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Mario Savio (December 8, 1942 â November 6, 1996) was an American political activist and a key member in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement. He is most famous for his passionate speeches, especially his "put your bodies upon the gears" address given at Sproul Hall, University of California, Berkeley on December 2, 1964.
Mario Savio was born in New York to a Sicilian steel worker father. Both his parents were devout Catholics and, as a young altar boy, Savio was planning to be a priest. He graduated from Martin Van Buren High School in Queens at the top of his class in 1960 and then went to Manhattan College on a full scholarship as well as Queens College. When he finished in 1963, he spent the summer working with a Catholic relief organization in Taxco, Mexico helping to improve the sanitary problems by building facilities in the slums.
His parents had moved to Los Angeles and that autumn he enrolled at University of California, Berkeley. In March the following year he was arrested while demonstrating against the San Francisco Hotel Association for excluding blacks from non-menial jobs. He was charged with trespassing, along with 167 other protesters. While in jail, a cellmate asked if he was heading for Mississippi that summer to help with the Civil Rights project.
During the summer of 1964 he joined the Freedom Summer projects in Mississippi and was involved in helping African Americans register to vote. He also taught at a freedom school for black children in McComb, Mississippi. In July, Savio, another white civil rights activist and a black acquaintance were walking down a road in Jackson and were attacked by two men. They attempted to press charges but the case went nowhere until President Lyndon Johnson, who had only recently passed the Civil Rights Act, urged the FBI look into it as a civil rights violation. Eventually one of the attackers was found, and was fined $50 and charged with misdemeanor assault.
When Savio returned to Berkeley after his time in Mississippi, he was intent on raising money for SNCC, but found that the university had banned all political activity and all fund-raising. He told Karlyn Barker in 1964 that it was a question as to whose side you are on. âAre we on the side of the civil rights movement? Or have we gotten back to the comfort and security of Berkeley, California, and can we forget the sharecroppers whom we worked with just a few weeks back? Well we couldnât forget.â
Savioâs part in the protest on the Berkeley campus started when on October 1, 1964, former student Jack Weinberg was manning a table for CORE. The University police had just put him in the police car when someone from the surrounding crowd yelled âsit down.â Savio, along with others during the 32-hour sit-in, took off his shoes and climbed on top of the car and spoke with words that roused the crowd into frenzy.
The last time he climbed on the police car was to tell the crowd of a short-term understanding that had been met with UC President Clark Kerr. Savio said to the crowd, "I ask you to rise quietly and with dignity, and go home", and the crowd did exactly what he said. After this Savio became the prominent leader of the newly formed Free Speech Movement. Negotiations failed to change the situation; therefore direct action began in Sproul Hall on December 2. There, Savio gave his most famous speech, on the "operation of the machine", in front of 4,000 people. He and 800 others were arrested that day. In 1967 he was sentenced to 120 days at Santa Rita Jail. He told reporters that â[he] would do it again.â
In April 1965, he quit the FSM because âhe was disappointed with the growing gap between the leadership of the FSM â¦ and the students themselves.â
"There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odiousâmakes you so sick at heartâthat you can't take part. You can't even passively take part. And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all." â Sproul Hall Steps, December 2, 1964
Between 1965 and his death, Savio held a variety of jobs, including work as a sales clerk in Berkeley. In 1965, Savio married his first wife, Suzanne Goldberg, whom he had met at the Free Speech Movement. Two months after they were married, they moved to England, as Savio had won a scholarship to the University of Oxford. While there, the Savios had their first son, Stefan. He did not complete his time at Oxford because of emotional problems, and they moved back to California in February 1966. In 1968, he ran for state senator from Alameda County on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket, but he lost to Nick Petris, a liberal Democrat.
In 1980, he married his second wife, Lynne Hollander, an old acquaintance from the Free Speech Movement. He returned to education at San Francisco State University during their marriage. In 1984, he received a summa cum laude bachelorâs degree in physics and then went on to achieve a masterâs degree in 1989. In 1990, Savio and Hollander moved with their ten-year-old son Daniel to Sonoma County, California, where he taught mathematics, philosophy and logic at Sonoma State University.
In 1999, it was revealed that Savio had been trailed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation from the moment that he had climbed on to the police car that harbored Jack Weinberg. He was followed for more than a decade âbecause he had emerged as the nationâs most prominent student leader.â There was no evidence that he was a threat or that he had any connection with the Communist Party, but the FBI decided he merited their attention because they thought he could inspire students to rebel.
Even when he had quit the FSM, the FBI called him to their Berkeley office. They told Savio that they had received letters of a threatening nature towards him, but they would not speak with Savioâs attorney present. However, he would not agree, and instead criticised the FBI âfor failure to make arrests and take action in the South where human rights are being violated every day.â At this point the meeting ended.
According to hundreds of pages of FBI files, the bureau:
The investigation finally ended at the beginning of 1975 and at that point an investigation in to the FBIâs abuse of power began. Savioâs ex-wife, Suzanne Goldberg, said that the "FBIâs investigation of her and Savio [was] a waste of money and an invasion of privacy."
Savio had a history of heart problems and was admitted to Columbia-Palm Drive Hospital in Sebastopol, California on November 2, 1996. He slipped into a coma on November 5 and died the following day, shortly after being removed from life support.
A Memorial Lecture Fund was set up to honor Mario Savio upon his death. The MSMLF hosts an annual fall lecture on the University of California, Berkeley campus. Past lecturers include Howard Zinn, Winona LaDuke, Lani Guinier, Barbara Ehrenreich, Arlie Russell Hochschild, Cornel West, Christopher Hitchens, Adam Hochschild, Amy Goodman, Molly Ivins, Jeff Chang, Tom Hayden, Angela Davis, Seymour Hersh, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and Naomi Klein.
The Memorial Fund also set up the Mario Savio Young Activist Award to honor an outstanding activist under 30 with a deep commitment to human rights and social justice and the qualities of leadership ability, creativity, and integrity. Recipients of the award since it was first bestowed in 1998 include Michael Leon Guerrero, Niki Fortunato Bas, Jia Ching Chen, Jim Keady, Harmony Goldberg, Genevieve Gonzales, Rocio Nieves, Jason West, Erin Durban, Noemi Ramos, Christopher Goodman, Patrisse Marie Cullors, Julissa Bisono, Chelsea Chee, and Timothy Den-Herder.
Mario's famous speech is sampled in many songs including An Ounce Of Prevention from the album On Little Known Frequencies by the band From Monument to Masses, Timelessness by the band Fear Factory, The Movie's Over by the Australian band Cog, Article IV by the Santa Cruz band Good Riddance and Here Come The Pigs by Deadsoul Tribe. It is also paraphrased in an episode of Battlestar Galactica (Lay Down Your Burdens, Part II) , given by a character playing the head of a union.
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