31 Mar Cesar Chavez Day
(Photo Credit: Archive PL / Alamy Stock Photo)
Today is César Chávez Day, and Community Coalition honors his legacy of dedication to improving the living and working conditions of others. His work inspires all BIPOC organizers as we continue to fight for equity and social justice.
After serving in the U.S. Navy, Chávez trained as an organizer at the Community Services Organization (CSO) and later co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) with Dolores Huerta. The NFWA later became the United Farm Workers of America. Together, Chávez and Huerta played an essential role in helping secure the first union contracts for far workings requiring rest periods, clean drinking water, and hand-washing facilities.
There was a growing concern for the health and safety of farm workers because, during this time, pesticides were in use. As such, Chávez went on hunger strikes to protest against using these chemicals. In 1968, he went on a 25-day hunger strike to draw attention to the inhumane conditions farm workers endured in the fields and to underscore his commitment to nonviolent actions. His efforts culminated in medical benefits for farm workers and the first pension plan for retired farm workers.
Cesar was a proponent of multiracial organizing because he understood that Black and Brown communities shared struggles against racism and discrimination. Even though they never met in person, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and Cesar Chávez communicated for several years. During Chávez’s hunger strike, Dr. King telegrammed his support by saying, “the plight of your people and ours is so grave that we desperately need the inspiring example and effective leadership you have given.” Chávez used fasting as an organizing tool on several occasions. He repeated fasts in 1972 for 24 days and again in 1988 for 36 days.
In 1978, ten years after the death of Dr. King, Chávez penned an article, He Showed Us the Way, published by Maryknoll Magazine. In it, he stated that “Martin Luther King, Jr., was one of these unique servants from him; we learned many of the lessons that have guided us. For these lessons and his sacrifice for the poor and oppressed, Dr. King’s memory will be cherished in the hearts of the farm workers forever.”
After decades of working for social justice, Cesar Chávez passed away from natural causes at age 66 (1993). U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy described him as “one of the heroic figures of our time.” In 1994, President Clinton posthumously awarded Chávez the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
Chávez’s legacy lives through his hard work and example. The rallying cry, ¡Si Se Puede!, created by Huerta in 1972 during Chávez’s 25-day fast in Phoenix, is still chanted at political rallies around the country and was the source of inspiration for President Obama’s 2008 “Yes we can” campaign slogan.
¡Si Se Puede!