Charles Sellers: From the Freedom Rides to the Free Speech Movement
While working on my book, I started to think about the connections between the sit-ins and the Freedom Rides with the Free Speech and anti-war movements that followed – all student-powered, often student-led, almost always at odds with if not in defiance of establishment allies. When I met Freedom Rider Charles Sellers, I met a literal connection between the Freedom Rides and the Free Speech movement.
Sellers was born in Charlotte, NC, in 1923, and arrived in Berkeley in 1958 to teach history at the university. There he was an active member of the local chapter of CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, which was very active protesting discrimination in jobs and housing. Three years later he went to Mississippi as a Freedom Rider. Three years after that, he was an early and significant player in the Free Speech movement, which erupted on the Berkeley campus in the fall of 1964.
In this excerpt from our interview, Sellers talks about Berkeley in late ’50s and his roll in the Free Speech movement.
After I got to Berkeley in 1958 I was very active in the chapter of CORE here. It was a very small but devoted band and we raised a lot of hell. We forced all the downtown businesses to hire blacks and sued landlords and [laughs] marched and demonstrated.
There were a few graduate students from the university involved. No faculty that I can recall. Much later, when the demonstrations got to be really big, some faculty came out. The CORE people were just ordinary people from undistinguished backgrounds, in secular terms. But they were just really good people who somehow felt it in their hearts that this was the right thing. We were a devoted little band of brothers and sisters out there for a while, changing the world.
At the time Berkeley, as compared to Chapel Hill, had much the same discrimination in housing and in hiring. But the etiquette of racist supremacy wasn’t enforced so overtly as in the South. There was a black attorney on the city council.
The strange thing about Berkeley when I first came here was it was a Republican town politically. The liberal Democrats were just fighting and getting substantial representation as a minority. The one black council member was allied with these liberal Democrats and he was not too happy about having the boat rocked too much. The NAACP was more or less playing that same game. So we were creating discomfort with the local black middle class as well as the whites.
Berkeley was converted into a solidly, if not radically, Democratic town basically by the coincidence of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. Robert Scheer, who today writes a syndicated column, performed the most profound political transformation I’ve ever seen by running for Congress in 1966 against our liberal Democratic Congressman, who was voting for all the war appropriation bills.
Though he did not win, just by going out and debating the issues openly and passionately, he absolutely turned this community against the war overnight and paved the way for Ron Dellums’ election to Congress four years later.
We also had the student rebellion at Berkeley. In fact, the Free Speech Movement grew out of the Civil Rights movement. A member of Berkeley CORE – our little band of 20 or so – was Jack Weinberg, who put up a table on the sidewalk to solicit support for CORE and was hauled off by the Berkeley police or the campus police, actually.
The next day, Jack was back with his table right in the middle of Sproul Plaza, a police car rolled up and they grabbed him and put him in the police car. Immediately people started sitting down around the police car and getting up on top of it, and that’s how the Free Speech Movement started.
My involvement was immediate. I can’t remember the exact order of events, but very early there was just a little group of 15 people picketing in circles on the Sproul Hall steps. When I saw this on my way to lunch, I decided to take a few turns in the picket line. “What are you doing up there, Charlie?” a passing colleague called out. “What are you doing down there, Waldo?” I replied too cleverly by half.
Then at another point – this captured-police-car incident went on for several days and nights – I got up on the car and said something, as had a lot of other people. So I was right into it from the get-go.
There was a lot of faculty politics in all of this and there was a big left/right split in the faculty. I helped organize the left caucus – it was even called the Sellers Group for a time. The one thing I learned in all this is that you can’t get anything by being reasonable, they’ll end up screwing you every time. You have to be totally unreasonable.
We were trying to organize support for the free-speech causes from nervous faculty liberals, who kept telling student activists to be nice and accept the latest nice offer from the administration. Again and again, the students proved their faculty sympathizers to be naïve wimps. Because every time the students were “nice” and “reasonable” they were betrayed, co-opted, disempowered and so forth.
The students had to bring the institution to a standstill before that changed. The only successful strategy was to be uncompromising in what you were expecting and demanding.
Later I could understand the Black Power motivation. I had some regrets that whites could no longer play a part in the movement, but I also understood why it needed to be a black struggle. I think the more militant phases of that black response were, on balance, probably more helpful than hurtful. Some people wouldn’t pay attention till they got scared.