Cleisthenes, Father of the Free Speech Movement

Address to the Graduating Class of 2012, Classics Department, University of California, Berkeley, May 14, 2012

I enrolled in the University of California Berkeley Classics department in 1963. I didn't get as far as you did, in fact I didn't get very far at all. I was expelled from the University in the fall of 1964, as a consequence of my participation in the Free Speech Movement, and did not return to my academic career, becoming instead a printer.

I set out to become one thing and ended up quite somewhere else, but that does not mean that where I set out from and where I have thus far ended up are not connected. Nor does it mean, though I have "small Latin and less Greek," that my interest in the Classics has dimmed.

On that bright Fall morning of September 30, 1964, when I walked onto campus, I had no suspicion that my life was to undergo a dramatic turn. I was a student in the morning and by eleven that night I was not. It may seem that this was a capricious and spontaneous event, but upon reflection, I realize that my whole Classical education--the ideals infused in me by the study of Athenian democracy, the stirring battles against overwhelming odds of Marathon and Thermopylae, the history of the Roman republic--had prepared and compelled me to that very moment.

Trouble started when the office of Clark Kerr, President of the University, in response to charges that the University was being used as a staging ground for protests against the House Un-American Activities Committee and for civil rights activism, issued directives that forbad "student governments and their subsidiary agencies to take positions on any off-campus issues without the express consent of the chief campus officer." That the property of the Regents was in fact public property, subject only to the laws and Constitution of the United States, was overlooked. Eight students in violation of these directives were cited and required by the administration to appear for a disciplinary hearing in Sproul Hall that afternoon. We attended the disciplinary hearing, not alone, but with hundreds of our fellows, in what became an entirely unplanned and spontaneous sit-in. That night, Chancellor Strong announced that we eight were expelled.

Events had unfolded with astonishing speed; that morning the campus was been relatively peaceful with a sub-current of unrest, but by that afternoon it was Katy, bar the door. The next day, former graduate student in mathematics, Jack Weinberg, was arrested on Sproul Plaza for distributing civil rights materials and spent the next 36 hours in an immobilized police car, surrounded by thousands of students. The Free Speech Movement was off and running.

Eight undergraduate students--and their campus allies--against the entire University of California Administration, the combined police forces of Alameda County, every newspaper in the nation--including the Daily Cal--and the panoply of elected officials of the State of California may seem like an unequal contest, and it was: they didn't have a chance.

The confrontation thus begun, escalated and intensified, and, after considerable uproar, culminated in the arrest of some eight hundred students and University personnel on December 3, 1964. The faculty then allied itself with the students; the Regents gave in; the administration underwent a massive shakeup; and First Amendment rights were restored to the campus.

Just as a child leans to crawl, then to walk, for himself, so each generation, and each individual within that generation, must rediscover and reinterpret history anew.

We follow in the footsteps of others: we do not have to invent language, or geometry, or perspective, or figure out for ourselves our place in the cosmos. Most of our time is spent in relearning that which is already known, and a good deal of the rest is spent in teaching others what we have learned.

But, within the physical and intellectual evolution of our species, there are periods of punctuation: full stops, queries and exclamation points. Much of the time, although we know that important events occurred, we don't know when or where or even why. Opposable thumbs, bipedal motion, fire, clothing, tools, weapons, art, language, agriculture and writing: everything comes together at at the right place and the right time, emerging from what seems like nothingness to a dramatic something-ness, and it seems to happen in the blink of an eye, and afterward everything is different. But that only becomes clear later.

The events and changes which led up to the apparent abrupt shifts in the equilibrium are sometimes understood, as for example, the organs necessary for speech evolved for unconnected reasons and were well in place long before speech erupts in humankind, leaving a delicate record of abstract thought in art and artifact. Sometimes the whys and wherefores of these shifts are less clear, as the myriad halting steps and stumbles as we evolved to strut about on our hind legs, freeing our hands for the work of the far future.

What we think of as apexes become fulcrums, upon which the weight of the whole world shifts. The Athenians were at the long end of the lever, and they had a place to stand, and they moved the world.


Forgive me for a moment as I recount a history that is well-known to you.

Among these exclamation points is the invention of democracy in the time of Cleisthenes, who is credited with reforming the Athenian constitution and setting it on a democratic footing. The reforms in government under his guidance were deep and far-reaching. The idea of "Equality under Law," led to the concept of legislation administered by citizens chosen by lottery, rather than kinship or social status. The assembled citizen-jurists voted on proposed legislation some forty times a year, which created a novel sense of ruling rather than of being ruled, and the task put before them was to "advise according to the laws what was best for the people." Furthermore, non-participation in the judicial process was discouraged through fines and social opprobrium: it was the duty and responsibility of every citizen to be a part of his own government. Democracy was not a spectator sport.

Meanwhile, the formidable, close-ordered Hoplite Phalanx evolved among the Greek city-states, teaching and reinforcing the central idea that each man's welfare depended upon his neighbor, and that to break formation was to insure defeat. It was far better to fight than to flee. The shield wall and mass of spear points allowed a larger proportion of soldiers to participate actively in combat, rather than only the front-line men. Individual effort was suppressed in favor of the good of the whole, echoing and reinforcing the underpinnings of democracy. An evolving sense of civic duty united the Athenians in both war and peace.

If you own something, you take care of it: in a mere generation, the Athenians developed a taste for self-rule that did not welcome the attentions of Darius, king of Persia, to make them a subject people. The matter became personal when Darius swore to burn Athens for its support of the Ionian revolt. Theretofore unconquerable, the massive Persian war machine swiveled around to fix the tiny Athenian city-state in its sights, leveling against it an invading army that trebly outnumbered that of the Greeks. Although the force brought to bear by the Persians scarcely touched Darius' resources, for the Athenians it was do or die, as every available soldier was at Marathon and defeat would mean utter destruction.

Facing an opponent that was lightly armed and composed mainly of archers and slingers, the Greek heavy-armed phalanx ran into battle, which astonished the Persians, ". . . in their minds they charged the Athenians with madness which must be fatal, seeing that they were few and yet were pressing forwards at a run, having neither cavalry nor archers." This was the more amazing in that Herodotus tells us that the Athenians at Marathon were the "first to endure looking at Median dress and men wearing it, for up until then just hearing the name of the Medes caused the Hellenes to panic." The battle turned in favor of the Greeks, and the slaughter was terrible. The Athenians lost 192 men, and their allies, the Plateans, eleven. The Persian losses were incalculable, but again Herodotus tells us that 6,400 dead were counted on the field of battle, and an unknown, but great number, perished in the trackless swamps surrounding the plain.

Fearing that the Persians would attack Athens, the Greeks left a small force in the field and returned to their city, arriving just in time to prevent the invaders from securing a landing. The defeated Persians then returned to Asia, swearing revenge, which was thwarted in 486 by a highly providential Egyptian revolt and the death of Darius. Subsequently, the defeat of King Lionidas' few, glorious Spartans at Thermopile, who died withstanding Xerxes' huge army; the defeat in 480 of the Persian navy by an Athenian alliance in the Battle of Salamis; and the emphatic Greek victory in 479 of the Battle of Platea, ended the Persian threat.

The Persians were slaves, driven to battle by the whip and terror of their officers. The Athenians believed themselves the better soldiers because they were free men.

The unlikely victory at Marathon was a defining moment for the young Athenian democracy, showing what might be achieved through unity and self-belief; indeed, the battle effectively marks for Athens the start of the "golden age," to which we owe the underpinnings of Western philosophy.

America was founded on principles complexly derived from the Greeks, their philosophies and ideals, but foremost among them was to revive the concept of democracy, so derided by Plato. In the succeeding 236 years, democracy has not degenerated into anarchy, nor anarchy into tyranny.

Begun in violent dissent and revolutionary fervor, America thrives and prospers on controversy, even extending to a great civil war. This government of the people, for the people and by the people has persevered.

The First Amendment, that cornerstone of Civil Liberties, was honored more in the breach than the observance throughout much of American history. We must be careful to recognize that the substance of much speech that we today take for granted was, within living memory, and despite the black-letter of the Bill of Rights, effectively illegal, for which the speaker, author, printer and publisher could be fined and imprisoned. Only persistent defense of the First Amendment has won for us the right to speak and publish as we see fit, without respect of persons or fear of retribution. That these battles are going on now and will continue forever is illustrated by the apparent hostility demonstrated from every side towards the very idea of the Bill of Rights, as manifested in efforts to restrict, control and manipulate information that should without prejudice be available to the public.

Standing on a chair under Sather Gate, violating the rules of the UC Administration and in consequence getting thrown out of Cal was the single luckiest thing that happened to me in my life. I was on the wrong track, trying to do things that I was not well-suited for; the FSM freed me to go where I ought to go. From my days in the Free Speech Movement I keep the fondest of memories and an almost fanatical love for the First Amendment. As long as this nation has a free press, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and citizens willing to defend these rights, all else will follow. The First Amendment is worth fighting for, and thatÕs what the FSM was all about.

In addition, I learned that the only way to get power is to take it. Nobody is going to give it to you willingly, no matter how nicely you ask. The law changes to recognize shifts in political strength; it does not promote those shifts. Had we stayed within legal avenuesÑavenues defined by our adversariesÑwe would never have gotten anything in the Free Speech, civil rights or antiwar movements. There is no redress of grievance for those whose only remedy is the law. As Heraclitus said, "We must know that war is common to all and strife is justice, and that all things come into being through strife."

The only real right that we have is to fight for democracy. The Free Speech Movement continued and nourished that tradition initiated by the Athenian democracy, preserved by the American revolution, and continuing today.

It's not that the past is present again: it never goes away. We still face the same problems, in the same manner. The battles of Marathon, of the American Revolution, of the Free Speech Movement, have not ended: they are going on all the time.

Here we are today, in the midst of our evolution as a nation and likewise in the midst of our experiment in democracy. There's no end to it, and we cannot foresee how it will all turn out. We can honor the shades of Cleisthenes and the heroes of Marathon by doing our honest best to see to it that their efforts were not in vain.

I would, in summation. like to dedicate this moment to my Latin teacher and long-time friend, Ernie Karsten; and to the memory of my Greek teacher, Anne Amory, who was killed in Colmar, France, in 1971 together with her husband, in a motorcycle accident; and to all of you, who are going to pass the torch of democracy, first lit in Athens 2,500 years ago and still burning brightly, to your students, children and fellow citizens.


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Cleisthenes, Father of the Free Speech Movement

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