The Third World Strike at San Francisco State and its Legacy
By Peter Shapiro. Posted September 19, 2022.
For five months in 1968-69, San Francisco State College (now University) was the scene of a historic strike by students of color, supported by thousands of white students and a substantial minority of the faculty. Launched by the Black Student Union on campus, it quickly broadened to embrace the Third World Liberation Front, which included not only the BSU but organizations representing Chicanx, Latinx, Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino students. White students were quick to rally behind the TWLF, and the campus chapter of the American Federation of Teachers joined the walkout after six weeks.
The strike was marked by repeated violent clashes with police, who occupied the campus for weeks on end. It elevated Dr. S.I. Hayakawa, hired by the state college trustees to break the strike, into a media phenomenon and a darling of the right. Some 700 strikers were arrested, and many were brutally beaten by police. In the end, the strikers failed to win all of their fifteen demands. But they did establish the first (and still the only) College of Ethnic Studies in the country, and their strike helped inspire struggles by students of color on other campuses.
More than half a century has passed since the strike took place, but the underlying issues it raised –involving both the content of public higher education, and access to it by underserved communities—are still deeply contested. What follows is an attempt to assess the strike’s long-term impact in both areas. Without diminishing what the strike accomplished, we need to take a hard look at the unfinished business that remains.
Much has changed since the strike ended in March of 1969. At the time, San Francisco was well on its way to becoming a white minority city, but San Francisco State’s student body was overwhelmingly white. African Americans, 13 percent of the city’s population, made up just 3 percent of the student body. Today white students are a minority on a campus where Latinx and Asian students increasingly predominate.
San Francisco itself has changed dramatically. The “labor town” of yesteryear is now one of the most expensive cities in the country to live in. The once-vibrant black community in Western Addition has all but disappeared, a casualty of a city redevelopment effort whose racist implications are now widely acknowledged. In 2020, African Americans accounted for just 5 percent of the city’s population, but 35 percent of its homeless. Rampant real estate speculation has extracted a terrible price.
San Francisco State was a “streetcar college” in the 1960s. It now bills itself as a “destination campus,” attracting large numbers of students from Southern California and elsewhere. On-campus housing has expanded dramatically, in part because affordable housing off campus is so hard to come by.
The standardized tests that once did so much to keep students of color out of the state’s four-year institutions have fallen out of favor. The state universities, like the University of California, no longer require them. In their place, formidable new financial barriers have been erected. Many current San Francisco State students would be attending a University of California campus if they could afford it, or if meeting its entrance requirements still offered a reasonably good chance of admission. San Francisco State is less expensive, but it remains costly enough that students typically graduate with an enormous debt burden.
As an undergraduate in 1968, my tuition was $125 a semester. Today’s incoming students are told to expect their overall annual expenses to exceed $27,000—$30,000 if they live off campus. Tuition alone is $7500 a semester, $15,000 a year. Returning to the campus after a long absence for a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the strike, I heard from students who lived in their cars or worked multiple jobs in addition to their course load. A professor told me that virtually all of his students held down jobs in addition to their studies.
Nationally, student debt has reached a staggering $1.8 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve. By 2010 it had already exceeded the total amount of consumer credit card debt. By 2021, the average student loan debt was in excess of $40,000. Yet tuition at California’s four-year institutions has continued to rise—by more than 60 percent between 2008 and 2015.
What has changed? In California, at least, we have seen a massive retreat from the state’s earlier commitment to public higher education. At the time of the strike, California’s state colleges were financed largely by its taxpayers. Today, state tax dollars account for barely one-third of San Francisco State’s revenue. Tuition and student fees account for a little over 40%. Much of the rest comes from private sources, usually with strings attached. According to one study, decline in state funding accounts for 80% of the increased tuition at public universities.
This development is often blamed on the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978. This state ballot initiative was supposed to relieve hard-pressed homeowners of an increasingly onerous property tax burden. In practice, its main beneficiaries proved to be owners of corporate property. Prior to its passage, they shouldered close to half of the state’s property tax burden; today their share is just 28 percent. What is worse, major statutory barriers now stand in the way of efforts by the state legislature to tap new sources of revenue. Not surprisingly, the cutbacks that have resulted, seen most dramatically in the state’s education budget, fell the hardest upon communities of color and the working poor.
But Proposition 13 was less a watershed than the culmination of a process already well under way in 1968. To no small degree, the post-World War II economic boom was fueled by public investment. Government spending stimulated the economy, socialized the costs of production, and provided an occasional safety valve for those who had not shared in the general prosperity. This approach to public policy had its origins in the New Deal. It blossomed during World War II and flourished during the early Cold War years, when California was the beneficiary of massive infusions of public dollars, much of it subsidizing the defense industries.
Though the impetus for this policy first came from the federal government, state political leaders readily embraced it. It would prove unsustainable in the long run—not only because of growing demands upon the state’s resources, but because of an essentially regressive tax structure.
Resistance to the strikers’ fifteen demands was the product of entrenched institutional racism and the need of highly placed administrators and faculty to protect their turf. But even those like college President Robert Smith, who was willing to concede that black students had legitimate grievances, claimed to be hamstrung by budget constraints.
It was tempting, at the time, to dismiss such claims as self-serving because they usually were. But as the struggle at San Francisco State intensified, a growing number of strikers came to understand that that the fiscal crisis was quite real. In his pioneering 1973 book The Fiscal Crisis of the State, the Marxist economist James O’Connor argued that state spending was “indispensable to the expansion of private industry,” but that “the socialization of costs and the private appropriation of profits creates…a tendency for state expenditures to increase more rapidly than the means of financing them.”
The contradictions of using state spending to make the economy work better were already apparent in 1968. But few could have foreseen the extent to which the powers that be would repudiate that strategy. In his 1966 inaugural address as Governor of California, Ronald Reagan called government “the people’s business” and promised to invest its money more wisely. A dozen years later, campaigning for President, he would declare that what he had once called “the people’s business” was “not the solution, it’s the problem.” By the time the Democratic Party reclaimed the White House, it too had embraced a neo-liberal agenda, with Bill Clinton embracing deregulation of the banking industry and vowing to “end welfare as we know it.”
In essence, both political parties now advocated the use of market forces to discipline public spending. Increasingly, this came to mean the commandeering of public resources by private capital. Struggling public schools were taken over by privately owned charter schools, funded with tax dollars diverted from school district budgets. The administration of George W. Bush, denouncing Social Security as an unsustainable “entitlement program,” tried to “reform” by forcing seniors to rely on the stock market instead of a monthly check from the federal government to provide a secure retirement. The effort did not succeed, but similar attacks on Medicare are bearing fruit: as of this writing, over 40 percent of the nation’s Medicare recipients are enrolled in private Medicare Advantage plans, typically more expensive to run than traditional Medicare but still funded out of Medicare’s budget, and a lucrative investment outlet for private capital.
Such “austerity” measures are supposed to make our tax dollars go further. More often than not, they have the opposite effect: transferring public assets into private hands invariably involves taxpayer subsidies of private corporations, ramping up the pressure on state budgets and generating new calls for cuts in social spending.
Though the looming crisis in state finance laid much of the groundwork for the San Francisco State strike, at the most fundamental level it was a battle over whom the institution would serve. Its initial impetus was not about money but curriculum, and this, too, is bitterly contested today.
Jimmy Garrett, who chaired the Black Student Union at San Francisco State prior to the strike, would observe years later that of all the fifteen demands raised by the strikers, the demand for Black Studies was the easiest for the college administration to grant. Indeed, six weeks into the strike, Acting President S.I. Hayakawa claimed it had already been granted, though not in a way that Black students could find acceptable. Even before the strike, Black Studies courses developed by the BSU were available to students, initially through the student government-funded Experimental College, then through sympathetic professors and departments willing to provide academic credit. Consolidating those classes into a single independent program should have required no more than some bureaucratic adjustments that the college administration finally agreed to make after a five-month strike.
But conflicts arose almost as soon as the ink was dry on the agreement. Despite an amnesty provision in the strike settlement, Hayakawa refused to allow anyone arrested during the strike to serve on the Black Studies faculty. Nathan Hare, chair of the department, was fired; he continued working without pay for three months, doing all he could to get the program off the ground.
Urging its members to establish a cooperative relationship with Black Studies faculty, the BSU assigned one student assistant to every class, responsible for providing administrative assistance, learning instructional skills, engaging in political education and recruitment. The college administration denounced student participation in departmental decision-making as “illegal and unprofessional.” Declaring that the department was experiencing a “reign of terror,” Hayakawa threatened to dissolve it and disperse its classes through established departments.
Since the department’s budget only provided for a single half-time secretary, student assistants were crucial to its operations. Several them had been receiving financial aid; in an attempt to force the Department’s hand, their salaries were frozen. At this point Nathan Hare formally resigned. He would never teach again. BSU leaders who had played a key role in developing the curriculum and fighting for it during the strike were effectively barred from any role in its implementation. As BSU member Ramona Tascoe would aptly put it many years later, “We birthed the baby, and it was taken away from us as soon as it was out of the womb.”
While Black Studies struggled to establish itself in the face of a hostile administration at San Francisco State, a larger dynamic was at work nationally. Between 1970 and 1978, writes sociologist Fabio Rojas, “the Ford Foundation gave more than $10 million (in 2005 dollars) to universities and other organizations active in the Black Studies field.” By 1979 there were two hundred Black Studies programs across the country, including nearly one in ten of the nation’s four-year colleges.
Behind this private largesse was a Cold War political agenda. Ford Foundation president McGeorge Bundy had served as National Security Advisor to two administrations during the first phase of the Vietnam War; he was deeply concerned about what he saw as the propaganda value to the Soviet bloc of the domestic Black rebellion, which gave lie to the U.S. claim to be “leader of the Free World.” Under Bundy’s leadership, the foundation was increasingly preoccupied with “race relations” and what was then referred to as the “urban crisis.” Ford had, in fact, paid for the mediator who brokered an end to the San Francisco State strike. As early as September 1970, Nathan Hare warned that its largesse was funding “the most ill-conceived, establishment-oriented Black Studies programs in the country.”
The problem, as Hare saw it, was that rapid spread of Black Studies was proceeding before a common understanding had been reached about the purposes and direction of the discipline, allowing the initiative to fall to those who held the purse strings. As a result, “There is fighting all around over this or that crumb. Or a war soon rages between ideological camps only superficially mastered. There may be Pan-Africanists who take their foreign vacation tours to Europe and Marxist-Leninists who have never read Marx, let alone Lenin.” Hare’s vision of a discipline that “unit(ed) the Black academy and the street” was proving difficult to sustain in a political environment that was fundamentally unsympathetic to an internationalist, interdisciplinary, community-oriented approach.
Black Studies at San Francisco State followed a similar trajectory. In the words of historian Martha Biondi, the Third World perspective that had guided the strikers “encouraged African Americans to see themselves as part of a global majority rather than an American minority.” As the anti-imperialist politics implicit in this stance was lost, the department would eventually morph into Africana Studies. Dhameera Ahmed, a BSU activist who returned to the campus after many years, found this profoundly disturbing; she concluded that “the cultural nationalists have taken over and the politicals have been pushed out.” For her, the study of the African diaspora, stripped of historical and political context, could not substitute for a conscious effort to advance the struggle for Black liberation.
Efforts to establish Latinx and Asian studies curricula on the campus were spared the heavy-handed interference from the college administration that plagued Black Studies. Starting largely from scratch and working under the radar, students who had been active in the Third World Liberation Front during the strike managed to pull together viable programs. Since 2005, the College of Ethnic Studies has also included a Race and Resistance program whose curriculum emphasizes the relationships between movements of different nationalities and responsiveness to community needs.
But an increasingly difficult political climate, coupled with the need to establish the credibility of Ethnic Studies as an academic discipline, eventually exerted the same kind of pressures that were felt by Black Studies. Former strikers like Carmen Carrillo, who was deeply involved in setting up the Raza Studies curriculum, objected from the outset to the term “ethnic studies,” advocating instead for a Third World College. She pointed out that there were hundreds of different ethnicities around the world, but the fledgling program was meant to focus on the experience of particular nationalities forged in the crucible of slavery, colonialism, and imperial conquest. But college administrators found the term “Third World” too politically loaded, and their viewpoint prevailed.
Today San Francisco State boasts of having the only full-fledged College of Ethnic Studies in the country. There is no question that it serves to attract students of color and adds to the university’s prestige. But James Martel, head of the campus faculty union, points out that it is perennially underfunded and heavily reliant on the services of adjunct faculty who work without benefits or job security. It was necessary for students to stage a hunger strike in the spring of 2018 to prevent the elimination of several full-time faculty positions. The days of Ford Foundation largesse are long past; the corporate donations that pay a growing share of the institution’s expenses have largely bypassed Ethnic Studies, forcing it to rely on a shrinking pool of public funds.
Needless to say, the pressures that shaped Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State were at work on other campuses. “We were looking to get approved by the system without fully considering the price,” muses Theresa Montano, a Chicano Studies professor at California State University-Northridge. “A lot of colleagues who have done good scholarly work made unacceptable compromises.” Noting that to be an activist scholar “you have to work extra hard,” she adds, “I understand why people who have committed their lives to Chicano Studies scholarship have their own struggles. But I do worry that they’re redefining Chicano Studies. It does not exist without community, activism, and resistance.”
A key demand of the San Francisco State strikers was for open admissions for all students of color, who had long been drastically underrepresented at the college. In the 1985 Bakke decision, Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, speaking for a majority of the court, rejected claims that the University of California could legally use preferential admissions policies to repair the damage done by past discrimination. He did, however, say that interests of the university might legitimately be served by taking steps to encourage “diversity” in its student body. Powell’s opinion provided a court-proof basis for affirmative action, but at a price: the university could use it to further its own interest, but not the interests of actual victims of discrimination.
The Bakke decision has made “diversity” something of a buzzword, not only in academia but in corporate and public policy circles, and in fact any arena where the continuing impact of racism is up for discussion. Unfortunately, nothing in the term “diversity” indicates a necessary connection to race. At best, it has promoted a broader cultural awareness and a willingness on the part of at least some white people to adopt a more tolerant and inclusive attitude toward people of color. But it has done little or nothing to challenge the structural foundations of racism.
The consequences can be seen in the recent struggle over the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum in California. Authorized by the state legislature in 2016, it was supposed to become part of the regular K-12 curriculum in the state’s public schools. The initial draft, prepared by a group of scholars in the field, contained lesson plans on immigrant nationalities displaced by U.S. intervention in their native lands. This included more recent immigrants from the Mideast, among them Palestinians uprooted by the ongoing Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
The inclusion of Palestinians in the model curriculum prompted a firestorm of protest from some Jewish groups who saw evidence of an anti-Semitic political agenda. They argued that the curriculum was “insufficiently diverse” because it did not deal with the Jewish experience. They also pointed to a lesson plan that asked students to critically evaluate several social movements, covering a range of political views and objectives; one of the movements listed, modeled on the international campaign against apartheid South Africa in the 1990s, calls for “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” to pressure Israel into abandoning its occupation policies.
The critics had their way: the original draft was scrapped. A revised draft was finally adopted that omitted any reference to Palestinians. Lesson plans on Jews, Sikhs, and Armenians were included in the section devoted to the Asian-American experience. The authors of the original draft, including an Asian American Studies professor from San Francisco State, felt compelled to disassociate themselves from the new version.
But even a watered-down curriculum grounded in nebulous notions of “diversity” was not protected from attack. “California wants to teach your kids that capitalism is racist,” declared a scholar from the Hoover Institute. “It will line the pockets of the diversity industry with hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer funds,” warned another commentator in the Wall Street Journal. While California was adopting its model curriculum, State legislatures across the country have passed bills barring discussion of race in classrooms, lest it prove traumatic to white students. The 1619 Project, the best-selling New York Times publication examining the historical roots of U.S. racism, has been removed from school libraries.
With the ascendancy of Donald Trump as a party leader, even “mainstream” Republican politicians have embraced white supremacist tropes and a strategy of voter suppression that would have been almost unthinkable a generation ago. At this writing, a conservative Supreme Court majority, buttressed by the addition of three Trump appointees, appears ready to reject even Lewis Powell’s narrow definition of affirmative action.
In short, the battle is far from won. On the contrary, the current political climate has placed the gains won by the San Francisco State strikers in real danger. The strike was remarkable for the way a protest by Black students developed into a show of solidarity among the different Third World nationalities on the campus, supported by thousands of white students who came out day after day for five months, risking police beatings and arrests, to show their support for the 15 demands. “We were powerful,” Benny Stewart of the BSU has said, “because we had an army behind us.”
It may well be necessary for the army to mobilize again.
Author’s Bio: Peter Shapiro, an undergraduate at San Francisco State when the strike broke out, was an active participant. When it was over, he and fellow striker William Barlow co-authored An End to Silence, still the most detailed published account of the strike and the struggles that led up to it. A retired letter carrier, he was labor editor of Unity for ten years and authored Song of the Stubborn One Thousand: the Watsonville Canning Strike, 1985-87. He is active in California Alliance for Retired Americans and is a delegate to his local labor council. He sits on the board of Healthy California Now, a statewide single payer coalition.