excluding blacks from non-menial jobs. He was charged with trespassing, along with 167 other protesters. While in jail a cellmate asked if he was heading for Mississippi that summer to help with the Civil Rights project.[4]

[edit] Activism

During the summer of 1964 he joined the Freedom Summer projects in Mississippi and was involved in helping African Americans register to vote.[5] He also taught at a freedom school for black children in McComb, Mississippi.[6] In July, Savio, another white civil rights activist and a black acquaintance were walking down a road in Jackson and were attacked by two men. They attempted to press charges but the case went nowhere until President Lyndon Johnson, who had only recently passed the Civil Rights Act, urged the FBI look into it as a civil rights violation. Eventually one of the attackers was found, and was fined $50 and charged with misdemeanor assault.[4]

When Savio returned to Berkeley after his time in Mississippi, he was intent on raising money for SNCC, but found that the university had banned all political activity and all fund-raising.[7] He told Karlyn Barker in 1964 that it was a question as to whose side you are on. ‘Are we on the side of the civil rights movement? Or have we gotten back to the comfort and security of Berkeley, California, and can we forget the sharecroppers whom we worked with just a few weeks back? Well we couldn’t forget.’[8] Savio’s part in the protest on the Berkeley campus started when on October 1, 1964, former student Jack Weinberg was manning a table for CORE. The University police had just put him in the police car when someone from the surrounding crowd yelled ‘sit down.’ Savio, along with others during the 32-hour sit-in, took off his shoes and climbed on top of the car and spoke with words that roused the crowd into frenzy.[9] The last time he climbed on the police car was to tell the crowd of a short-term understanding that had been met with UC President Clark Kerr. Savio said to the crowd, "I ask you to rise quietly and with dignity, and go home", and the crowd did exactly what he said. After this Savio became the prominent leader of the newly formed Free Speech Movement.[2] Negotiations failed to change the situation; therefore direct action began in Sproul Hall on December 2. There, Savio gave his most famous speech, on the "operation of the machine", in front of 4,000 people. He and 800 others were arrested that day. In 1967 he was sentenced to 120 days at Santa Rita Jail. He told reporters that ‘[he] would do it again.’[2]

In April 1965, he quit the FSM because ‘he was disappointed with the growing gap between the leadership of the FSM … and the students themselves.’[10]

[edit] Later life

Between 1965 and his death, Savio held a variety of jobs, including work as a sales clerk in Berkeley.[4] In 1965, Savio married his first wife, Suzanne Goldberg, whom he had met at the Free Speech Movement. Two months after they were married, they moved to England, as Savio had won a scholarship to the University of Oxford. While there, the Savios had their first son, Stefan. He did not complete his time at Oxford because of emotional problems, and they moved back to California in February 1966.[4] In 1968, he ran for state senator from Alameda County on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket, but he was unsuccessful and lost to Nick Petris, a liberal Democrat.[4] In 1980, he married his second wife, Lynne Hollander, an old acquaintance from the Free Speech Movement.[11] He returned to education at San Francisco State University during their marriage. In 1984, he received a summa cum laude bachelor’s degree in Physics and then went on to achieve a master’s degree in 1989.[12] In 1990, Savio and Hollander moved with their ten-year-old son Daniel to Sonoma County, California, where he taught mathematics, philosophy and logic at Sonoma State University.[13]

[edit] Death

Savio had a history of heart problems and was admitted to Columbia-Palm Drive Hospital in Sebastopol, California on November 2, 1996. He slipped into a coma on November 5 and died the following day,[14] shortly after being removed from life support.[7]

[edit] Legacy

A Memorial Lecture Fund was set up to honor Mario Savio upon his death. The MSMLF hosts an annual fall lecture on the University of California, Berkeley campus. Past lecturers include Angela Davis, Jeff Chang, Tom Hayden, Seymour Hersh, Amy Goodman, Christopher Hitchens, Adam Hochschild, Cornel West, Barbara Ehrenreich, Arlie Russell Hochschild, Lani Guinier, Winona LaDuke, Molly Ivins, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and Howard Zinn.

The Memorial Fund also set up the Mario Savio Young Activist Award to honor an outstanding activist under 30 with a deep commitment to human rights and social justice and the qualities of leadership ability, creativity, and integrity. Recipients of the award since it was first bestowed in 1998 include Noemi Ramos, Erin Durban, Jason West, Harmony Goldberg, Genevieve Gonzales, Jim Keady, Jia Ching Chen, Niki Fortunato Bas, Christopher Goodman, Patrisse Marie Cullors, and Michael Leon Guerrero.

In 1997, the steps of Sproul Plaza, from which he had given his most famous speech, were officially renamed the “Mario Savio Steps".[15]

[edit] Controversy with the FBI

In 1999, it was revealed that Savio had been trailed by the FBI from the moment that he had climbed on to the police car that harboured Jack Weinburg. He was followed for more than a decade ‘because he had emerged as the nation’s most prominent student leader.’[4] There was no evidence that he was a threat or that he had any connection with the Communist Party, but the FBI decided he needed their attention because they thought he could potentially inspire students to rebel.[4] Even when he had quit the FSM, the FBI called him to their Berkeley office. They told Savio that they had received letters of a threatening nature towards him, but they would not speak with Savio’s attorney present. However, he would not agree, and instead criticised the FBI ‘for failure to make arrests and take action in the South where human rights are being violated every day.’[2] At this point the meeting ended.

According to hundreds of pages of FBI files, the bureau:

  • Collected, without court order, personal information about Savio from schools, telephone companies, utility firms and banks and compiled information about his marriage and divorce.
  • Monitored his day-to-day activities by using informants planted in political groups, covertly contacting his neighbors, landlords and employers, and having agents pose as professors, journalists and activists to interview him and his wife.
  • Obtained his tax returns from the Internal Revenue Service in violation of federal rules, mischaracterized him as a threat to the president and arranged for the CIA and foreign intelligence agencies to investigate him when he and his family traveled in Europe.
  • Put him on an unauthorized list of people to be detained without judicial warrant in event of a national emergency, and designated him as a "Key Activist" whose political activities should be "disrupted" and "neutralized" under the bureau's illegal counterintelligence program known as COINTELPRO.[16]

The investigation finally ended at the beginning of 1975 and at that point an investigation in to the FBI’s abuse of power began. Savio’s ex-wife, Suzanne Goldberg, said that the ‘FBI’s investigation of her and Savio [was] a waste of money and an invasion of privacy.’[4]

[edit] Quotes

  • “We have an autocracy which runs this university. It’s managed. We were told the following: If President Kerr actually tried to get something more liberal out of the Regents in his telephone conversation, why didn’t he make some public statement to that effect? And the answer we received, from a well-meaning liberal, was following: He said, ‘Would you ever imagine the manager of a firm making a statement publicly in opposition to his board of directors?’ That’s the answer! Well I ask you to consider: if this is a firm, and if the board of regents are the board of directors, and if President Kerr in fact is the manager, then I tell you something — the faculty are a bunch of employees! And we’re the raw material! But we’re a bunch of raw materials that don’t mean to have any process upon us, don’t mean to be made into any product, don’t mean to end up being bought by some clients of the university, be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone! We’re human beings!”
  • “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part, you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”[17]
  • On modern education; “The University is a vast public utility which turns out future workers in today’s vineyard, the military-industrial complex.’
  • On politics: ‘I am not a political person. My involvement in the Free Speech Movement is religious and moral… I don’t know what made me get up and give that first speech. I only know I had to.”
  • On civil disobedience: “You can’t disobey the rules every time you disapprove. However, when you’re considering something that constitutes an extreme abridgement of your rights, conscience is the last resort."[2]

[edit] References

  1. ^ Seth Rosenfeld,'How the man who challenged 'the machine' got caught in the gears and wheels of J. Edgar Hoover's bureau,' San Francisco Chronicle, 10 October 2004, section:Chronicle Magazine,p. 16.
  2. ^ a b c d e Rosenfeld,San Francisco Chronicle.
  3. ^ W. J. Rorabaugh, Berkeley at War; The 1960s,(New York; Oxford; Oxford University Press, 1989)p.21.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Rosenfeld, San Francisco Chronicle.
  5. ^ Raoul V. Mowatt, 'Mario Savio; Spirit of Free Speech Movement Dies,' San Jose Mercury News,7 November 1996, p.1A.
  6. ^ Rorabough, Berkeley at War.
  7. ^ a b Mowatt,San Jose Mercury News.
  8. ^ Karlyn Barker, 'Rebel with a Cause,' Washington Post,8 November 1996,section:style, p. D01.
  9. ^ Rorabaugh,Berkeley at War.
  10. ^ Michael Taylor, 'Stirring Up a Generation; Mario Savio's passionate speeches and mesmorizing delivery became synon,' San Francisco Chronicle,8 December 1996, p.1/Z3.
  11. ^ Taylor, San Francisco Chronicle.
  12. ^ Eric Pace, 'Mario Savio,53, Campus Protestor Dies, New York Times, 7 November 1996, section:D, p. 27.
  13. ^ Mowatt, San Jose Mercury News.
  14. ^ Pace, New York Times.
  15. ^ Sandy Kleffman, 'School goes full circle on Savio steps near Sproul Plaza named for Free Speech Leader,' San Jose Mercury News,4 December 1997, p. 1B.
  16. ^ Seth Rosenfeld, ' 60s Free Speech Leader got caught in FBI web,' San Francisco Chronicle, 10 October 2004, p. A1.
  17. ^ American Rhetoric: Mario Savio - Sproul Hall Sit-In Address

[edit] External links

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