Cesar Chavez loomed large in the battle to win union rights for Mexican American farmworkers, raising the national awareness of the issue that in a manner that got results – and Martin Luther King Jr.'s attention.
Born on March 31, 1927, near Yuma, Arizona, Chavez spent his early years at his family farm, until his father lost the property in the late 1930s. The family went on to work as migrant farm laborers through California for much of the next decade, giving Chavez a first-hand lesson in the difficulties of a life spent working long hours for little pay, with injuries or illness capable of wiping out any hard-earned gains.
King and Chavez became nationally-known around the same time
Chavez became involved in organized labor in the early 1950s when he joined the Mexican American advocacy group Community Service Organization (CSO). As King became nationally-known through the Montgomery Bus Boycott that spanned most of 1956, and the formation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) the following year, Chavez was forging his own reputation by rising to national director of the CSO.
Unable to channel the CSO's energy and resources toward organizing the migrant farmworkers, Chavez departed the organization in 1958. He co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) with Dolores Huerta in 1962, and quietly built a coalition of Mexican American migrant farmworkers through California's San Joaquin Valley over the next few years.
The tipping point came in September 1965, when Filipino pickers on the grape fields of Delano, California, walked off the job due to poor wages and conditions. The NFWA voted to join the effort a week later, and "La Huelga" – the strike – was on.
Chavez used a nonviolent approach, inspired by King and Gandhi
Like the SCLC and other African American activist groups, the strikers faced resistance from the growers that included intimidation tactics and outright violence, and Chavez shrewdly took advantage of the sympathetic sentiments sparked by Civil Rights predecessors. Espousing the beliefs of King (and Mahatma Gandhi before that), he called for a nonviolent approach through peaceful demonstrations. In March 1966, with a rallying cry of "Sí, se puede" – yes we can – Chavez led supporters on a 340-mile march from Delano to the California capital of Sacramento.
King wrote Chavez a telegram saying 'we are together with you in spirit'
King himself was impressed with Chavez's efforts, indicating as much in a 1966 telegram sent to the labor leader. "Our separate struggles are really one – a struggle for freedom, for dignity and for humanity," King wrote. "You and your 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.”
After launching a boycott of table grapes in late 1967, Chavez achieved a new level of fame by undertaking a 25-day fast early the following year. Again, the act resulted in a telegram from King, who wrote that he was "deeply moved by your courage in fasting as your personal sacrifice for justice through nonviolence," and saluted him for his "indefatigable work against poverty and injustice."
Like King, Chavez was also jailed
The assassination of King in April 1968 ended any hope of the two leaders publicly joining forces, but Chavez did his memory justice, winning his five-year battle with the grape growers in July 1970. Their concessions included employer contributions to a union health plan and an economic development project.
Then, as if to show his dedication to "indefatigable work," Chavez almost immediately launched a new strike, over the growers signing "sweetheart deals" with the Teamsters Union. Late that year, Chavez took another page from the King handbook with a high-profile stint in jail.
By 1975, as head of the union now known as the United Farm Workers (UFW), Chavez could count legislation among his accomplishments, as the passage of California's Agricultural Labor Relations Act gave farmworkers the right to engage in collective bargaining actions for the first time. Two years later, another victory was achieved with an agreement that kept the Teamsters out of UFW territory.
Chavez remained dedicated to the service of farmworkers his entire life
The story of Chavez and UFW's success often ends here, but the battles continued as he struggled to control a growing union through temporary contracts and ever-shifting allegiances. As Miriam Powel detailed in her 2014 book, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez, he became less tolerant of dissent and purged many of UFW's leaders by the mid-1970s, a time when he grew enamored with a lifestyle community called Synanon.
Still, even if he wavered from his path, Chavez remained dedicated to the service of farmworkers and the union. He launched another boycott of the grape industry in 1984, and in 1988, he undertook his first major public fast in years, drawing the participation of Jesse Jackson and entertainment A-listers like Martin Sheen and Whoopi Goldberg.
Chavez praised King in a 1990 speech
During a Martin Luther King Day speech in 1990, Chavez again used the imagery of the late Civil Rights leader to decry the use of dangerous pesticides in fields populated by his union members. "The same inhumanity displayed at Selma, in Birmingham, in so many of Dr. King’s battlegrounds, is displayed every day in the vineyards of California," he said.
Three years later Chavez was in Yuma to help defend UFW against a lawsuit when he passed away in his sleep. Like King, who was in Memphis for a sanitation strike when he was killed, Chavez spent his final days pushing for the rights of workers, a fitting end to a life of activism modeled after – and admired by – the great Civil Rights champion of his time.