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Column: Mexican-American School Walkout Focused on Problem

During the massive East Los Angeles high school walkouts in 1968, board of education member Dr. Julian Nava turned to then school superintendent Jack Crowther and said, “Jack, this is BC and AD. The schools will not be the same again.”

“Yes,” said Crowther. “I know.”

Actually, as Nava and Crowther must have suspected, more than the schools were changing. What was happening was that a significant portion of the Mexican-American community, in supporting the walkouts and their symbolic leader, teacher Sal Castro, was asserting itself.

Few will deny that the walkouts marked a new direction for the traditionally apathetic Mexican-American community. Behind the school disorders, an unusual unity was forming which since then has solidified.

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The recent decision by Dist. Atty. Evelle J. Younger to refile felony complaints in the walkout and Biltmore disturbance cases necessitates focusing some issues which could be lost in the rhetoric-filled courtroom drama sure to follow.

First, there seems to be a tendency to refer to the incidents as the “Brown Beret cases"—especially by a local wire service which called them that in its dispatches last Monday and Tuesday. Much more than the activities of a small militant group are at stake.

Brown Berets were involved in the walkouts and in the disturbances and fires at the Biltmore during a speech by Gov. Reagan April 24, 1969. But it is important to know, not from a legal but from an overall point of view, that the cases stem from a genuine concern over the quality of education Mexican-Americans are receiving.

Sal Castro, who was indicted by the grand jury on felony conspiracy charges in the school walk case, has repeatedly been defended, putting aside the indictment, which is a legal matter, by many Mexican-American organizations and such public figures as Dr. Nava, Congressmen Ed Roybal and George Brown and Dr. Miguel Montes, former member of the state board of education.

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Nava went so far as to tell the news conference July 31, 1969, that Castro “has been singled out for harassment and persecution” for his “telling criticism and disclosures of the ineffectiveness of Los Angeles schools.”

Castro, by the way, was called a Brown Beret by a local newspaper (not The Times) and the controversial teacher carries a printed retraction by the paper.

In the Biltmore case, fires allegedly set by Brown Beret types beclouded the fact that many of those arrested, since exonerated of any crime, merely had wanted to tell Gov. Reagan, if somewhat impolitely, what they thought of our schools.

The very reason why the district attorney decided to refile charges against Castro and 12 others involved in the walkouts and against five persons in the Biltmore case opens important questions.

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For some time now the cases have been bogged down in appellate court where the defendants contended that the grand jury indictments were illegal because persons with Spanish surnames are systematically excluded from Los Angeles county grand juries.

Dep. Dist. Atty. Richard Hecht told this column that a decision by the appellate court did not seem forthcoming and that in the interest of a speedy trial for the defendants, the district attorney’s office had decided to ask that the present cases on appeal be dismissed. This way, he continued, new charges would be processed by way of preliminary hearings, rather than the grand jury.

Predictably, Castro’s attorney, Herman Sillas, takes issue with the district attorney. He says the new move will deny an opportunity to the Mexican-American community to hear what an appellate court has to say about the composition of the grand jury.

Retorts Hecht: “We’re as anxious as anyone else to learn whether our grand juries are illegally constituted—which we do not think so—but a ruling from the appellate court does not seem to be in sight.”

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Hecht also pointed out that there is a Sirhan Sirhan appeal in the State Supreme Court involving his claim that Los Angeles grand juries are not representative and that a ruling in that case could clear the air on the matter.

The fact remains, however, that according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, in Los Angeles county, with almost 500,000 eligible Spanish surname residents, only four served as grand jurors during a 12-year period studied.

Sillas also wonders why if Castro charged with felonious conspiracy in the school walkouts, no teacher was so charged during the recent teachers’ strike.

Hecht answers that in the first place there is some evidence of violence in the East Los Angeles walkouts—which is denied by the participants—and that besides, the teachers’ strike involved a union. “Union activities have a greater degree of protection under the First Amendment than do other activities,” Hecht said.

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The point is that whatever one may think of the merits of either side of these cases, grassroot movements such as the school walkouts bring out these important overall issues. And that is what democracy is about.


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