This Day In History: March 1

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Thousands of Mexican American students walk out of schools in East Los Angeles to protest unequal conditions. Their action amplifies a growing movement for Chicano civil rights.

When some 22,000 students across seven schools in East L.A walked out of their classrooms over the first week of March, 1968, they sought to spotlight discrimination and substandard conditions at their schools. Situated in a majority Mexican American area of the city, they suffered from underfunding, understaffing and sometimes open discrimination. The dropout rate in some East L.A. high schools neared 60 percent; school buildings were crumbling; class sizes were large; and Spanish language resources were scarce. Students felt their teachers and administrators did not care about helping them succeed, often discouraging them from seeking higher education.

The walkouts, which unfolded between March 1 and March 6, originated as a grassroots event, organized by students and former students of area high schools, with the help of Lincoln High teacher Sal Castro. Around noon on Tuesday, March 5, one Garfield High student recalled, his classmates started yelling "walkout!" up and down the halls. Administrators tried to barricade school doors to prevent students from leaving. Police officers outside met them in riot gear, ordering them back to class. Protesters threw Coca-Cola bottles, and at least two suffered police beatings. Students carried signs with slogans such as "School not prison," "We demand schools that teach" and "Viva la raza."

The East L.A. "Blowout," as organizers called it, represented the first major involvement of urban students in the growing Chicano civil rights movement. Dolores Huerta, Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers had been organizing for the rights of Latino farm workers since the early 1960s. Across the country, students were protesting for African American civil rights and against the Vietnam war. These struggles were linked.

“I almost dropped out [when] the vice principal called me to the office to sign up for the Selective Service System, when I was 18,” Carlos Montes, a former student at Garfield High and an organizer of the 1968 walkouts, told “I started becoming angry. I saw that the teachers didn't really care about the regular student, they only cared about the elite intellectuals. The rest of [us] just shuffled through.”

The organizers of the "Blowout" drew up a list of 39 demands. They called for curriculum changes to include Mexican American history and culture. They also demanded desegregation of Los Angeles' schools, firing of racist teachers and greater diversity among school staff. The Los Angeles Board of Education agreed with their demands in a public meeting, but failed to implement any changes, citing a lack of funds. Thirteen walkout organizers later faced felony charges for "disturbing the peace." Those charges were dropped in 1970.

Although the walkouts didn’t succeed in reforming Los Angeles schools, they demonstrated the growing importance and confidence of the Chicano movement and the youth movement. In the words of one East L.A. teacher, "In 1968, the kids kicked the doors open." Student activist Carlos Montes agreed: “It energized the community, radicalized a new generation of Chicano activists.”