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FSM at Fifty, Student Activism at Catholic Colleges

This fall will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Free Speech Movement on the campus of U Cal-Berkeley. One can expect a number of reflections and retrospective studies, and indeed I’m working on another piece that examines student activism then and now. I want here to ask some questions, focusing especially on the experience of students at Catholic colleges and universities. If you were there in ’64, on the campus of Fordham or Notre Dame, Georgetown, Gonzaga, Santa Clara or wherever, how did the FSM strike you? What issues were important to you then, and how did Catholic identity (your own or that of the school) affect the articulation and formation of those issues in political terms? For those of you teaching at Catholic institutions now, what political issues are important to your students? How has the terrain shifted in the intervening fifty years?

About the Author

Robert Geroux is a political theorist.



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In the fall of 1964, I was a junior at Saint Louis University, the Jesuit university in St. Louis, Missouri.

I may have heard of the free-speech movement at Berkeley through news reports. But I do not recall that it made a significant impression on me at the time (or at a later time). Nor do I recall knowing any other SLU students at the time who even talked about it. Basically, it had no impact at SLU that I know of. 

I hasten to add that I was involved in the student government, as were a lot of other SLU students. In addition, I was also involved in  tutoring program in which SLU studens served as tutors in a literacy program for African American adults at an inner-city Catholic Church. A lot of dorm students participated in that tutoring program.

On Monday afternoon, October 12, 1964, the Revered Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., spoke on the SLU campus. Fr. Jerome J. Marchetti, S.J., the Executive Vice President of SLU, told me that it was the first time in world history that a Baptist minister had been allowed to speak publicly at a Jesuit campus. (I have not been able to verify if Fr. Marchetti's claim was true.)

Dr. King spoke to a packed gymnasium.

Dr.King spoke at SLU as part of a speakers series sposored by the student government -- headed up by Jim Heidenry.

So I guess you could say that that was our free-speech movement, eh?

A few days after Dr. King spoke at SLU, it was announced that he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

But certain local Catholic wags said that that was anticlimactic -- after he had been the first Baptist minister ever allowed to speak at a Jesuit campus.

Those were heady times at SLU -- and Berkeley wasn't on our radar screen.

Incidentally, I, along with bus loads of other students from the St. Louis area, joined Dr. King's march to Montomery on March 25, 1965.  

Compared to the black civil rights movement, the Berkeley free-speech movement was just something of interest mostly to journalists -- but of no great interest to me or to anybody I knew. 

I was five years old in 1964, so politics hadn't yet appeared on my radar screen.  That changed rapidly, though; by 1968, I was hearing all about the evils of our involvement in the Vietnam War from my cousin, who was attending Notre Dame.  Can't recall how Catholicism shaped his opposition, though.

At Villanova, where I've taught since 2000, my understanding is that the campus was rather slow to respond to the Vietnam War.  Based on anecdotal evidence from older faculty members, I'd say that the first episode of "unrest" at Villanova was precipitated by Nixon's bombing of Cambodia, and then by the Kent State killings.  Apparently, about two dozen students lowered a flag that was flying in the middle of the campus and sang some hymns.  Not the most flamboyant expression of protest, but for what was then a small local college, it was something.  So FSM had some ripple effect at Villanova, I suppose.

In 2014, I don't see a whole lot of sustained or visceral interest in politics; there's the resurgence of interest during every presidential election, when the students pretty much follow the lead of their parents (that's a big generalization, but I feel confident in making it).  I'd classify most of the students at Villanova as centrist or conservative; there's a sizeable but not large contingent of liberals, and a small number of real lefties.  (So if the terrain has shifted at Villanova, I'd say it's shifted somewhat leftward, if only because in the 1960s the student body was overwhelmingly on the right.)  The issues that galvanize the conservatives are abortion and gay marriage; the liberals and lefties are galvanzied by economic inequality, gay marriage, and climate change.  While I'd say that a specifically theological or religious cast to these issues is more apparent on the right, it's also common among liberals and the left.  

I forgot to mention that Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at Villanova in January 1965.  A ripple of FSM?  Probably not, but not out of the question. 

Thomas Farrell: You say the free speech movement "was just something of interest mostly to journalists."  What do you base that conclusion on? 

My impression was very different.  I was in New York (and wasn't a journalist) at the time.  It seemed to me that many people (most of them not journalists)  were very interested in the movement. 

What do others think?

If the following quote, from the Wikipedia entry on the free speech movement, is accurate, it cuts against Thomas Farrell's claim that the FSM  was "just something of interest mostly to journalists." 

The Free Speech Movement had long-lasting effects at the Berkeley campus and was a pivotal moment for the civil liberties movement in the 1960s. It was seen as the beginning of the famous student activism that existed on the campus in the 1960s, and continues to a lesser degree toda

Gene Palumbo: Please read the complete sentence you are quoting form. After the dash, I have explained what I was basing that statement on.

I am hoping that Margaret O'Brien Steinfels weighs in on her experience at Loyola Chicago in those years.  I was there in the early 1980s, in fact was a freshman when Reagan defeated Carter.  Loyola students at that time were staunchly Democratic in their politics, a reflection of the Chicago roots of most of the student body.  The country as a whole was drifting rightward at that time, and the Loyola student body probably wasn't immune.  Certainly there were pockets of leftist activism, particularly around women's rights.  These days, that wouldn't seem very leftist, I guess, but that was the heyday of Phyllis Schlafly.  There were a (very) few voices speaking up for gay students, particularly coming from faculty and campus ministry, and some voices (mostly students) speaking some pretty horrible things against gay students.

There wasn't a lot of activism at that time on campus.  There was no war, and the civil rights movement had lost a lot of steam by then.  The economy actually was in the doldrums in the early days of the Reagan presidency, and most of us were worried about whether we'd be able to get a job.  


I would join with Jim Pauwels in encouraging Margaret O'Brien Steinfels to discuss her recollections of the Loyola Chicago campus in the fall of 1964 with respect to the Berkeley free-speech movement. I would also encourage Peter Steinfels and others who are old enough to remember the fall of 1964 to add their recollections as well.

I graduated from Marquette in 1962 - just before these events.

However MU was so conforming and ultra-Midwestern that I doubt the FSM was anywhere to be found there.

It did have a vocal chapter of the John Birch Society when I was there, though.  Does that count?

When I think of the free speech movement, I think of philosopher John Searle who was teaching at Berkeley then.  He wrote about it here ...

I wonder if the students at the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley (like those at the Jesuit School of Theology) were part of the FSM there.

"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."

 - Mario Savio


Thomas Farrell: 

For openers, your “please read the complete sentence” is a bit snarky.  You know perfectly well that I wouldn’t have sent in a comment if I hadn’t read all of what you wrote.

But the main point is that the other part of your sentence doesn’t change anything, doesn’t rebut the point I made.   If you had simply written, “The civil rights movement was of much greater magnitude than the free speech movement (FSM),” I would have agreed, and wouldn't  have bothered to send in a comment.  But you went further:  the FSM, you insisted, "was just something of interest mostly to journalists." Since that unfairly diminishes the FSM, I felt I couldn’t let it go unchallenged.  

You add that the FSM was “of no great interest to me or to anybody I knew.”  Maybe not to you, but what about all those others for whom it was important?  I cited a sentence in my comment last night – “[The FSM was] a pivotal moment for the civil liberties movement in the 1960s. It was seen as the beginning of the famous student activism . . .” If that’s true, clearly the FSM was much more than, as you would have it, “something of interest mostly to journalists.”

Gene Palumbo: The two parts of my concluding sentence go together -- they are connected with one another. In my concluding sentence, I am summing up what I have said said in the message about the SLU campus in the fall of 1964. I have not discussed the SLU campus during any subsequent time period. Nor have I discussed any other campus besides the SLU campus and the people I knew there at the time. In short, I have NOT made a general statement in my concluding sentence.

During those years Villanova was infiltrated by FBI informants who in turn attempted to influence Villanova higher administration (President and Executive Vice President, both Augustinian Friars) to stifle sudent and faculty dissent. (Cf: The Burglary. The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI, Pp. 232ff.) I was an Augustinian faculty member and Dean of Student Activities at that time. Some of the Villanova students were more active than referenced above, and some of their dissent was expresed off campus in cooperation with students from Swathmore, Haverford, and Penn.

Several Augustinian friars and faculty members supported the students who also demonstrated against the presence of the NROTC on campus.

Other students began a program called "Mail Call Vietnam," a letter-writing campaign to our soldiers in 'Nam.'

It was a contentious time in the Augustinian monastery and within the facuty. Scars remain.

Charles Tirrell




In 1964 I was  mostly off campus at Fordham, writing my dissertation, teaching elementary school in the East  Bronx, and  having a baby.  But at least in New York City, it was  easy, quite without the aid of journalistic guidance, to sense a real change in the air. Soon I was teaching in lower Manhattan, at Pace College --now Pace University-- whose windows  looked down on City Hall Park, the scene of numberless lively –and loud—speakouts. It was hard to miss  the police sirens and the shouting crowds.  A year or two later,  teaching at Pace’s Westchester campus in Pleasantville, I recall  contacting Mercy College, where my husband was teaching,  for assistance in locating speakers for a huge student-organized marathon peace rally. Mercy is no longer a Catholic college but it was then. Some generous activists over there put us in touch with an obliging local rabbi  who gave a good, rousing  speech.  Even students who were not sympathetic to the cause , and there were plenty of them, paid attention and were respectful.

 At least here in the metropolitan area, it was hard to miss the way the 60’s were playing out. Things were changing. Perhaps the effect was less striking  elsewhere. But I think that anyone  trying to get a handle on the  destabilizing effect of the 60’s on conservative Catholic Colleges  might want to look at  James Tunstead  Burtchaell’s  The Dying of the Light ; the Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from their Christian Churches.   To the great credit of the religiously affiliated schools surveyed, they seem to have opened their archives quite generously to Burtchaell.   The section on Catholic Colleges that focuses on Boston College-- with some  attention to Fordham and other Jesuit institutions-- The College of New Rochelle, and Saint Mary’s  College of California --is quite frank and open about things that happened behind closed  doors.  

I went to the College of New Rochelle  back  in the fifties, and  was well aware even then that our liberal and moderate faculty , both  lay and religious,  were up against an administration dominated by a group of rigid conservatives .  Unfortunately,  one  of the old guard, the Chair of my  department ,insisted on approving all major schedules , so I graduated without having had access to some of the liveliest and best  teachers the school had.   At the time, I considered it my own bad luck that all my proposed schedules were rejected out of hand, but  now I understand what happened: I was being protected from malign influences.   Burtchaell  cites the College records showing  that the priests who taught  religion, together with the college Chaplain ,objected  to views certain of the faculty held on “papal authority, birth control, academic freedom, and ecumenism.” Apparently this led to ”meticulously precise formal statements of accusation confidentially submitted to the superior of the Ursulines. Three colleagues—Eugene Fontinell,  and John Bannon in philosophy and  Joseph Cunneen  in English, eventually quit the faculty. . . ..These men were an embarrassment. But not many years afterward, the college leadership would consider the purge an embarrassment “ (643). As indeed it was,. and how good to know that by the time Burtchaell's book was published in the late 90's the College was willing to recognize that..

And there was a bright side :Joe Cunneen  went on to found  Cross  Currents, with Gene Fontinell and John Bannon on its first editorial board. And he found a new academic home at Mercy College where he  recruited our generous activist friends Adma and Francois D’Heurle for one of his later Boards.

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