Apr 2, 2018
The month of March marked the 50th anniversary of the East L.A. high school walkouts, which the students called “Blowouts.”
In the 1960s, high schools in East Los Angeles were run-down, overcrowded, and had very high drop-out rates. When students and their parents brought their demands for a better education before the Los Angeles school board, the board told them to wait for improvements, like officials and politicians always do. Some young activists, including students and recent graduates of East L.A. high schools, had already been planning actions – a walkout, in particular – when about 200 students at Wilson High School walked out on March 1, 1968, over the administration’s rejection of a proposed play by the school’s drama department.
The activists saw their opportunity, and seized it. They spread the word for a walkout, and on March 5, a Tuesday, students at Garfield High walked out in large numbers. In the next two days, thousands of students at four other high schools in the area – Roosevelt, Lincoln, Wilson and Belmont – walked out also.
In the face of the protests, the authorities showed their stance in no uncertain terms. Police in riot gear attacked teenagers engaged in peaceful protest and beat them savagely – including on the premises of two schools. School authorities threatened the protesters with suspension, expulsion, and taking away college scholarships.
These open attempts at intimidation did not weaken the students’ resolve. By the end of the week there were more than 10,000 students in the streets. Students at two other high schools, majority-white Venice High on the West Side, and majority-black Jefferson High south of Downtown L.A., also walked out in solidarity with mostly Mexican-American East L.A. students. Ten days into the protests, students presented a list of demands to the school board, which included new schools, small class sizes and new libraries, along with demands that specifically targeted racist discrimination against Mexican-American students.
As the authorities turned a deaf ear to the students, repression followed. The DA’s office arrested 13 people on charges of inciting the walkouts, and demanded 66 years in prison for each of the accused! The “Eastside 13” was made of mostly young political activists who had already graduated from high school. But, notably, the 13 also included a 34-year-old teacher, Sal Castro, who had openly supported the walkouts and participated in them.
After intense protests, the 13 were released on bail a few weeks later (two years later an appeals court would drop the charges also) – but the L.A. school board fired Castro anyway, for being “an accused felon”!
Outraged, students, joined by parents, began to picket the school board to get Castro his job back. When the school board turned a deaf ear to the protests once again, a few dozen students occupied the school board offices for an eight-day “sleep-in,” until the board caved in and reinstated Castro as a district teacher.
This immediate win gave the students, and their working-class community in general, a heightened sense of pride and involvement. In the following years, many participants of the Blowouts would go on to participate in the mass movements that marked the time period, including the fight against racism, the anti-war movement and the women’s movement.