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50 Years Ago Students Shut Down This College To Demand Ethnic Studies Courses


At one time, most major universities didn't offer ethnic studies courses. It took fights by students across the country to help create those classes. The battle began at a commuter college in San Francisco, where a multiracial coalition of students went on strike.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) On strike, shut it down. On strike, shut it down.

CHANG: And things got ugly.


This week marks the 50th anniversary of the end of that strike. From NPR's Code Switch podcast, Shereen Marisol Meraji has more. And a warning to our listeners - this story contains strong language and racial references that some listeners may find offensive.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: The longest student strike in U.S. history kicked off in the fall of 1968 on the campus of San Francisco State. I went to the Bay Area to speak with some of the original strikers and organizers to find out why.


MERAJI: Hello.


MERAJI: I'm Shereen.

VARNADO: You didn't see my doorbell.

MERAJI: Do you not like the knocking?

VARNADO: Nope. I normally won't answer.


MERAJI: That's one of the strikers opening the door to his home in Oakland, Calif.

VARNADO: I'm Jerry Varnado. I am still alive.

MERAJI: Varnado says, to understand the strike, you have to know what led up to it. He was one of the few black students on campus in the late '60s and helped organize the first black student union in the country. This student group volunteered in black neighborhoods, tutoring high school kids and recruited them to come to SF State. Varnado says it was not easy to convince their parents this was a good idea.

VARNADO: People were scared to go out to a white college campus. You were not welcome.

MERAJI: On campus, the Black Student Union was agitating to get black students work study jobs. They were asking for black history courses.

VARNADO: People didn't know much about black history. Nobody would teach it to you.

MERAJI: They were also pressing campus administrators for more admission allotments for black students. It was working. They even got the administration to guarantee admission slots to a few hundred black students two semesters in a row. Other students of color on campus got wind, and they wanted that, too. Varnado says the administration told them to ask the black students to share.

VARNADO: We're not in a position to be giving away anything (laughter).

MERAJI: Leaders of the Black Student Union suggested that the other students of color join forces. They did, and they called themselves the Third World Liberation Front. Historian Jason Ferreira is writing a book about the strike and has done around 50 oral histories.

JASON FERREIRA: These other students of color - Chicanos, Asian-Americans - were dealing with the same issue that black students had been struggling with before black consciousness, right? They were running around trying to be white, looking in the mirror and wishing they looked different.

LAUREEN CHEW: By the time I got to college at San Francisco State, I was angry.

MERAJI: Laureen Chew grew up in San Francisco's Chinatown and was a member of the Third World Liberation Front. She was mad about how her parents dealt with racism.

CHEW: Particularly, I think my father, you know, he would get cussed out about being called a stupid Chinaman. And he usually laughed it off, and I don't get this.

MERAJI: Third World Liberation Front members like Laureen Chew were also organizing in their communities and on campus. There were students active in the anti-war movement too, primarily white students. Historian Jason Ferreira says these were crazy times.

FERREIRA: The Vietnam war was ongoing. Dr. King had been assassinated. Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. Malcolm had been assassinated.

MERAJI: Emotions were high. And the spark that set the strike off was the suspension of an English instructor. He was let go for his controversial stance on the Vietnam War and disparaging remarks he made about President Lyndon Johnson.


GEORGE MURRAY: Our statement was that the war in Vietnam is racist. It is the war that crackers like Johnson are using black soldiers and poor white soldiers and Mexican soldiers as dupes and fools to fight against people of color in Vietnam who have never called black people nigger.

MERAJI: George Murray was popular with members of the Black Student Union, and they demanded his reinstatement. Jerry Varnado says...

VARNADO: When that didn't happen, the strike kicked off.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) On strike, shut it down. On strike, shut it down.

MERAJI: The strike started on November 6, 1968. Strikers had a long list of demands, two big ones - a college of ethnic studies with curricula geared toward people of color - Native American, Asian-American, black and Latino - and that all non-white students who apply to San Francisco State be accepted in the fall of 1969. Jerry Varnado told me there were police on the scene from early on.

VARNADO: The police would just wade into crowds and just start beating people with their nightsticks. This went on day after day after day after day. Everybody was under attack.

MERAJI: Just a few weeks after the strike began, the president of San Francisco State at the time, Robert Smith, was confronted by protesters using loudspeakers.


ROBERT SMITH: There have been more police brought on campus, as the concern for safety and personal...


MERAJI: There are news accounts of students throwing rocks, carrying lead pipes, cursing out police officers and administrators. And it was hard to keep classes going and students learning. President Smith resigned less than a month into the strike and was replaced by Samuel Ichiye Hayakawa, an English professor at San Francisco State. Hayakawa told the students, enough.


SAMUEL ICHIYE HAYAKAWA: Until these demonstrations, strikes, raids and other disruptive acts are ended, I will continue my policy of asking police assistance to maintain the security of this campus.

CHEW: He told us that he would forbid us to have a rally.

MERAJI: But students organized one anyway on January 23, 1969. Laurene Chu was in the library hiding books so students who refused to join the strike couldn't study. And by the time she joined the demonstration, the police were there, too.

CHEW: They just surrounded the entire group. And because I was at the edge of the crowd, I just saw brutality I never want to see again. Some people I knew were getting their heads bashed and blood all over the police. They fell, pushed to the ground and still getting hit when they were on the ground. I didn't know if I was ever going to get out.

MERAJI: Laurene Chu was arrested that day along with almost 500 other students. She was charged with a few misdemeanors, pleaded not guilty, but got 20 days in jail.

CHEW: I spent my graduation going to jail.

MERAJI: Black Student Union leader Jerry Varnado was arrested on that day, too.

VARNADO: I did a year, other people did more.

FERREIRA: People did time. Relationships were stressed to the point of crumbling.

MERAJI: Historian Jason Ferreira says imagine that kind of pressure being put on students.

FERREIRA: All for what, black studies, ethnic studies?

MERAJI: The strike went on for two more months until both sides agreed to negotiate a deal. The administration wanted to get back to business, and hundreds of students charged with crimes were facing court hearings and jail time.


VARNADO: The strike called on November 6, 1968, by the Black Student Union and other members of the Third World Liberation Front and strongly supported by the revolutionary black - white students ended today, March 20, 1969.

MERAJI: Students won some of their demands, including a big one - a college of ethnic studies. Jerry Varnado says he didn't step back on campus for 30 years.

VARNADO: Such a bitter experience.

MERAJI: Even though you won?

VARNADO: We don't see it as a victory. You know, we saw it as coming to an arrangement. You know, I don't know whether there is any victory in violence and warfare for anybody.

MERAJI: Today, there are ethnic studies courses in universities across the country, and you can find them in K-through-12 classrooms too. It all started at San Francisco State, which still has the only college of ethnic studies in the country. Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shereen Marisol Meraji is the co-host and senior producer of NPR's Code Switch podcast. She didn't grow up listening to public radio in the back seat of her parent's car. She grew up in a Puerto Rican and Iranian home where no one spoke in hushed tones, and where the rhythms and cadences of life inspired her story pitches and storytelling style. She's an award-winning journalist and founding member of the pre-eminent podcast about race and identity in America, NPR's Code Switch. When she's not telling stories that help us better understand the people we share this planet with, she's dancing salsa, baking brownies or kicking around a soccer ball.