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Egyptian freedom fighters evoke American Sixties protests

Dave Masko's picture

EUGENE, Ore. – Now that the freedom fighters in Egypt have spoken, and Hosni Mubarak is now the “former president” after 18 days of protests where Egyptians demanded real freedom; in turn, civil rights activists such as Angela Davis, during a recent lecture in Eugene, said it’s interesting to note peace movements happening in the world today that parallel American free speech protests from 50 years ago when Students for a Democratic Society exclaimed: “Don’t dream it’s over, we can and will have freedom of speech.”

It was just before Valentine’s Day, in February 1961, that the Student’s for a Democratic Society released their freedom of speech manifesto at the University of California, Berkeley.

“We regard men and women as infinitely possessed of unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom and love,” the manifesto declared. “Men and women have unrealized potential for self-cultivation, self-direction, self-understanding and creativity. We would replace power rooted in possession, privilege, or circumstance by power and uniqueness rooted in love, reflectiveness, reason and creativity.”

Angela Davis is considered to be as much a political lighting rod back in the Sixties as today’s Egyptian freedom fighters, spoke at the University of Oregon in Eugene on January 20 to a packed auditorium of students who evoked the spirit of that Sixties generation with shouts of “freedom, freedom, freedom.”

In turn, Davis reminded them that we still need critical lovers of America who are “patriots,” and who express their faith in the country by working to improve it.

Davis is a famed American political activist, scholar and author who was most politically active during the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement. She is founder of “Critical Resistance,” an organization working to abolish actions that limit freedoms for all people. Davis is a retired professor with the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and former director of the university’s feminist studies department.

During her January 20th lecture at the University of Oregon, Davis did not predict the recent fight for freedom marches in Egypt, but she did spotlight the need for social justice and real freedom for people who demand it.

At the same time, she pointed out “the overarching connections between issues of class, race, and gender and the ways in which unbridled corporate exploitation breeds massive inequality and poverty on a global level.”

Those students who attended her lecture could not help but notice the same issues raised by Davis are unfolding today in freedom starved Egypt.

Free Speech is not free

This café-cluttered college town of Eugene and also down in California at Berkeley is where it all happened 50 years ago; in February 1961, when our nation’s youth wanted to overcome their own alienation and shape their own lives while helping others achieve true freedom in what became the start of the “Free Speech Movement.”

In fact, a recent Eugene exhibit explains “what happened to this one-time conservative town that became the Berkeley of Oregon back in the early Sixties.”

“We have many, many folks living in Eugene who went to Berkeley and have the spirit of Berkeley in their heart. You could say that Berkeley helped create the liberal parts of Eugene that we enjoy today. Even our annual Oregon Country Fair is an out-growth of the Sixties Free Speech Movement that was spawned down in Berkeley,” says Eugene historian Phyllis Healy Thompson.

Some 50 years later, it’s still “very cool, man” to visit Berkeley, and view Sixties photo exhibits at the University of California. “This is the place that inspired the sit-ins and the anti-everything demonstrations,” states a billboard on campus with a big peace sign over it.

Moreover, there’s dozens of vintage Sixties signs displayed at Berkeley today. Some include:
-- Suppose they gave a war and nobody came
-- Warning: Your local police are armed and dangerous
-- Peace now if you want it
-- America means Free Speech
-- Don’t trust anyone over 30

“For me, the start of 1961 is when the Fifties expired and college youth groups were forming, and Berkeley was the place to be,” says former Berkeley student and “Baby Boomer” Emily Gelman.

“I moved down to the Bay area from Eugene to be at Berkeley, but you had lots of student protest back in New York City and Boston. There were plenty of students in Ann Arbor and Madison who also promoted something we called ‘reflection.’ It was us saying no to McCarthyism and yes to freedom for all Americans to say what they felt. It was more than great, it was liberating,” adds Gelman as she picked up the strings of time that we know call the Sixties.

For the 1960’s youth culture, Berkeley was where the Free Speech Movement “really came to life. It’s the place that gave birth to the Free Speech Movement that later turned into the Civil Rights, Women’s Rights and anti-Vietnam War protest movements,” explained Berkeley historian Mark Rossiter.

“If you’d visit Berkeley back in the late fifties, the students would be in clothing of respectability: jackets and ties and gals in clean-cut dresses. The male students had short haircuts with no sideburns. The female students looked more like Nancy Reagan and someone’s mom than university gals.

Then, in 1961, the clothing turned to jeans, denim jackets, blue work shirts and bib overalls for both males and females. It was a first protest of sorts, and it included how we wore our hair and how we dressed. This was the start of the Free Speech Movement,” explained Rossiter who knew the famous Berkeley student protester Mario Savio.

At the same time, a demographer today might point to 1961, some 50 years ago this month, as the year when the first “Baby Boomer” was reaching college age and, thus, telling their parents back home that “true freedom is Freedom of Speech in all of its forms.”

Today, for example, we’re reminded that even obscure UFO organizations are attempting to “control” that same Free Speech by trying to limit people outside of their group to speak about UFOs. Thus, today’s youth may only imagine what it must have been like to simply want to speak up on a college campus.

“It was not known at the time that the University of California ran the government’s secret nuclear weapons labs. Leadership wanted to keep students in line and not speak up about anything. This was the start of Sixties. But, all hell broke loose in 1961 when student government groups , such as SLATE, said no more,” stated an exhibit panel at Berkeley.

“What we’re dealing with is bearded, unwashed characters with sandals and long hair that are part of this lunatic fringe,” said then California Governor Ronald Reagan.

“Ronnie didn’t get that the so-called ‘unwashed’ were the students at Berkeley and throughout the country in the Sixties,” asserted former Berkeley student Jerry Clarkson.

“Our parents didn’t get the Fifties were over, man. It was the dawn of a new age that said ‘the Constitution of the United States was right, we want Free Speech.’ It was about students like myself who came out West for truth. I was looking for truth. I was looking for meaning in my life,” added Charkson.

At the same time, this “Baby Boomer” said “there was so much passion back then that we even had a soundtrack thanks to Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix and the Jefferson Airplane. Tell me youth of today, what do you got that can touch this?”

As for today's freedom fight in Egypt, there's a popular Sixties quote that sums it up: “To me, being an American means Freedom for all people in this world,” said President John F. Kennedy.

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