For nearly five months in the fall and winter of 1968-1969, San Francisco State College was paralyzed by a student strike.
The strike was initiated by oppressed nationality students and supported by thousands of white students who accepted their leadership. Its target was a publicly-funded university which had become increasingly inaccessible to black, brown and Asian communities whose tax dollars supported it.
Attempts to repress the strike were sustained and brutal. For weeks, hundreds of police in riot gear occupied the campus. Hundreds of students were beaten and hundreds more arrested. Strike leaders served long jail terms on trumped up charges; one was deported. 27 faculty members who supported the strike lost their jobs; many never taught again.
Campus uprisings were commonplace in the 1960s, reflecting growing anger over the Viet Nam war. Those at elite schools like Columbia and Harvard received the most publicity. Typically they lasted a few days and were often fought over essentially symbolic demands like an end to “campus complicity with the war.” They rarely involved the larger community.
San Francisco State (S.F. State) was different. The strike took place at a working class school. Busloads of people from the African American community stood beside striking students as they battled police. Black San Francisco police officers even formed their own caucus to protest the racism and brutality of police occupation of the campus.
There was nothing symbolic about the strike issues. The strikers’ 15 demands grew out of several years of frustrated efforts, mainly by the Black Student Union (BSU), to open up the college to minority students and make sure they got the financial support and relevant curriculum needed to keep them in school.
Through a one-on-one tutorial program and other community organizing efforts, the BSU had built strong ties to the local black community. As tutors, they recruited high school students and encouraged them to apply for admission to S.F. State.
It was the BSU that first developed the idea of a Black Studies Department at S.F. State, an idea that would be taken up on campuses across the country. “This college has done nothing for black students except try to white-wash them,” BSU leaders said. They noted that, since culturally biased standardized tests had been incorporated into college entrance requirements, black enrollment at S.F. State had fallen from 12% to 3%.
The BSU envisioned a Black Studies program that would train students to use the skills they learned to develop the black community rather than simply furthering their own personal advancement. High-ranking faculty members charged this would promote “anti-white propaganda” and did all they could to sabotage the proposal.
But the BSU’s program made sense to Latino, Chicano and Asian students who faced similar problems at S.F. State and demanded a School of Ethnic Studies. They banded together under the banner of the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF), a name inspired by the writings of African revolutionary Frantz Fanon.
The term ‘third world’ initially referred to the developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America who had recently thrown of the yoke of colonialism. Fanon believed these countries represented the leading anti-imperialist force in the world and called for solidarity among them. He included minority nationalities within the imperialist countries who he said were similarly oppressed. His analysis was embraced by Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party, which had a big influence on the BSU and TWLF. BSU leader George Murray, a key figure in the strike, was the Black Panthers’ Minister of Education.
The Panthers were also strong believers in building coalitions between oppressed nationalities. San Francisco State students put the idea into practice. The BSU and TWLF jointly launched the strike on Nov. 6, 1968, and made an effective appeal for white student support. By early December, crowds of 5000 people were fighting the police on a daily basis in the central campus area.
This level of intensity lasted for months, but it could not be sustained indefinitely. The strike demands were too far-reaching to be resolved on one campus and the strikers were not strong enough to force concessions at the state level. In March 1969, BSU-TWLF accepted a settlement which established a School of Ethnic Studies at S.F. State without resolving other strike issues
Today the School of Ethnic Studies is still going strong, but it is menaced by budget cuts as the state of California sinks deeper into financial crisis. At a commemoration of the strike’s 40th anniversary, held the last week of October, students and teachers affiliated with the school recalled the lessons of the strike and resolved not to let its victories be erased.