Mario Savio was fueled in by “religious sensibility,” despite his rejection of Catholicism as an adult, New York University historian Robert Cohen recounts in Freedom’s Orator (Oxford), the first biography of the Free Speech Movement leader.
“His emphatic political outlook was rooted in the religious sensibility he inherited from his mother and strengthened by his youthful immersion in the Catholic left,” writes Cohen, the chair of Department of Teaching and Learning in NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. “Savio’s political activism and oratory grew out of a moral impulse, powerful feelings about right and wrong. The need to do good and resist evil were moral absolutes from Savio’s church upbringing that stayed with him long after he rejected Catholicism.”
Savio’s best-known public address occurred 45 years ago next month. On Dec. 2, 1964, Savio and others organized a Sproul Plaza demonstration against university administration policies on speech. In his iconic seven-minute address, he criticized the university “machine” that had become so “odious,” attacking the “autocracy which runs this university.”
“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,” Savio said at the event, which drew 6,000 students and resulted in mass arrests. “And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levels, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.”
It may be viewed on YouTube.
Freedom’s Orator draws from many of Savio’s writings, speeches, and correspondence, which underscore the impact of religion on his activism.
“My role in the FSM (Free Speech Movement) had something of the sacerdotal about it,” Savio, whose two aunts were nuns, wrote in an outline for a memoir he planned on writing. “This was the closest I would ever come to leading a congregation. Instead of pleasing my mother, it frightened her.”
In a letter to his son Nadav, Savio wrote that “(s)ome part of me really wanted to be a priest. I would have wanted to share such a mission with you I tried to find some semblance of this in the ‘moral order.’ For me the old Civil Rights Movement had a religious quality to it: The caring spirit working in the world.”
Cohen, who obtained a doctorate in history from the University of California at Berkeley in 1987, has also authored: When the Old Left Was Young; Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Letters from Children of the Great Depression; and The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s, a co-edited volume.
Reporters wishing to speak with Cohen should contact James Devitt, NYU’s Office of Public Affairs, at 212.998.6808 or firstname.lastname@example.org.