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When the students of Crystal City taught us about our rights

Updated: Jul 13, 2023

I remember people whispering about it. The talk was everywhere. Some people were proud, yet afraid. Can we do that here? Should we do that? What will happen? Others were just angry. Those people are socialists, communists and radicals, they said. They are crazy, racist people who don't know their place.

The year was 1969. On December 9th – 50 years ago today – Mexican American high school students walked out of Crystal City High School. Their actions reverberated around Texas and around the country – and they are still felt today. The actions of those young people spawned a new political party, La Raza Unida, pushed the civil rights movement forward, and eventually lead to the election and inclusion of Latinos across Texas' political spectrum.

While there was a long litany of grievances, who would have guessed that the trigger for this controversial but momentous event was the selection of cheerleaders? Two of four cheerleading positions at Crystal City High School were vacant. Though most students were Mexican American, they were told that neither vacancy could be filled by a Mexican American because only one Mexican American cheerleader was allowed – and the school already had one Mexican American cheerleader.

The demographics of the school were of no concern to the power structure. When the Mexican American students began to outnumber the Anglo students, the rules had been changed. No longer would cheerleaders be elected by popular vote of the student body. Instead, the cheerleaders would be named by a specially selected committee of teachers. This decision set the pot to boil – and it boiled over when the two cheerleading vacancies occurred.

The superintendent's attempt to negotiate a compromise of six cheerleaders with an even 3-3 split was negated by the local school board, and when the students and their parents appeared before the board, they were treated poorly. In fact, the board threatened expulsion for any student involved in further unrest and doubled down to make it even more difficult for Mexican Americans to become cheerleaders. A new requirement was added: no student could be a cheerleader unless at least one parent had graduated from high school.

Much of the local Mexican American population was made up of migrant workers who worked the spinach and other crops grown in the area. These were parents who'd never had access to education – and, though fearful of losing their jobs, felt strongly that their kids deserved the opportunities given to other children. They supported their children's effort to change the system.

Incredibly, the Anglo power structure argued that their decision was not based on race or ethnicity - that it was merely about choosing better cheerleaders. Subterfuge has long been successfully used to cover up true motive, but in Crystal City, the Mexican Americans had had enough.

Frustrated that normal channels had failed, the students staged a walkout on December 9, 1969. Each day, more students joined the walkout. Eventually, over 2,000 students participated. They attracted national attention. U.S. Sen. Ralph Yarborough (D-Texas) invited the students to Washington, D.C. Sens. Edward Kennedy and George McGovern met with the students, too. All three senators pushed the Justice and the Health, Education and Welfare departments to intervene.

In Crystal City, the board refused to budge until federal and state agencies and the national media converged on the town. In the face of that public pressure, the school board gave in. On January, 9, 1970 – one month after the walkout began – the school board reluctantly approved the students demands, which now included a student representative to the board, the recruitment of more Mexican American teachers and counselors, more rigorous academic classes and fewer home economics and shop classes for Mexican Americans – and a curriculum that included contributions made by Mexican Americans.

In the spring elections of that year, Mexican American candidates swept both school board and city council races for the first time. A precedent had been set: Mexican Americans across the state facing similar issues of discrimination knew that activism, fortitude and persistence could pay off. A movement was born. That movement found its way not only to my hometown of Alpine, but to big cities and small towns all across Texas.

The initial request by the students was an additional cheerleader position – but the request was made to a school board that was racist, stuck in the past, and unwilling to compromise. In the end, the result was not what the school board intended – and it was much bigger than what was going on in Crystal City.

Today's elected officials would be wise to heed the basic lessons from Crystal City's experience in 1969. Respect the dignity of others. Be reasonable and willing to compromise. Always do the right thing voluntarily and willingly; it accords you nothing if you do the right thing only after exhausting all your other options.

Perhaps just as importantly, elected officials should reflect on their legacies and their role in history. History has not looked kindly on legislators who voted to protect slavery, oppose civil rights or defend the indefensible. In Crystal City, those who defended an unfair status quo are now seen to be small and petty. Those who were called "radical" and "racist" at the time now appear to be visionary.

For the sake of our kids and grandkids, let's hope our current and future leaders reflect on the example they are setting – and that they rise up to be the heroes and the visionaries instead.

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