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Essay: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Legacy: Chicanos Fought for Social Justice Through the Chicano Blowouts

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  • Published: 1 April 2019*
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“Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr depicts the necessity of having people fight for what they believe in to see a change. When people obtain a desire to change a social injustice, they are not meant to sit by and wait for it to change because otherwise, it will not. If people are not vocalizing their desire to see change, their needs will go unaddressed. Social Justice entails many things ranging from hard work and dedication to organization. The students who took part in the Chicano Blowouts were the structure of the movement. They changed the culture of education in Los Angeles forever.

In the 1960’s, Los Angeles was a “white city”, but by the 80’s, it was not (Schneider 995). While the amount of white families fleeing the urban parts of the city were increasing, the number of white families with school-aged children leaving was increasing at a much faster rate. In the late 60’s to early 70’s, there were roughly 318,431 white students enrolled in LAUSD K-12 public schools, but in the 80’s, that number plummeted to only 127,281 students. On the other hand, within the same time frame, the sum of Latino students went from 139,269 to 241,830 (Schneider 998). This phenomenon was an aftereffect of the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, which declared segregated schools unconstitutional. This forced the LAUSD to integrate students associated with areas of the city that had high levels of violence and negative stereotypes. This was unacceptable to some. One school administrator went so far as to say, “We segregate for the same reason that the southerners segregate the Negro. They are an inferior race, that is all” (Bernal, 70). So, out of fear of a subpar education and intermingling with an “inferior race”, whites fled the public education system in Los Angeles.

With many white students leaving, the LAUSD schools were now flooded with minorities. Rather than the whites recieving the subpar education, it was the minority. They were not treated as equals and were often discouraged in school. Schools often labeled Chicanx students as “underachievers”. Many students took classes that limited their possibilities in education. Instead of being able to take classes like AP or Honors, the young men and women took industrial arts or secretarial courses. Amongst the many injustices that Chicanx students faced, they were also pressured to assimilate to American “mainstream culture” (Bernal, 69). Because of the dissatisfaction with the quality of education they received, the students took charge- they created the East Los Angeles Walkouts, or also commonly referred to as the Chicano Blowouts.

The Chicano Blowouts were a series of protests in 1968 which entailed hundreds of students walking out of predominantly Latino high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The string of protests served as a small fraction of the Chicano Civil Rights Movement, which started in the 1950’s and carried out until the 1970’s. While the Chicano Civil Rights Movement as a whole was dedicated to bringing equal rights to Mexican-Americans, the East Los Angeles Walkouts were motivated by the lack of a quality education amongst Chicanos. The ill-treatment of Latinos in the Los Angeles Unified School District was so widely internalized that it became the social norm, until the protests allowed the idea of equality to reach people’s desires. Before the Blowouts, Mexican-Americans were neglected by the education system; However, during the Blowouts,

Because of the social injustices and systematic oppression within the Los Angeles Unified School District, 3 out of 4 Chicanos would drop out before they were eligible to  graduate high school. These numbers motivated teachers like Sal Castro, a history teacher at Lincoln High in East Los Angeles, to spark a movement within the students. After witnessing countless instances of oppression, Castro confronted the school’s administration. When confronted, they accused him of being “overly alarmed”, Chicano students had a “charming passivity”. In other words, they put forth the idea that the chicano students were not questioning the schools motives, so why mess with that?

Consequently, Sal Castro rallied up the students and inspired them fight against the social injustices within the education system. As a symbol of hope and progression, a network of students, professionals, underground newspapers, the Brown Berets, and other organizations created the Educational Issues Coordinating Committee (EICC). The EICC  was meant to “serve as an umbrella organization set up initially to support students” (Soldatenko 293). As a coalition, they presented a letter with a list of demands from the students that needed to be met by the board of education. Some of the needs were as follows: “smaller class sizes, elimination of tracking through the use of standardized tests, the removal of racist teachers/administrators, a bilingual education, and more emphasis on chicano history” (Solorzano & Bernal, 309). Unfortunately, they were met with nothing. Time went by. It seemed that they would never get what they wanted.

After reading an article published by TIME Magazine that painted East Los Angeles as a place that reeked of cheap wine, littered by lowrider cars on the boulevard, and “rollicking” cantinas, Castro and the many student organizations took direct action in early March of 1968. It started small, with only a group of students walking out of Wilson High School. The next day, more than two thousand students walked out of their classes at Garfield High School chanting “Blow Outs!”. At the end of the week, more than ten thousand students from schools all over East Los Angeles walked out. The list of schools were as follows: Lincoln High School, Garfield High School, Roosevelt High School, Wilson High School and Belmont High School. The community was alive with school reform (Soldatenko 291).

Sal Castro used the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez as examples of what the protests were supposed to be- peaceful. The protests became violent. The police viciously beat innocent protesters, calling them vulgar names such as dirty Mexicans or dirty pigs. Teachers at both Belmont and Roosevelt high locked their Chicanx students behind closed doors and allowed police officers to brutally beat the students. Instead of discouraging the students, this motivated them. The students were no longer passive, they were formidable.

Unsurprisingly, the students’ demands for improved facilities, better education, with an end to racial discrimination, disrupted local politics. For centuries, Chicanx folks were heavily restricted in terms of political access, so these basic issues became radical as the community’s determination grew. The East Los Angeles Walkouts not only stirred intense debates over education, politics, identity, society, and the future, but they also “allowed a utopia to break through” (Soldatenko 290). The community was now able to see a future they could not visualize before.

After these violent events, the FBI infiltrated and monitored student organizations such as the Brown Berets. Sal Castro and twelve others were then arrested for conspiracy to disturb schools and the peace. Because it was a felony, they were going be sentenced to Sixty-six years in prison. This group of thirteen people were also referred to as the East L.A. 13. They were very important people in the movement, helping direct the walkouts and maintain order. Because they were so important to the movement, many protesters gathered out in front of the courthouse in to free the 13 . Fortunately, the group was released on bail; however, it was not until two years later that the group was exonerated and the charges were dropped.

Though there were little changes immediately following the Blowouts, there were changes in the decades following. Amongst the changes that were made, the biggest change was within the students. The number of chicano students attending UCLA went from 40 to more than 1,250. The number of number of students attending colleges all over the state of California more than tripled. Ivy leagues started recruiting Chicanos students. Chicanos became school administrators and elected officials. Overall, Chicanos were achieving much higher levels of education and pursuing a life that included a higher education.

Unfortunately, once these students reached the level of a higher education, they faced the same issue they did before. Though not as severe, Chicanx students still lacked the same educational opportunities that others received. Twenty-five years later the University of California, Los Angeles lacked a Chicano/a Studies department. The students desired a Chicano/a Studies department because it would inform them of their history and modern reality. In 1993, a diverse group of students utilized the UCLA Faculty Center to protest the decision to not promote the Chicano/a Studies program to departmental standing. Many viewed the Chancellor’s decision not to fund the department as a sign that he would soon demolish the program as a whole. Though the protest was a peaceful sit-in, it resulted in roughly 100 students being arrested and jailed. After seeing no change, one professor and eight students organized a hunger strike. Throughout the course of two weeks, there were marches and demonstrations on and off campus. The protest gained so much traction that other universities, colleges, and high schools held demonstrations in support of those who took part in the hunger strike.

These students who voiced their opinions and demanded to see a progressive change. The students who participated in the East Los Angeles Walkouts and the UCLA strike for Chicano/a Studies, were the reason there was a change. Though they faced many obstacles, they  persevered, stood their ground, and fought for what they believed in. In 1968, during the Chicano Blowouts, the first protests were violent and messy. The students and the community surrounding them learned from their mistakes. They then organized their drive and hope into organizations. Those organizations ultimately changed the quality of education for Chicanx students in Los Angeles Public Schools.

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