Friday, October 18, 2013

Taking Back the Schools: the 1968 LA Student Walk-Outs

Continuing our theme of writing about local issues, my English students are currently writing essays about local social issues/problems, past and present.  Today, I shared with them what I'd learned from the documentary "Our Spirits Don't Speak English: Indian Boarding School."  Then I began showing the documentary "Taking Back the Schools" which is a PBS film about the 1968 Los Angeles student walk outs, which was a major event in the history of Mexican-American civil rights.  These walk-outs sought to confront real social inequality that existed at the time.  As we watched the film, I asked my students to take notes and consider this question: What similarities do you see between the Indian Boarding Schools and the 1968s East LA schools?

In 1968, East LA was the largest "barrio" in the United States, the legacy of decades of segregation and racist housing covenants.  Despite the landmark 1947 court case Mendez vs. Westminster, which made school segregation illegal, many schools throughout Southern California were still highly segregated.

The similarities between the Indian Boarding Schools and public schools in 1968 East Los Angeles are astonishing.  Both systems "tracked" students into domestic/labor type jobs.  Both forbade and punished students for speaking their native languages.  Both made students feel ashamed of their culture.  Both ignored and even belittled the culture, history, and concerns of students.

But this was 1968, a time of widespread social protest and change.  Mexican-American students and teachers organized themselves and sought to assert their rights and provoke change in a system that actually hurt them and their communities.

The Walk Out!

It began when a group of Mexican-American students conducted a student survey and drafted a list of demands, which they presented to the LA School Board.  Their demands were: bilingual education, hiring more Mexican-American teachers, ending corporal (physical) punishment, and teaching Mexican-American history.  The school board listened to their grievances, patted them on the back, and did nothing.

According to one student: "This politicized us."

Students organized and carried out the largest student protest in LA history.  Thousands of Mexican-American students from 16 LA schools conducted a massive Walk-Out, a peaceful way to express their grievances and get the attention of the public and the indifferent school board.  The students were determined to continue walking out until the school board made real changes.  For many young Chicanos, this was their first taste of activism and participatory democracy.

And what was the response?  The LAPD cracked down hard, often brutalizing students for peacefully protesting.  The FBI infiltrated student and community organizations through the infamous COINTELPRO program.  13 organizers were arrested and faced 60 years in prison.  These peaceful protestors and organizers were labelled "subversives."

But the students did not quit, and they got the attention of the nation.  Bobby Kennedy, who was in California to show solidarity with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, visited the East LA students and spoke up for them and their efforts.  Many parents of students conducted an "occupy-style" sit-in of the LA School Board offices, demanding the release of teacher Sal Castro, who had been arrested.  He was finally released.  

Bobby Kennedy with Chicano students, a few months before his assassination.

The protest was successful in that it hi-lighted a very real social problem, and it produced many people who would become important artists, educators, and activists of the burgeoning Chicano movement.  Some notable figures of the 1968 walk-outs included: Harry Gamboa, Patssi Valdez, Carlos Munoz Jr, Bobby Verdugo, Paula Crisostomo, Fred Resendez, and of course Sal Castro, who passed away earlier this year.

One question worth pondering is this: how have things changed for the highly segregated schools of East LA and South Central?  Have things improved?  After class, one student came up to me and talked about the school segregation he sees today in Costa Mesa.  Have things improved?  Why or why not?  Discuss.

The entire documentary is available to watch right now on youtube.  Here it is:

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