The Walkout

By: Stephanie Allmon, Waco Tribune-Herald

Feb. 25, 2001

Jean Laster was a junior in high school the year court-ordered school integration forced her to shift from G.W. Carver High School in East Waco to La Vega High School in Bellmead.

She said that during that year, the 1970-71 school year, she and the other black students felt the burden of that transition. Carver students had to give up most of their extracurricular activities, including their award-winning band, drill team, cheerleaders, sports teams and debate teams. Just as devastating, Laster said, was giving up many of their teachers, because La Vega couldn't hire them all.

"They had to either move out of the community or go into another area of professionalism," she said.

One of the students' favorite teachers and coaches, Clarence Chase Sr., moved to La Vega with the ex-Carver students that year and became a dear friend to many of them. So when Laster and a few other students found out Chase's contract would not be renewed after that year, they got mad. They were tired of feeling powerless and decided to stage a walkout.

Though Laster had never participated in an act of civil disobedience, she'd heard about incidents in other cities and had admired the efforts of Martin Luther King Jr. She, her brother Dobie Smith, and a handful of their friends started meeting outside of school to plan every detail.

They planned when they would start and where they would go. They even decided to keep one of the most popular students, Harry James, in the office during the walkout so he wouldn't lose his school leadership privileges or risk not graduating if they got punished.

At 10 a.m. on a spring morning, Laster and the other protesters closed their school books, walked out of class, exited La Vega High School and began their march. About 75 other black students followed.

Their march took them across the Brazos River to G.W. Carver High School and on to Carver Park Baptist Church. They logged at least five miles, Laster said.

Since no one knew about it ahead of time, and since Waco hadn't seen many acts of civil disobedience, Laster said, the walkout attracted the attention of community leaders and local media.

That night, the students who participated met with their parents and community leaders at Carver Park Baptist Church. Laster said the church's insurance company dropped its coverage immediately because the company feared a riot would break out. But there was never a riot.

La Vega High School renewed Chase's contract for the next year. Another court ruling forced Laster and the other ex-Carver students to once again shift schools the next year. She graduated from Richfield High School.

Laster said she never participated in any other acts of civil disobedience, and she was never reprimanded for spearheading the walkout. But she felt like her voice was heard.

"I did media interviews that day, and I told them why we did it," she said. "It was not only (Chase's) contract, but that we had given up so much. We were fed up getting the short end of the stick."

Laster went on to become the first black female justice of the peace in McLennan County. She was elected in 1998 and continues to serve as justice of the peace for Precinct 7. She said her experiences trying to seek justice in high school helped lay the foundation for her work in public service.

"You have to have a voice, to raise consciousness about what's right, fair and just, not only in your immediate community but in the whole community," she said. "Martin Luther King said, 'Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.' You have to have your voice heard."

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