The Legacy of Berkeley High School’s Black Student Union

*Editor’s Note: This week we are publishing some of our favorite BP articles. We continue with this essay by historian Aaron Fountain as part of our forum on Student Activism.

Around 500 students and staff wore black for “Blackout day” at Berkeley High, 2015 (Photo: Mark Coplan).

The Black Student Union (BSU) of Berkeley High School in Berkeley, California launched an effective campaign between 1968 and 1969 that left several long-lasting marks on the school district. It successfully lobbied for more Black instructors and soul food in the cafeteria. The BSU also campaigned to make Malcolm X’s birthday an official school holiday and established the nation’s first high school Black Studies department. Postwar Black high school student activism had many similarities and overlaps regarding student demands and protests, but local dynamics shaped the issues students addressed and how the corresponding community reacted. Unique to Berkeley was school administrators’ quick responses to the BSU that allowed students to achieve victories without organizing nonviolent direct actions. The profound legacy of Berkeley High’s BSU demonstrates how Blacks students managed to carve out a space for themselves where they could appreciate their history and culture within an environment where they felt invisible from student life.

The creation of Berkeley High’s BSU and its accomplishments represented a significant departure from Berkeley’s African American freedom struggle, a movement that won gradual victories.  Despite Berkeley’s reputation as a progressive city, the few Blacks who lived in the city prior to World War II experienced daily discrimination in areas such as housing, education, restaurants, and in nursing schools. Berkeley’s Black population grew dramatically as many Southern Blacks moved to the region after World War II from 4 percent in 1940 to 20 percent in 1960.  By 1970, Blacks were 24 percent of the population.

As Southern migrants with little education, historian W.J. Rorabaugh noted one survey revealed Black parents had high ambitions for the children. Unfortunately, parents’ enthusiasm for their children’s educational prospects did not reflect educators’ attitudes about the growing presence of Black students in city schools. In the 1950s, one Black community leaders demanded that school officials hire Black elementary school teachers. The school board hired one Black kindergarten teacher, but the grade was optional. White parents could withdraw their children from a class with a Black instructor. Berkeley High was always racially integrated, but student life remained segregated. Black students only had access to the school’s swimming pool on Friday nights. Few Black students worked for the school newspaper, none performed in school plays, and they remained separated in school activities. Counselors advised Black students to enroll into shop classes and other ‘practical’ subjects and placed them into lower-tracked courses. Although these students were better educated than their parents, huge academic achievement gaps existed between Black students and their White counterparts. Educators’ low expectations of Black students led some youth to dropout or enlisted in the military rather than pursuing a college education.

The students themselves implemented the most profound change in the school district. Although burgeoning youth activism among Black students began prior to the late 1960s, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968 led Black high school students in Berkeley to form a Black Student Union. The creation of the BSU sparked criticism from the student body and the local press, which prompted one student to explain that the group was not a “junior anti-white organization.”  The student said the motto of the BSU was “U.S.E.D. or Unity, Self-help, Education, and Dignity.” The goals of the BSU were to maintain Berkeley’s reputation of having the best schools in the nation, educate black students about their legal rights when interacting with law enforcement, provide summer jobs for Black youth, and organize BSUs in northern California.1 Shortly after the group’s founding, students sponsored a Black history and culture week. They also lent their support to students at Berkeley’s Garfield Junior High School after racial violence broke out between Black and White students in April. The school board responded to the disturbance with implementing Black history as a course, ordering an immediate study into the tracking system, and initiating a discussion of renaming of the school after Martin Luther King, Jr.2

Old Berkeley High School in 2009. (Credit: Sanfranman59/Wikimedia Commons)

High schools throughout the Bay Area experienced a wave of unrest as Black students organized strikes and boycotts during the 1968-1969 school year. In the fall, high school protests and racial violence forced school officials to shut down schools for the remainder of the day or the week.  Berkeley avoided this wave of unrest. The school’s BSU made demands like their other high school counterparts, but the school board capitulated quickly since administrators were cognizant of disturbances in high schools throughout the area. Additionally, the school district itself had experienced disturbances related to anti-war activities in 1967 with hundreds of students walking out of school in November. These implementations included establishing courses on black literature, language, drama, music, and “economic survival.” Students demanded that school officials hire more black teachers, fire racist staff and teachers, and serve soul food in the cafeteria.  By October 1968, the school board agreed to implement the most practical demands. In fact, they agreed to serve soul food immediately.3 Defending his position on giving into to “militant” demands, School District Superintendent Neil Sullivan asserted, “history has shown that the only way to get things is to get a shotgun and stick it up against the other people’s neck.”4

After debating several demands with school officials, the school board officially implemented some of them throughout the remainder of the school year. In February, the school instituted a Black Studies department, the first in the nation for a high school, where students learned about African culture, literature, Swahili, economics, and the Black press.5 Students called for a faculty advisor to determine expulsion and suspensions, more liberal dress code, official recognition of Malcolm X’s birthday as a school holiday, and banning all police and adult supervisors from campus. The school board did not comment on most of the demands, but in April, the school board voted unanimously on making Malcolm X’s birthday a school holiday and closed school on May 19, 1969.6

Malcolm X at a CORE demonstration, July 8, 1963 (Photo: Bob Adelman/Magnum).

After the spring of 1969, Black student activism at Berkeley High decreased and received little publicity from the local press and school administrators. Compared to other schools throughout the Bay Area, the BSU won most of their demands and the school avoided the racial violence that plagued other high schools. Emboldened by Black student protest, Asian students formed their own student union in 1968 and White students created the Berkeley High School Student Union in 1969, which was independent from Berkeley High.7 School administrators’ openness to engaging with students’ demands was unique to Berkeley, but Black students had to push for them aggressively. The school board was no less fearful of high school unrest than school administrators in adjacent cities. In Oakland, for example, school officials responded to Black high school student activism by placing security guards and citizen patrols in schools. The fear that Black students would adopt militant tactics prompted school officials in Berkeley to adopt students’ demands expeditiously. Nonetheless, the reforms Black students successfully campaigned for in a short period of time is a remarkable achievement considering their previous invisibility in student life.

As of 2017, the Black Studies department at Berkeley High continues to operate, Martin Luther King Jr. School remains the name of one of the city’s middle schools, and Malcolm X’s birthday is still an official school holiday. On the local level, the legacy of Berkeley High’s BSU has faded over the course of several decades. Few local residents seem to know why Malcolm X’s birthday is a school holiday. Moreover, the Black Studies Department faces an uphill battle. Although it still exists, it has faced numerous threats of termination.

Despite these challenges, Berkeley High’s BSU has left a long lasting mark in the city and their impact can be felt across the state. In February 2016, for example, about two dozen Black students at San Francisco’s Lowell High School walked out to protest offensive signs posted next to a Black history display in the school’s library. In this way, Black students at Lowell High School–who made up only 2 percent of the student body in the public magnet school–carved out a space for themselves and fought to create a welcome environment where their history and culture would be appreciated. In so doing, they were building on the rich legacy of Black students who came before them, including the brave students in Berkeley High’s BSU during the 1960s.

  1.  Daily Jacket (Berkeley High School), May 8, 1968; and May 9, 1968.
  2.  “Teaching of Negro History Order Here: Board’s Response to Violence,” Berkeley Daily Gazette, April 17, 1968.
  3.  “Demands by Black Students Approved,” Berkeley Daily Gazette, October 2, 1968.
  4.  “Sullivan Quoted on Militancy,” Berkeley Daily Gazette, October 5, 1968.
  5.  “Black Studies Program in Full Swing at Berkeley High,” Berkeley Daily Gazette, February 12, 1969.
  6.  “B of E Votes Holiday for Malcolm X,” Berkeley Daily Gazette, April 23, 1969.
  7.  “BOC Accepts OSU passes 3 Proposals,” Daily Jacket, October 31, 1968
Share with a friend:
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.


Aaron Fountain

Aaron G. Fountain, Jr. is a Ph.D. student in the Department of History at Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. His research examines high school student radicalism in the 1960s and 1970s. He has published articles in several outlets including Al Jazeera America, the Latino Rebels, and The Hill. Follow him on Twitter @aaronfountainjr.