When John F. Kennedy a delivered a speech in Berkeley on March 23, 1962, 88,000 cheering supporters jammed into Memorial Stadium. Tens of thousands more lined the surrounding streets, some joyfully waving American flags.
By contrast, there were only a few hundred protesting the president’s policies on nuclear testing and his hardline approach towards Cuba. They held a silent vigil and carried pickets along Bancroft Way with messages like: “Defend freedom with non-violent resistance.”
By the end of the decade, the idea of a sitting president visiting Berkeley and not being greeted with placards deriding his actions in the harshest of terms would have been unthinkable.
The protest was co-organized by SLATE, one of Cal’s few student activist groups at the time. All the signs had to be approved by the organizers, who had vetoed a hand-scrawled “Fuck Jack” placard because they wanted the protest to appear dignified, SLATE co-founder Mike Miller recalled in a recent interview. Reflecting on an era when people wore their Sunday best to demonstrations, Miller added, “We were concerned about how people dressed.”
By the end of the decade, the idea of a sitting president visiting Berkeley and not being greeted with placards deriding his actions in the harshest of terms would have been unthinkable. The National Guard was dropping tear gas on Cal’s campus from helicopters. Sheriffs’ deputies were beating and shooting students and protesters along Telegraph Avenue. Bricks flew and police cars burned. How did everything change so fast?
The narrative about Berkeley’s emergence as a mecca of the counterculture and leftist politics often puts its start with the launch of the Free Speech Movement. The raucous protests that erupted on Sproul Plaza in 1964 helped incite a confrontational student movement that would spread across America and become one of the defining forces of the decade. National media coverage of impassioned young people giving fiery speeches while standing atop a police car also made Berkeley a magnet for idealistic students, militant activists and curious rabble-rousers. Thousands arrived, ready for action. This town, and the rest of the country would never be the same again.
However, a crucial chapter of this story is usually overlooked – the years of organizing that made the Free Speech Movement possible. The roots of this pivotal moment go all the way back to the mid-1950s when a group of students began efforts to shift the focus of student government from campus activities towards political issues such as civil rights. By 1958, this group established a political party called SLATE.
“What we were mostly interested in was breaking out from the McCarthy era, so that the Silent Generation now was becoming a noisy generation,” said Miller.
Until recently, information about SLATE’s motivations, activities and influence was relatively scarce. But throughout 2018, UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center, a research project of the Bancroft Library, conducted lengthy interviews with key figures from this group. It was part of the center’s ongoing quest to preserve the recollections of persons who have contributed to the development of California, the West, and the world. The transcripts have just been published online.
Far from being a nostalgic indulgence, this collection illuminates the embryonic phase of an era that still reverberates throughout American politics. It also provides insights from veterans of social justice movements that still hold relevance for those on the left struggling to build a “resistance” amid today’s tumultuous political climate. Expressing the pragmatic question that drove SLATE’s mission, Miller asked, “How do you bring people together around core values, and then translate those core values into a practical program that can have some impact in the world?”
Early campaigns for equal rights
In the book Berkeley at War, historian W. J. Rorabaugh describes the mid-century East Bay as reminiscent of the Jim Crow South. “Black shoppers were not welcome in downtown Berkeley… discrimination in employment and housing were common,” according to Rorabaugh. Most of SLATE’s earliest members coalesced around efforts to challenge this widespread racial discrimination, on and off campus.
Historian W. J. Rorabaugh describes the mid-century East Bay as reminiscent of the Jim Crow South.
In 1956, shortly before establishing SLATE, these students hosted a presentation by Martin Luther King, Jr., who had just started to gain national prominence following the Montgomery bus boycott. Unlike King’s 1967 speech at Sproul Plaza, which was attended by a crowd of 7,000, this appearance didn’t generate widespread attention. [Speech starts at 1:19]
“There might’ve been 30 people,” Miller said. “Hardly anybody knew who he was.”
Despite starting out with relatively small numbers, these early civil rights activists helped lay the groundwork for a movement that would transform the Bay Area over the following decade. They organized (often successful) protests and sit-ins against establishments that refused to serve or hire African Americans. Their list of targets was broad and included Mel’s Drive-In, car dealerships along Oakland’s auto row, San Francisco’s luxurious Sheraton Palace hotel, corner barber shops, Cal fraternities and sororities (which refused to admit Black members), and the Oakland Tribune.
Under the leadership of Berkeley CORE, a group that included some of the same members as SLATE, dozens businesses along Shattuck Avenue in downtown Berkeley were picketed during the early 1960s. In one of the most innovative of these campaigns, activists filled shopping carts with groceries and abandoned them at the cash registers to pressure Lucky’s supermarket on Telegraph Avenue into abandoning its discriminatory hiring practices, which the store eventually did.
The birth of a movement: “Students should be interested in the issues”
David Armor entered Berkeley as an apolitical freshman in 1956, but he was quickly energized by the campus’s budding activist culture. He became president of student government during his junior year on the SLATE ticket. In the Oral History Center interviews, he explained that left-leaning students didn’t have many options for building durable institutions, so channeling their energy into creating a political party that would exert power through the student government made sense.
“There was sort of an awakening,” Armor said. “Students should be more interested in the issues of the time, and the student government should reflect that by what it does, by what it takes stands on.”
Remembering his perspective at the time, Michael Tigar, another SLATE member, concurred with Armor. “Look, we’re getting ready to go out in a world that’s in the process of change, and we need to start figuring out how we express ourselves and be involved in that process. It’s time to be grownups here,” he said.
SLATE’s platform included opposition to the death penalty, U.S. support for South African apartheid, nuclear weapons and mandatory ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) for all male students. Whenever possible, they tried to apply their political principles to campus issues. For example, SLATE passed a resolution to end gender segregation at Cal football games. SLATE’s women members pushed the issue even further through direct action. They stood up against the jeers of frat boys and violated university rules by sitting in the men’s section.
“It doesn’t sound like a very big issue, but it was an example of gender discrimination,” Armor said. “The men had the best seats in the center of the stadium. The women were put in an inferior position, from the point of view of viewing the game.”
The university changed the discriminatory seating policy, but wasn’t happy about this surge of student activism and tried various tactics to reign in SLATE, ranging from stricter limitations on student expression to disassociating graduate students from student government. SLATE responded by challenging or disobeying these policies.
The attempted suppression simply intensified the organization’s resolve not to be silenced. “Dean Stone issued a regulation that students couldn’t have spontaneous rallies,” said Armor. “If you wanted to speak, you had to get a permit from him. That just seemed to all of us to be absurd, and so people started having spontaneous rallies. As students were trying to express ideas, the university seemed to want to get rid of them.”
The moment when SLATE evolved from a local student group to a catalyst for a national student movement happened right at the dawn of a new decade. Although the “Red Scare” era was waning following Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s death in 1957, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) continued its high-profile hunt for “subversives.” In 1960, when HUAC announced it would be holding hearings at San Francisco’s City Hall, SLATE members, along with civil rights groups and labor leaders, started planning protests months in advance. One of the people who was subpoenaed by HUAC was Douglas Wachter, a Cal sophomore and member of SLATE.
Archival video footage of the (nonviolent) protests against the HUAC hearing is wild and surreal. In an attempt to clear protesters out of City Hall’s cavernous rotunda, police officers sprayed dozens of clean-cut college kids down a huge marble staircase with high-pressure fire hoses. As young people sat down, locked arms and chanted, “we shall not be moved,” they were dragged through puddles as dozens of news cameras flash away. People who were there described it as a political baptism. Following the riot, HUAC produced a widely distributed video titled Operation Abolition in order to smear the protesters as communist stooges, but they badly miscalculated how the public would respond.
“The HUAC film ended up being a recruiting tool for the student movement,” Miller recalled with a chuckle. “It really boomeranged on HUAC.”
Along with a widespread campaign of lunch counter sit-ins started by Black college students in Greensboro, North Carolina, around the same time, the HUAC confrontation set the tone for a decade that would be largely defined by youthful uprisings. Due to the notoriety of the “Operation Abolition” film, SLATE became an inspirational model for like-minded students across the country. “We started getting phone calls and letters from all over the country, from people on college campuses, [asking] ‘How did you guys do it? Can you come tell us how you did it? We want to do it here,’” Miller said.
One of the many activists who came to the East Bay looking for guidance was Tom Hayden, who conferred with SLATE shortly before co-founding Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
“A whole group of SLATE leaders met with him because he wanted to learn what was going on at Berkeley,” Armor recalled. “He thought what we were doing was fantastic and he wanted to try to replicate that at Michigan. I think he talked about a national movement that would be based upon these principles.”
In the latter half of the sixties, when the main issue was Vietnam, radicals like Hayden would steer the student movement further and further away from mainstream liberals. David Armor saw this split coming all the way back in 1960, when he was planning the HUAC protest.
“We had a lot of new members of SLATE that were starting to argue that we needed to be more active, we needed to throw paint on steps, we needed to do things to make a more dramatic impact,” he said. “This led to a big internal division within SLATE about these tactics.”
Several SLATE members were among the leaders of the Free Speech Movement, but that brief revolt was broader than any one organization, and ultimately proved unsustainable. After FSM disbanded in 1965, SLATE followed suit and dissolved itself in 1966. By the mid-sixties, the antiwar movement was growing, and campus activists didn’t see student government as a top priority any more. An era of idealistic reformism was being replaced by revolutionary fervor – ushered in alongside a cultural tidal wave of “sex, drugs and rock n’ roll.”
Looking back, Miller stands by SLATE’s coalition-building strategy. After all these years, he still thinks it’s the best – and maybe the only – way to achieve lasting victories for progressive social justice. “It’s crystal clear to me that if you don’t unite a very broad base of people in this country you’re not going to change its central features of exploitation by the ruling class,” he said. “If you don’t bring a whole lot of people together in a common voice of people power, you’re not going to change any of that.”
A 1984 Newsweek magazine article on the 25th anniversary of SLATE stated that the group “gave a voice to the silent generation of the ‘50s, spawned the student rebellion and created a model for the movement politics of the ‘60s.” The article also reported “a survey of reunion guests found most of them in public service-oriented jobs – from labor unions to teaching to law, medicine and government. Many opted for careers that would accommodate their politics.”
Some of the most prominent former SLATE members include Berkeley-based feminist philosopher and author Susan Griffin, activist lawyer Michael Tigar, and labor leader Herb Mills. Mike Miller is still part of a group of former “Slateniks” who meet monthly to discuss politics. Although a few of his former colleagues, including David Armor, veered right and embraced conservatism after their college years, Miller doesn’t begrudge their conversion. “I don’t know anybody who’s become a cutthroat capitalist,” he said.
Liam O’Donoghue is the creator of the podcast East Bay Yesterday, a program about history that is “not stuck in the past.” Listen to his show on SLATE below.