Palo Alto History. Org

Joan Baez in Palo Alto: Her First Protest

Folksinger Joan Baez is an iconic symbol of the 1960s protest movement.  In those years she was vilified by the right as the poster child of all that was wrong with American youth --- a dangerous leftist aiding and abetting the enemy, trampling on the country’s values.  At the same time, liberals saw her as a champion of civil rights, speaking out against a government that had betrayed its people and its nation’s values.  

Baez’s defiant stands are well known.  In her opposition to the war in Vietnam she was jailed twice, once for blocking the entrance to the Armed Forces Induction Center in Oakland. In 1965 she founded the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence while admitting to withholding 60% of her taxes, the amount she believed was being spent on American defense.   In 1972, she was highly criticized by conservatives for traveling to Hanoi during the Christmas Bombings to address human rights and deliver Christmas mail to POWs.  She has also performed at fund-raisers to support protests against the Iraq War, discrimination against gays and lesbians, military regimes in Cambodia and Latin America, and logging and deforestation policies.  

But it turns out that her first protest came in Palo Alto, during an air raid drill at Palo Alto High School in 1958.

The incident came during Joan’s junior year when she was 17 years old and had recently moved to Palo Alto from Redlands, California.  On February 6th, students were supposed to participate in a “Civil Defense and Disaster Preparedness Drill.”  This called for students to leave school early, find their way home and sit in their cellars to pretend to be hiding from a foreign attack. Evidently, American schools had moved beyond the even more questionable practice of training students to hide under their desk with the hope that it would somehow shield them against a hydrogen bomb.  

But Joan believed the air raid drill was similarly silly.  The night before the drill she checked her father’s physics books to confirm what she suspected: that students wouldn’t have nearly enough time to go home in the event of a real attack.  Missiles launched from the USSR would reach Palo Alto in less than half an hour.  In fact, on January 14th, her father, a University of Redlands professor had written a letter to the Palo Alto Times forum section calling the drill “unrealistic.”

When the drill came, Joan was in French class.  As Baez tells the story in her autobiography,
And a Voice to Sing With, three bells rang to indicate that the drill had begun.  “With pounding heart,” Joan just sat at her desk reading.  When her teacher waved her to the door, Joan said “I’m not going.”  The teacher said in a
French accent, “Now what ees eet.”  Joan responded with a mix of teen-age attitude and true bravery, “I’m protesting this stupid air raid drill because it is false and misleading. I’m staying here in my seat.”  According to Baez his response was to walk out of the classroom, muttering the words, “Comme vous etes un enfant terrible!”

While many of her classmates ran off to house parties to celebrate the half day of school, Baez was eventually escorted to the office where she identified herself as a “conscientious  objector” and sat and read until 3 o’clock.  

Joan had her first taste of fame the next day when the Palo Alto Times ran a story about her defiance.  In the article, Joan was critical of her classmates.  “I don’t think half of them knew what it was about, even though the teachers explained it. The students just looked at the drill as a chance to get out of school early.”  She also gave hints of the tone of Baez’s future protests, telling the Times that, “I don’t see any sense in having an air raid drill.  I don’t think it’s a method of defense.  Our only defense is peace.”

But perhaps Palo Alto was not really the best place to wage protests of change.  Principal Ray Ruppel is quoted in the article as saying, “Miss Baez is a very good student and a very fine person.  She was awfully nice about it.”  He went on to tell the paper he admired her for standing by her convictions.  The end of the article quotes Joan as saying “I was expecting more of a reaction.”  Of course in later years she would certainly get it. []

 Our Reader's Memories:

"I was in the French class that day and remembered how we exited to the front of the Campanile without Joan. I seem to remember that we were a bit taken aback, but nevertheless impressed by and respectful of her gesture. For most of us it was our  first direct experience  with 'civil disobedience,' a precursor of activities we would all be involved in during the 60's. Italso sparked some good discussion among our social groups, and it warranted a couple of inches in the Palo Alto Times the next day."

"We used to go see her. She used to do concerts for $2.  Two dollars to see Joan Baez, I'll never forget that.  It was at White Plaza, and she came out barefoot in this long sleeveless purple dress.  2 dollars to hear her sing for hours.  It was just magical.  Now, of course, you have to pay a lot of money to see her in concert."  

"In 1970 or 1971 just before Christmas, Joan led a noon march down University Avenue, protesting the Vietnam war.  The gathering at City Hall Plaza was well attended, and University Avenue was closed to traffic, while we marched.  I do remember that she seemed to be a very down-to-earth person, and that she talked with us. My in-laws were visiting us, and when I told them that we had marched with Joan Baez, they thought she was a traitor (and presumably so
was I...). There definitely were better "vibes" at the Palo Alto demonstration than at any other Vietnam protest demonstrations where I marched.  There was no violence at all - the cops were very laid back.  We were just citizens expressing our rights."

"Joan's integrity and inner beauty were evident from her first days at Palo Alto High School. Outspoken and strong-willed, she was also kind, generous and compassionate. This hasn't changed or wavered over the years.

Her reputation as a radical was distorted and unkind -- better yet, it was something to be very proud of. Joan was enlightened, not radical, to advise families not to send their sons to be killed in a senseless war. It was enlightened to stand up for equality and justice for all citizens.

Palo Alto can be proud to have known Joan Baez, and to have been part of her growth. We can still hear her lovely voice singing those Belafonte calypso songs, like Jamaica Farewell, at the noontime assemblies at Paly High!"
- Don

"Never been to Palo Alto, but I've been to Vietnam. More specifically, to help fight the war in northern Laos. I've seen what Joan Baez's efforts at withholding 60-percent of her income tax (Joan, the defense budget took up about 6 percent of the total Federal Budget during the war...not 60 percent. Think of all those wonderful Great Society programs you missed out on supporting) did. North Vietnamese troops were able to overrun Laos, "liberating" it of people like the Hmoung who were hunted down and killed or forced to flee into Thailand. I remember reading how the Lao royal family, including the king, were starved to death in reeducation camps. I recall how 100 Khmer pilots, being trained at Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base in 1974 and 1975, voted to return to Cambodia to be part of rebuilding it after the Khmer Rouge assured them they had a place in the "New Kampuchea." Three survived. Ninety-seven were shot the day they returned. Their part of the "New Kampuchea" was a mass grave. Distorted, unkind? You sang well, I'll give you that. You just didn't think very well."


"My "Joan memories" are numerous--sitting in front of Encina hall after the Cambodia bombings, a concert in Frost--but my favorite memory is actually hearing her sing for the first time in Europe. My Mom worked for her father at UNESCO in Paris and we had autographed invites to the concert and the reception afterwards."


Send Us Your Memory!

This rather remarkable photo of protesting students  includes 17 year-old Joan Baez at far left. (PAHA)

Joan Baez early in her career.

Joan with Dylan.