March 14, 2008

Guest Editorial:

40 years after L.A. student walkout, situation still grim

By Carlos Muñoz Jr.

Forty years ago this month, I was one of thousands of Mexican-American students who shocked the city of Los Angeles by walking out of the public schools. We marched through the streets of East Los Angeles to peacefully protest the racism and educational inequality we faced in the schools.

The walkouts lasted for a week and a half and captured national attention. More than 10,000 students participated, including students from the predominantly African-American Thomas Jefferson High School in South Central Los Angeles who walked out in solidarity with us.

The walkouts were the first major mass dramatic protest against racism and educational inequality ever staged by Mexican Americans in the United States.

The Los Angeles walkouts ignited the emergence of the Mexican-American civil rights movement — which came to be known as the Chicano Movement — throughout the southwestern United States.

Three months after the high-school walkouts, I was one of 13 organizers who were indicted for conspiracy to “willfully disturb the peace and quiet” of the city of Los Angeles. At the time, I was a first-year graduate student and the president of my campus chapter of the United Mexican American Students. I was arrested in the early morning hours while hard at work on a term paper. The trauma my family and I were forced to endure during my arrest and my subsequent imprisonment was a life-changing experience for me.

We faced 66 years in prison if convicted of the conspiracy charges. It took two years for our conspiracy case to be decided by the California State Appellate Court. The court finally ruled that we were innocent of the conspiracy charges by virtue of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting freedom of speech. If that amendment did not exist, I could still be in prison today instead of teaching at the University of California, Berkeley.

But the walkouts — and the Chicano movement they ignited — did not eliminate Latino educational inequality.

There are more Mexican-American teachers and principals in the Los Angels city school district, but the dropout rate is higher than it was back in 1968. Nationwide, Latino students are the most segregated and have the highest dropout rate. And the majority of Latino students who do graduate from high school are not eligible for college admission because they have been academically ill equipped.

In California, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has cut the education budget by millions of dollars. His priority has been to build more prisons instead of more and better schools.

At the national level, President Bush remains out of touch with the needs of Latino youth in the public schools in spite of proclaiming himself the “Education President.” His “No Child Left Behind” law has not contributed to making the public school system better for Latinos and other youth of color.

Federal funding for public schools is grossly inadequate. Bush has yet to allocate funding for the development of a multicultural curriculum that can make the Latino experience — and that of other people of color — an integral component of public schooling. His priority is war.

The time has come for another round of student strikes against educational inequality. This time, however, students should be joined by all the teachers and administrators who share their concerns and are willing to demand that state and federal governments prioritize the educational needs of our youth instead of feeding the military-prison-industrial complex.

Carlos Muñoz Jr. is a longtime activist and Professor Emeritus in the Department of Ethnic Studies, University of California, Berkeley. He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

Letters to the Editor Return to the Frontpage