Too Young to Vote; Old Enough to Protest—the East LA Walkouts

When tens of thousands of high school students walked out of their schools to protest gun violence this March, whether they knew or not, they were following in the footsteps of teenagers 50 years ago who sparked a movement for better schools and Chicano pride in immigrant neighborhoods in East Los Angeles.

On Tuesday March 5, 1968, Garfield High School students in East LA walked out to demand funds for their run-down campuses, creation of college prep courses, better trained teachers, and an end to police brutality. (Garfield, like a number of schools in the area, had a dropout rate of more than 50% prior to graduation.) Their decision sparked walkouts across the city and solidarity throughout the country, leading more than 22,000 students to join the “blowouts,” as they were called. Their list of demands included protection for the arts, for teachers for their political beliefs, and for education that highlighted the strength of the Chicano community.

The East LA walkouts provided a catalyst for what became the Chicano movement throughout the Southwest. It proved that young students of color can, in fact, influence the political terrain and, more important, that politics need not remain inside an imposed, racially based spectrum of issues. Instead, the students focused on the impact their terrible education had on material conditions in their communities.

David Sanchez, a founder of the Chicano rights group the Brown Berets who played a key role in the original protest, told the Los Angeles Times on the 50th anniversary of the blowouts, “We caught the entire nation by surprise. Before the walkouts, no one cared that substandard schools made it all but impossible for Chicano youth to find strength and pride in their culture, language and history.…After the walkouts, no one could deny that we were ready to go to prison if necessary for what we believed….With better education, the Chicano community could control its own destiny.”

The 1968 blowouts took place with at least the tacit support of some teachers, another fact worth noting after a springtime of teacher protests for better pay and working conditions. Sal Castro, a history teacher at Lincoln High School, openly supported the walkouts, which cost him his job, although he eventually gained reinstatement. When he and his students walked out, he told historian Mario T. García, “I didn’t think of the historical importance of this day. I just knew it had to be done…. I loved being a teacher and didn’t want to be anything else, but I guess because I was a teacher I had to do what I had to do…”

Many of the students who participated in the blowouts went on to campaign against police brutality, to support the United Farm Workers, and to protest the Vietnam War. (The 1970 Chicano Moratorium, for example, brought 20,000 antiwar protesters onto Los Angeles streets.) This was a political awakening sparked by people not old enough to vote, the effects of which can be felt in Los Angeles—and, indeed, throughout the Southwest—down to the present day. And just like the students of East Los Angeles, their successors in the Movement for Black Lives and in the fight to end gun violence have already changed the political climate of our time. ϖ