Cesar Chavez’s Lessons from Dr. King

Cesar Chavez was a labor leader and civil rights activist who, with Dolores Huerta, co-founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962 (later the United Farm Workers). His approach to unionism and aggressive but nonviolent tactics made the farm workers' struggle a moral cause with nationwide support. By the late 1970s, his tactics forced growers to recognize his union and agree to the demands of 50,000 field workers in California and Florida. He is also famous for popularizing the slogan, “Sí, se puede!” (Spanish for, “Yes, one can” or, roughly, “Yes, it can be done.”)

The following is an excerpt from a speech Chavez gave on January 12, 1990 about the lessons he learned from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

My friends, as we enter a new decade, it should be clear to all of us that there is an unfinished agenda, that we have miles to go before we reach the promised land. The men who rule this country today never learned the lessons of Dr. King, they never learned that non-violence is the only way to peace and justice.

Who was Dr. King? Many people will tell you of his wonderful qualities. They will talk about the many great things he has done. What makes him special to me, though, is that Dr. King was a great activist. Many people don’t want you to remember that. He was fighting for change in a strong way. He used strong ways to do this.

The powers that be rule over a racist society, filled with hatred and ignorance. Our nation continues to be segregated. People of different races are kept separated. Poor people and rich people are kept apart.

 

Dr. King was against using force to harm people. He learned how to successfully fight hate. He used the unstoppable power of nonviolence. He once stopped a large group of angry people. The people had weapons. He said people should love the people who are fighting them. He said, “We must meet hate with love.”

The powers that be make themselves richer by exploiting the poor. Our nation continues to allow children to go hungry, and will not even house its own people. The United Farm Workers are dedicated to carrying on the dream of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. My friends, I would like to tell you about the farmworkers. We are struggling for our rights. We are struggling for our children’s rights. We struggle for our very lives.

Inhumanity was shown at Selma and in Birmingham. Dr. King marched there for the rights of black Americans. This inhumanity was shown in so many of Dr. King’s battlegrounds. The same inhumanity is shown every day in the fields where grapes are grown in California.

The farmworker system in place today is a system of slavery. Our workers labor for many hours every day under the hot sun, often without safe drinking water or restrooms.

Our workers are constantly under terrible pressure. They are threatened by their bosses. The bosses give them too much work to do for their pay.

The growers used their money. They paid to have good friends like Governor George Deukmejian, Ronald Reagan and George Bush. My friends, we must end the suffering. We must use the same people power that defeated injustice in Montgomery, Selma and Birmingham.

Dr. King showed how to use the power of being a customer. He told people to protest unfair treatment on buses by not paying to use buses. The people who ran the buses lost a lot of money. We asked people not to buy grapes. We got the growers to stop using some chemicals this way. Now we are trying to make sure deadly chemicals are never used on any crop.

The growers and those who help them have tried to stop us for years. They have tried to scare us. They said terrible things about us to the world. They have told outright lies. They have hurt people.

But those same things did not stop Dr. King. They will not stop us.

Once change begins in the world, it cannot be stopped.

We must learn that each and every person can make a difference. If we do not, then we will have betrayed Dr. King's life's work. Martin Luther King Jr. had more than just a dream. He had the love and the faith to act.

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