Atomic Breakfast Club: Joan Baez's First Protest
In 1958 while Robert Zimmerman (the nom de teen of Bob Dylan) was worshipping Little Richard and James Dean in Hibbing, Minnesota, his future folk queen, Joan Baez, was already capturing headlines for her precocious protesting on the West Coast. On February 6th of that year the 17-year-old Baez declared herself a "conscientious objector" and refused to leave the grounds of Palo Alto High School during a "civil defense and disaster preparedness drill." The rest of her fun loving classmates took advantage of the half day to attend various house parties. "I was invited to one (party) myself," Ms. Baez told the Palo Alto Times for a story that appeared in the following day's edition.
In a self-righteous manner that would serve her well in the next decade, Baez criticized her fellow pupils for their lack of awareness of the significance of the exercise. The paper reported Baez's assessment of her peers as follows: "... she didn'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 said." Ironically, based on the biographical information available regarding Mr. Dylan's formative years, he would have fit right in with those partying teens who earned Ms. Baez's scorn.
The impetus for Baez's protest was suggested by the press account to have had its roots in a January 14, 1958 letter that her father, Dr. Albert V. Baez, a physics professor, wrote to the Palo Alto Times' Forum section. In the letter, Dr. Baez called the plans for the drill "unrealistic." But young Joan disputed this paternalistic conclusion as to her motives and told the newspaper that she had come up with the sit-in strategy on her own. She added that her father had even tried to dissuade her from her action (though, in Ms. Baez's 1987 memoir "And a Voice to Sing With" she states that "Having opposed it before, my father seemed pleased with my bold public action"). Whatever the case, it seems certain that Ms. Baez's steadfast pacifism was ingrained in her by her Quaker upbringing and the firm support of her family. In fact, the familial endorsement of Ms. Baez's real life public dissent calls to mind the little seen Joe Dante 1962-set film MATINEE in which a Gandhi-citing teenage daughter of like-minded beatnik parents stages a similar act of civil disobedience by refusing to duck and cover.
The contrast between Baez's own recollection of this seminal life event in her memoir and the contemporaneous press account is worth examining because there are some telling differences. Specifically, Baez casts herself as somewhat more rebellious than the Times sees fit to.
Baez (And a Voice to Sing With, 1987, page 42): "I'm protesting this stupid air raid drill because it is false and misleading. I am staying in my seat." To which her French class teacher "shakes his head" and says: "Comme vous etes un enfant terrible!"
Palo Alto Times (February 7, 1958): "(Principal) Ruppel said Miss Baez is a good student and 'a very fine person. Joan was awfully nice about it', he commented. And he said he admired her for standing by her convictions."
The paper closed its article with this lament from the soon-to-be famous protest icon: "I was expecting more of a reaction."
In later years, of course, Ms. Baez did receive "more of a reaction" (and a no doubt voluminous FBI file). In 1958, however, Joan Baez may have been ahead of her time. And perhaps, also, Palo Alto, California just wasn't the best geographic location to incite conservative outrage. Nearly 50 years after that first protest at "Paly High," Ms. Baez had herself lifted onto a tree to help prevent a south Los Angeles farm collective from being closed. The collective was eventually shut down and its farmers dispersed, but Baez once again proved that her teenage ideals were firmly intact. And where was Bob Dylan? Probably off playing rock and roll somewhere.
FULL PRESS ACCOUNT OF JOAN BAEZ'S 1958 CIVIL DEFENSE PROTEST:
THE PALO ALTO TIMES, February 7, 1958 (no byline attributed)
'CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTOR' STAYS AT SCHOOL DURING TEST
Yesterday's civil defense drill and disaster preparedness drill meant a short day at school for teachers and pupils alike – with one exception.
The exception was Palo Alto High School Senior Joan Baez, 17, of 273 Santa Teresa St., Stanford. She is the daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Albert Y. Baez. Dr. Baez is in his second year as a visiting professor of physics at Stanford University. He is regularly a member of the faculty at the University of Redlands at Redlands.
Miss Baez stayed at the school until the normal end of classes at 3 p.m. She told school officials that she is a "conscientious objector" and does not believe in the drill.
Later in the afternoon she told the Times: "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."
She said she did not see any sense in a two-hour warning system when a missile can get to this country in half an hour.
Miss Baez also criticized the students for taking the drill so lightly. She said she didn'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 said. Several took advantage of the opportunity to hold parties at their homes. "I was invited to one myself," she added.
Miss Baez said staying at school was her own idea. While her father had called the plan for the drill "unrealistic" in a letter published in the Times Forum on January 14, she said he had actually discouraged her from making an issue about it.
She had planned to stay in her classroom, but was finally persuaded by some of her teachers to go to the principal's office, she said. Principal Ray Ruppel said she was allowed to stay in the office until 3. He did not try to get her to go home early because he knew about the family's stand on the matter.
Ruppel said Miss Baez is a good student and "a very fine person. Joan was awfully nice about it," he commented. And he said he admired her for standing by her convictions.
Miss Baez said she was surprised that her action was taken so calmly by everyone. "I was expecting more of a reaction," she said.