The Texture of Things: Listening to Colin Edwards’ Free Speech Movement tapes

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December 8, 1964

How did you spend your 22nd birthday? Like many people, Mario Savio celebrated at home, having dinner and cake with friends. In the apartment on College Avenue, several blocks from the UC Berkeley campus, party guests serenaded him with “Happy Birthday,” as well as a selection of satirical songs composed especially for the occasion, punctuated with raucous laughter.

But this birthday party doubled as a victory party for Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, celebrating the campus Academic Senate’s vote to remove restrictions on political activity on campus. Just a week prior, on the night of December 2, nearly 800 students and supporters, including Savio and many of the party guests, who were holding a sit-in at Sproul Hall on campus, were beaten by police, arrested, and held at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin. Savio, a member of the movement’s steering committee, had quickly been elevated to left-wing celebrity status after exhorting fellow students in his famous speech at the sit-in to “put your bodies upon the gears” when the workings of the machine become too odious to tolerate.

At the party, after an embarrassing serenade to “Mario our Savio” (in place of “Christ our Savior”) sung to the tune of the Christmas song “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” Savio graciously acknowledges the contributions of all of the Free Speech Movement supporters, those who stayed up late doing less glamorous work like typing or making stencils for leaflets (“or passing out!” a friend yells). Savio seems to skirt the role of movement star that has been thrust upon him both by peers and outside media. And the weight of police brutality survived in the preceding days is processed in a joking light, with the rewritten song “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Gory of the Coming of the Cops.”

December 9, 1964

The next day, an official victory rally is held on campus. Again, Savio is greeted with a rendition of “Happy Birthday” when he steps up to speak, and again he is gracious and self-effacing, acknowledging all of the hard work of peers and supporters who are less in the spotlight. He is presented with a gag gift of clip-on ties, “the uniform of the well-dressed protestor,” in order to prevent being dragged by the tie by police.

July 10, 2014

At 24, I have been involved in various kinds of community and student organizing for about half of my young life. Friendships, relationships, and coming-of-age misadventures have so often been inflected with the political, and organizing cannot help but carry the mark of personal relationships, histories and power dynamics—not always visible from the outside, but indelible to anyone involved.

I’m interested in archives because I am interested in the preservation of this kind of detail, of the inside jokes and awkward pauses routinely edited from any lasting narrative. I sit in a room without windows on Valencia Street and carefully guide reel-to-reel tapes through the machine, and I listen to people who were younger than me try to figure out how to deal with the trauma of jail and police abuse, with getting kicked out of school, with sudden political celebrity, with the power dynamics among themselves and how to create a movement whose internal structure reflects its external goals.

April 26, 1965

As the dust of the previous fall and winter begins to settle, Spider magazine and the “Filthy Speech Movement” test the hard-won victories and more serious sensibilities of Free Speech Movement organizers. I hear much in the tapes that sounds familiar—debates over strategy, inclusivity, tactics; passive-aggressive digs at fellow organizers. At a rally on campus, someone gets up to announce an off-campus meeting against the Vietnam War, “because, you know, there is a world out there.”

At one held a few days earlier, student organizer Brad Cleaveland makes an impassioned plea for broad representation (including non-activist students he calls “dull-minded and inarticulate”) in the FSM’s proposed Student Bill of Rights. Fred Bauer, who speaks after him and is a coordinator for the bill of rights, states that representing all students has always been an integral part of the project and that he “had to beg Brad” to include mainstream student government students. This is around the same time that Mario Savio decided to stop organizing with the FSM.

July 17, 2014

A friend who worked at the Oakland Museum when they were showing the 1968 exhibit told me that he received many questions a day from older visitors asking why young people are so lazy and self-absorbed, or why “Occupy” didn’t do such-and-such differently. I think it’s fair to say that for progressives, radicals, and weirdos of my generation, “The Sixties” have so often been held up as an idealized monolith, a black-and-white protest montage set to Buffalo Springfield, a measuring stick that we will never measure up to.

I’m sure I have made the stubborn statement, at some point in my life, that I don’t care about the sixties. That’s obviously not true. Perhaps I don’t care about “The Sixties” but I do care about Mario Savio, about Suzanne Goldberg and Bettina Aptheker and all of the other voices that I will spend many more hours listening to as I finish cataloging this collection, the voices of kids in their early 20s who never intended to become media darlings or documentary voiceovers. I care about the petty details and the goofing around and the tension, about the texture of things.

-Noah

One comment on “The Texture of Things: Listening to Colin Edwards’ Free Speech Movement tapes

  1. A very well written, really interesting, and incisive commentary gained by listening to recordings made by Colin Edwards, a great internationalist and anti-colonialist radio reporter for the BBC, the CBC (Canadian broadcasting), Pacifica/KPFA, and other outlets, whose extensive archives reside at the Freedom Archives. The reflections by the author, Noah, add excellent context, “texture,” and current relevance—they’re very thoughtful. Thanks for listening and writing this, as the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement approaches this fall.

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