Chavez Commemoration Craves Consensus it Lacks, by Joe Hicks

Joe Hicks

Chavez Commemoration Craves Consensus it Lacks

by Joe Hicks

This past March marked the 80th anniversary of the birth of the late farm labor organizer Cesar Chavez, and some members of Congress are pushing legislation that may someday lead to national monuments, historical designations and maybe even a holiday honoring him.

In written congressional testimony, Representative Hilda Solis (D-CA) said her bill calling for a government study of sites related to Chavez and his United Farm Workers (UFW) labor union was “a critical took in the honor and recognition that both Cesar Chavez and Latinos deserve.”  She further stated: “It is my hope that one day Latino families have a place in the National Park Service where they can appreciate, honor and learn about Cesar Chavez’s work and beliefs, just as African-American families can visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. historic site and the Selma-Montgomery trail.”

I testified at the same congressional hearing, but I don’t consider the Solis proposal a wise use of public funds.   With other Americans honored in such a manner, there has normally been a consensus on their contributions.  No such consensus exists regarding Cesar Chavez.  In fact, no consensus exists even among the farm workers he and the UFW allegedly represented.

I’m not saying that Chavez accomplished nothing or that he is not a person of significance.  What remains in dispute is whether or not he is worthy of such esteemed recognition.

Honoring individuals in such a grand and permanent way demands careful consideration.  The obvious comparison is with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s national holiday and the designation of civil rights movement sites as historic.  The holiday was designated only after contentious national debate about Dr. King’s character and contributions.  Questions were raised about his personal life and the politics of some of his close aides.

Dr. King’s legacy prevailed because there was a consensus that his life-long commitment to nonviolence and equal opportunity was unassailable.  For example, whenever violence broke out at demonstrations he presided over, Dr. King rebuked the transgressors of his non-violent stance in the strongest of terms – as he did of Black Power radicals who challenged his vision of a color-neutral society.

This must be compared and contrasted with how Cesar Chavez dealt with violence, as his UFW organizers often used strong-arm tactics against field workers in California’s Central and Coachella Valleys.  One field organizer remembered seeing “loyal Chavez followers bash the heads of reluctant field laborers,”  adding that organizers “visited the fields, intimidating peasants with threats and violence.”

Despite the public persona as a man of peace and nonviolence, Cesar Chavez did or said little to reign in such violence.  This may explain why it’s difficult to find farm workers who have anything good to say about him or the UFW.  Leaders of non-UFW farm worker associations hotly dispute the notion that Chavez or the UFW ever represented their views and challenge the “mythology” they say surrounds Chavez.

I am not opposed to any private commemoration of the life of Cesar Chavez.  The record on Chavez, however, is too murky, the politics too contentious and his life contributions too shrouded to justify expending scarce public funds to “study” national sites or a national holiday associated with his life.  Lawmakers should also not be swayed by those arguing for some larger recognition of Chavez based on ethnic pride or appealing to the growing Latino population and its political clout.

I say all this, by the way, as someone intimately familiar with Cesar Chavez and the UFW.  I was an active member of this nation’s political left when Chavez and the UFW were at their zenith.  I was in the company of Chavez on several occasions, interacted with his organizers on a routine basis, trained UFW activists in “revolutionary theory” classes and viewed Chavez’s organizers as another arm of our movement to radicalize and overthrow our nation’s existing political order. 

In 1993, although I was rapidly becoming a skeptic of my politics, I marched arm-in-arm with the Reverend Jesse Jackson at Cesar Chavez’s funeral.  Even though Chavez was eulogized as a man of peace and nonviolence, I remembered that almost none of his followers I knew and worked with eschewed the use of violence against those who opposed them and their tactics.  It was also clear to me that they believed Chavez quietly approved of their heavy-handed tactics.  

This does not mean Chavez was a violent man or a communist, but he nonetheless did preside over a group harboring deep hostility and resentment toward America.  Now, we are being asked to honor him and his group with some of our nation’s highest honors.

Unlike Dr. King, a darker side of Cesar Chavez emerges under scrutiny.  When I was free of the leftist prism through which I viewed the world, I became a skeptic.  It is this lack of a fair and balanced consensus that proves there is no basis at this time for holidays, national parks or other large-scale honors for him.

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Joe R. Hicks is a member of the National Advisory Council of the black leadership network Project 21 and the vice president of Community Advocates, Inc.  This commentary is based on his March 29, 2007 testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands. Comments may be sent to [email protected].

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