Mario Savio, a brilliant man of compassion and humor, was one of the most effective voices in the continuing struggle to end the disgrace of a massive underclass. He was a loyal friend and active member of the Sonoma County Chapter of the ACLU, and a beloved teacher of mathematics, physics and philosophy at Sonoma State University.
Most widely known as a spokesman for the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley in 1964, for which he served four months in the Santa Rita jail, Mario was deeply committed to the advancement of civil rights and social justice – a commitment beyond the Free Speech Movement. In the Spring of 1964, Mario joined in the Sheraton Palace sit-ins in San Francisco demanding desegregation of the hotel’s workforce and was arrested. Having spent the summers of 1963 and 1964 in Mississippi as a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activist, Mario returned to Berkeley at a time when students throughout the country were beginning to mobilize in support of racial justice and against the deepening American involvement in Vietnam.
Mario’s moral clarity, his eloquence and his democratic style of leadership inspired thousands of fellow Berkeley students to protest university regulations which severely limited political speech and activity on campus. Unrivaled in his concern for fairness, Mario liked to remind people that it was the UC Berkeley administration’s banning and removal of a Congress of Racial Equality table from Sproul Plaza that sparked the Free Speech Movement. The non-violent campaign culminated in the largest mass arrest in American history, drew widespread faculty support, and resulted in a revision of university rules to permit political speech and organizing. This significant advance for student freedom rapidly spread to countless other colleges and universities across the country.
In later years, Mario once again stepped into the public arena prompted by deep concern over the conduct and results of the 1994 elections. Mario delivered the keynote address at our Chapter’s 1995 Awards Ceremony and Annual Dinner to an overflowing audience including ACLU members, activists, students, academics, and national media.
While teaching at Sonoma State University, Mario was actively committed to preventing the implementation on college campuses of Proposition 187 – written to deny undocumented immigrants social services, health care and education; to defending affirmative action; and to working for adequate funding for public higher education. With our Chapter’s support, Mario facilitated the formation of the Campus Coalition for Human Rights and Social Justice – a diverse group of students, faculty and staff dedicated to achieving these goals. The impact of this coalition continues today at SSU and on public campuses statewide.
Mario gave his heart to justice – departing before his time at the age of 53. In passionate concern, Mario died as he had lived. His last work was preparing a lawsuit to challenge an unfair process of imposing fee increases on working class and minority SSU students.
We are privileged to have known this kind man who brought his special talents to our community and to our Sonoma County ACLU Chapter enriching us all with his intellect, his moral fervor, his charm, and his transcendent nobility of spirit. It is in Mario’s remembrance and with Lynne Hollander Savio’s endorsement that the ACLU of Sonoma Countyrecognizes a student in our community who has shown a personal commitment to civil liberties, human rights and social justice through the presentation of the Mario Savio Student Activist Award.
On Freedom and Resistance:
There comes a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that 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 all the apparatus, and you’ve go to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, the people who own it, that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all. (1964)
On Strength through Unity:
The civil rights movement just burst on the United States right on the tube (TV). We saw images of young people being attacked by dogs, by powerful water canons. And they faced their fears, they overcame their fear by holding one another. That was a lesson that what we need, the strength that we need, we can find in one another. It was, of course, an image of great courage, and I have not had to face that kind of things that those people had to face. But if they were willing to face that, then I felt by that very thing both shamed and inspired to do what I could do. And to take the lesson of holding one another as a way it could be done. (1995)
Between the saying and the doing lies half the sea. (Quoting a favorite Italian proverb, 1995)
Photo and text extracts used with permission of www.savio.org. For more information on Mario and the Free Speech Movement, visit www.savio.org and www.fsm-a.org.