The San Francisco State College Third World Strike

 

by Gene Park

Summary:

Unhappy with the conditions of the educational system at San Francisco State in 1969, several Pan-Asian groups collectively known as the Third World Liberation Front(TWLF) began to call for the self-determination of minorities.

The demands were rather extreme, for they were calling for "the establishment of autonomous Ethnic Studies programs for the racial-minority groups in the TWLF, programs in which students would control both the faculty and the curriculum"(Wei 15).

In order to get the university to address the issue, these Asian minority groups decided that they would have to engage in a series of steps that would disrupt the system and force unsympathetic students and faculty staff to confront this problem. Boycotts of classes and mass protests were to be the means of getting their way. Over the course of the academic year, the minority groups were able to force three shutdowns.

The main point of these protests and shutdowns was that the curriculum of San Francisco State did not adequately educate students on minority culture and history and, instead, focused around European ideology. This education was deemed unacceptable due to its degrading nature. Other minority groups viewed this movement as an opportunity to create significant change and joined forces to form a more powerful voice on campus. Sympathetic teachers and local residents participated in these protests as well. These protests were so effective that even the American Federation of Teachers struck as well for several weeks. Eventually, national attention arrived as the mass media began to cover this situation with eager interest.

The president of San Francisco State, S.I. Hayakawa, was naturally placed into a defensive position since he possessed the power to make changes. Ironically, he was Japanese-American; however, to the surprise of many people, Hayakawa did not sympathize with the movement. He believed that the Asian-Americans of that day were much too paranoid of their situation and that it was fashionable during those times to disrupt the system and demand upheaval. He was a proponent of postponement of gratification(study first and play later). Conservatives such as governor Ronald Reagan embraced Hayakawa, although students despised his views and his autocratic style. They saw him as a minority who was a supporter of the status quo(which gave the conservatives ammunition to attack the leftists). Hayakawa called for the state militia and the student protest was put down.

Personal Reflection

I selected this incident primarily because of my interest in leftist, student oriented movements. I am a great believer in change and upheavals because it forces Americans who have become stagnant and rhythmic in their daily lives to be confronted with situations that many people face every day in other countries.

In American entertainment terms, consider the movie Easy Rider. The small-town rednecks, who eventually kill Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, and Jack Nicholson, are prime examples of the ignorant, complacent American who can not do anything but ridicule and deride people who are different or who forces them to think in a way that they are not used to.

In historical terms, the Third World Strike at San Francisco State during '68 and '69 struck me in particular due to the Asian-American influence on this event. This event was significant, in my opinion, because it provided Asian-Americans with the knowledge that they could unify despite ethnic differences, rally the support of other minority groups and sympathizers, attract national attention, and force an institutional entity to take react. Asian-Americans learned through this strike that they could set aside differences and take direct action.

Although I had learned about this event in another history course, I did not study it in detail until reading The Asian American Movement by William Wei for my History 33 course. I was very surprised to see that the Third World Liberation Group possessed enough clout to force the unwilling status quo to confront an issue. In many ways I too have been taught by my parents to remain quiet and work harder than the average American: as an American of color, the system would naturally put me at a disadvantage and that if I complained and became a nuisance, the system would put me down. Thus, I was ecstatic that these Asian-Americans took control of the situation without remaining silent, without letting the system stop them from believing in what they were doing.

I believe that it is important for every American to know their history, even if it has nothing to do with their color or ethnicity: since events such as the Third World Strike influenced some of your fellow Americans, these same events indirectly influenced you as well. If you are interested in learning about the 60's student movements such as the Tom Hayden-led SDS group (the group behind the Port Huron Statement), read James Miller's Democracy is in the Streets. It's an excellent book that covers the grassroots movements which split the Democratic Party in the mid to late 60's. More specifically, if you are interested in the Asian movement, check out The Asian American Movement which I mentioned above.

Works Cited Wei, William. The Asian American Movement. Temple University Press: Philadelphia, 1993.