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1964 to the present — a personal perspective

Robert Birgeneau, professor of physics, former chancellor | September 22, 2014

During the historic Free Speech Movement period at Berkeley, beginning in the autumn of 1964, I was a graduate student in physics at Yale University. There was no doubt that Berkeley students were playing a leadership role for us all across the country.

At Yale, the focus was primarily on civil rights. Racism and its destructive consequences were all around us. If you walked a few blocks from the Yale campus down Dixwell Avenue, the world changed from all White to all Black. I was deeply offended by this and, accordingly, started working as a volunteer, leading a group of teenage boys at the Dixwell Community Center in the heart of the projects. People said that it was too dangerous for White people to go into the projects but they were simply wrong.

At the same time, we organized at Yale a non-profit called Southern Teaching Program Inc., which recruited graduate students from universities across the country to teach in the South in historically black colleges and universities. This was an entirely student based and led organization; we expected little, if anything, from the generation before us.

As part of this, in the summer of 1965, I went to South Carolina and Georgia to teach and do civil-rights work.  In South Carolina several of us from the Northeast joined up with two graduate students from Berkeley who had played a leadership role in the FSM. These were heady but also dangerous times. Indeed, just before I arrived, one of our group was murdered by an outraged local person in Columbia, S.C.

I remember being very taken by the passion of the Berkeley students and also by their political sophistication.  For them, the FSM was the single most important experience of their lives. It was psychologically liberating for them,

I will not recount all of our experiences at that time in the deeply segregated South; many were simply heart wrenching. In the end, the civil rights movement was successful; the back of segregation was broken, people of color could vote, etc. At the same time, racism and its deleterious consequences still pervade America; this is a struggle that may never end.

Students at Berkeley often say to me that our generation was lucky. We had the FSM, civil rights, and opposition to the war in Vietnam, all noble causes for the idealistic, activist students of our day to organize around and to pursue.

This could not be further from the truth. We have right in front of us, especially here in California, the most morally compelling issue of the last 50 years, namely the 11 million people who are forced to live in the shadows because they are undocumented. This is the civil rights issue of this generation. Our treatment of these people will define us as a nation.

We have already had one great success here in California, namely the ability to provide financial aid to our DREAMers, students whose parents brought them as children without proper documentation to the United States. Through the cooperative efforts of Berkeley students and senior administration, together with Sacramento politicians, we succeeded in getting passed and signed AB 130 and 131 which, for the first time in the United States, made legal substantial university-based financial aid for DREAMers. Next, we must provide these students a pathway to citizenship.

However, the great challenge ahead of us is to provide a pathway to citizenship for all 11 million undocumented immigrants. This will determine whether or not the United States will continue to be defined by the Statue of Liberty, offering the beacon of freedom for the oppressed.

I cannot imagine a more noble cause for Berkeley’s students of 2014, 50 years after the FSM of 1964.

More Berkeley Berkeley posts on the Free Speech Movement may be found here.

Comments to “1964 to the present — a personal perspective

  1. Prof. Birgeneau, 50 years after the FSM we are still asking: How can we adjust to, and survive in, our changing world?

    Tragically, we still don’t have an answer or the world would be a far better place than the we have today with out of control violence and environmental disasters.

  2. Thank you so much, former Chancellor Birgenau, for this inspiring and so clearly articulated call to all of us–students and faculty–to support the cause of the undocumented. It is true, this is the present civil rights movement,and there is a lot still to be done and a lot we all can do to support it

    Thank you for what you have already done for the undocumented students, setting a model center withing the UC system and nationwide. And thank you for reminding us of the work ahead. May God bless you!

  3. Kudos to you Dr. Birgeneau, kudos to your vision and experience. It is no wonder that an engineer with such sterling credential in humanity provided us with the best chancellorship Berkeley ever ever had. I know I share this with many of Berkeley recent graduates!

    Thank you!

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