Interview: Cesar Chavez’s lawyer on the faith and nonviolence that led to the best labor law in the country
Jerry Cohen represented the United Farm Workers for nearly a decade and worked closely with Cesar Chavez. He was integrally involved in negotiations between the U.F.W. and growers, as well as with different local and state governments about the right to organize, protest and challenge a system of power that one judge referred to as “Gringo Justice,” which is the title of Mr. Cohen’s recollection of his years with the U.F.W. Mr. Cohen, a longtime friend, was in some ways a double outsider to the heart of Cesar Chavez’s mission, which was deeply Catholic and deeply concerned with the plight of the brown and poor.
President Joe Biden has long been an admirer of Mr. Chavez, and a 22-inch bust of Cesar Chavez sits behind his desk in the Oval Office. This year, Mr. Biden proclaimed March 31, Mr. Chavez’s birthday, to be Cesar Chavez Day.
Grant Kaplan: You graduated from Boalt Law School at U.C. Berkley in 1966. How did you end up in the central valley of California, working eventually for a farm union?
Jerry Cohen: When I was in law school, I was interested in the free speech movement and protests about Vietnam. In college and in high school, I had fought fraternities because I thought they were bigoted and brutal. So it was my inclination to get into good fights.
I started to unload on him about how ineffective the California Rural Legal Assistance was. He stopped me and said, “Well look, you want to help us? Just come and work for us.”
I saw reports of Chavez marching to Sacramento and was recruited by a legal aid group called California Rural Legal Assistance. One night at a bar, appropriately called “Peoples,” I met Cesar. We were playing pool together, and I started to unload on him about how ineffective the California Rural Legal Assistance was. He stopped me and said, “Well look, you want to help us? Just come and work for us.” I said, “You know, I just got out of law school, and I really don’t know anything.” He lied to me and said, “Well, I don’t know anything either, so why don’t we just sort of learn it together.”
GK: How did you make a connection between the struggle of poor, brown field laborers trying to get fair wages and the struggle of African Americans to receive basic rights in the South and in other parts of the country?
JC: It’s all part of the same fight. It is a fight for social and economic justice. Cesar was motivated by two things in his life. First, he was a very religious person. And second, he was committed to nonviolence. When I first took a long ride with him to pick up some files, we had a long talk about it. He believed that the only way to win was nonviolence. He was motivated by not only the fact that it was smart and effective, but it is what he believed in.
Cesar was motivated by two things in his life. First, he was a very religious person. And second, he was committed to nonviolence.
GK: The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez were both people of deep Christian faith—different variations of that faith but a profound faith. Their commitment to nonviolence was obviously connected to their religious views, but nonviolence was also a strategy. What do you see when you look out now in 2021, the way protests have taken place? Do you think that belief in nonviolence is stronger or weaker?
JC: I sat through meetings where Cesar was talking with people who were impatient. He was telling them that not only did he think [violence] was wrong; he also said it’s stupid because they can out-gun you. You wouldn’t win that way. But people would sort of glaze over when he talked that way. That is why he decided to go on the fast in 1968, which was Cesar at his best.
Nonviolence created the pressure that caused the grape boycott to work. It created the pressure that allowed me to negotiate with Gov. Jerry Brown and get what really is the best labor law in the country. It would not have happened but for nonviolence.
GK: When I watched that documentary “Fighting for Our Lives,” I noticed a lot of religious symbols and gestures. I saw Catholic priests sitting alongside Cesar, celebrating Masses and baptisms along the picket line. Likewise, the Black church played a central role in providing infrastructure and networking for civil rights. The religious influence seems much more muted today. What do you think religious leaders could gain from being involved in protest movements?
JC: The first thing they would have to do is learn and think about what happened. When we won the boycott, it was a result of the power that was generated when Cesar committed himself to that 25-day fast. That really put us on the map. Bobby Kennedy came at the end to help him break the fast.
Nonviolence created the pressure that caused the grape boycott to work.
In the middle of the fast, we were hauled into court by a grower named [John] Guimarra. There were 3,000 farm workers at that courthouse. They were praying. They were quiet. The grower’s attorney said we have to kick these people out because they’re pressuring the courthouse. I made the argument that they had a right to be there. And the judge said, “Look if I tell a jury to order those people out of here, it would just be another example of g*dd*mn gringo justice.”
That projected power, not only within the movement to get rid of people who were frustrated with the time it was taking to win the boycott, but it projected an image outside that this was a serious, nonviolent movement.
GK: I know some dioceses they say every single priest in training must take Spanish. They look at the demographics and the future. But there are other pockets where they basically can’t read the pie charts. The present of the church is global, largely non-white, and the future of the church is even more that. People working in the fields in places like California and Arizona and Texas, that is the flock.
JC: Well think about this, too: We had priests whose ministry was basically working with us. There was a priest saying Mass every night during the fast, and nobody was excluded. My mom was an Irish Catholic who left the church. My father read the Old Testament, but he didn’t go to synagogue. I am certainly not a traditionally religious person, but I felt perfectly comfortable delivering a little wooden cross at the end of one of the Masses. All of us participated, and everybody was welcome.
There was a priest saying Mass every night during the fast, and nobody was excluded.
There were always priests around helping to calm the waters. During 1973 we had a farmworker clubbed to death by [an officer from the] Kern County sheriff’s department. We had a dear friend of all of ours, named Juan De la Cruz, shot to death on the picket line. Everybody knew there would be no justice done in Kern County. And the frustration that created was immense. I was in a field office after the second murder, and Cesar was physically disarming some people. He said this energy was going to go into a few more processions; we’re going to have prayer meetings; we’re going direct all this energy into “We may not win here in Kern Country, but we’re gonna win around the country.”
GK: When I watch the old clips of Cesar, I see someone who almost could have been better suited for a life of monasticism or religious life, maybe someone who would have mystical experiences. His face seemed genuine and profound, but he is obviously a man of the world and, in some ways, a real political genius. These two elements come together in the fast. What was it like to witness that?
JC: You could see the power of it. Yes, he was religious, but he was a hard-nosed labor leader, too. He was a fighter. But he was also worried about certain ideologues. He was not ideological. He did not like the infiltration of hard-left politics. He said: They are talking from an abstract ideological point of view. What we have to do is address the real needs of the workers we are trying to represent.
There were some people who were offended by the use of religion; they said, “This is improper.” The response to that is, wait a minute, why don’t you actually read stuff about charity and helping others, both in the Old and New Testament. This is religion at its best when you try to help other people. Some people who were impatient left. And what did that do?
Yes, he was religious, but he was a hard-nosed labor leader, too. He was a fighter.
Remember Cesar now is sort of a myth. We have a state holiday in California; we have streets named after him, schools named after him. [But] when he went out there, he was rolling the dice. He didn’t know what was going to happen. None of us knew. And he wanted to make very clear that what we were doing was introspective. We need to examine ourselves, that’s what this is about. And it worked, but it wasn’t clear it would work.
GK: I’m thinking about the fast, about a guy who is in charge of this movement and takes responsibility for it and feels so connected with all the members involved that if they go out and use violence, his body actually becomes sort of like the incarnation or manifestation of the whole movement and he suffers almost in this Christ-like way.
JC: He felt personally responsible. But to us there was a lot of almost ironic humor about it. One night [during the fast], his cousin, Manuel [Chavez] was outside, and these nuns came to visit. And he said, “You can’t come in now sister, he’s eating.” Which was, of course, a joke. The growers heard that and then they ran around saying—they were racist you know—“that sneaky little greaser is eating tacos.” Even though, he was very serious about it.
People didn’t really understand the power of this and how Cesar was self-aware. If you watch “Fighting for Our Lives,” you’ll see one scene where there is a strikebreaker, and you see a very quiet Cesar sidle up to him and talk to him. He is very soft-spoken. He understands this person probably came across the border to feed his family. Cesar didn’t hold it against him, he tried to organize him. He was patient. Not everybody is that patient.
You don’t want to engage in what I would call a tawdry politics of race, where you allow them to pit one group against another. You come together in terms of class interest.
GK : You mentioned Jerry Brown, who was quite a religious man. Ronald Reagan was also governor of California and was not particularly religious, though a lot of people remember him that way. What was your experience with Reagan?
JC: Reagan basically ignored us the best he could, and he used to make statements about how the boycott was immoral. Nixon came out and ate grapes during his ’68 campaign. They were totally anti-boycott and totally pro-grower. Jerry, on the other hand, visited in Delano a couple of times. And he was always interested in what we were up to. And when he was California Secretary of State, he helped us out. When he was governor he did a hell of a job negotiating with the Teamsters and the growers and helped put the pressure on to get us the elements of the bill that we needed.
GK: If you could have 15 minutes to talk with young Latino leaders today, someone like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez or politicians who represent communities that are predominantly Latino or majority farm laborers, what kind of message would you try to convey?
JC: I would like them to familiarize themselves with relevant history, the power of nonviolence. I’d like them to think about the fact that when the union was successful, it was not defined by race. We were representing a group of people called farmworkers. They were brown; they were Black. There were some poor Okies. We had guys from Yemen, Filipinos, you name it. You bring everybody together. That is not to say that you don’t want to have racial pride. But you don’t want to engage in what I would call a tawdry politics of race, where you allow them to pit one group against another. You come together in terms of class interest.
What worries me is if these Republicans are able to get away with voter suppression and you take away the right of people to express themselves, think of the frustration that might build on the other side. And there would be a temptation for a shortcut. Sometimes nonviolence is harder.