Mario Savio, came to public notice as a spokesperson for the Free Speech Movement at the University of California in 1964. After spending the summer as a civil rights worker in Mississippi, Savio returned to Berkeley when students were beginning to mobilize in support of racial justice and against the deepening American involvement in Vietnam.
On Oct. 1, 1964 the Free Speech Movement was launched at UC-Berkeley when mathematics grad student Jack Weinberg was arrested for setting up a CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) information table in front of Sproul Hall, the administration building. Hundreds of students surrounded the police car holding Weinberg for 32 hours, making speeches from atop the car, and ultimately negotiating Weinberg’s release. The chancellor had been under pressure from the Board of Regents to ban expression of views considered communist. The students, inspired by the southern Civil Rights Movement, questioned the restrictions.
Savio led the non-violent campaign that inspired thousands of fellow Berkeley students to protest university regulations which severely limited political speech and activity on campus. The non-violent campaign culminated in the largest mass arrest in U.S. history, drew widespread faculty support, and resulted in a revision of university rules to permit political speech and organizing. This significant advance for student freedom rapidly spread to countless other colleges and universities across the country.
Later, Savio would speak and organize in favor of immigrant rights and affirmative action and against U.S. intervention in Central America.
Mario Savio died on November 6, 1996, in the middle of a struggle against university fee hikes that hurt working-class students.
Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s by Robert Cohen. Published by Oxford University Press.