Robert Kennedy called him "one of the most heroic figures of our time." Social activist Cesar Chavez (1927-1993), with a commitment to nonviolent resistance, was known for organizing the first successful union of farmworkers.
"There is no such thing as defeat in non-violence," he said.
Chavez grew up on a farm in Yuma, Arizona and moved to California when he was 10. His family joined thousands of migrant workers who traveled from farm to farm to harvest produce.
Back-breaking work for little salary and no benefits. These Spanish-speaking Mexicans lived in overcrowded shacks without electricity or running water and the children of these nomads had little education. By eighth grade, Chavez had attended over 30 schools, but had managed to learn how to read and speak English.
"When you sacrifice," he once said, "you force others to sacrifice. It's an extremely powerful weapon."
He served in World War II, then returned to California where he taught literacy and formed the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers (UFA).
"When any person suffers for someone in greater need, that person is a human," he believed.
In 1965, he led wine grape farmers to strike for fair pay and union rights. The strike lasted five years and attracted national attention with Chavez' call for consumer boycotts and nonviolent change. A 1974 Louis Harris poll showed 17 million American adults honored the grape boycott.
"You are never strong enough that you don't need help," explained Chavez, the hero who never owned a house or even a car, but helped millions find a better life.
Rise up with dignity and strength