Freedom's Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s

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Here is the first biography of Mario Savio, the brilliant leader of Berkeley's Free Speech Movement, the largest and most disruptive student rebellion in American history. Savio risked his life to register black voters in Mississippi in the Freedom Summer of 1964 and did more than anyone to bring daring forms of non-violent protest from the civil rights movement to the struggle for free speech and academic freedom on American campuses. Drawing upon previously unavailable Savio papers, as well as oral histories from friends and fellow movement leaders, Freedom's Orator illuminates Mario's egalitarian leadership style, his remarkable eloquence, and the many ways he embodied the youthful idealism of the 1960s. The book also narrates, for the first time, his second phase of activism against "Reaganite Imperialism" in Central America and the corporatization of higher education. Including a generous selection of Savio's speeches, Freedom's Orator speaks with special relevance to a new generation of activists and to all who cherish the '60s and democratic ideals for which Savio fought so selflessly.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Robby Cohen has written a gripping account of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement that took place in 1964, and the role of the student leader Mario Savio in that movement. Growing up in a working-class Catholic family, Savio struggled with a stammer, but he overcame his stammer to become a passionate and eloquent orator who led the Free Speech Movement in its struggle for political and academic freedom. Cohen tells the story of how Savio became a committed activist as the result of his experiences registering black voters in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964, and goes on to give a blow-by-blow account of the Free Speech Movement, its struggles and its final success. Here at Berkeley the Free Speech Movement Cafe stands as a memorial to the Movement and Savio's role in it. Cohen's book is both a biography of a remarkable individual and an account of a pivotal moment in Berkeley's history." —G. Steven Martin, University of California, Berkeley

"What Cohen's account clearly shows is that the FSM was...notable above all for speaking in ways that made political conversation fresh and meaningful, something that correlated with Savio's own non-sectarian leftism." —Logos

"Robert Cohen tells Savio's story with passion and compassion... It is likely to be the standard reference work about Savio." —Jonah Raskin, San Francisco Chronicle

"[Cohen] accomplishes the complex task of interweaving Mario's personal story with that of his political engagements, and deftly ties both to the history of the peace and social justice movements that followed. Among Cohen's many strengths as a biographer is his almost uncanny ability to understand Savio's motivations, to see the goodness of his heart, and to honestly consider the psychological demons Savio worked so hard to overcome... Robert Cohen's biography of Mario Savio is earnest, comprehensive, and written as a compelling narrative that does justice to its subject. For this we can all be profoundly grateful." —Bettina Aptheker, Tikkun

"Mario Savio inspired a generation of young people, and this biography elegantly interweaves the various elements of this complex human being: his gift of speech, the profundity of his thought, his spirituality, his strong aversion to dogma, and above all, his unshakable moral core." —Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States

"Superb... Alternately inspiring and heartbreaking, Savio's life story and the text of his speeches combine to provide ample support for Cohen's conclusion: 'Savio's political biography poses a challenge to those who write off the '60s generation's democratic idealism and judge the decade only by its excesses.'" —In These Times

"[Cohen] does an admirable job of uncovering the experiences that turned a stuttering Queens, New York altar boy into a formidable orator, and...does a brilliant job of capturing the passion and the power of Savio's rhetorical style." —Berkeley Daily Planet

"Freedom's Orator is a brilliant biography and history that will restore Mario Savio to his rightful place among the Sixties' great orators and be of use to scholars and students for generations to come." —Tom Hayden, author of The Long Sixties

"Deeply researched, rich in insight, and eloquently argued, Freedom's Orator examines the personal, social, and political forces that shaped Mario Savio's life and thought and catalyzed his activism. Robert Cohen manages to capture the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s in all of its drama, complexity, and untidiness, how it redefined patriotism, expanded the boundaries of dissent, and insisted on being active agents in the restructuring of society rather than passive and complacent objects in a University's assembly line. Cohen constructs a powerful legacy for the FSM: in the end, Savio the orator and insurgent gave as much to Berkeley as any of its distinguished Nobel laureates, financial benefactors, or fabled coaches." —Leon Litwack, University of California, Berkeley

"In this beautifully written biography, Robert Cohen captures the complexity of Mario Savio's development from an altar boy to an iconic student activist to an adult struggling with personal issues and continuing injustices in the world. Through this lens, we get a deeper understanding of what motivated a generation of youth to challenge the status quo and the consequences of their actions for their lives." —Julie Reuben, Harvard University Graduate School of Education

"This sensitive exploration of a private man who seized his generation's attention through galvanizing speech greatly expands our understanding of the 'long Sixties.' Cohen's attention to Mario Savio's working-class Catholic formation leads to a brilliant, blow-by-blow account of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, the epicenter of student radicalism. Looking past 1964, he shows us how Savio's longer life reflected the world the Sixties made, and his enduring legacy." —Van Gosse, author of Rethinking the New Left: An Interpretative History

"Definitive." —Demockracy

"Curiously, there has never been a biography of Mario Savio...until now. Freedom's Orator was well worth the wait." —Contra Costa Times

"The definitive treatment... Detailed, well-written, admirable (and admiring)." —Journal of American History

"Freedom's Orator is well worth reading for teachers, scholars of education, and those simply interested in the fight for free speech against acts of aggression and injustice. It is a very thoughtful and sensitive tribute to both Savio and the Free Speech Movement that in a way continues Savio s goal of putting humanity back into the Academy." —Aaron Modica, Education Review

"Painstaking and eloquent...Cohen is meticulous and fair with the evidence at hand, and his chronicles are informative about the microdynamics of student movements." —The Sixties

"Cohen tells us how and why a brilliant young man...became a self-described radical and why the kind of radicalism he championed made the 'Sixties' seem so exciting and threatening and explosive to many Americans living through those years." —Reviews in American History

"Absorbing and even-keeled... Peel[s] back the layers of myth that have enveloped Savio and the Free Speech Movement while substantiating their achievement." —The Nation

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195182934
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 8/27/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 544
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Cohen teaches social studies and history at New York University and chairs the department of Teaching and Learning in NYU's Steinhardt School of Education. A Berkeley graduate, he is the author of When the Old Left Was Young and the co-editor of The Free Speech Movement: Reflections on Berkeley in the 1960s. He lives in Greenwich Village.

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Table of Contents


Part I: The Education of an American Radical
1. Child of War
2. The Making of a Civil Rights Activist
3. Freedom Summer

Part II: Avatar of Student Protest: Leading the Free Speech Movement
4. From Polite Protest to the First Sit-In
5. The Police Car Blockade
6. Organizing and Negotiating
7. "We Almost Lost": The FSM in Crisis
8. Speaking Out and Sitting In
9. "Free Speech at Last"

Part III: After the Revolution: A Voice Lost and Found
10. Descending from Leadership
11. Battling Back
12. Dying in the Saddle
Appendix: Speeches

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