2015 Workers’ Memorial Week of Action: Understanding the Uprising

Understanding the Uprising by  Vivian Price, Ph.D.,  Associate Professor, Interdisciplinary Studies Coordinator, Labor Studies, California State University, Dominguez Hills

On April 30th, 2015, the Seventh Annual Labor, Social and Environmental Justice Fair will be held on the campus of California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH). Students came up with the theme for this year’s event: Uprising. Among the many social justice groups participating will be members from the Raise the Wage coalition, including Clean Carwash, So Cal COSH, and many others.

Students chose this theme because this is the 50th Anniversary of the Watts Rebellion, and our university, which serves an overwhelming majority of students of color, working class and first generation students, owes its founding to this very event. Much like with Rodney King many years later, in 1965, white police officers triggered outrage during a traffic stop and African-Americans segregated from jobs and housing and employment took to the streets.

Five years prior, the California State Trustees had decided that the South Bay was where they should locate the next college, near the airport. At first, they chose Palos Verdes but because of the high price of land, the Trustees then studied various other sites, and narrowed the selection to Friendship Park, Fort McArthur, Torrance, and Dominguez Hills.

However, members of the Governor’s cabinet and the trustees had different visions of where to locate the campus, and who should be served by the campus: the affluent or the working class. Then, fate intervened after the Watts Rebellion. The Governor and the legislature decided that the campus would at the present location, on Central and Victoria.

The relationship of CSUDH to the Watts Rebellion has not been part of the university’s everyday narrative. In fact, even many native Angelenos don’t know the origin of the university. As a university, we are just now recognizing how our mission to provide opportunity to our service area is part of our historical legacy.

Last fall, as the Dominguez Hills chapter California Faculty Association stumbled across an interesting comment in our university history page.

The comment read:

“Fall 1965: Gov. Brown visits the area in the wake of the Watts urban unrest and determines that the Dominguez Hills site would have the best accessibility to diverse, minority students in nearby neighborhoods who want a college education.”

As a campus, we’ve begun to turn our attention to how important it is for us to rededicate ourselves to the communities we serve, and to understand our history and our mission.

Many students at CSUDH are from the area. Dominguez Hills still has the highest percentage of African American students in the entire CSU system, even as Latinos are an increasing share of the population in Compton, Watts, and Willowbrook.  Our students take pride in being part of a campus that has the reputation of being a place that is supportive of students and where it is comfortable to be a student of color or first generation student.

As students from low-income areas come to us to transform their lives, it is important to us as faculty and community to tell and listen to the stories of social justice movements, of fighting racism and segregation in education, employment and housing, and the struggles against police abuse.  It is important for our students to tell their stories of the strength of who they are and who they came from. The history and contemporary stories of labor organizing and community organizing are as critical to our students’ education as the analytical and research skills we impart.

Our history reminds us that the Workers’ Memorial Week of Action for safe workplaces and living wages and dignity for all is what our campus community fights for on a regular basis.  The conditions that led to the Watts Rebellion still exist and motivate us to fight today. For more information on the fair, visit the Workers’ Memorial Week of Action Facebook page and the CSUDH Labor Studies program website.