March 14, 2003


35 years after walkouts, little has changed for Latino students

By Carlos Muñoz Jr.

Thirty-five years ago, on March 3, 1968, as a college student activist, I joined more than 1,000 Mexican-American students who walked out of Abraham Lincoln High School in East Los Angeles. We were later joined by several thousand more students who walked out of three other predominantly Mexican-American high schools. By the end of the week, more than 10,000 had participated in the walkouts.

Our purpose was to peacefully protest the racism and educational inequality Mexican-American youth faced in public schools.

Students marched through the streets of Los Angeles for a week and a half and used civil disobedience to disrupt the nation’s largest public-school system. We were delighted when students from the predominantly African-American Thomas Jefferson High School in South Central Los Angeles also walked out in solidarity with us.

We did not know it at the time, but in terms of numbers, the walkouts were the first major dramatic protest against racism ever staged by Mexican Americans in the history of the United States. It was carried out in the non-violent protest tradition of the Southern civil-rights movement. Its historical significance was similar to the 1960 black student sit-ins in Greensboro, N.C.

Whereas the Greensboro student protest fueled the flames of the civil-rights struggle in the South, the Los Angeles walkouts signaled the beginnings 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, 13 organizers of the walkouts were indicted for conspiracy to “willfully disturb the peace and quiet” of the City of Los Angeles.

I was a first-year graduate student and was the president of my campus chapter of the United Mexican American Students. I was arrested in the early morning hours when I was hard at work on a term paper due for one of my graduate seminars. I have never forgotten the trauma that my family and I were forced to endure that day.

The imprisonment I experienced after my arrest was equally traumatic. When I was in jail, my attorney told me that each of us 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 the 13 of us were innocent of the conspiracy charges by virtue of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. I remain eternally grateful that we have an amendment granting us the right of 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.

The Chicano movement opened doors for equal opportunity in higher education to youth previously systematically excluded from those institutions.  Chicano Studies, for example, produced a generation of activist intellectuals and professionals deeply committed to playing a role in the struggle against racism in our society.

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

According to the recent Census report, 30 percent of Latino youth drop out of high school — compared to 8 percent of white students and 12 percent of blacks. In some inner-city school districts, the drop out rates for Latinos are even higher. And the majority of Latino students who are fortunate to graduate from high school are not eligible for college admission because they have been academically ill equipped.

In California, Gov. Davis 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” during his presidential campaign. Federal funding for public schools is grossly inadequate to meet those needs. He 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, Latino and other students of color must place the issue in the context of a struggle not only against racism but also against militarism and the prison-industrial complex.

(Dr. Carlos Muñoz Jr. is the author of “Youth, Identity, Power: The Chicano Movement” (Verso Press, 1989), which won the Gustavous Myers book award for outstanding scholarship on a subject of human rights in the Americas. He is also professor emeritus in the Department of Ethnic Studies at U.C. Berkeley.)

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