By Veronica Mackey
On Friday, America will honor the life and legacy of labor leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez. The co-founder of the United Farm Workers or UFW would have turned 90 on March 31. He died on April 23, 1993.
While there are volumes of information on Chavez’s pioneering work to bring social and economic justice to farm workers, his relationship to late civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is not widely reported.
The common fight to end racism and inequality for poor people of color, and commitment to non-violence brought the legacies of these two men together in a way that is reflected in the city of Inglewood today.
As a city run by Latino and African American leaders, on the brink of major economic prosperity, Inglewood reflects the ideals of hard work and economic justice set forth by Chavez and King. It also dispels myths that certain ethnic groups cannot live together peacefully.
Today, Inglewood’s population is predominately Hispanic and African American although the number of white residents is growing. Violent crime in the city is at an all time low.
Raised in a poor family of migrant farm workers, and with only a 3rd grade education, Chavez rose to become one of the nation’s strongest voices for immigrant and workers rights. Like Dr. King, Chavez used nonviolent tactics—in his case, prolonged hunger strikes—to draw attention to unjust working conditions and unfair wages suffered by Hispanic farm workers.
In 1962 he, along with Dolores Huerta co-founded the UFW labor union. By the late 1970’s, he became the bargaining agent for 50,000 field workers in California and Florida. The UFW had become a strong labor force which growers could no longer ignore.
A folk hero among Mexican Americans, Chavez inspired people of all racial backgrounds. His slogan, “Si se puede” (Spanish for “yes, we can”) was adopted by America’s first black president Barack Obama during his 2008 campaign.
King’s use of nonviolence, organized marches and economic boycotts drew national attention to racial segregation and injustice against African Americans. The year-long bus strike by black riders in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955-56 nearly bankrupted the transportation company, and ended the law that gave preferential seating to white passengers.
Through their personal suffering—going hungry, being beaten and jailed, Chavez and King showed what can happen when folks stay committed to standing up to injustice.
During their lifetimes, each leader expressed tremendous admiration for the other.
On September 19, 1966, Dr. King, sent a telegram to Chavez during one of his early public fasts:
“As brothers in the fight for equality, I extend the hand of fellowship and good will and wish continuing success to you and your members. The fight for equality must be fought on many fronts — in the urban slums, in the sweat shops of the factories and fields. Our separate struggles are really one — a struggle for freedom, for dignity and for humanity. You and your valiant fellow workers have demonstrated your commitment to righting grievous wrongs forced upon exploited people. We are together with you in spirit and in determination that our dreams for a better tomorrow will be realized.”
Chavez would later honor King in an article for Maryknoll Magazine, titled, “He Showed Us The Way,” in April 1978, 10 years after he was assassinated on April 4, 1968:
“Dr. King’s entire life was an example of power that nonviolence brings to bear in the real world. It is an example that inspired much of the philosophy and strategy of the farm workers’ movement. This observance of Dr. King’s death gives us the best possible opportunity to recall the principles with which our struggle has grown and matured.
Our conviction is that human life is a very special possession given by God to man and that no one has the right to take it for any reason or for any cause, however just it may be.”
Several years ago, Chavez came to Inglewood to participate in the annual MLK Day march.
Friday, March 31 is Cesar Chavez Day, a state holiday observed in California, Colorado and Texas. Some government offices will be closed, including Inglewood City Hall, Los Angeles Superior Courts, Department of Motor Vehicles, Hawthorne City Hall and Los Angeles Unified School District schools. Post offices and most banks will remain open. Trash pickup will be unaffected.
A special Cesar Chavez Day program for children age 3 and up will be held Thursday, March 30 from 4-5pm at the Inglewood Public Library, 101 W. Manchester Blvd., Inglewood, CA 90301. Call 310-412-5645 for more information.
The public is encouraged to take time off to study and reflect on Chavez’s life, his legacy of economic justice, nonviolence and workers rights—what it means for people here in Inglewood and throughout the world.