Walking Out for Justice Since 1968
Fifty years ago, over 10,000 high school students walked out of their classrooms from five East Los Angeles high schools to protest racial inequalities in public education. At the time, the dropout rates at Roosevelt and Garfield High Schools in East LA were about 50 percent while Westside schools were below 4 percent. When the Los Angeles School Board ignored student leaders who presented a survey of student needs, students decided to target schools financially. They knew schools received funds based on the number of students in class each day and planned a massive walkout before attendance was taken. Students compiled a series of demands including an end to school segregation, corporal punishment for speaking Spanish, and classroom overcrowding. They also called for increased college opportunities beyond vocational training, community access to decision-making, and the hiring of more Mexican-American teachers and administrators. These demonstrations marked the beginning of the urban uprising known as the Chicano Movement and transformed the politics and culture of the Mexican-American community in Los Angeles and beyond.
Policing and Surveillance
Students faced intense brutality and surveillance by police in their demand for racial equality. Since the 1965 Watts Rebellion, Los Angeles police were trained to suppress the mass mobilization of students by arresting youth, community members, and journalists. Some youth were physically beaten without mercy. Local police also employed undercover surveillance tactics under the direction of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI). These undercover officers facilitated the arrest of the East LA 13 on conspiracy charges for disturbing the peace. At least seven of those arrested were leaders in The Brown Berets, an East LA-based social justice organization that defended marching students by shielding them from police. The violent police responses to peaceful protests for social justice in Boyle Heights politicized the community and advanced the fight against police brutality to the center of their social justice agenda.
The Brown Berets are a pro-Chicano organization that emerged during the Chicano Movement in the late 1960s founded by David Sanchez and remains active to the present day. The group was seen as part of the Third Movement for Liberation. The Brown Berets' movements largely revolved around farm worker’s struggles, educational reform, and anti-war activism; they have also organized against police brutality.
Using their uniforms to express “Brown Pride,” the “Brown Berets” were young Chicano and Chicana activists who, like the Black Panthers, focused on issues such as unemployment, housing, food, and education. In order to call attention to the unequal educational system in East Los Angeles, the Brown Berets organized “blowouts,” where hundreds of Eastside Mexican American public schools students walked out of class the first week of March in protest of the inferior educational conditions in the school system.
Calling for Change
For Lincoln High student Paula Crisostomo and her peers, the walkouts brought national attention amidst a tumultuous spring semester. On March 10th, they met with presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy where he pledged his support for their cause. Parents formed the Educational Issues Community Coalition (EICC) to advocate for the children and demanded the firing of Richard Davis, a Lincoln High School teacher who published a racist essay in the school’s faculty publication.
Meanwhile, the Vietnam War raged on and the nation prepared for the 1968 presidential election, in which the sitting President Lyndon B. Johnson announced shockingly that he would not seek a second term. The future of the nation seemed unclear. A few days later, on April 4th, civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.
On the night of Paula’s prom, 13 leaders of the Walkouts were arrested including her favorite teacher, Sal Castro, and they became known as the “East LA 13”. Then, on June 5th, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. Paula spent the next day, her birthday, with Sal Castro and his wife reflecting on the importance of Robert Kennedy’s support for their cause. Only one week later, Paula graduated from Lincoln High School, where she delivered a speech entitled, “A Dream Deferred.”
The 1968 Walkouts from East Los Angeles high schools provided a powerful moment for future student activists locally and nationally. Within a year, high school students throughout the U.S. Southwest walked out of their schools to protest unequal educational conditions and a lack of respect for Mexican American culture and promise.
Nearly 30 years later, high school students began using Walkouts as a tool to protest racism and anti-immigrant policies. In 1994, over 10,000 students from over 30 LAUSD schools walked out when California Proposition 187 sought to deny undocumented immigrants public services including public education and healthcare. In 2006, Walkouts organizer Moctesuma Esparza released the HBO film Walkout! on March 18. Later that month, over 40, 000 students walked out of schools across Southern California protesting federal legislation that would empower police to enforce immigration law.
In 2016, East LA high school students walked out to protest the election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States. The legacy of the 1968 Walkouts continues in 2018 as students across the country demand stricter gun-control laws.