By Steven Adamo and Juan Calvillo
It was a friend named Donald Crump who invited Harold Welton to join the Black Student Union at East Los Angeles College in the Fall of 1969. Welton was already involved in activism prior to enrolling at ELAC in 1969 as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
In April of 1970, President Nixon ordered an extension of the Vietnam War by invading Cambodia, which led to nation-wide strikes and protests on college campuses throughout the nation like Kent State. “We felt that what happened at Kent State and Southern Universities could happen at East LA College,” Welton said.
At the time, the Police Science department was one of the largest departments on campus. Students who graduated as officers were allowed to carry weapons on campus. “We cannot expect a free atmosphere on a college campus with students who are police officers, armed,” Welton said.
It was out of this police-like environment that the BSU organized a march from the student lounge to the Police Science department. “When we went into the classroom, the instructor, who was a sergeant with the Sheriff’s Department, said ‘All those who are Police Science students, who are not police officers, please leave,’” Welton said. “All those who are police officers, please put these people out of the class and that’s where the altercation happened.”
Once student police officers removed BSU student members from the classroom, they returned to the student lounge where a few of the members gave speeches. Among these speakers was Welton.
“There was a police officer there who was undercover. She filed a complaint against me that I cursed, which I did,” Welton said. “It was about a week after that, the sheriff’s department came to my mother’s house.”
Before Welton’s mother answered the door, Welton explained that without a felony search warrant, she didn’t have to allow the police in the home. After waiting around for 30 minutes, the officers eventually left. Despite warnings not to return to campus the following day, Welton decided to go.
“The next day, being young—right? Telling me not to come to the school, well I went anyway,” Welton said. Wellton said that the BSU met with ELAC President John K. Wells and Dean of Students Bernard Butcher to discuss the issues of the prior day. “When I came out, man, they arrested me. I had five different misdemeanor charges, two distributing the peace charges, two charges of using an obscenity in a public place, one disruption of what was called ‘the college education code,’” Welton said.
The resulting trial was dubbed “The East LA Five.” Out of the five involved in the trial, Welton, 20, was the only one who served time in the county jail and one of the few people, in part, for cursing.
In the wake of the strikes, brand new Black and Brown Studies departments were created at ELAC. Newspapers La Vida Nueva and The Black Guard were also created. Both newspapers provided alternative perspectives not commonly found in ELAC Campus News.
During this time, Welton was actively involved with the first free clinic in the local Black community as well as the Free Breakfast Program with the Southern California chapter of the Black Panther Party. They would also sell newspapers.
“East LA College will always be a fond memory of organizing with people at that time who were dedicated. Yes, we were young, but that type of dedication of that time was something I’ll never forget,” Welton said.