Honoring MLK and Chávez correctly…
It’s the season to honor two human-rights icons and role models who put into practice the Gospel instruction: Insofar as you do this unto the least of my brethren, you do it unto me. Last month we paid homage to the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Next month we’ll honor César E. Chávez.
I’ve written about this before, here and elsewhere, but due to current political dynamics the theme of my previous pieces is still relevant.
“Safe” events don’t create real change…
I do not believe the contemporary King-Chávez celebrations really do justice to the work and legacy of these two icons. In many communities there are symbolic marches, replete with speeches, often by people who have no history of civil-rights activism. Many communities sponsor MLK/Chavez breakfasts or dinners, which become showcases and photo ops for local “dignitaries.” And lately, there is a trend to promote volunteerism and MLK/Chávez “days of service.” For example, one student group promotes cleaning up local parks and volunteering for the United Way as a means to honor Chávez. Several organizations promote activities such as serving lunch at homeless shelters as a means to honor King.
The “safe” and once-a-year nature of these events makes them problematic. These things are so safe that folks who have never walked a picket line or taken a risk on behalf of civil rights or worker rights are prominently featured. And too many of the folks at these events do nothing to advance civil-human-worker rights for the next 364 days. But because they attended these events they can claim to support civil-human-worker rights.
King and Chávez weren’t about volunteerism. Both of them set out to make fundamental, structural changes in the labor, social, and economic systems of the country—a far cry from cleaning up city parks or volunteering for the United Way. Both King and Chávez died while fighting on behalf of workers who were unionizing to combat shameless exploitation—King for garbage collectors, Chávez for farm workers. As an aside: my late father-in-law was a union organizer, and one of his proudest moments was when he was an escort and bodyguard for MLK when he came to Tucson to address a union convention.
Truth is, honoring King and Chávez entails more than attending breakfasts and socializing while walking in a symbolic march. To truly honor them is to get in the trenches of the civil-rights struggles in our respective communities.
Standing up to injustices is hard but worth it…
That in turn entails standing up to injustices and doing the hard work of organizing communities. There’s nothing romantic about this. It’s hard, sometimes awkward, and often uncomfortable. Doing meaningful civil-rights work entails such things as walking picket lines and boycotting stores and businesses we actually like or confronting politicians of our own party.
But it’s that hard, awkward, and uncomfortable work—and not the fancy dinners and breakfasts, symbolic marches, or volunteerism—that brings about structural change.
I consider myself privileged and honored to have known César Chávez, to have marched with him, to have him stay at my home, and to have walked hundreds of miles of picket lines in support of the movement he inspired. I am not, however, as eloquent as he. Thus, I will draw heavily here on a speech Chávez gave on January 12, 1990, on Martin Luther King and his legacy. I believe that what Chávez said about King could just as easily have been said by King about Chávez.
Chávez on King…
In his speech Chávez pointed out that “Dr. King was a powerful figure of destiny, of courage, of sacrifice, and of vision. Few people in the long history of this nation can rival his accomplishment, his reason, or his selfless dedication to the cause of peace and social justice.”
Answering the rhetorical question “Who was Dr. King?” that he posed in his speech, Chávez said: “Many people will tell you of his wonderful qualities and his many accomplishments, but what makes him special to me, the truth many people don’t want you to remember, is that Dr. king was a great activist, fighting for radical social change with radical methods.”
Chávez went on to challenge his audience to continue Dr. King’s work, to put their faith to work on behalf of all of God’s children:
“[A]s 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.
“Our nation continues to be segregated along racial and economic lines. 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.
“My friends, the time for action is upon us. The enemies of justice want you to think of Dr. King as only a civil rights leader, but he had a much broader agenda.
“He was a tireless crusader for the rights of the poor, for an end to war…and for the rights of workers everywhere.”
Chávez himself was inspired by Dr. King: “During my first fast in 1968, Dr. King reminded me that our struggle was his struggle too. He sent me a telegram which said ‘Our separate struggles are really one. A struggle for freedom, for dignity, and for humanity.’
“Just as Dr. King was a disciple of Gandhi and Christ, we must now be Dr. King’s disciples.
“Dr. King challenged us to work for a greater humanity. I only hope that we are worthy of his challenge.”
Indeed, from a humanistic perspective, one that looks at life through the prism of human dignity, Martin Luther King, Jr. and César Chávez stand tall among the ranks of American heroes.
Now’s the time to do something…
Our country just elected a crass, misogynistic, racist, anti-worker person as president. This precipitated marches, led by women, the day after Donald Trump’s Inauguration. Millions of people participated in these. There were some righteous civil-rights warriors in those marches, people who have put themselves on the line over the years. There were also many who have never participated in a civil-rights march or demonstration before. But those marches should only be the beginning of a political uprising. Indeed, this is the time to be angry, the time to raise political hell, the time to do something. The anti-Trump march should not be the last one for those who marched for the first time. That march should be the beginning of many more organizing activities. For, there is much yet to be done.
Trump has appointed as Cabinet members people who have acted and spoken out against the very policies they are sworn to enforce and protect. Civil-human-worker rights that have been won by dint of hard work and sacrifice are now in jeopardy of being taken away. We need to vigorously fight any attempt to reverse worker-civil-human rights policies.
To truly honor Martin Luther King, Jr. and César Chávez, I submit that we must go beyond words of praise and feel-good, safe things. We must learn their lessons and put their views into practice—individually and collectively.
The tried and true picket sign…
El Teatro Campesino, the United Farm Worker union’s artistic appendage, wrote and recorded a song titled “El picket sign.” The song’s introduction says, “One of the most important weapons in any cause, any movement, is the picket sign.”
Frankly, I don’t know anyone who actually likes to picket. It’s hard work, and in the summer heat, the winter cold, or when it’s raining it’s mighty uncomfortable, not to mention that often, people yell insults at you. But among our arsenal of weapons in the struggle to create laws and policies that protect civil-human-worker rights is the tried and true picket line. Picket lines are the smaller, more targeted versions of a march.
Honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. and César Chávez is a year-round endeavor. To truly honor them is to get in the trenches of the civil-rights struggles in our respective communities. This may or may not entail walking picket lines, but if it does, we should do it proudly, knowing we are continuing a rich and productive tradition in our history. c/s
Copyright 2017 by Salomon Baldenegro. To contact Sal write: firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos of Cesar Chavez and picket line copyrighted by Barrio Dog Productions, Inc. All other photos in the public domain.