Thursday, August 7, 2008

One of Our Favorite Heroes: Mario Savio

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 "place your bodies upon the gears" address given at Sproul Hall, University of California, Berkeley on December 2, 1964.

During the summer of 1964 he joined the Freedom Summer projects in Mississippi and was involved in helping African Americans register to vote. He also taught at a freedom school for black children in McComb, Mississippi. 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, but was only fined $50 and charged with misdemeanor assault.

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. 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.’ 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. 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. 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.’

“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!”

No comments: