Veterans of Berkeley’s Ethnic Studies struggle stage rally 50 years later

Harvey Dong

Berkeley professor and co-founder of the Third World Liberation Front Harvey Dong speaks from the Sproul steps  Tuesday. (UC Berkeley photos by Irene Yi)

The voices of 50 years ago roared again this week in front of Sproul Hall.

To kick off a year-long celebration of the founding of UC Berkeley’s Department of Ethnic Studies, some of the old gang gathered once more on the fabled steps of Sproul.

In the fall of 1968, four student groups — the Afro-American Students Union, the Mexican-American Student Confederation, Native American Students United and the Asian-American Political Alliance — joined forces, coalescing into the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF).

On Jan. 22, 1969, members of the Third World Liberation Front started a student strike in Berkeley that, coupled with a similar student uprising at San Francisco State, fanned the flames of discontent sweeping the country. The TWLF had a list of demands, preeminent among those the establishment of Third World College in the image of one begun months earlier at S.F. State.

That list of 1969 demands was read again Tuesday by the strikers who read them initially — Jeff Leong, LaNada War Jack, Ysidro Macias and Oliver Jones. A crowd of several hundred took them in even as the event briefly had to share time with a 50-year commemoration of People’s Park, whose celebrants walked by in Sproul Plaza.

The 1969 strike lasted for 2½ months and ended in compromise, the creation of the Ethnic Studies department housing four undergraduate programs: African American Studies. Asian American Studies, Chicano Studies and Native American Studies. That model would spread through the UC system.

“What happened here changed the Bay Area, really changed it,” former Oakland Mayor Jean Quan said. Quan and her husband, Floyd Huen, were both part of the 1969 strike and of Tuesday’s rally. She pointed to the creation of the Asian Law Caucus, Asian Health Services and La Clínica, which have become staples of Bay Area law and health circles.

The department has gone through ebbs and flows in the last half-century, including being folded into the College of Letters and Science, and the establishment of the Ethnic Studies Library in 1997. Two years later, a second strike brought Ethnic Studies renewed vigor after budget cuts had hit the department.

Third World Liberation Front banner

Supporters of the Ethnic Studies 50th anniversary rally Tuesday salute the Third World Liberation Front and its history.

In the wake of the 1999 strike, additional professors were hired, a Multicultural Community Center and the Center for Race and Gender were established.

Berkeley adjunct professor in Asian-American and Asian Diaspora studies Harvey Dong was one of about a dozen speakers Tuesday. Dong, himself a veteran of the 1969 disruption that galvanized national attention and led to collegiate curriculum changes, said before the event that the 1969 strike was unifying and he hoped that Tuesday’s rally and celebration would lead to more change.

“It did bring students and faculty together,” Dong said, in looking back at the spring of 1969. “Out of the hunger strike in 1999 came the agreement to add eight more faculty hires. It’s been an up-and-down road these 50 years, but we have opened up the discussion to create a much more positive atmosphere for change and improvement.

“Definitely there are lots of things to celebrate. We have some levels of academic success. We do have more focus on many different American cultures. But we need more classes that need to be developed and expanded.”

It’s the hope of Dong and his fellow 1969 veterans that the celebration of what happened 50 years ago will lead to Berkeley redoubling its Ethnic Studies focus.

“In the current political climate, which is very anti-immigrant and with a lot of racial issues being raised,” said Leong, who was 19 when he jumped into the fray in 1969 and who was at one point Dong’s roommate. “That makes it more important than ever to identify programs like ethnic studies and women’s studies and make sure they have their place in Berkeley.

Third World Liberation Front banner

Members of the crowd at the 50th anniversary Ethnic Studies rally came with signs showing their support.

“It’s been 50 years since we established this, and collective memories will change or pass, like they did with World War II and Japanese internment survivors. It’s important to remember past experiences to put the current world in context.”

That context remains important to the university

“The Department of Ethnic Studies has contributed to Berkeley’s rich intellectual tapestry over the past 50 years,” Oscar Dubon, Vice Chancellor for Equity and Inclusion, said. “It, along with the American Cultures Program, is central to providing a transformative and relevant education to all of our students and is essential to our institutional mission of preparing leaders and thinkers for the 21st century.”

The importance of Tuesday’s celebration and follow-up events, including a photo exhibit called “Whose University” that will be in the Brown Gallery from March through September and a symposium tentatively set for the fall, is not lost on Ysidro Macias, who went on from the 1969 strike to become an attorney before leaving that life behind to become a tortilla impresario in Hawaii.

When he arrived at Berkeley in March 1968, Macias was one of 28 Chicanos in a student body of about 28,000. He remembers that ethnic studies weren’t a priority until the strikers made it one.

“Given the results of our strike and the strike across the bay at S.F. State, we saw the start of ethnic studies not just here, but all around the country,” Macias said. “We at Berkeley settled our strike about a week before they did at S.F. State, so you could make the claim that we started this.

“Berkeley was one of the top three universities in the country, and when Berkeley added this program, other colleges and universities saw the example and they decided they needed have one too. We were grossly underrepresented.

“Now we’re not. But we need to keep pushing. It’s not over.”

As Huen said during his time at the mic Tuesday, the TWLF wound up being successful not because of what the speakers did on the steps five decades back but because the speakers didn’t stop pushing after their time on the steps.. He’s hoping that a new generation will be stepping forward.

“It was because every morning we got up and blocked Sather Gate,” he said. “Every morning. We were on strike, and we needed to shut it down. All this time later, this struggle is going to continue.”