A Life Well Lived

By Bill Mefford

I just finished re-reading Robert Cohen’s incredible book, Freedom’s Orator, which is about the life of Mario Savio. Mario (and I call him by his first name because after reading Cohen’s excellent book I almost feel like he is a friend) was most known for being one of the leaders of the Free Speech Movement on the University of California Berkeley campus in 1964. The administration tried to shut down free speech on the campus and he and the students revolted. His speech, given at the pinnacle of the movement, is one of the most iconic speeches from the 1960s when there were lots of great speeches. It read in part:

There's 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 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.

No matter if it is free speech, or stopping the mass deportation of immigrants, or ending the never-ending cycle of gun massacres, or stopping the repression of institutionalized Christianity - this quote both inspires me and challenges the hell out of me to do more than I am doing now. It makes the hairs on my neck stand up and it makes me want to MOVE.

Mario was a unique leader for the 1960s in that after he gave this speech and after the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley began to wind down (the students won, by the way), there was little heard from him by the popular media for most of the rest of his life. I am fascinated by this since I work in Washington DC and social justice pop stars are always looking to make a career out of signature moments.

You probably know what I am talking about. There are moments in time when people say or do something that captures the imagination of the people and the media and they become well known for a short time, but then they look to bankroll (literally) that moment into a speaking and/or writing career on the social justice circuit. I have seen this countless times. And though I will refrain from calling out names, it depresses me because it makes me wonder what would it look like to sink back into obscurity with the rest of us and just do the hard work of building grassroots movements for freedom and justice.

Mario had that same offer put to him and he rejected it. After the Free Speech Movement hit it’s height he was offered to speak at other rallies for issues that he certainly cared about, but none of them was as passionate to him as the one he had given everything he had to: protecting the right to free speech on his college campus. So, instead of trying to recapture the magic he was a part of during the Free Speech Movement and then repackage it for any other social justice issue, he walked away.

Another reason why Mario walked away is because he was dealing with some serious mental health issues, including depression. He ended up recovering in a hospital for a number of months and then took several years to rebuild his life. This is what many people try to hide, particularly those who work in the social justice world. The cost of giving oneself fully to the fight for justice can be exhausting, but it can do more than just wear you out. Fighting against entrenched systematic injustice when societal and institutional structures are crushing people you care about can literally rob you of joy, of peace of mind, even a sense of balance and well-being. It can take your identity from you as everyone who derives their security from the status quo will desperately want you to stop. But it is not like you can stop and step away, especially when the people being crushed are people you care about. It’s damn hard to maintain any sense of harmony in your life and this so rarely gets talked about and it should.

Mario fought these battles both against systems of oppression and for his own welfare and his authenticity is in this struggle is so inspirational and challenging to me.

Mario recovered from his depression and learned to deal with it throughout his life, but he also maintained his commitment to justice. He was actively against the Vietnam war and then later campaigned and spoke out against Ronald Reagan’s secret wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador. He was fighting for justice in the 80s and 90s when it was not fashionable at all.

Sadly, his life abruptly ended when he was a guest lecturer at a community college and he was helping to organize a student movement against a fee hike, rightly claiming that raising fees at a community college would only hurt the poor. He was basic an adjunct faculty and he was organizing against his own employer. Man, that is fearless. He died before he and the students won their fight. God I hope he knows he won.

Mario Savio’s life gives me hope. I wish I had known him because I imagine I would have learned so much from him. I would have loved to hang out and think of crazy ways to raise hell and work for concrete change. I would have loved to know him. And thanks to Cohen’s book I still can.

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