The recent release of Cesar Chavez: An American Hero, and the premiere of the documentary Cesar’s Last Fast at the Sundace Film Festival, give us new opportunities to reflect on the lessons of Chavez’s life of activism. While his charismatic leadership turned him into a powerful force for justice, an unyielding grip on his position of authority ultimately weakened the organization he worked to build.
The title of An American Hero is appropriate. Chavez’s life unfolded like a classic American success story. His family lost everything during the Great Depression, and Chavez managed to get only an eighth grade education in between stints working in the fields of California. Yet he went on to found a powerful organization that forever changed American history by giving voice to some of the most disadvantaged members of our society. There are valuable lessons to take from his determination, as well as his stubbornness.
For more on this story, visit: Lessons from what Cesar Chavez did right — and wrong – Waging Nonviolence.
In 1989 Chavez was awarded the Gandhi Peace Award from Promoting Enduring Peace, the sister organization of this blog.
In 1989, for the first time, the Award was presented to the leader of a cause other than disarmament and U.S-Soviet reconciliation—the man who most represented the living spirit of Gandhi in America. It would be seven years before the Award winner would again be someone distinguished for work on behalf of nuclear disarmament and global peace.
As in the 1986 selection, Board members were asked to choose from a list of eight nominees that Howard Frazier sent out at the end of September 1987. First on the list again was the self-nominated George Byer. Second was César Chávez, founder and leader of the United Farm Workers of America (U.F.W.A.). Third was Prof. Stephen Cohen, an author and a columnist for THE NATION. Fourth was David Cortright, executive director of SANE/Freeze, a leader of the G.I. peace movement during the Vietnam era, and a participant in P.E.P.’s Mississippi Peace Cruise.
Next on the list was Rep. Ron Dellums, the African-American Congressman from California who was one of the strongest advocates for conversion from military to social priorities, an opponent of U.S. intervention in Central America, the architect of the trade embargo of South Africa, a civil rights activist, and a leader of the Congressional Black Caucus. The fifth nominee was Sanford Gottlieb, the former director of SANE, a full-time peace activist and author, and most recently the senior analyst at Admiral LaRocque’s Center for Defense Information. Sixth was Sen. Daniel Inouye, nominated primarily for investigating the Iran-Contra affair, but also a key figure in the Senate Watergate hearings.
The seventh nominee was Coretta Scott King, who had carried on her murdered husband’s leadership in the civil rights and peace movements as the director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change and a leader of WILPF and Women Strike for Peace. The last name on the list was a television producer named Tony Verna, who had co-produced and directed the “Live Aid” rock benefit for African famine relief and most recently had produced a live broadcast of the Pope saying the Rosary for world peace that was beamed to a worldwide “congregation” in forty countries.
By November the votes were in, and there was a virtual tie between Ron Dellums, who led by a single point, and César Chávez. (Coretta Scott King and David Cortright were next.) Arrangements could not be made with Rep. Dellums, so the next Award recipient would be César Chávez. As founder of the United Farmworkers of America, he was the first advocate of a domestic cause and the only Hispanic American ever to be chosen for the Award.
Howard Frazier wrote to Chavez in February of 1988 that he was being invited to accept the Award:
“because you are the founder and leader of the United Farm Workers of America and in this capacity you have tirelessly worked to end the gross exploitation of farmworkers and you have done so in the tradition of Gandhi’s nonviolent philosophy. Your dedicated work has brought a better life and justice to the long-neglected segment of our farmworkers community, though many obstacles have been put in your way and continue so. You have shown by your personal example the necessity of farmworkers developing power to control their own destiny and that “the work for social change and against social justice is never ended.”
Download more of the Cesar Chavez chapter of “Peace Heroes: The Gandhi Peace Awards 1960-1996” by James Clement van Pelt for Promoting Enduring Peace.