New York Times

November 8, 1996

Mario Savio, Protest Leader Who Set a Style, Dies at 53


[M] ario Savio, an incendiary student leader of the Free Speech Movement at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1960s, a movement credited with giving birth to the campus "sit-in" and with being a model for the protests against the Vietnam War, died on Wednesday in Palm Drive Hospital in Sebastopol, Calif. He was 53 and lived in Sonoma County, Calif.

Susan Kashack, public information officer for Sonoma State University, where Savio taught, said he had gone into a deep coma after suffering heart fibrillation -- rapid, uncoordinated contractions of heart muscle -- while moving furniture. He had a history of heart trouble.

His family permitted doctors to disconnect life support, a hospital official was quoted in The Los Angeles Times.

Savio was teaching mathematics and philosophy at Sonoma State, where he joined the faculty in the 1990s after teaching elsewhere in California.

In the 1960s, Savio, a fiery, inspiring orator whose father was a machine punch operator, was an adversary of Clark Kerr, the University of California president, who referred to the university as a factory and dismissed the Free Speech Movement as "a ritual of hackneyed complaints."

Savio is remembered for the words he spoke on Dec. 2, 1964, from Sproul Plaza in front of Berkeley's main administration building, to a large crowd of protesters, many of whom took part in a sit-in inside the building and a campus strike.

"There is a time," he said, "when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't 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."

The police arrested 800 of the protesters in what was the largest mass arrest in California history.

The sit-in was the climax of three months of student disorders in reaction to the university's decision to limit the activities of civil rights and political groups on the campus. Students contended that the restrictions abridged their constitutional rights. Savio became a member of the executive committee of the Free Speech Movement, an organization representing a score of civil rights and political groups at Berkeley.

At a news conference after the Dec. 2 action, Savio said it had been the most successful student strike in American history, with only 17 percent or 18 percent of the students attending classes.

After a demonstration two months earlier, Savio was accused of biting a police officer's left thigh, "breaking the skin and causing bruises." A fellow demonstrator, now known as Laura X, who heads the Women's History Library in Berkeley, said Savio loved to tell people that he had apologized afterward to the officer because, as he put it, they were "both working-class kids."

Explaining why he had risked expulsion for agitating on campus in 1964, Savio cited the time he spent working for civil rights causes in the South earlier that year: "I spent the summer in Mississippi. I witnessed tyranny. I saw groups of men in the minority working their wills over the majority. Then I came back here and found the university preventing us from collecting money for use there and even stopping us from getting people to go to Mississippi to help."

Through a change in rules, the university tried to limit the use of the campus for political activities and the recruiting of students for off-campus demonstrations.

When students protested, Kerr and other Berkeley administrators suggested that they were rabble-rousers who were dominated by Communists. But the protesters ranged from a variety of socialists to Goldwater Republicans.

The Free Speech movement that Savio gave voice to became a model for protests. The events of 1964 in Berkeley ushered in a decade of student agitation across the country, culminating in the wide protests against the war in Vietnam.

Savio, when asked late in 1964 what the turmoil had signified, quoted a sentence from "Moby Dick": 'Woe to him who would try to pour oil on the waters when God has brewed them into a gale."

A native New Yorker, Savio graduated at the head of his class of 1,200 from Martin Van Buren High School in Queens and attended Manhattan College, on scholarship, and Queens College before going to Berkeley, where he enrolled in 1963 as a philosophy major.

His confrontational activities did not go unpunished. He was suspended for a time, and was also sentenced to four months in prison for his part in one protest action.

In later years, after leaving Berkeley, he was mostly out of the limelight, working as a bookstore clerk, tending bar and teaching mathematics, as a tutor and also in public and private schools, at the junior high and high school level. He received a bachelor's degree summa cum laude in 1984 and then a master's degree, both in physics from San Francisco State University. He taught there and at Modesto Junior College before going to Sonoma State.

At a 1994 reunion of 1964 protesters at Berkeley, Savio showed some his old fire, calling Speaker Newt Gingrich and Sen. Jesse Helms "crypto-fascists." He also reported that one of his sons, age 13, had told him that he would not furnish the required proof of his citizenship when he entered high school the next year.

"They say the fruit never falls far from the tree," Savio added. "Thank God."

His first marriage, to Suzanne Goldberg, ended in divorce.

His survivors include his wife, Lynne Hollander, and three sons, Daniel, Nadaf and Stefan.

See the San Francisco Chronicle obiturary

  • Notes from the Savio memorial service, 12/8/96
  • Mario Savio, 1988 speech


    Document URL:
    Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:41:50 EDT