Moments in History: Joan Baez

Folksinger Joan Baez is an iconic symbol of the 1960s protest movement. 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 prisoners of war. 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.”

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.

Photo: College, high school and junior high school students protest H-bomb tests with numerous signs. Student Joan Baez stands at far left. – Courtesy of Palo Alto Historical Association/Guy Miller Archives

Written by Matt Bowling (