Shades of Gump: leaders I met, sort of

Although I can say I did actually meet several of the principals and “talking heads” in Berkeley in the Sixties, during the sixties, it was definitely in passing and they would never remember it. It was a purely Forrest Gumpian experience each time, except that I’m sure that, unlike Gump, I had no influence on them whatsoever. They, on the other hand, certainly made an impression on me.

Bobby Seale


Before I was a student at Berkeley, I was a student at the community college that most people still called Oakland City College, even though the name had technically already been changed to Merritt College. It was about a mile or two by bus from the UC campus, an easy trip for me and my blind friend Charles when we wanted to catch a noon rally. I had applied to Berkeley for the following Spring semester and been told I would be admitted, in spite of my two disciplinary expulsions from southern colleges, if I could complete my sophomore year with a 3.5 GPA.

There were several issues boiling around OCC at that time. One was past protesting about, but some of us were still protesting. That was the plan, already being implemented, to close down the current campus, located conveniently for poor folks, black and white, and build a new campus way, way ‘cross town in a rich folks area where it would be virtually inaccessible to the poor folks it was currently serving. There was a scale model of the new campus displayed somewhere, evidently to make us all enthusiastic about the change that would make it impossible for many of us to go to college. Every time I saw it, I wanted to smash it. Ironically enough, I had become friends with the son of the president of the other community college in Oakland, Laney College, who knew a lot about the issue and validated my anger at the class implications of it.

The other issue was that, during the semester that the Free Speech Movement occurred in Berkeley, students at OCC were being asked to pay a fee additional to their tuition, to help cover expenses of the sports teams. Many of us, working our butts off to get through college and not in a position to benefit from extracurricular sports even if we cared, were incensed at that proposal. I gotta cough up an extra $30 or so to support the FOOTBALL TEAM??!! I took it upon myself to start a petition opposing the fee, thereby drawing the notice of people who wanted to start an OCC branch of SLATE, a political organization at Berkeley. I ended up being the secretary of this new organization (women still ended up always being the secretary at that point in history) and single-handedly wrote its by-laws, since no one else could be bothered with the drudge work.

One day, we were having a meeting in a classroom, attended by maybe 20 people. I happened to be sitting towards the back in an area with many empty seats. As the meeting got started, there was a commotion at the back of the room, the person speaking stopped speaking and about 10 black people (that was the preferred terminology at the time) entered the room and sat down at the empty desks. I was surrounded by them.

They were unlike any black people I had ever seen close up. Remember I was only a year or so out of the deep south. I had been expelled for having integrationist sympathies (among other things), but being from the class that doesn’t have servants, I was never around black people until I secretly befriended one of the all-black cafeteria staff at my college in Georgia. I had worked closely with the all-black kitchen staff at the restaurants I worked for in Atlantic City and Wildwood, New Jersey, where all the waitresses were white and all the cooks and busboys were black. I had been fired from one of those jobs for fraternizing with the black workers too much. I had seen and talked to women black students at OCC. But, none of those people were anything like these people.

Their arrival brought the meeting to a screeching halt. I could not take my eyes off the man who took the seat next to me, in the desk across the aisle and he was checking me out as well, though not, I imagine, for the same reasons. He was riveting. Handsome was only part of it. It was his bearing and expression that had me enchanted. I had never seen a black person so completely self-contained, poised and in charge, male or female, and he managed to do so without being in any way aggressive or threatening. At least, I certainly didn’t experience him or them that way. I struggled to keep from grinning from ear to ear with the thought that seeing these people (I think they were all men) is going to make up for a shitload. If I had doubted it before, I knew then that I was out, out, out of the South.

What had happened was that, unbeknownst to me, a great effort had been made by the other SLATE officers to involve black students in SLATE. I can’t remember if they were calling themselves the Black Panthers yet, I think maybe so, but there is no doubt about who was sitting next to me. It was Bobby Seale, just blowing my mind. They all sat down and Bobby looked around the room as if to say, “Ok, we’re here, now. Get to the point and don’t waste my time.” I could hardly contain my glee.

The person speaking managed to scoop his lower jaw from where it had dropped on the table (he told me later he thought they had failed to interest Bobby and his bunch), gulped a few times and continued speaking, now directing it straight at Bobby. My memory ends there but I’m sure that that was the involvement of Bobby Seale and the Black Panthers in OCC SLATE, in its entirety, at least while I was there. The next time I saw him, he was selling “the little red book of Mao” at Sather Gate on the UC campus, as he describes in Berkeley in the Sixties.

Bettina Aptheker

Bettina Apthecker speaks at Filthy Speech Movement rally, 1965.

By the time I got to OCC, I was well on the road to what we used to call “radicalization.” While a student at a Bible college in Georgia, I had spent several weekends in Tallahassee, 60 miles to the south, with FSU students who had been arrested the preceding year for participating in lunch-counter sit-ins with black students from Florida A and M. I had met one of them while I was still in high school, when my high school’s Beta Club had visited his high school’s Beta Club. Beta Club was the rural version of the National Honor Society. These activists had brought me up to speed on the House Un-American Activities Committee, the Free Cuba Committee and other leftist political issues and had advised me to move to the San Francisco area. Also before OCC, I had been fired from at least two waitress jobs on suspicion of being a union organizer, even though I did not at that time know what a union organizer was, and from one waitress job for singing Baptist hymns with the black cook while waiting for my order to come up. (The hymn? Quite apropo, it was “We’ll Understand It All By and By.”)

At OCC, I ate lunch daily with a bunch of people that included some who claimed to have spent time in a Mississippi jail for participating in the Freedom Rides. For historians, one of the people in this group (not a Freedom Rider) was the late Larry Maatz, who was at that time a stringer and later became a reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Through SLATE, I had become friends with the first person I ever met who claimed to be a communist and had spent time pondering her statement to me regarding capitalist society, that “the whole thing is rotten to the core and is going to collapse from the inside.” I had not yet read Karl Marx, so it seemed like a very mysterious and shocking statement to me at the time. Not now.

My part-time job was reader for a blind student named Charles Bird, who became a dear friend and remained my friend after I transferred to UC. He had been arrested in the HUAC demonstrations shown in Berkeley in the Sixties and together we attended several noon rallies at UC. He was standing next to me when I decided to go into Sproul Hall on Dec. 2, 1964, declining to get busted again himself because, he said, “it’s hard for a blind man in jail.” Charles was also one of the founders of OCC SLATE and, after I had left, was elected head of its free speech committee and struck by a car the same day. He died a few days later, to my great and everlasting grief.

Arriving at UC shortly after my bust, having left my first husband in large part because of it, and having  just lost my last friend in the world, I soon became friends with other anthropology students working, as I was, at the Lowie Museum of Anthropology (now Hearst Museum). Through these, I became friends with a group of anthropology graduate students, archaeologists who were also FSM bustees. They knew people who knew Bettina Aptheker and because of that connection, I was once introduced to her. This was a great thrill for me, since she was one of the FSM leaders who had most impressed me.

When the FSM started and Charles and I went to the rallies, I began to vet the leaders. Who among these people can I trust? Are any of them on what we later called “power trips”? Are they, as accused, working for the Communist Party? I had by that time been fed so much bullshit from all directions that I was very wary, but I had complete trust in my ability to judge people as individuals. In Bettina, Mario Savio, Frank Bardacke, Michael Rossman (the last two were friends of my anthro friends) I heard or saw nothing that worried me. When the Chronicle ran an article asking “Who are the leaders?”, with pictures of some of these people, I read it eagerly and felt utterly vindicated vis a vis my conservative husband when I could point to their pictures and bios and say, just look at their GPAs. These are my people. These are like the people I knew at FSU– highly moral, socially committed, courageous and intelligent. Bettina’s picture and bio were in that article.

And, I’d never seen a woman like Bettina. To get up there in front of thousands of people and speak so clearly and rationally, so articulate, so forthright. I knew, or believed, I could never be like her.  At that point in time I was proud of myself if I could raise my hand and ask a question in section (small classes taught by teaching assistants, as opposed to lectures taught by professors). I only spoke out in small groups of people I knew, until much later in my Berkeley career when my speaking out got me into much bigger trouble.

That was not the only way, however, that Bettina’s presence affected me. There was an incident. I cannot remember which political movement it happened during, but since I was with my daughter’s father, John, at that point, it has to have been between 1966 and 1970, when I left Berkeley. I’m guessing People’s Park. There was some kind of late afternoon meeting or demo or rally, something that went into night-time. Sproul Plaza had been full of people, but they were all dispersing. John and I had lingered, talking to people, so that by the time we started to leave, going down the steps to the lower terrace, there were fewer people around. Somehow we got separated. He stopped to talk to people, I kept on going down the steps.

The next thing I knew, I was at the bottom of the steps, in front of the pool hall, surrounded by what we called “frat rats.” I don’t know how many there were because I’m short and I could only see the half-dozen or so that immediately surrounded me. Maybe 15 or 20 or more, according to John. One pushed me against the wall and I began to be seriously afraid I was about to be physically attacked. Rape was probably out of the question because we were, after all, in a fairly lighted central area on campus.

My fears were not allayed when they all began chanting, “Bettina, Bettina, Bettina.” Over the years, I’ve tried to come up with some explanation for this. I did look a bit like her then, short, sharp-faced, long sandy hair. I suppose it is possible they actually thought I was her, or had talked themselves into it through wishful thinking. It is also possible that among themselves they referred to any political woman as a “Bettina” and that was what they meant–I never heard of such a thing, but I can imagine it happening. Other than that, I have no idea why they were chanting “Bettina.”

In any case, what stopped it was John, my black boyfriend with the modest Afro, appearing suddenly and shoving a few of them aside to get to me, then taking a threatening posture and glaring at them. John is taller than average, probably looked taller with the Afro, is of slender but muscular build and had been both in the military and a merchant seaman. He was certainly older than they were, and more experienced on the street. But, all of these men could have been football players. Taller than he, much more solidly built and the last time I had seen the expression they wore was when I just missed getting gang-raped by ministerial students in Norman Park, Georgia.

We were far outnumbered, there was no one else nearby and I think if John had been white, our gooses would have been cooked, but his playing “big black” saved us. Miraculously, unless they were the cowards they were acting like, he stared them down and they backed off. I managed to get off-campus before I began shaking uncontrollably and had to be fed a few beers. But it did and does sort of make me feel like I have a special relationship to Bettina in a Gumpian kind of way.

I related this story to Bettina by mail many years later, when asking her to help me flog my book and I am pleased to report that she was incredibly sympathetic and very graciously did help me flog my book. Sort of a reverse Gump, I guess, my life brushed hers and hers brushed off on me.

Below, I listen attentively at a Vietnam Day Committee teach-in, looking maybe a little like Bettina Aptheker. My boyfriend, Gale, and I had an open relationship at this point, so I did manage to pick up the also sharp-faced fellow next to me and a one-night-stand ensued. That was the one and only time I ever was sexually involved with someone I met at a political event. Cultural historians, take note. I’ve looked at the woman behind us in this picture so long I feel I know her, but, no, I didn’t. The expressions on all three of our faces are an indication of how serious we were, and I’m pretty sure the same expression could be found on thousands of faces that day. The photo was taken by Gene Prince, the Lowie Museum photographer, who gave it to me later and yes, we did all call him Black and White Prints.

 Michael Rossmanrossman60sphoto1

Although Michael was one of the people I accepted in my head as one of “my people”, I never met him until I had already dropped out and moved to Humboldt County. I met him then because I knew his little brother, Jared, who had also moved to Humboldt County and become quite a leader himself there. Jared and I met through political actions as well as mutual friends.

I was pleased to spend some quality time with Michael on various occasions when he came to visit Jared, all at social gatherings and all before the making of Berkeley in the Sixties. One conversation I remember, one you would pretty much expect, was whether t’was better to have stayed in Berkeley, in terms of effecting culture change, or whether t’was better to have dropped out and joined a community of hippies.

Our positions are pretty obvious. Michael stayed. I dropped out and so did his little brother. It could have been a very contentious conversation and, believe me, all my UC anthro friends were shocked to the core when I dropped out, had a baby and went to the country, heaping upon my head great scorn that I was betraying the movement and throwing away all my chances, for nothing. But, I have to say, Michael did nothing that qualified as scorn. I imagine he and Jared had already had that conversation by the time he and I had it. In fact, Jared told me once it was a lifetime conversation for them.

We ended in a draw, respecting each other’s choices and agreeing that change can come from many directions. During the filming of Berkeley in the Sixties, Mark had told me he planned to include my little speech about the value of those who left Berkeley in the final wrap-up speeches. When he then dumped me in favor of Michael’s speech at the end, (I had seen the work in progress and it  had included me at the end) my delicate ego was slightly bruised. But I got over it. Every time I see the film, and I avoid watching it by myself lest the film overshadow my own memories, I am struck again by how completely right on is Michael’s wrap-up. When he says a person could spend their entire life working on the issues raised in Berkeley in the Sixties, I imagine that he is talking directly to me and Jared as well as to himself. That’s what I think the three of us and a lot of other people, did. Of the leaders, he is the one I got to share my thoughts with and I’m so very glad I did.

 Mario Saviosavio

I was introduced to Mario during the buildup to the Sproul Hall sit-in, when I went with some SLATE people to some kind of unofficial gathering, but it went by very quickly. He was on a couch (I can’t imagine where this would have been) and I was in back of the couch, so I just saw his head when he nodded it in my direction, acknowledging the introduction. He then went quickly back to the heated discussion that had been taking place when we entered the room.

However, I have to say that it is Mario who was most responsible for my going into Sproul Hall. When I first heard his voice, probably at one of the rallies I went to from OCC, I heard something in it that touched a place no one else touched. It was the place that had led me to vow to become a missionary when I was sixteen, the place I sang from when I sang solos in church, the place that got so trampled at the Bible college. When Mark Kitchell told me during the making of the film that Mario, like me, had a religious background, had gone to a Jesuit school, I thought “uh huh, that explains it. He’s coming from the same place I am.” Even though his “place” was Catholic and mine was Baptist.

It was hearing this truth in his voice that finally did it for me. There is no way he could be using me or lying to me or power tripping me. I would have heard it if he had been because I was and am an expert. He was just asking me to help him do good in the world and, atheist though I thought I was at the time, I might not have been able to walk up those steps if I had not heard that deep moral, righteous (in the finest sense of that word), committed, courageous sound in his voice. Paths of righteousness, I’ll say. I count Mario among the top half-dozen people who influenced my life.

There was another time when I made the Christian connection, even though I did not know at that time that there was one. Sometime long after the FSM, I believe Mario had been expelled and/or other hard times had fallen upon him, I was at the Steppenwolf, the in bar in Berkeley at the time.

Crowded, smoky, loud, people everywhere. I looked up from my table, where I was drinking with several companions, and saw a tall man with a familiar face and a backlit halo of curly blonde hair, arms outstretched, head to one side, as if he had just stepped down from a Dali painting of the crucifixion, a pitcher of beer in each hand, held above the heads of the crowd. When I saw that it was Mario, I felt my heart dropping through the floor. I thought it can’t be Mario, he is way too good for this. Can this possibly be what happened to him?

I had to struggle with the impulse to jump up and grab the beer away from him and do his job for him, even though I surely could not have held two pitchers of beer at the ends of my arms like that, over people’s heads, even had I not been so short. When I asked someone much later if that could have been Mario, I was told that it was. Don’t know if that shows up in his biography, can’t afford to buy his biography, but its a vision I’ll never forget. Someone, probably Mark Kitchell, told me that Mario hated being compared to Christ, so I feel compelled to stipulate that I’m certainly not doing that. It was only a mind-snapshot, a wierd thing I saw. But, I would go so far as to say that I’m sort of glad to share that one little historical background thing with him, if only because it validates me as a free-thinking person from a Christian background.  I do suspect that our sharing it had something to do with why I was able to join him in getting busted.

Much, much later, during a meeting called by Mark to discuss where the film should go from where it was, kind of a large meeting, couple of hundred people maybe, I made so bold as to stand up and express an opinion. When Mario got up a few rows behind me, immediately after me, and said, “Jentri’s right, ….” followed by his own opinion agreeing with me, it was one of the really high points in my life. By God, I thought, Mario Savio not only knows who I am, but he agreed with me about something. We Forrest Gump types get our strokes where we can. . . .

When Mario died, I was teaching anthropology at College of the Redwoods, Eureka main campus. I had been having a hard time with my class. I had been called in to teach it only a week before classes started, replacing someone who had dropped out suddenly. Although it was a class I had taught many times before, Physical Anthro, I had not taught it in 10 years and was somewhat behind the textbook. I was also teaching a new class at HSU, one of my own devising, so was scrambling to invent the HSU class (Preherstory) as I went along and keep a chapter or two ahead of the anthro textbook, which I had not been allowed to choose and with which I was unfamiliar.

There was a little cadre of smart alecs who delighted in catching me in any discrepancy between the textbook and what I said in lectures and I had begun to be a little snide to them and to the smarty pantses who liked to point out that their computer program for this course never mentioned this, that or the other thing I had mentioned in lecture. Such are the travails of community college instructors as opposed to university lecturers. Community college is much like high school. My students felt that the least important part of the course was my lecture and the most important part was the textbook or their computer program, both of which seemed to be aimed at removing every last drop of relevance from the subject matter. It was very trying.

Then, I accidentally overheard a conversation about Mario’s death. I took to my bed for three days and never stopped crying, though I hasten to state that I was seriously ill with Lyme disease at the time and it can make you cry uncontrollably for reasons that do not seem so important to others. On the third day, it was time for my CR class and I was unprepared. Taking my career at CR and throwing it solidly into the wastebasket, I came to class that day and told them about Mario. I told myself it was a teach-in. I told them about Berkeley, about the FSM, about what we thought we did there. I told them the last lecture in the present class– textbook and computer programs be damned– was to have been how dangerous a point we have reached in our human evolution, that we change or we die off like the dinosaurs, but, I said, I’m giving you the “change” part of that lecture now. I said I was sorry to have become so sarcastic and snide, that Mario’s death made me realize that I was allowing myself to be changed by what he called the machine, into the kind of educator against which we protested. On the other hand, I said, its hard to fight the machine alone.

There were a few sneers on the faces of my students when I finished. All of them were stunned, such a thing never having happened to them before. But, there were also some tears and a few who needed a hug and a few who went immediately to the college library to see if they could check out the faculty copy of Berkeley in the Sixties. We finished out the last few classes in the semester in a different, I hope better, frame of mind. I was berated by the Dean and never hired again, but that’s ok. Ha ha, I’m not sorry.

Joan BaezJoan_Baez_face_(cropped)

Although she was not a student at Berkeley, I felt personally fulfilled when Joan Baez began showing up at FSM rallies, because her existence had contributed to my resolve to get my little southern ass to California at all costs. I was only a teenager, as was she, the first time I heard her name. It was some kind of television show about folksingers, which I watched hesitantly and alone, since twangy country rock was what we listened to in high school and my listening to anything else would have been ammunition for my enemies. Our only knowledge of the incipient folk music movement was someone’s record of  the Kingston Trio, who sang songs with what were, to us, risque lyrics. We listened to that one record surreptitiously, only because it was a slightly rebellious thing to do.  Joan was one of the singers on the TV program and I, frequently a church soloist, was riveted by the thought that a girl about my age was singing by herself on TV.

I had missed her name, but made a point of noting it when the show ended with a list of the performers. Joan Baez, Joan Baez, I committed it to memory along with the exotic sounding name of the place she lived. Monterrey, California. I figured then that my life would be a whole lot more exciting if only I could get myself to Monterrey, California. And, if I could play the guitar.

When I met a man from California at my post-high school job, I had to ask him if he’d ever been to Monterrey and I had to tell him I wanted to go there someday because that is where Joan Baez lives. This was the summer of 1960. The man looked at me in my clerk-typist receptionist clothes, quite shocked, and began to tell me I really did not want to meet Joan Baez, that he had been to Monterrey and he had seen her and she had been wearing a dirty shirt. I was not enlightened enough at that point to think, “So what?” but I did manage to think, “this guy is lying to me for some reason.”

So, when one of my FSU friends strongly advised me to move to San Francisco, among the first things I asked him was, how far is that from Monterrey? By then, she had albums or an album out and my FSU friends were listening to it. The very first song I heard, I did not realize who was singing and, since it was a country song rather than strictly a folk song, my first reaction had been a bit snooty. Ya’ll are listening to country music? Huh? (I sing and play and love many thoroughly country songs now.) But, they restrained me and said, no, wait, this is Joan Baez, its folk music, its ok. I had, by that time, begun teaching myself to play the guitar owned by the girl across the dorm hall from me. I had even, by that time, splurged $6 of my hard-earned money on a real clunker of a sale guitar purchased from Sears and Roebuck. I ended up borrowing the record and learning to play every single song on it.

So, when Joan showed up at an FSM rally, I once again got that oh-boy-I’m-out-of-the-South feeling. So much is her voice part of the sixties for me that, to this very day, when I hear her voice singing Hush Little Baby Don’t You Cry in Berkeley in the Sixties, I get chills from the top of my head all the way down my spine.

Well, that’s all very nice, you might say, but did you actually ever meet her? Well, no, not exactly. What happened was that sometime during the peace march era, there was a circling picket line at the entrance to campus. About 50 people were walking in a circle, carrying signs. My attention was wholly on the situation, on keeping up and watching for any signs of trouble. The circle was really a narrow oval, so that the person approaching you on the other side of it was only a few feet away from you. At one point, I saw approaching me a very familiar face, someone I knew I knew, but since there was no voice to go with it and I had no idea she would be there, I just interpreted Joan as a student I must know from a class somewhere.

I smiled and nodded at her as if that were the case, and kept on moving. She smiled and nodded at me right back, exactly as another student would have done. I don’t remember seeing her more than once, so either she or I must have dropped out of the line right after that. It was only after a half hour or so that it struck me that after all these years, I had finally been within arm’s reach of Joan Baez and I had not even recognized her!! I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I ended up laughing and thinking it could not have turned out any better. If I had actually met her and known it was her I would surely have embarrassed myself by being tongue-tied and star struck.

In more recent years, Joan has several times appeared in southern Humboldt County at benefits for environmental causes, as has Bonnie Raitt, with whom I actually had a conversation, again, not realizing who she was. Once, they appeared together. I never was able to attend any of these benefits, but have had the strange thought that I never made it to Monterrey, where Joan lives, for more than a drive-thru, but she made it to southern Humboldt, where I lived, for much more than a drive-thru. It has a completeness about it, somehow. Southern Humboldt looks much like Monterrey. Its as if I did get there, somehow, or maybe somewhere even better, after all.


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