Publication Date

December 1, 1990

Perspectives Section




No decade produced more protest than the 1960s, and no community in America had a richer involvement in protest than Berkeley, California. Berkeley in the Sixties is a documentary film about that protest and its origins, conduct, and consequences. Producer/director Mark Kitchell, was born in San Francisco in 1952. Too young to have been a student protester but old enough to have been shaped by the sixties, he explores what happened in the Bay Area during that decade, largely from the point of view of Berkeley political activists.

His film leads us from the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and its hearings in San Francisco in 1960 through both the Free Speech Movement (FSM) at the University of California in 1964 and the subsequent Vietnam antiwar movement to the explosion over People’s Park in 1969. Along the way we hear the music of San Francisco’s hippies, encounter Oakland’s Black Panthers, and glimpse the first stirrings of the Women’s Movement. The sixties was remarkable for its frenzied change, and nowhere was the change more frenzied than in the once-quiet university town that became widely known as “Berserkley.”

In this film the interconnections of these events, and others, is shown by mixing documentary film from the sixties with recent recollections of onetime activists. Although this format is common for documentaries, it takes skillful directing and editing to bring the raw footage and commentary into balance, and Kitchell has happily achieved that result.

Kitchell’s film is excellent—rich and rewarding, a warm and compelling story that reveals much about the emotional intensity of the sixties, through the eyes of that era’s activists. It also has sufficient coherence so that a younger audience can understand not only the events but the meaning that those events had for people who lived through those times. It is never boring—an energetic and emotion-charged recreation of and commentary upon events of a generation ago.

I tested the film on a class of undergraduates. Almost all found the film both educational and entertaining, ranked it better or much better than other classroom films, and thought it the best film on the sixties that they had seen. There was one archconservative dissenter, who might have expressed less hostility had the film’s activist point of view been explained prior to its showing. In my own opinion, Kitchell’s film is deeper than either Hearts and Minds or The War at Home, two well-known and highly regarded documentaries about the sixties.

Kitchell’s greatest achievement is to make a coherent, holistic statement about the decade and its many causes. In subtle ways, we are shown over and over how the decade’s multiple issues were entangled. Thus, the HUAC protests led to civil rights demonstrations, the attempt to ban civil rights organizing activity led to the FSM, and some people in the FSM early on spotted the Vietnam war. As the war escalated, so did antiwar tactics, which brought new prospects, new crises, and new visions, including the counterculture. The film gives unity to the lives of sixties activists. Historians of the written word, perhaps due to the nature of their sources, seldom have attained such cohesiveness.

The film fulfills two other important, distinct purposes. The carefully selected archival footage conveys the emotional intensity that gripped virtually all Americans during the sixties. Time after time, we see the eyes of police officers fill with astonishment, even as demonstrators appear on camera nervously wondering whether their actions serve any useful purpose. This quality of befuddlement or uncertainty is an important characteristic of the sixties that was mostly ignored or denied at the time. It has not been captured elsewhere nearly so well as in this film.

At the same time, the film’s heavy use of recent retrospective narrative by former activists has provided both a continuity between past and present and a strong point of view that shows, for today’s young people as well as for former activists, what activism meant to its participants. This quality, along with the excellent archival film, conveys even to the uninformed viewer a sense of the sixties.

The filmmaker was fortunate in the choice of his subject. Bay Area activists were never camera-shy, ever since their first encounter with HUAC that led to HUAC’s anti-communist movie, Operation Abolition. Kitchell gets good mileage out of that film. As the decade wore on, television coverage became more and more important for activists. I remember well a meeting of Students for a Democratic Society at Stanford University, which I covered as a student reporter, where the date for a proposed demonstration was changed after a student explained that Channel 4 would only cover the event on the alternate date.

As Todd Gitlin has pointed out, the media not only generated publicity but also projected images of its own choosing and thereby inhibited the movement’s development even as the media boosted the movement’s importance. The manipulative aspects, on both sides, are most evident in this film in the kinds of materials that appear on camera. It is action-filled marches and riots in the streets that made the news—and make the movie. Such footage, of course, exaggerates the importance of protest and ignores other aspects of the sixties that are perhaps better left to exploration in written form.

In one respect Kitchell had extraordinary luck. The Bay Area’s locally owned television stations saved both the raw outtakes and videotapes of their local news programs. During the sixties videotape was expensive, and most local stations, including those owned by the networks, routinely reused tape. Kitchell obtained tape from KRON (NBC), KPIX (CBS), and KQED (PBS), which during much of the sixties produced a nightly news program. The KQED film has since been donated to San Francisco State University.

The interviews, conducted during the 1980s, are filled with both admissions of failure and self-deprecating wit as well as intelligent explanations and self-serving justifications for events long past. It is refreshing to hear Frank Bardacke confess that he was wrong at the end of the sixties, when he momentarily believed that the United States was on the verge of revolution. This is refreshing because a good many people who agreed with the Bardacke at the time now maintain an embarrassed silence rather than admit to having once held such a belief.

At the level of explanation, the interviews provide essential facts to move the story forward as well as to convey reasons why activists thought and acted as they did. There are times, however, when these explanations become self-justifying. One wonders, for example, if the leaders of the antiwar movement would express such smug satisfaction of both their own prescience and their own role in ending the Vietnam war, if the war had turned out to be less discredited than it has become. I am reminded that after the Civil War a great many Northerners claimed that they had always been abolitionists.

Unlike documents created during the course of events, all recollections, whether in the form of written autobiography or as oral history, share one difficulty. Human beings recall their lives not as they have actually lived them, but as they have found meaning in terms of subsequent events and of the ongoing process by which people assimilate their own pasts to their own present. Such accounts can be compelling, and they almost always relate well the past to the present, but they risk slighting the reality of the past in favor of a distorted remembrance of the past. Not surprisingly, the film’s recollections contain a few minor factual errors, which might have been corrected by reference to written documents.

Despite these limitations, the interviews serve two crucial functions. They provide the narrative that glues together the otherwise disjointed archival film, and at the same time the interviews build a strong connective link between the sixties and the present.

The most important result, however, is to reveal the personalities of a number of activists. This is an aspect about these activists that deserves attention. At the time of the Free Speech Movement, Governor Edmund G. (“Pat”) Brown, Sr., suggested that restless angry students came from bad home environments. Seeing these same ex-students a quarter century later, one is convinced that Jackie Goldberg, now president of the Los Angeles School Board, is correct in claiming that the students, far from being maladjusted, were almost enraptured with idealism. Their idealism, though tempered by sobering life experiences during the past two decades, remains at the heart of the former activists’ recollections. Some viewers will find this aspect of the film inspirational.

What was the root cause for that decade of activism? Personally, I find both Governor Brown’s theory of negligent child-rearing and Jackie Goldberg’s insistence upon idealism to be inadequate explanations. There is no evidence that child-rearing had become more negligent in the years after World War II and idealism must have had its own roots.

Governor Ronald Reagan, in an angry outburst in Kitchell’s film, blamed activism on young people who had learned that they could get away with disobeying the law. Surely, considering the many successes of sit-ins in the sixties, the activists would not entirely disagree. Yet Reagan has missed the point, because it was not the discovery of the efficacy of civil disobedience as a tactic that explains the upsurge of activism in the sixties. It is unwise to mistake a tactic for a root cause.

One clue, surely, is that not everyone became an activist. Social and psychological profiles of the nearly 800 students who were arrested in the Sproul Hall sit-in on the Berkeley campus during the FSM revealed that these committed activists resembled their fellow students, except in a few crucial ways. They had higher grades, were humanities majors, were more likely to live off-campus in apartments, were markedly independent and nonconformist, did not generally practice religion, and were disproportionately, although not overwhelmingly, Jewish.

This latter fact, generally ignored, can be interpreted in a way that enhances our understanding of activism. From the decade’s vast primary literature we know that people frequently talked, sometimes hysterically, about nuclear war, and the war in Vietnam was bitterly opposed in part because it was perceived that it might lead to nuclear war. Hidden somewhere below these overt expressions, however, lurked vague references to the Holocaust, which was only then beginning to be absorbed fully into consciousness. Perhaps the fear of nuclear war and horror at the Holocaust, which demonstrated what could actually happen, drove many young people, especially Jews more keenly aware of the Holocaust, to social action. In other words, a sense of desperation, even a possible death sentence for the human race, led people into unprecedented activism. Some people expressed nonconforming independence in quite a different fashion. Consider, for example, the Berkeley student Michael Milken.

One must return, however, to Jackie Goldberg’s comment about idealism. Her observation rings true, and the bases of idealism are worth examining. Idealism is most likely to occur in a society like America in the sixties—a self-confident, powerful country filled with zest and vigor, charged by the magic of the charismatic John Kennedy, reveling in unprecedented prosperity, and with boundless optimism for the future. Young Americans, in particular, embraced such goals as curing global poverty through the Peace Corps or reaching the moon by the decade’s end. California, perhaps, took the future more seriously than any other state, and the University of California, President Clark Kerr boasted, was on the cutting edge. During the sixties the edge cut both ways.

The film is divided into three segments of about forty minutes apiece. Each segment can stand on its own. Part 1 covers the HUAC protest, civil rights, and the Free Speech Movement. Part 2 focuses on the war from the Vietnam Day Committee of 1965 to the Stop the Draft Week protests in 1967, with an interlude on the Haight-Ashbury’s hippies. Part 3 includes the Black Panthers, revolutionary fervor, the Women’s Movement, and People’s Park.

Captured on film are Mario Savio, Clark Kerr, Ronald Reagan, Allen Ginsberg, the Hell’s Angels, yesteryear’s youth, and various uniformed officers, frequently in riot gear. Interviewees include Jackie Goldberg, Michael Rossman, Jack Weinberg, John Searle, Bobby Seale, Ruth Rosen, and Frank Bardacke. One of the many pleasures of this film is the music. It is performed by, among others, the Bay Area artists Joan Baez, Joe McDonald, the Grateful Dead, the Jefferson Airplane, and Creedence Clearwater Revival.

W. J. Rorabaugh is professor of history at the University of Washington in Seattle. He is the author of Berkeley at War: The 1960s.