Mario Savio graduation speech, Sidwell Friends School, June 10, 1988

Copyright 1988 by Mario Savio. Copyright 1997 by Lynne Hollander Savio. All rights reserved. The following document may not be reproduced without the prior written permission of the copyright owner. For permission, e-mail to

This is a commencement speech that Mario Savio delivered at his son's Nadav's graduation from Sidwell Friends School on June 10, 1988.

I would like to begin by acknowledging those of you, especially the students, who made it possible for me to speak here to you today. Perhaps thanks would be more gracious than mere acknowledgement, but I'm not at all sure how it would be to say thank you for the very stressful opportunity of speaking at the graduation ceremony of one's own son. The pride and the inevitable sadness in saying goodbye to child- hood are deeply felt by all not by the graduates only, but by the teachers and by the parents as well. This is an important moment.

Some of you may have read of the Battle of the Books raging now, according to the Sunday New York Times, on American university campuses. Others may have read Professor Allan Bloom's best-seller, The Closing of the American Mind. The impulse for deep reform or radical change, which we correctly associate with the Sixties, is still very much a focus of controversy. In his chapter on the Sixties, Professor Bloom writes, "About the Sixties, it is now fashionable to say that although there were indeed excesses, many good things resulted. But, so far as universities are concerned, I know of nothing positive coming from that period. It was an unmitigated disaster for them. I hear the good things were greater openness, less rigidity, freedom from authority, etc., but these have no content and express no view of what is wanted from a university education."

As one whom Professor Bloom might well credit with having made some modest personal contribution to the destruction of higher education in America, I am pleasantly surprised by an invitation to address a graduating high school class most, if not all, of whom will now be going on to those very colleges and universities that I and my ilk presumably left in a shambles. I, of course, do not feel that any such great damage was done by the period of the Sixties, either to America or to American universities. Since it certainly is due to some fame or notoriety which I achieved in that era that you have invited me here as your commencement speaker, I know that you would feel cheated if I did not dwell upon what that time meant to me and what it might mean to you.

When you get to college you will be confronted, on the one hand, by those young professors who were students during the Sixties, now achieving tenure, whose presence the Bennetts and the Blooms decry: on the other hand, you wilt be met by Professor Bloom's conservative cohorts themselves, admonishing you to remain safely within the library's protective walls, lest premature contact with the world of causes and conflict result in the closing of your minds. In short, if you go to college at ail, the question of your relationship to the generation of the Sixties--to my generation--is one you will find it very difficult to avoid.

What, then, was so very special about the Sixties? And what was it like for me, a most unpolitical son of unpolitical Italian immigrants, prior to my departure for college? What was the nature of the alteration within my mind and spirit when, like you now, I was preparing myself to move beyond the influence and control of my teachers and my parents?

Life in the Fifties--even the late Fifties, despite rock'n roll-was both silent and stark. They used to test- explode nuclear weapons in the open air in those days and broadcast the results on the TV screen for all the world to see. America was undisputed top rooster and American policy-makers evidently hoped to intimidate the Russians with this display of nuclear strength. The unintended outcome was to terrify the children of the United States.

Frankly, I was never deeply impressed by the belief some hold that human beings would never use these weapons in a real war, For the pictures of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had a horrifying newness then. And the human capacity for unlimited evil was borne to me vividly by the equally fresh photographs of Jewish bodies piled in heaps. Those pictures of the Holocaust remain for me the granite-like reality against which every book, or mere idea, must be tested.

There was another aspect to the starkness. The story we were taught about the world was painted in the whitest white of-American purity and the Satanic red of the world-wide Communist menace, as they called it. Pink, of course, was a shade of red. We could do no wrong. They could do no right. And, if necessary we would suffer the devastation of the planet to preserve our way of life.

This is a caricature, you will say. And you are right But children may half-believe what most adults will take with a grain of salt. So this is the first important thing to know about the generation of the Sixties. We came of age with a powerful vested interest in proving that the previous generation's world view was seriously in error. For--given nuclear weapons, and given the recently demonstrated human capacity for evil--if they were right, we were doomed.

I have referred also to the silence of the times. I mean the pall of McCarthyism, of course. By the time I had gotten to where you are now, the Army-McCarthy hearings were already receding in the national memory, assuming the character of a mere aberration, an isolated instance of excessive, if basically well-intentioned, zeal. It was permissible, or necessary, to question Joseph McCarthy During high school, I took a one-semester course in economics. Part of the course was devoted to economic systems other than our own. In the textbook I encountered- for the first time the following words: From each according to his ability; to each according to his need. I discussed my problem with my mother, from whom I inherited a love of poetry and the gift of gab. But this was long before women's liberation, and she felt this was the sort of problem I needed to discuss with my father. So I did. We had our discussion in the lovely garden that he had planted in our backyard in a working class suburb in Queens, New York. Now, my father, Joseph, had an unfailing respect for his grandfather, also Joseph-- Guiseppe, Don Peppino--a man whom he had met long before in the Sicilian mountain village of Santa Catarina As my rather told his story, one day a Communist organizer came to see my great-grandfather. Don Peppino was one of the most respected men in the village and the organizer realized that it he succeeded in his audience with Don Peppino, he would have an easy in with the rest Of the peasants. So my great-grandfather baiting his trap, asked the organizer, "You believe, then, that all men should share their wealth equally?" "That is exactly our belief, Don Peppino," the organizer is supposed to have said, taking the old man's bait. "Well, I would gladly divide my property in half and give half to you." "Ah, this is wonderful, Don Peppino!" "But let me ask you one thing more," my great-grandfather continued. "Suppose that after a year's time you have squandered your share. What are we to do then?" "Oh, in that case we would need to divide the remaining property once again," at which my great-grandfather is supposed to have raised his cane above his head and bellowed at the organizer, "Off with you, and be quick about it, before I hit you upside the head with this cane" This brief story may tell as much as many a learned treatise as to why Marxism never gained a foothold in Southern Italy.

Of course, I tried to continue the discussion with my father. I had not meant Communism necessarily, and perhaps these words of Marx should be taken not as a sketch for legislation, simply a sort of ideal, etc., blah blah blah--but he wasn't listening In his own simple and powerful way he exemplified the nature of political discussion in America. Alien ideas were considered only for purposes of reputation. His grandfather had said it, he believed it, and that settled it. I had unwittingly played the Communist organizer, and I had given my father the opportunity to play his beloved grandfather. And now. you'll be thinking I've had my revenge. But there's more to my story.

Up to a point, Don Peppino was, of course, right. In a society of enforced equality, as long as there is any scarcity at all, some will be workers and others will be parasites Indeed, the new Soviet leadership--thank goodness--of Perestroika and Giasnost appears to be beginning to acknowledge something like this right now. They are beginning, it seems, to acknowledge the truth in America's truth; our leaders, however, have not as yet begun publicly to acknowledge any truth in Marxist truth. Jesse Jackson is an exception, of course, as in many things. Consider his observation that the American eagle needs two wings to fly-a left wing as well as a right.

"From each according to his ability; to each according to his need." My father could never hear the poetry in those words. But, years later, when I had become notorious as a rouser of the college rabble, a reporter came to see my father and asked him, "Where did your son learn all his radical ideas?" My father, playing the crafty Don Peppino, said, "He learned it all from a book he read at home. I still have it here." The reporter, my father tells me, was very excited. My father then showed him the family Bible.

The young people who made the new left of the 1960s had a deep vested interest in finding the fatal flaw in the prevailing view of America and of America's role in the world. This, as I tried to show before, was a matter of elemental self-preservation. It was characteristic of even those new leftists such as I, who were innocent of previous radical politics, to try to see the truth in Marxist truth. Think about it. How could one hope to prevent the final war without making some serious effort to listen to the truth of the national enemy But a key element was missing. There still remained the myth of American perfection, the universal assumption of America's good intentions. Here the facts seemed to come to the rescue and--thank you, Professor Bloom--our minds swung open to receive the data and to assess the concrete experience of the black struggle for civil rights and of America's war against Vietnam. We came to view America as a racist and imperialist power. We used those words a lot. It covered its tracks with a beguiling opportunity for self-expression and conspicuous consumption for a considerable and privileged part of its population. Fortified by the peasant wisdom of my great-grandfather, perhaps, I never could become a thorough-going Marxist. But a Socialist of sorts, a gentle Socialist, I became, and remain.

What were we, then? Something unique. Like immigrants in a new land we were part of the first generation of Americans to be raised from earliest childhood beneath the Damoclean threat of thermonuclear war. We fought for racial justice. We struggled to halt the carnage that claimed more than 50,000 American lives alone in Vietnam. We had a vision, too-defined, if you will, by the unpremeditated and generous response of ability to need. It was the vision of a loving community. Let me sing for you pan of a song of the Sixties that tells wed the temper of the time:

"Come on, people, smile on your brother; everybody yet together. Got to love one another Right now. Come on, people, smile on your brother; everybody yet together. Got to love one another Right now."

That's the authentic voice of the 1960s. Listen to the cadence: "Right now." It was always right now in the Sixties: Peace now." "Freedom now." Why did we imagine that we needed to, or could, remake the world in the space of ten years or less? Did we not know that we would spoil the work by the way we dashed it off? Why were we in such a hurry? Perhaps, in part, because in whatever we did we might suddenly become aware that the bombs could soon begin to fall.

We were the first generation. It was common for us to accept that there might not be a second generation. We lived our lives as if we would never reach the ripe old age of thirty. Even so, we weren't in practice as self-dramatizing as all that. We did not put all our eggs in one basket. We bore children, daughters and sons. You are the second generation. And here's the point where the speaker departs from the text. The peroration would come here. But it's not a political speech. You invited nor just an aging rabble-rouser to speak to you, but a parent also. There were dangers in what we did. Before I went to Mississippi three people died--one young black man. two young white Jews from New York. Would I today advise my son to go to Mississippi What about Nicaragua? A young engineer was shot in Nicaragua to death. Could 1 advise my son to do that? A parent can not give that kind of advice.

I told you my truth; I've played Don Peppino to you. But the experiences you choose, the problems you choose to solve, have to be your own. I have seen my son and his friends. I see intelligence, I see good judgement, I see character. You are our children. We love you, we are proud of you, we are afraid for you. But, like all parents, we have high hopes for you also. We are not yet moving from the stage. We still have our work to do. I have described for you how I needed to define myself with respect to my father; my generation needed to define itself with respect to a previous generation of Americans; and you will need to do the same. I wish for you your own dreams, that you solve your own problems. I place in your hands also our hopes and our dreams. We trust your generosity, your judgment. We wish you good luck.

transcript by:
Juan Jewell
Sidwell Friends
Washington DC


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