Academic Context

Historical Background of the FSM

"Dramatic as the Free Speech Movement’s key events were, the story of the student rebellion is all the more compelling when we probe its roots, which were deeply connected to the civil rights movement. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that the FSM was an extension of the civil rights movement. . . .  Jack Weinberg, whose arrest provoked the police car blockade was a young veteran of the civil rights movement who had defied the ban on campus political advocacy by staffing the table of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) on Sproul Plaza. Weinberg’s experience as a CORE organizer played an important role in making the police car blockade possible.  Having been arrested repeatedly in non-violent civil rights sit-ins against businesses in the San Francisco Bay Area protesting their racially discriminatory hiring policies, Weinberg had extensive experience in defying legal authorities. So he was not intimidated when the deans and police threatened him with arrest for defying the free speech ban. . . . Indeed, the FSM’s major tactical innovation was that it took the sit-in tactic, which had been used off campus by the civil rights movement against discriminatory business and used it on campus to change university policy – which in this case meant ending UC’s ban on political advocacy.

jackweinburgincar. . . .  Much as the Civil Rights Movement helped to make possible the emergence of the Free Speech Movement, the FSM, in turn, helped to pave the way for all kinds of subsequent students movements – on a range of issues, from abolishing paternalistic (in loco parentis) campus restrictions on student social life to creating Black Studies and Women’s Studies Programs, to challenging university programs that served the Pentagon and the Vietnam War. The FSM was influential because it had won, demonstrating to student activists across the US and the globe that they could use non-violent civil disobedience to change policy and maybe even change the world."



Excerpt from "Teaching the Free Speech Movement: Civil Disobedience and Mass Protest in 1960s America" by Robert Cohen.


Watch historian Robby Cohen discuss the question: Can students change the world?

Time Markers:

7:00 - 11:35: Framing the historical context of student activism.

30:35 - onwards: Reflections on why the FSM was successful; linking the FSM and the Civil Rights Movement.


Additional Resources

Free Speech Movement Digital Archives (The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley)

Free Speech Movement Archives