The 1968 student strike at SF State created the country’s first black student union and launched the College of Ethnic Studies, but its ripple effects spread far beyond the university’s campus.
The months-long walkout inspired campuses across the country to form their own black student unions, and to adopt curriculums dedicated to a variety of ethnicities, not just the white perspective.
It also propelled some of its participants into lives dedicated to social justice, while also influencing generations to come to do the same.
It all began 50 years ago with an unfaltering commitment to organizing students to demand the administration acknowledge non-white experiences in academics.
“Organizing is my life,” said Dr. James Garrett, one of the original orchestrators of the black student movement.
Even at the young age of 19, Garrett already had years of activism training in civil rights with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He moved to San Francisco from L.A. in 1966 explicitly to organize black youth.
“The job was to build what became the western region alliance of the Black Student Union,” Garrett said.
The organization that was then called the Negro Students Association of San Francisco State was renamed the Black Student Union, and Garrett became its first president. The BSU became the vanguard of progression of students of color into higher education. Through one-on-one tutorial programs and other community organizing efforts, members of the BSU had already built strong ties to the local black community. As tutors, they recruited high school students and encouraged them to apply for admission to SF State.
The BSU’s program made sense to Latinx, Chicano and Asian students who faced similar problems at SF State. They banded together under the banner of the Third World Liberation Front.
Together, they spearheaded the creation of the first College of Ethnic Studies, and laid a foundation for future generations.
Garrett also went on to help establish the Black Student Union at Stanford, University of Washington, Reed College, Portland State University and Arizona State University.
His role as an organizer also spread to other parts of the Bay Area.
“We did the same thing at Cal State Hayward with Elihu Harris, who became the mayor of Oakland, that’s how he got his start,” Garrett said.
Those strategies also took hold with subsequent generations. Members of the SF State BSU would not speak with the Xpress for this story.
The strike served as a template for future organizers, who looked specifically at Garrett’s training tactics, according to Paul Lee, director of Best Efforts, Inc., a professional research and consulting service that specializes in the preservation of black history and culture.
Lee said he holds Garrett in very high esteem.
“[Meeting Garrett was] one of the greatest honors in my life,” Lee said.
Lee said he helped launch a student strike at Howard University in the 1980s while guided by Garrett’s past efforts.
“We had a student uprising in 1981, and we looked at San Francisco State on how to organize ours,” Lee said. “When non-white students rise up, they look at San Francisco State for lessons. We benefit from their successes, and learn from their mistakes.”
In 2008, during celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the strike, students took up picket signs in a recreation of the event.
At the time, UC Berkeley Professor Emeritus Carlos Munoz Jr., who taught a course on the civil rights movements of the 1960s, said the SF State strike was for students of color the equivalent of the Free Speech Movement in the mid-1960s in Berkeley.
“It sort of brought the civil rights movements around the country to a more inclusive framework,” Munoz told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Jesse Jackson had not yet organized the Rainbow Coalition. What happened at State was the first large-scale multicultural effort and set the tone for that kind of rainbow politics.”
Kenneth Monteiro, then-dean of SF State’s College of Ethnic Studies, said the strike is taught in the campus’ courses. “This was one of the watershed events that blast opened the doors,” he told the Chronicle. “It wasn’t that the other struggles weren’t important, but this was the Normandy.”
Today, the 1968 strikers’ efforts are still having an impact on social justice activism. Each year, new students enroll in the College of Ethnic Studies Race and Resistance program, which teaches an approach to social justice that studies race as a politically produced and contested process that begins with institutions, movements and social problems.