Twenty-eight years ago, on March 3, 1968, more than a thousand Mexican-American students walked out of Abraham Lincoln High School and marched through the streets of East Los Angeles, California. Later in the day, several thousand more of them walked out of five other predominantly Mexican-American high schools — and, by day’s end, more than 10,000 had joined the strike.
The student strike’s major purpose was to protest racist teachers and school policies by demanding classes on Mexican-American culture and history. Several hundred African-American students at Thomas Jefferson High School in South Central Los Angeles, after learning what happened, walked out in solidarity with their Mexican-American brothers and sisters. The strike, which lasted nearly two weeks, disrupted the nation’s largest public school system.
Three months after the student strike, the Los Angeles white power structure, with the help of the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), arrested 13 Mexican-American college student leaders and community activists who helped to organize the high school strike. Members of the United Mexican American Students (UMAS), the Brown Berets and other community organizations, they were arrested after being indicted for conspiracy to “willfully disturb the peace and quiet” of the City of Los Angeles. Each of the activists faced 66 years in prison if convicted of the charges. Approximately two years later, the California State Appellate Court ruled that the 13 activists were innocent of the conspiracy charges by virtue of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. As one of the 13, I remain eternally grateful that we have an amendment granting us the right of freedom of speech.
In terms of numbers, the strike was 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 equal to the 1960 Black student sit-ins in Greensboro, NC. Whereas the Greensboro protest generated the emergence of the Black student movement in the South, the Los Angeles strike signaled the beginnings of a powerful Chicano student movement throughout the Southwestern United States. In broader terms, the strike marked the entry of Mexican Americans into the turbulent history of the 1960s. The strike, and the student movement it generated, played crucial roles in the development and shaping of Mexican-American civil rights struggles and the making of the Chicano power movement in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
As one who feels privileged to have been part of the strike and the Chicano movement, I am pleased that at least part of my people’s history of struggle will now be known to millions of my fellow Americans. The long awaited PBS Television series entitled “CHICANO! History of the Mexican-American Civil Rights Movement,” which airs on April 12th and 19th, will include the story of the Strike, the farm workers movement in California, the land grants movement in New Mexico and the emergence of the Chicano political party, La Raza Unida, which was founded by Chicano movement activists. Although it is much shorter than the longer PBS “Eyes on the Prize” series about the Southern Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, “Chicano!” will contribute to correcting the notion held by many that Mexican Americans never participated in civil rights struggles, or have not historically resisted racial, class or gender oppression.
The time is long overdue for the American people to learn about the civil rights struggle of all people of color in our society. What is now needed is a documentary series that tells the story of all the people-of-color movements of the 1960s and ’70s — including the Puerto Rican, Asian-American, and the American Indian movements. Knowledge of past common struggles can help us forge the unity necessary to build the bridges between our respective communities. The anti-affirmative action and anti-immigrant politics of today are part of the race, class and gender war that has been declared on all people of color by Republican right wing politicians and other racists. The time has come for us to collectively contribute to the making of a new, more inclusive, and more powerful civil and human rights movement which not only can fight for the gains made by our past struggles, but which can play a major role in the making of a multiracial democracy in the 21st century.
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