I first heard about the East LA Walkouts (also called blowouts by the students) in high school through the Chicano! PBS documentary. Although my parents and their siblings attended two of the high schools where students walked out, Garfield and Roosevelt, they never told me about what happened at the high schools in March of 1968.
According to the Youth Power Change website documenting Chicano activism at UCLA, the walkout began on Friday, March 1, 1968 with 300 students walking out of Wilson High School after the principal, Donald Skinner, cancelled a play Barefoot in the Park saying that it “was an inappropriate play to be showing the student body.”
The next Tuesday March 5, 2,000 students from Garfield High School joined the walkouts. The day after Lincoln, Garfield and Roosevelt students joined the walkout to make it about 4,500 students participating. On the fourth day of the walkouts, 5,000 Roosevelt and Garfield high school students walked out. They held a rally at Hazard Park where local political leaders, Ed Roybal and Julian Nava spoke. By the end of the week more than 15,000 students had left classes throughout LA.
In Chicano!: The History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement Arturo Rosales writes that the walkouts were used by the Chicano youth in these schools to “dramatize what they considered the abysmally poor educational conditions affecting their schools”
Although the cancellation of the play was the catalyst, college students and other community organizers had been planning the walkouts for months. The walkouts led to secret indictments of 15 leaders of the walkouts. Only 13 were arrested, and were known as the LA Thirteen. The charges against them were “criminally conspiring to create riots, disrupt the functioning of public schools and disturb the peace.” Some of the LA Thirteen are now leaders in the Chicano community. For instance, film producer Moctezuma Esparza was a UCLA student at the time involved in the walkouts. Sal Castro, a Lincoln HS teacher, was fired due to his role in the walkouts. He was later reinstated. The charges were eventually dropped, but not without more protests and sit-ins.
The organization that sprang up after the walkouts was the Emergency Support Committee (the name was changed to Educational Issues Coordinating Committee). The EICC was made up of student leaders, college students, community organizers, parents and clergy. They raised money for bail , strategized on next steps and lobbied the school board to implement a wishlist. The EICC was eventually successful in incorporating a “relevant cultural curriculum, teacher training that reflected the local conditions, hiring of more Mexican American administrators and teachers, upgrading of facilities, more community input and a more liberal approach to the rights of students.”
It’s sad to me that students in these schools still face similar challenges nearly 40 years after the East LA Walkouts. I wonder what it will take now. Perhaps a film directed by Edward James Olmos, Walkout!, based on the events of March 1968 will shed some light on the issues back then and how we still have a long way to go.