BERKELEY, Calif. – In the waning days of 1964, University of California, Berkeley, students inspired by the fight for racial equality found their collective voice in challenging a campus ban on political advocacy.
On Dec. 2, following weeks of demonstrations and failed negotiations, more than 1,000 students took over the administration building in what would be the apex of the Free Speech Movement.
The sit-in ended the next day with 814 people arrested, the largest mass arrests in California history. Support from sympathetic faculty and others eventually opened the university to student activism in early 1965.
College campuses across the country would never be the same.
WHAT SPARKED THE FREE SPEECH MOVEMENT?
Political activities involving off-campus causes were prohibited at University of California campuses in 1964. At Berkeley, students and outside activists instead set up tables, handed out leaflets and did fundraising on a 26-foot-wide brick walkway at the campus’ Telegraph Avenue entrance.
That September, after Berkeley students took part in civil rights protests against Bay Area businesses and at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco, the dean of students notified student organizations that the walkway was university property and could not be used “to support or advocate off-campus political or social action.”
Students defiantly set up tables on the walkway and within the campus. The civil disobedience came to a head on Oct. 1, when police tried to arrest a former student staffing a table for the Congress on Racial Equality. Hundreds of students surrounded the police car to keep it from carrying him away.
The standoff ended after 32 hours when UC President Clark Kerr agreed not to press charges and to appoint a committee of students, faculty and administrators to craft recommendations on student speech issues. But the two sides were unable to reach an agreement, setting the stage for further protests and ultimately the show-down in December.