50 years ago: The Catholic example of Cesar Chavez and Bobby Kennedy

(Photo: AP images, Wikipedia Commons, Matt Benson via Unsplash, Antonio De Loera-Brust/Graphic by Antonio De Loera-Brust)

It was the most famous reception of communion in California history. No other single Catholic moment touched on race, labor and politics in such a profound way. On March 10, 1968, at an outdoor Mass in the small agricultural town of Delano, Calif., the farmworker union leader Cesar Chavez ended a 25-day hunger strike by receiving the body of Christ. Seated next to him was another prominent American Catholic, New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Within three months, Kennedy would be dead, and the hopes of the farmworker movement for a liberation from their exploitation would die with him.

The religious reasons for Chavez’s fast were clear from the start. Chavez refused food for 25 days to urge his supporters to commit themselves to the nonviolence of the Gospel, despite their being targeted with significant violence, intimidation and harassment themselves. He was asking those who followed him to turn the other cheek.

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By then, Chavez and the United Farm Workers had been urging a boycott of grapes for over two years. The farmworker movement embraced Catholic symbolism. A 1966 march from Delano to the state capital to raise awareness of a grape farmworkers’ strike had been dubbed a “pilgrimage”. At the head of the march, farmworkers bore a cross and a banner of la Virgen de Guadalupe, alongside Mexican, American and Filipino flags. They arrived at the State Capitol steps on Easter Sunday. Two years later, Chavez described his hunger strike as a fast, embracing religious language.

No other single Catholic moment touched on race, labor and politics in such a profound way.

The grapes at the center of the labor struggle were themselves full of Catholic meaning. Wine occupies a sacred place in the Catholic faith, transforming into the blood of Christ. And the U.F.W. were masters at using the grapes as symbols. As the union switched tactics from asking farmworkers to strike to asking consumers to boycott grapes, they made buttons that read “Grapes of Wrath,” referring to John Steinbeck’s epic novel about Okie farmworkers. The title of Steinbeck’s book was taken from a line in the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”: “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” The biblical imagery of a vengeful God had been appropriate for a song written for America’s deadliest war, a war over the future of an agricultural society that had built itself on the exploitation of a racial “other.”

No one would say California’s Central Valley was as bad as the antebellum South. A fairer comparison would be the post-Reconstruction South, when freed slaves became sharecroppers and a racial line, enforced by local lawmen and vigilantes alike, separated those who worked the land from those who owned it. Jim Crow left a lasting mark on American agriculture. In the 1930s, when the New Deal codified labor protections such as the right to collectively bargain into federal law, agricultural labor was excluded from the National Labor Relations Act. This was done for explicitly racist reasons, as Southern senators demanded that the “colored labor” of sharecroppers not be made equal to the “white labor” in the cities. Agricultural labor policy has rested on this concession to Jim Crow ever since.

This exclusion of farmworkers from national labor laws was what Chavez sought to change above all. But policy change at the national level would require an ally at the highest level of American politics.

In the national spotlight

Robert Kennedy and Cesar Chavez first met in 1959, when Kennedy was managing his brother’s presidential campaign and Chavez was working for the Community Service Organization, registering Mexican-American voters in Los Angeles. The Kennedys were the first national politicians to recognize the power of the Latino voters, organizing “Viva Kennedy” clubs to mobilize Mexican-American support in the 1960 presidential race. On the night before his assassination, John F. Kennedy spoke to the League of United Latin American Citizens to thank Mexican-Americans for their role in his crucial and narrow win in Texas. A shared faith was a crucial reason Mexican-Americans came to trust the Kennedys, as was the Kennedys’ sympathy for maligned immigrants (given the family’s own Irish roots).

Still, it was a surprise when Robert Kennedy adopted the farmworkers’ struggle as his own. Vietnam was the issue of the day, and the labor struggles of rural Mexican-Americans in California was far from center stage for a man running for president. But after first visiting Delano to conduct hearings for the Senate Subcommittee on Migratory Labor, Kennedy was impressed by Chavez and genuinely moved by the plight of farmworkers. Senator Kennedy’s hearings in Delano were instrumental in uncovering unconstitutional practices used by the Kern County sheriff to intimidate and arrest striking farmworkers without due process.

A shared faith was a crucial reason Mexican-Americans came to trust the Kennedys.

But perhaps Kennedy’s most important contribution was simply drawing the attention of the whole country to the farmworkers’ struggle. Few had spent much time thinking about the small towns in California where much of the nation’s food still comes from, but with the heir of Camelot arriving on the scene, reports of exploitation in the fields made Americans wonder about the true cost of their fruits and vegetables.

America’s editors took notice of the end of the fast in a Current Comment titled: “Will Mr. Chavez Finally Prevail?” (3/23/68). They wrote: “Is it too much to hope that Mr. Chavez’s suffering may also inspire a change in those who are denying justice to farm workers and thereby creating conditions that invite violence? Practically all farm strikes have been caused by refusal of farm owners to recognize the moral right of their employees to organize and bargain collectively. Nor if violence comes can the U.S. Congress escape responsibility. It could very simply remove the chief ground for violence by extending coverage of the National Labor Relations Act to farmworkers.”

America’s editors got to the heart of the issue: the exclusion of agricultural labor from the same rights and protections afforded to almost every other kind of worker in the United States. Senator Kennedy made rectifying this injustice part of his campaign platform for the presidency, pledging to include agricultural labor under the New Deal’s labor protections. In return, the U.F.W. campaigned hard for Kennedy in the crucial California Democratic primary. Latino voters were critical to Kennedy’s narrow victory on June 6, 1968.

As Bobby Kennedy celebrated his victory in Los Angeles, farmworker leader Dolores Huerta stood next to him. But that night, which had been full of promise, ended in a tragedy that would set the farmworker cause back decades: Kennedy was shot by assassin Sirhan Sirhan. Senator Kennedy died in the arms of a young Mexican-American busboy named Juan Romero, who had just shaken his hand. Senator Kennedy would be waked in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral and then buried in Arlington National Cemetery. For California’s farmworkers, the worst was yet to come.

Violence to come

In the fall of 1968, Richard Nixon won the presidency. A Californian from a working-class farming background, Nixon would bring the power of the presidency to side with California’s growers in the midst of the grape boycott. Notably, Nixon ordered the Department of Defense to buy unprecedented numbers of grapes to feed the troops, thus dampening the effect of the boycott. With Nixon as president and Ronald Reagan as governor of California, the U.F.W. no longer had many politically powerful friends.

Nixon would bring the power of the presidency to side with California’s growers in the midst of the grape boycott.

What came next was violence. The “Salad Bowl” strike near the town of Salinas was infamous as a clash between the United Farm Workers and the Teamsters Union, which acted as enforcers for the growers in hopes of winning the right to organize farmworkers for themselves. When Ethel Kennedy, Robert Kennedy’s widow, visited Chavez in Monterey County jail along with Coretta Scott King, both widows were attacked by jeering anti-U.F.W. protestors. (Ethel Kennedy’s commitment to the struggles of farmworkers continues to this day.) The U.F.W. would notoriously end up using immigration enforcement to clear the fields of undocumented immigrants brought in as strikebreakers. For a movement whose strength was based primarily in its moral authority, it was a disastrous mistake.

In 1975, newly elected Gov. Jerry Brown signed the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act into law, largely in the hopes of stemming the violence in the fields. California was the first state, and remains one of the few, to recognize farmworkers’ right to unionize. Since then progress for farmworkers in California has been incremental. The latest victory came in 2016, when Gov. Jerry Brown (yes, the same one) signed the U.F.W.-backed A.B. 1066, which granted farmworkers the same overtime pay standards as in every other industry. Still, for California’s farmworkers the situation is in many ways unchanged since the 1960s. In many regions of California, farmworkers cannot afford the food they pick. And the U.F.W. is nowhere near its former strength, with less than 1 percent of California farmworkers belonging to the union.

If the work in California remains unfinished, the rest of the nation is even further behind. Fifty years after Cesar Chavez broke his fast, we are no closer to including agricultural labor under the National Labor Relations Act. America called for that change to be made in 1968, and called for it again in our first editorial of 2018.

Today, farmworkers have largely vanished as a priority on the national political scene. The politics of immigration have largely overwhelmed the politics of labor as the chief area of concern for farmworkers. If in the 1960s the growers feared losing their workers to the strike, today the growers fear losing their workers to ICE. Harvests that were once boycotted rot for lack of people to pick them. The prospect of fields emptied of farmworkers has made unlikely allies of the U.F.W. and today’s growers. The former adversaries now both back legislation to create a “blue card” that would offer a path to citizenship to farmworkers.

Fifty years ago, Chavez reminded the country of the moral responsibility we have to the people who feed us. In his cause, Chavez used explicitly Catholic terms and symbols. And it was in a Catholic setting that Robert Kennedy answered the call to stand, or rather sit, by Cesar Chavez’s side.

Seated next to each other in that outdoor Mass, they made quite the contrast. One was wealthy and white, a member of an East Coast political dynasty, the son of an ambassador and the brother of a president. The other was poor and brown, the son of Mexican farmworkers who had lost their farm in the Depression. Yet in Delano they came together, two friends receiving communion together in the fields of California, united by their faith and the commitment to justice that their faith demands.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Don Honda
6 months 2 weeks ago

Well, at least my factual comments were up for a few days....

Tim Donovan
6 months 2 weeks ago

Although I was but a child (born in 1962) while President Kennedy and his brother were alive (I don't recall the tragic days when each were assasinated, as an imperfect gay Catholic adult who worked in past year's with immigrants from Liberia, I can understand how "a shared faith was a crucial reason Mexican-Americans came to favor the Kennedy's." My co-workers from Liberia at a group home for disabled men had fled from a brutal civil war to seek a better life in our nation. Although Chavez was born in Yuma, Arizona, I'm confident that his strong Catholic faith would have inspired him to support the rights of immigrants to be welcomed into our nation, as I do. Year's ago, I had sex with men, but regretted my behavior and received forgiveness and consolation through the Sacrament of Reconciliation with a compassionate priest. I respect gay people, and keep in.contact with a gay friend. I do, however, believe that marriage is the union of one man and one woman. I.believe (or perhaps hope is a better.term) that Caesar.Chavez, as a sincere Catholic, would share the same view of marriage. Again, I was but a child when Robert Kennedy ran for President, so I don't know how he felt about abortion. Chavez reportedly was pro-life, and I share his view. However, sadly the late Senator Ted Kennedy and all.the living members of the Kennedy family favor the violence of legal abortion. The sole Kennedy who was a courageous pro-life Democrat was the late sister of President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Ted Kennedy, Eunice Kennedy Shriver. I believe that Eunice Kennedy Shriver and Caesar Chavez, being for the rights of the innocent unborn, would have much in common. Both were devout Catholics who favored justice. Chavez worked for the rights of farm workers, while Kennedy Shriver as the founder of the Special Olympics, fought for the rights and dignity of disabled people. May God bless them both.

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