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The Afterlife of Activist Mario Savio, Free Speech Movement's Best-Known Leader

Savio's was the face of protest before Jane Fonda, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Mjlovas; CC-BY-SA-3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

 
 
 
 

Veterans of the 1964 Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, Calif., an event that electrified young men and women the world over, will return to campus for the 50th anniversary reunion this October. FSM’s most famous leader, Mario Savio, won’t be there because he died in 1996.

I’m intensely interested in the personal lives of famous people once they fade from the limelight. You have this thrilling moment that defines you in popular culture ... a speech, an 80-yard kickoff return, an Olympic gold medal ... and then? For Savio the moment came when he jumped barefoot on the police car where his fellow student Jack Weinberg was imprisoned and used the roof as a platform for an immortal speech:

We're human beings! 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!

Savio’s speech became an antiwar rallying cry during the Vietnam War era. Before Jane Fonda, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan he was the face of protest. And then? It’s said that the ancient Spartan mothers told their sons just before a battle, "Either with your shield or on it.” Or as the Australian swimming gold-medalist Shane Gould reflected on her life after the Olympics: “It was like being taken up to the highest mountain peak to see the view, and then being brought down, never to be there again." Sandy Koufax would know all about that.

It’s quite common for world-class athletes to fall into depression and illness after they’ve given their all to achieve perfection for one brief moment. Same is true of movie actors once their time in the sun is over. Stars become waitresses or drunks or overdose or suicide — that is, those who don’t take the precaution of marrying rich, which some happily do.

Adrenaline gets us up the mountain but when the rush is gone normal life can seem unbearably gray and unexciting. You bring your baggage with you up to Everest, and it can be a killer coming down, especially if, like Savio, you’re a decent person unwilling to exploit your temporary fame. Raised Catholic and the son of a steelworker, he might have become a priest but instead joined Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement and the Mississippi Civil Rights fight before convulsing the UC Berkeley campus, whose chancellor Clark Kerr was trapped between protesting students and Neanderthal regents. 

Savio held fast to the end: radical, reasonable, intransigent. He married and had children, had a nervous breakdown, went back to school, taught math and philosophy and had an early heart attack. Personally, I see his afterlife at least as heroic as his big moment on campus. Normal life ain’t that easy for any of us especially if you’ve been lightning-struck by media attention and peer popularity.

Idealistic, high-maintenance activists tend to burn out and some never do come back. It’s hard to step away once you’ve seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. I wonder if that’s why certain once-famous once-beautiful actresses retire to serene Carmel to talk to mainly animals. I can think of very few really famous people who stepped, or were forced down and did good with their fame. President Jimmy Carter with his Habitat for Humanity is an exception.