by Jo Freeman
On Friday, May 13, 1960, hundreds of students, many from the
University of California at Berkeley, were washed down the steps of
San Francisco's City Hall with fire hoses. They were there to
protest hearings by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee
(HUAC), which had subpoenaed a Cal sophomore along with four dozen
others to face hostile questions about Communist activities,
associations and affiliations, real and imagined.
Forty years later, on May 12-14, 2000, some of those former
Cal students gathered together at a former convent on the San
Francisco Peninsula to reminisce, reconnect, and review.
The occasion was the second reunion of SLATE, a student
organization formed in 1958 whose members had helped organize the
HUAC protests. The roughly 800 students who joined SLATE at one
time formed the core of Berkeley political activists in the late
1950s to early 1960s.
Not all of the sixty persons who came to the conference had
picketed City Hall in 1960. By the time I was a freshman in 1961,
the anti-HUAC demonstrations had become a mythic event with their
participants elevated to heroic status. I went to the reunion as
much to find out what my predecessors had done as to find out what
had happened to people I had known.
Forty years is a long time, and some memories were vague. But
others could recall details as though they only happened yesterday.
Rick White remembered the 1957 meeting in a garage with Fritjof
Thygeson and Ralph Schaffer to talk about forming a student
They formed TASC -- Toward an Active Student Community -- to
put some life into student politics and raise issues which had
largely been ignored by the student government. Foremost among
these was eliminating racial discrimination in the fraternities and
sororities, whose national charters often restricted membership
regardless of the sentiments of local chapters.
TASC dissolved only a few months after it was born, but its
place was taken in the Spring of 1958 by SLATE, which got its name
when several students ran for ASUC office as a slate of candidates
on a common platform rather than individually. SLATE soon ran into
opposition from the campus administration, which said it could be
a student organization but not a political party. SLATE disavowed
the label, but continued running slates of candidates until it
dissolved in 1966.
Besides picketing HUAC, it took on such issues as the
abolition of compulsory military training, required of all male
undergraduates until June of 1962, the Speaker Ban, abolished in
June 1963, and removal of racial restrictions from the charters of
fraternities and sororities, present until 1964. SLATE tried to
educate the campus about "off-campus" issues such as nuclear
testing, capitol punishment, fair housing and apartheid in South
Africa, while addressing student concerns such as the quality of
education. In 1963, it started the SLATE Supplement to the General
Catalog, which reviewed and graded courses to guide undergraduates.
One of SLATE's founders and key activists was Mike Miller, who
went on to become a professional organizer. Miller reviewed
SLATE's successes and failures for its alumni. Among the former
were increasing the turnout in student elections, educating
students about many issues, and become an "incubator for numerous
single-issue groups and campaigns."
Among the failures were an inability to make creative use of
defeats and a refusal to compromise. When SLATE elected the
student body President in 1959, the administration removed the
graduate students from the electorate, depriving SLATE of it's
chief constituency. In 1961, SLATE was kicked off campus, losing
its office and the right to distribute literature on campus.
Because SLATE came so early, it never addressed many issues
which later consumed the campus. Feminism was one of these.
Several women at the reunion commented at the total indifference
SLATE had toward abortion or birth control, which at the time were
seen as strictly personal problems. Even curfews for the girls'
dorms but not the boys' was a non issue in the early 1960s. At
SLATE's first reunion in 1984 the women formed their own caucus,
and criticized the men. This time they confined their critiques to
a single workshop and a few off-the-cuff comments.
While the 1964 Free Speech Movement is often credited as the
source of student protest, it was SLATE that laid the ground. It
was also a progenitor of similar groups on campuses around the
country, through summer issue conferences and traveling speakers.
Judging from the alumni descriptions of their lives after SLATE,
many continued to educate and make waves. When we went around the
room describing what we had done in the last forty years, quite a
few were teachers and organizers. Many were involved in unions.
Some were health care professionals. Only a couple became lawyers,
politicians or writers.
Nonetheless, the reunion displayed the political diversity
that had characterized SLATE in its heyday. While skewed to the
left, SLATE had a few Republicans among its members (who were
concerned about civil rights and civil liberties) and was never
narrow or sectarian. At the reunion were neo-conservatives,
advocates of legalized drugs, and the state Attorney General, Bill
Lockyer. Even though he is now California's chief law enforcement
officer, Lockyer told the group he still tries to change the world,
and he still walks picket lines.
Jo Freeman is an author, attorney and political scientist. She is
completing a memoir and history of Berkeley in the early 1960s.
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