Bobby Lee Verdugo and the 1968 East Los Angeles High Schools Walkout
On March 1, 1968, Mexican-American students attending East Los Angeles High Schools staged the first in a series of walkouts. They protested the quality of their education, addressing a range of issues like drop-out rates (then as high as fifty percent), understaffed classrooms and administrations, and classroom topics not reflecting the issues and histories of the student majority – Mexican-Americans.
As the walkouts continued into March, it was apparent that the movement was becoming broader – expanding beyond the specific concerns of classroom life. Students drew on the spirit of the ongoing farm workers protests and demonstrations at college campuses, and their actions helped form the beginning of the Urban Chicano movement.
This extension of the Chicano movement into East Los Angeles was the direct result of youth politics.
BackStory talked to Bobby Lee Verdugo, one of the student leaders of the East Los Angeles Walkouts. We talked about his experience in the Los Angeles school system, the L.A. Walkouts within the context of the 1960’s international political upheaval, and the parallels to today’s youth-led Parkland Movement.
BackStory: What can you tell me about your role in the LA walkouts?
Verdugo: In 1968 I was 17-years-old. I was a senior at Lincoln High School. And this was a time, a period in our history, where there was a lot going on. Not only here in California or even in the United States but all around the world. There were a lot of movements, a lot of struggle for economic, educational, and social justice. It was the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Naturally, as a kid, I had other things on my mind: just being a teenager, wanting to have fun, wanting to grow up, and have a good life. But at the same time, I was realizing that there was something missing in my life in terms of education. I always thought that I was a failure, because I wasn’t doing well as a senior. I thought I was going to get kicked out, and one of the other options was that I was going to drop out because my grades were really poor. I didn’t have a lot of confidence in myself, and I thought it was me as an individual and as a failure, but it was at that point that I realized that there were many others like me.
At my school, there was a fifty percent drop-out rate. So it couldn’t be just one individual or just a bunch of individuals. There has to be something wrong with the system. There had to be other things going on. And that’s when I realized it wasn’t me only that was failing, because I do take responsibility for my actions, but I also realized it was a school that was failing me. This problem wasn’t just at my school, it was happening at many of the schools on the East Side of Los Angeles: Garfield High School; Roosevelt High School; Wilson High school; Belmont High School; and Lincoln High School. That’s what sparked my interest and that’s what got me involved as one of the organizers at Lincoln High School to meet and organize with other schools to try to make some change. We didn’t know exactly what we were going to do at that point, but we knew we had to do something.
BackStory: What was your experience when you all decided to do something and decided to walk out? What do you remember?
Verdugo: What I remember is that it wasn’t easy. And because, like I mentioned, it was part of the Civil Rights Era, we knew that there was change going on all over the world. So, we were inspired by that and we thought maybe there is something that we can do, like the college kids are doing at Columbia and Berkeley.
I mean we were High School kids. We were children, fifteen, sixteen, and seventeen years old. We thought that maybe, as individuals, we didn’t have a voice, but if we got together and organized, maybe we could influence the school system to try to make some changes. And when they did not respond, when they didn’t take us seriously, that’s when we started to get serious and decided well, we’re going to need to do some kind of action. Not just do petitions and make requests for action, we’re going to have to start demanding, like the college kids are doing at those campuses.
So that was our impetus, that’s what got us excited and what got me excited to say, you know what ,we’ve got to do this. We can either do nothing and the conditions will continue, or we can take a stand and do something together to make change happen. That we are the ones that are going to make the change.
And the walkouts were really just one of the options, we didn’t know what we were going to do, but a student strike seemed something that would be a powerful statement. We wanted to wait until June, but one of the schools walked out early over another incident at their particular school on March 1st, so that’s when we all got together and decided March 6th was the target date, a Wednesday, and all the schools walked out that day.
BackStory: These walkouts have been credited, in part, with starting the Chicano Movement more broadly throughout the Southwestern United States. Would you say that’s accurate?
Verdugo: To say it was the beginning of the Chicano movement, no I don’t think it was. But it was the beginning of the Urban Chicano Movement. Because there was already the farm workers struggle going on. And again, there were already a lot of things happening on college campuses that involved Latinos. I look back and I go wow, there weren’t very many of us represented in percentages of student population. But when you look at the leadership of some of those movements at San Francisco State, at Berkeley, there were a lot of Latino, Chicano activists who were actually in the leadership. So that gave us inspiration, we started to see that. Then of course what was going on in the South with the African Americans – that also inspired us to say you know what, we can be part of this movement.
BackStory: So, you all sensed that this was a part of something greater, it wasn’t just focused on yourselves and your issues?
Verdugo: We saw that. I mentioned that we wanted to be teenagers and have fun, but because of what was going on in the world, it really made us have to grow up very fast. I was seventeen years old, and like many other Chicanos, especially young Chicano males, we saw that the war in Vietnam was a big issue for us. If I were to drop out, that meant that I was probably going to end up in the army, or that I was going to get drafted. There was also a good chance that I would not come back alive, like many of my brothers and cousins and friends. What was happening to them – the number of casualties and even soldiers going to Vietnam who were Chicano was very overrepresented. We outnumbered many other ethnic groups, and the casualties were just as high.
So we realized that for us this was a burning issue, this was something that tied in really closely with what we were doing and with education in general. We were made aware that there were many things going on in the world, that we needed to grow up quickly and understand and deal with. I mean that was the year that Martin Luther King was assassinated. That was the year that Bobby Kennedy was assassinated (even though that happened after the walkouts, we did get to meet him a few months before he died).
BackStory: Do you think there were advantages or disadvantages for the movement to be led by youth?
Verdugo: At the time we were encouraged and inspired by others but we knew that as youth they probably wouldn’t take us seriously. It was evident that when we requested changes and presented out petitions, they paid us no mind. They really thought, well these kids don’t have any strength behind them, these are just kids. And it wasn’t until we organized and did something together that we realized we had a strong voice, and I don’t think I really realized how strong a voice it was.
I mean, I [understood] that we did have a powerful voice, but it wasn’t until fifty years later when I saw what was happening with the students there at Parkland. In essence, it was the idea and the feeling that young people can have a voice if they organize and if they do something together.
Back in 1968 we had thousands – maybe ten thousand, twenty thousand – [of] students walk out. And that in comparison doesn’t seem like much, but we did it without Facebook, and without cell phones. I’m just saying, don’t underestimate the power of young people. They have a lot of energy, and so did we, and I’m just so proud of what they’re doing. I wish that I could meet them and hug them, I wish that I could meet Emma [González] and just hold her so tight and let her know that we’re there with her. Her and the others.
Footnote: Bobby Lee Verdugo is an educational activist and speaker. He attended University of California, Los Angeles, and holds a degree in social work from California State University at Los Angeles. Born and raised in East Los Angeles, he was a student leader of the historic 1968 student walkouts.