Michael James : Free Speech at Sproul Plaza, Berkeley, Fall of 1964

Gathering during Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley, December 1964. At left, with mustache, is Jack Weinberg; center, in tie, is Michael Lerner; second from right, in glasses, is Marvin Garson. Photos by Michael James from his forthcoming book, Michael Gaylord James’ Pictures from the Long Haul.

Pictures from the Long Haul:
Free speech, Sproul Plaza with Jesus,
and the Roseville Auction, Fall of ’64

I am one of 773 arrested at Sproul Hall and hauled off to Santa Rita County Jail. One of many who goes limp, I am arrested with the added charge of
resisting arrest, and dragged down the stairs. It will not be the only time I’ll get that charge.

By Michael James | The Rag Blog | October 1, 2013

[In this series, Michael James is sharing images from his rich past, accompanied by reflections about — and inspired by — those images. This photo will be included in his forthcoming book, Michael Gaylord James’ Pictures from the Long Haul.]

I’m heading west to grad school at Berkeley in my “ragtop” (convertible) 1957 Ford. Mine has a ripped as well as ragged top. I’m on US Route 40 — Victory Highway, the first federally funded highway. In1964 it was the main cross-continental route and I take it from St. Louis west.

It takes me through Salina, Kansas, smack dab in the middle of the country — a fact I know from having read Hot Rod Magazine’s 1955 report, “Showdown in the Middle of the Nation.”

Temperatures on the prairie and the plains are hot — real hot. Around twilight I stop for gas and a good meal at a gas station diner in western Kansas and shoot the shit with the young attendant. He has long blond hair and is wearing blue jeans, a white t-shirt, and engineer boots, a la James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause.

Moving through the Great Plains I sense a moving on up, a gradual incline taking me higher and higher. The terrain changes, sagebrush rolls and tumbles, and I see dozens of black and white birds with long tail feathers on and along the road — learned later they were Magpies.

I make it to California. It’s afternoon and I stop in Delano to visit the headquarters of the National Farm Workers Association (later the United Farm Workers), founded in 1962 by Dolores Huerta and César Chávez. Heat, dust. I find myself in a single story building, where I enter a room and meet and speak with Mr. Chavez. I donate my Lake Forest College football letter jacket to their clothing drive.

In the mid-70’s, progressive organizations — including Rising Up Angry — will welcome a large contingent of UFW workers to Chicago during the grape boycott and ongoing picketing of Jewel supermarkets. And in the fall of 1986 Caesar will be eating at the Heartland Café, sharing his jazz love. In my studio office I will show him my record collection and he will ask me to make tapes from my vinyl, selecting a stack nearly two feet tall. Sadly, he passed away before I could honor his request.

After leaving Delano, I roll into Canyon, a hip little town on the eastern slope of the Berkeley Hills. Skip Richheimer and his wife Susan are living in a cool crib at the bottom of a canyon, surrounded by tall redwoods and oaks. It is dusk. The home scene is warm and comforting.

I met Skip through a mutual friend, Gloria Peterson, a Lake Forest College classmate of mine. He was a fellow
Triumph motorcycle guy, part of the Blessed Virgin Mother Mary Motorcycle Club at the University of Chicago. Once I was following him near the Museum of Science and Industry when he crashed, injuring both himself and his bike. We loaded it into my trunk, and then dropped him at the University of Chicago Hospital. An hour later I ditched the bike at his dad’s coffee roasting plant — Richheimer Coffee, on Halsted near the Chicago River.

Calls to action: ‘With Jesus’ at Sproul Plaza, UC Berkeley..

In ’64 Skip is a Berkeley grad student in history and the only person I’m aware that I know at my new school. Soon I’ll run into some fellow Staples High students from Connecticut: Joy Kimball, Robert Roll, and Ginger Akin. I go on a date with Joy; Robert and Ginger are already conservatives and will soon work for the Rand Corporation think tank.

I enter the campus for the first time from Telegraph and Bancroft. Berkeley feels good — exciting from the very get-go. I walk into events from which will grow the Free Speech Movement, soon to capture worldwide attention. There are people at many tables representing a smorgasbord of beliefs, organizations, movements, and causes. There is plenty of information and calls to action: left, right, Jesus, atheist, Zen, civil rights, socialist, peace — you name it.

At Berkeley there is no shortage of people to talk with, to learn from. One is Al Plumber, a likeable old guy who had been involved with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). He talks about earlier struggles — government harassment and repression of organizations and activists. In the 50’s Al hid from the FBI, living up in Idaho with other Wobblies.

People are riled up about the University’s new rules that curtail advocating action and forbid fundraising for off-campus political activities. That strikes many of us — including supporters of SNCC’s Mississippi Freedom Sumer voter registration drive and California farm workers — as terrible.

The UC Berkeley policy is clearly out of sync with the student body — and apparently with the times. The Bay Area — with its long history of labor and civil rights activism — had been the site of considerable protest and militant action. This included effective demonstrations against HUAC, the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). This Federal committee blackened the nation’s eyes with its witch hunts, interrogations, and imprisonment of Communists and non-Communists alike, accusing them all of being “un-American.”

At a nighttime rally in front of Sproul Hall a large group of fraternity guys show up chanting in support of the University’s edict, but are rebuffed by the rest of the crowd. Two sociology professors I thought to be “radicals” in the field — Seymour Martin Lipset and Nathan Glazer — try to defend the new policy. People boo them. I am taken aback, thinking these are supposed to be the good guys, part of the reason I selected Berkeley for grad school. I will learn to look beyond reputation and begin to understand revisionism.

At a meeting of graduate sociology students I meet Dave Wellman, who is the president of the Graduate Sociology Club. We become roommates and move into 5006 Telegraph Avenue in Oakland across from Vern’s Supermarket. There is a bar next-door where I meet singer Bill Withers (“Ain’t no Sunshine” and “Lean on Me”) who is hanging out at the bar. And some blocks behind Vern’s I discover a blues club and spend two nights listening to one of my favorites, Little Junior Parker.

Davy is a red diaper baby. His dad and mom, Saul and Peggy Wellman, were members of the Michigan Communist Party. She was a labor organizer who had once been deported to Canada, when the U.S. government falsely claimed she had been born there. Saul was a commissar in the Lincoln Brigade, the American volunteer force that fought fascism in Spain in the 1930’s. President Roosevelt and Congress had turned a blind eye to the slaughter being carried out by dictator Franco, who was backed in the Spanish Civil War by Hitler and the Nazis.

Davy tells me about being a kid growing up in Detroit and being followed, questioned, and bullied by the FBI. I will learn a lot from him and be introduced to many interesting people and ideas. Our saddest day together is Sunday, February 21, 1965, when we are both home studying and learn of the assassination of Malcolm X.

On a weekend I take a ride north to Loomis, an agricultural town where Jack and Donna Traylor live. I know them from my 1962 motorcycle-trip-summer-of-study to Mexico City. They are schoolteachers and Jack makes music — playing and performing. They have a daughter, Xochimilco (“garden of flowers”), who has just learned to walk and they live in a cabin in an Oak grove. I meet his mom — an attractive blonde Oklahoma woman with her hair up in curlers. Walking back to Jack’s on a dusty road I meet his dad, who works for the state’s Department of Agriculture.

A visit to the Roseville Auction and Market in Roseville, California .

A highlight of my visit — in addition to hearing Jack sing Woody Guthrie’s “Deportees” — is a trip to the Roseville Auction. It’s a bit like Chicago’s Maxwell Street market — all sorts of people, anything and everything for sale. I buy a second-hand cast iron frying pan I continue to use to this day.

At the Roseville Auction and Market livestock are for sale. I observe goats in a truck, where rams gang up on the ewe, forcing her into a corner. This catches my attention; anthropomorphizing, I find it somewhat disturbing and unfair.

On a weekend evening I end up at the San Francisco Mime Troup space. Later my sister Melody will be a member of that groundbreaking theater. On this particular night I meet SFMT founder R.G. Davis, and also Joe McDonald, the future Country Joe, mainstay of Country Joe and the Fish. And I meet the late filmmaker, writer, and Cuban documentarian Saul Landau, whom I knew by reading his articles in Studies on the Left.

On campus the protests over freedom of speech are heating up and on October 1, Jack Weinberg, working a Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) table, refuses to give campus police his name. He is arrested and the local constabulary attempts to take him away. The police car is quickly surrounded and the FSM (Free Speech Movement) is born.

While sitting around the police car I find a leaflet on the ground. It has a picture of a black man selling apples and the slogan “Build the Interracial Movement of the Poor.” Put out by SDS’s ERAP (Economic Research and Action Project), it reverberates in my heart and mind.

I write SDS headquarters in Chicago: “I would like to be a part of building the interracial movement of the poor.” A return letter will tell me it is up to me to help build it. Soon that is exactly what I will try to do.

That fall the FSM is the main event. The rebellion grows and there are near-daily rallies and plenty of speakers and performers. State Senator (later San Francisco Mayor) Willie Brown fires up a crowd; so does Congressman Bill Burton. On November 20, Joan Baez performs for thousands while the California Board of Regents meets and takes a position to the right of the UC Berkeley Administration.

On December 2, the graduate students go on strike. The noon rally is huge. Our leader and FSM spokesman Mario Savio, who spent the summer doing voter registration in Mississippi, gives his great speech, a speech for the ages. He talks about universities’ compliance with corporations and the educational and corporate machine’s dehumanizing process, which turns people into a compliant profit-serving workforce.

Rally at Lower Sproul Plaza, Berkeley.

Mario says:

There’s a time when the operations 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 indicate to the people who own it that unless you’re free, the machines will be prevented from working at all.

And with that, over 1,500 of us march into Sproul Hall.

In the wee hours of the morning on December 4, 1964, the Sproul Hall bust is on. (Five years later — to the day — Chicago Police will assassinate Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton in his bed.)

Some protesters leave before the arrests begin. I stay and am one of 773 arrested and hauled off to Santa Rita County Jail. One of many who goes limp, I am arrested with the added charge of resisting arrest, and dragged down the stairs. It will not be the only time I’ll get that charge.

We’re out of the slammer before sunrise December 5. Some of us reassemble on campus and attempt to block trucks from making their campus deliveries. We encourage Teamster drivers to honor our movement. They express their support, but we do not shut down the campus.

No, we don’t shut down the campus, but people around the world take note of these events. Nothing will ever be the same — not for UC Berkeley and the university community, not for the members of the FSM, and not for me.

[Michael James is a former SDS national officer, the founder of Rising Up Angry, co-founder of Chicago’s Heartland Café (1976 and still going), and co-host of the Saturday morning (9-10 a.m. CDT) Live from the Heartland radio show, here and on YouTube. He is reachable by one and all at michael@heartlandcafe.com. Find more articles by Michael James on The Rag Blog.]

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