Illustration by Macey Keung
Berkeley High School (BHS) has a strong reputation as a school full of political activism and is known as a highly liberal and progressive school. Though it may come as a surprise to some, this has not always been the case.
Benette Williams graduated from BHS in 1960. At the time, it was a three-year high school. In fact, most students had the same thirty kids in all of their academic classes because they were grouped by test scores. They also had social clubs, similar to fraternities or sororities with Greek letter names. These social clubs were fairly segregated and eventually were eventually banned because they were deemed discriminatory.
Overall, socializing was more valued than social justice at BHS. A lot was different then, and a lot was soon to change.
Williams came back to BHS as a teacher in 1968. In her first years of teaching, high school activism became more and more common. “After the ’60s and the civil rights movements, the students became more politically active,” said Williams. She recalled walkouts in which the student body walked to the University of California (UC) Berkeley campus and joined political demonstrations where they were met with tear gas. This was the point when BHS began to create its reputation as a politically active school.
Williams recognized that a change occurred at BHS in the 1960s, but this change did not only take place at the high school level. This was the point in time when Berkeley became the progressive and liberal city we know today.
The cause and manifestation of political activism in Berkeley had its roots in school desegregation. “School Desegregation in Berkeley, California” is a staff report of the United States Commision on Civil Rights. The report describes Berkeley Unified School District’s efforts to continue desegregating their schools in order to create equal education opportunities for everyone living in Berkeley.
In 1957, desegregation efforts began after the local National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) chapter requested of the school board that a committee be appointed to study the segregation of Berkeley schools. The next year, in 1958, a new superintendent was appointed. Many changes were made, including putting the staff through “intergroup relations trainings,” and hiring many minority teachers and placing them throughout the Berkeley schools.
In 1963 the school board voted to desegregate junior high schools and was considering methods of desegregating elementary schools. The document states, “As the board was considering the question of educational opportunities, the political climate in Berkeley was shifting from conservative to liberal.”
The document discussed how board membership reflected this change. In 1958 the board had one liberal and four conservatives, but the board had flipped by 1963, with one conservative and four liberals, including the first African American member.
This newfound liberalism has dominated the Berkeley environment in these past 50 years. Walkouts and other forms of protest became common occurrences at BHS, often with BHS students joining with UC Berkeley students for marches or rallies on the UC Berkeley campus. Some of these demonstrations included getting involved with protests against the Vietnam War as well as actions supporting People’s Park. This type of activism continued for many years, but over time BHS developed its own culture of political activism.
Naomi Washington-Diouf, African American Studies Department Chair, began teaching at BHS in 1991. One essential part of this culture at BHS that she has observed in the past, involves students advocating for what they want for themselves at BHS.
“[They would become] passionate about an issue that [was] happening and [they kept] going until [they had] a solution,” Washington-Diouf explains when describing her observations of past student behavior. A lot of courses offered at BHS in the past half century were put in place because students requested, or demanded to see their culture represented in high school classrooms.
A prime example of students enacting change in the community is the African American Studies Department, which was formed in 1968. The department is celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year, and it would not be in place had the students at BHS not advocated for its creation. To this day, there is no other high school program like it in the US. Also in 1968, the Black Student Union (BSU) was formed by African American students in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. In later years, students were involved in the development of courses like Chicano/Latino Literature and Chicano History as well.
Washington-Diouf believes that since these times, activism at BHS has declined. “I think [students] were more politically active in past days than now, now [when] something happens, Berkeley High School gets passionate about it, but then the issue dies,” explained Washington-Diouf.
Others believe activism has continued to be a strong theme at BHS. Williams brings up, multiple walkouts BHS has had in the past few years which were student organized. One took place after the 2016 presidential election, one in support of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals the following year, and a walkout to honor the victims of the Parkland shooting in the spring of 2018.
“It’s so great that kids at Berkeley High are continuing the activism legacy that Berkeley High School has built, and it’s fantastic that the school is supporting the students’ desire to have a voice,” said Amy Gordon, a BHS alumna who graduated in the class of 1981.
Rachel Berry, a member of the class of 2000 feels that being in a political environment at BHS resonates with her to the current day. “Learning within a social justice framework was really influential in my personal growth and in my education,” said Berry.
The culture of activism at BHS has changed drastically over the many years it has been operating. BHS students have continuously stood up for each other, stood up for their rights, and let the nation know that high schoolers care about politics. The focus of activism may change through coming years, but students continue to work towards a better future for themselves and the world around them.