[The following excerpt is from an article I collaborated on with UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center for Berkeleyside. Check out more great work from OHC here.]
When John F. Kennedy a delivered a speech in Berkeley on March 23, 1962, 88,000 cheering supporters jammed into Memorial Stadium. Tens of thousands more lined the surrounding streets, some joyfully waving American flags.
By contrast, there were only a few hundred protesting the president’s policies on nuclear testing and his hardline approach towards Cuba. They held a silent vigil and carried pickets along Bancroft Way with messages like: “Defend freedom with non-violent resistance.”
The protest was co-organized by SLATE, one of Cal’s few student activist groups at the time. All the signs had to be approved by the organizers, who had vetoed a hand-scrawled “Fuck Jack” placard because they wanted the protest to appear dignified, SLATE co-founder Mike Miller recalled in a recent interview. Reflecting on an era when people wore their Sunday best to demonstrations, Miller added, “We were concerned about how people dressed.”
By the end of the decade, the idea of a sitting president visiting Berkeley and not being greeted with placards deriding his actions in the harshest of terms would have been unthinkable. The National Guard was dropping tear gas on Cal’s campus from helicopters. Sheriffs’ deputies were beating and shooting students and protesters along Telegraph Avenue. Bricks flew and police cars burned. How did everything change so fast?