I went to the Mario Savio memorial December 8th, 1996, at Pauly ballroom in the student union at UC Berkeley. At noon my two friends and I arrived, but the ballroom was packed with over 1,000 people and every seat in the room was taken. So my two friends and I sat down on the floor by the exit door to the left of the stage along with about forty people who arrived to sit down on the floor. It reminded me of the days of fall, 1964, when I was sitting on the concrete in Sproul Plaza listening to FSM speeches for hours. December 8th was choosen for the memorial because it was the day Savio turned 54; also, it was the day that the faculty approved by 8-1 the FSM position granting student full speech rights on the Berkley campus. Also, it was the third day of Hanukah. When I sat in in Sproul Hall for free speech rights on the Berkeley campus, it was also Hanukah; some of the Jewish students lit a menorah inside the sit-in and danced a hora to a record on a portable record player. It seemed fitting to be Hanukah, both in 1964 and now, because Hanukah is a holiday that commemorates a struggle for freedom.
Bettina Apthetker, a Free Speech movement activist, was the MC. She said, “His great strength as a student leader was his absolute and transparent integrity.” The next person who spoke was Lynn Hollander, Mario’s widow. She talked about the private man who loved calamari and candlelight, geraniums and Gerlald Manley Hopkins, snuggling and “Star Trek” The Next Generation.” Mario’s brother, Tom Savio, spoke next. Then Truston Davis, an African-American who met Mario in jail. Then two more civil rights activists–Anita Levine Medal and Jack Weinberg–spoke about Mario the civil rights activist who went to Mississippi in Freedom Summer of 1964 to work with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee after Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman were murdered and who continued his civil rights work back in Berkeley. This is the Mario I remembered.
But what moved me more than memories of Mario thirty years ago were the next speakers who talked about Mario of the last ten years: Oliver Johns, Mario’s physics professor at S.F. State, shared with us how incredibly brilliant a physics student Mario was; Elaine Sundberg shared her deep friendship for him as a colleague and fellow political activist/teacher at Sonoma State College where Mario taught for the last six years; Mette Adams, a student activist at Sonoma State, shared how Mario helped empower the students there to fight a fee hike. Adams said that Mario taught the students that “ordinary people banding together can make change happen.” Mario’s heart attack came as he was preparing a legal brief to beat back the proposed fee hike at Sonoma State University and he attacked the fee hike as “an assault on the ability of working people to send their children to college.” Adams said that after Mario’s death the students continued to battle against the fee hike; in the referendum recently taken, the fee hike was defeated by the 16% margin.
A lot of other speakers said they wanted to remember both Mario the student activist of thirty years ago and Mario the teacher who gave so much to his own students and also helped empower them to act politically. In recent years he had emerged in the Bay Area has a strong supporter of immigrant rights, students’ rights and of affirmative action. One of the best speakers was Mario’s son, Nadav Savio, who read a letter his father sent him about the present: “We have a very hard task. We have to educate on the basis of moral values, of what justice is.”
The Mario I remember of thirty-two years ago and the Mario of the last six years were the same: he acted out of deeply spiritual core, and acted for justice. When he became famous at twenty-one, he rejected everything about celebrity. He didn’t want to became famous. He didn’t want to become a celebrity. He wanted a more just world. And he could always find time to talk to people, whether students thirty years ago or now. He saw that the way to that world was through talking to people. Even though he wasn’t Jewish, I think he would have understood Hanukah very well.
At the end of the memorial the people left the auditorium, went downstairs and out of the student union to Sproul Steps. There they held hands and sang “We Shall Overcome” on Sproul Steps.
The sixth night of Hanukah. I’ll dedicate one of my Hanukah candles to Mario.
JULIA STEIN can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
FSM @ 40: Free Speech in a Dangerous Time.
A public celebration of the fortieth anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, Oct. 4 to Oct. 10, at UC Berkeley.
The program of 42 events honors the past and focuses on current controversies, presenting the broadest teach-in on civil liberties issues yet in the nation.
A noon panel on Thursday, 10/7, will feature Alex Cockburn, Lenni Brenner, Jack Heyman, and Michael Rossman on the FSM’s lessons for today.
Atop a police car, symbolic of the police car there, 40 years ago, Tony Serra and ACLUers will dissect the Patriot Act before the main noon rally in Sproul Plaza, on Friday, 10/8.
Besides veterans of the FSM, speakers at various events will include Molly Ivins, Howard Dean, Gavin Newsom, Serra, Jackie Goldberg, the Erowids, leading representatives of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU, MOVE ON, and much more.
See http://www.fsm-a.org/ for details.