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Leader Of 1960s’ Free Speech Movement Savio Dead At 53 Opened Berkeley Campus To Political Protest

Mario Savio, a free speech protest leader who ushered in a decade of student protest in the 1960s, died Wednesday. He was 53.

Savio had a history of heart problems and collapsed Saturday night. He died at Palm Drive Hospital in Sebastopal, 60 miles north of San Francisco, where he had been hospitalized in a coma.

Savio rose to fame as the voice of the free speech movement at the University of California at Berkeley in 1964 when he stood up on a campus police car after a student was arrested for political activity.

“In the ‘60s he was a powerful symbol of how an ordinary person could stand up and make history,” said one-time fellow radical Tom Hayden, now a California state senator. “He symbolized the possibilities in all of us, to resist becoming cogs in somebody’s machine.”

After many years out of the limelight, Savio had recently re-entered public life, leading a drive against higher student fees at Sonoma State University where he taught math, logic and philosophy.

He also opposed Proposition 209, the California ballot measure aimed at ending state affirmative action program. Voters approved it Tuesday.

Like many students of his era, Savio went to Mississippi in the early 1960s to help register black voters and organize for civil rights causes.

When he returned from the South, he found that UC Berkeley had banned political activity on campus, sparking a protest that became a model for a decade of agitation over the Vietnam War and other causes.

Savio moved aside later in the 1960s when the Vietnam War became the decisive campus issue and largely withdrew from public life, teaching at an alternative school and raising a family.

David Harris, a Vietnam era war protester and draft resister who often spoke at Berkeley, said Savio was “a brilliant speaker and an extraordinary figure for the moment he appeared in.”

“There hadn’t been anything like the free speech movement before, and he epitomized that movement,” Harris said.

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