Berkeley in the ’60s: Epicenter of the Counter Culture

I graduated from Cal fifty years ago last summer, in 1970. We had no graduation service because the Kent State shootings had just happened, and the administration probably feared we’d burn the place down once assembled.

Arriving for my freshman year at SFO, I met a “typical” out-of-state student—barefoot, covered in political buttons, carrying a guitar case. “What organizations do you belong to?” she asked me. She was the perfect entre to the place and set me to worrying if I would measure up: Was I cool enough for Berkeley? It was a question that would haunt me the entire time I was there. The answer was invariably no, but held out the promise that by the time I graduated I just might be.

Coming from conservative, conventional Washington, D.C., the Bay Area was a hotbed of energy, progressive ideals, and activism, the likes of which I’d never seen. The Black Panther Party was founded in Oakland several weeks after I arrived, in October of 1966, and quickly spread to other cities around the country. In November of 1969, Native Americans began their occupation of Alcatraz, and although it ended after a year and a half, it was considered instrumental to the restoration of thousands of acres of tribal lands, including the famed Blue Lake behind the Taos Pueblo.

Pauline Kael had just concluded her years of sophisticated film programming and detailed program notes at the Cinema-Guild on Telegraph Avenue, but she had educated the staff, and they were carrying on in her tradition. It was a duplex theater and foreign double bills changed several times a week. The other movie houses in town had to raise their game to compete, and they weren’t far behind.

Across the bay in San Francisco, Bill Graham’s music halls nightly hosted the San Francisco psychedelic sound, as well as visiting blues acts, unaccustomed to having their music appreciated by white audiences. The posters announcing the concerts were an art form in themselves. The Haight Ashbury was a magnet for runaways and disaffected youth from every corner of the country, and they poured onto the streets. They were experimenting with communal living, free stores and giveaways, like those of the Diggers collective, not to mention a long list of drugs and hallucinogens.

There was also the gorgeous scenery of the Bay Area to get lost in. Tilden Park was just a quick car ride away, or you could hike up Strawberry Canyon. From that vantage point, San Francisco beckoned like the proverbial City on the Hill, on fire in the golden sunsets. (This was well before the Bank of America building, let alone Salesforce Tower). Weekends you might go hiking in Pt. Reyes, or camping on the American River, or in Big Sur or Yosemite.

True, my classes were mostly big lecture halls, I never got to know any of my professors, and I was sometimes lost in a sea of humanity, the student body, but these seemed like a small price to pay for all the excitement.

My classes and instructors were stimulating and excellent. I was studying English and at that time, Berkeley’s English Department was ranked first in the country, ahead of Harvard’s. There were informal, noontime talks on Sproul Plaza about three times a week. Martin Luther King came and complimented us by calling us “the conscience of the nation.” High praise, coming from him. Lincoln had created the land grant for the university, and McClellan had been suggested as its first president, but was resoundingly rejected, because of his shoddy performance in the war.

There were student strikes every quarter I was there. “On campus, for credit” saw the creation of minority studies programs. There were continual and countless protests against the war.

It was therefore with a great deal of excitement and pride that, years later I taught classes in Wheeler and Dwinelle Hall myself. They were classes on Myths and Legends of the Goddess, Virginia Woolf, and the Hero Journey in Contemporary Women’s Literature. It was only through UC Extension–I never got my PhD–but I was thrilled none-the-less.

Alma has a curious number of meanings: nourishing, kind, soul, young woman, learned. Mater of course is mother. I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have than UC Berkeley, Cal. Bears are considered fiercely maternal creatures, but they can also be quite gentle. The fact that it’s a large public university makes it even better, because it’s not elitist or exclusive but available to, if not all, at least a great many.

It’s just as well our graduation ceremony was canceled. I probably wouldn’t have gone anyway. Berkeley was never about pomp and circumstance to me, au contraire. I celebrated graduation by hiking the John Muir Trail with my boyfriend, as astounding and captivating an experience as I’ve had, and one that assured me that there would always be mountains to climb.

Sally Mansfield Abbott is the author of Miami in Virgo, a coming-of-age novel set in California’s Central Valley in the 1970’s.