Recently, thousands of Jefferson County, Colo., high school and middle school students walked out of class and picketed their schools in protest of proposed changes in the Advanced Placement history curriculum. A majority on the school board in the state’s second-largest district worries that the AP curriculum, with its emphasis on interpretation of primary documents and the development of critical thinking skills, might offer too negative a view of American history. Instead, the majority wants American history classes to emphasize “patriotic material, respect for authority, and the free-market system.”
The emphasis on respect for authority might be a difficult task in a nation founded on people’s right “to alter or abolish” their government. And as the students understand — though the school board has yet to grasp — in order to make a reality of the ideals on which the nation was founded, America has a long history of civil (and sometimes not-so-civil) disobedience. From the Boston Tea Party through the struggles of abolitionists to the efforts of labor, women’s and civil rights activists to create a more democratic society, resistance to authority runs deep in the American grain.
In one of those interesting historical coincidences, the Colorado student protests come almost exactly 50 years after one of the major student rebellions in American history, the 1964 Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley.
The background of the Free Speech Movement lies in the civil rights movement, which in the summer of 1964 had reached a peak when more than 1,000 Northern college students, most of them white, traveled to Mississippi to help with voter registration efforts in the Freedom Summer Project. As these students returned to campus for the fall term, they continued their civil rights activity.
At Berkeley, students traditionally had been allowed to set up tables for recruitment and soliciting funds on a sidewalk immediately outside the campus’s main gates. When a group began picketing the Oakland Tribune, accusing it of racist practices, a Tribune executive called a university official to complain that the organization was recruiting members on university property. On Sept. 14, the university announced a ban on setting up tables to recruit members or solicit funds, a policy that drew protests across the political spectrum, from civil rights groups to the Youth for Goldwater.
Students continued setting up tables in defiance of the ban. On Oct. 1, police arrested a student manning a table for the Congress of Racial Equality. As he was put in the squad car, a large crowd spontaneously surrounded the car and sat down, preventing it from moving. For the next 32 hours the car stayed put as students took turns climbing on top of it and using it as a makeshift soap box.
Over the next few months, as the administration responded in a clumsy and often heavy-handed fashion — with police in full riot gear manhandling nonviolently protesting students — the Free Speech Movement took shape. As one of its leaders, Mario Savio, pointed out, the students drew a direct connection between the Free Speech Movement and the civil rights struggle.
“Last summer I went to Mississippi to join the struggle there for civil rights,” Savio said. “This fall I am engaged in another phase of the same struggle, this time in Berkeley. The two battlefields may seem quite different, but this is not the case. The same rights are at stake in both places — the right to participate as citizens in democratic society and the right to due process of law.”
With the administration’s crackdown, more and more students began to rethink the nature of power and oppression. As historian Godfrey Hodgson says, “It suddenly became possible for students on every campus in America to ask themselves whether there wasn’t a little bit of Mississippi in all America.”
At the height of the struggle, Savio said, “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.”
The Colorado students have thrown their bodies upon the gears to make the machine stop. Good for them. They’ve learned one of the first lessons of American history.
David Cochran teaches history at John A. Logan College in Carterville, Ill.