This is a chapter in World Peace Efforts Since Gandhi, which is published as a book. For ordering information, please click here.
In 1909 William Lloyd Garrison's grandson, Oswald Garrison
Villard, wrote a call for a national conference to renew the struggle
for civil liberty. Supported by Jane Addams, William Dean Howells,
Ida B. Wells, John Dewey, W. E. B. Du Bois, and others, they formed
the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
(NAACP). Du Bois became director of publicity and research and
begin editing and writing for the Crisis magazine. Arthur
B. Spingarn led the legal effort and got the grandfather clauses
that blocked descendants of non-voters (slaves) from voting declared
unconstitutional. By 1921 the NAACP had more than 400 branches
in the United States. Howard University law school dean Charles
Houston worked for the NAACP and in 1935 launched a campaign to
remedy educational inequalities. He was assisted by young Thurgood
Marshall and in 1938 argued before the US Supreme Court that Lloyd
Lionel Gaines had a right to attend the University of Missouri
School of Law.
In 1941 A. Philip Randolph, who was president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, called upon African Americans to march on Washington to demand an end to racial discrimination in government hiring and an end to the segregation in the US armed forces. Randolph and NAACP executive secretary Walter White met with President Franklin Roosevelt before the march, and on June 25 Roosevelt issued an executive order prohibiting racial discrimination in federal hiring and establishing the Fair Employment Practice Committee (FEPC).
In 1942 Bayard Rustin and students led by white George Houser and black James Farmer in the Chicago chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) formed a committee that later became known as the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). They and A. J. Muste were strongly influenced by the book War Without Violence by Krishnalal Shridharani, a former associate of Gandhi. That year Rustin was beaten and arrested for sitting at the front of buses going from Louisville to Nashville. Asserting the power of love, he stood up to the injustice and found that his nonviolent action was supported by some witnesses. In 1943 CORE activists protested by sitting in segregated Chicago restaurants. In Morgan v. Virginia the US Supreme Court in June 1946 declared unconstitutional the Virginia law requiring segregated seating on interstate buses. The next year sixteen people from FOR and CORE undertook a Journey of Reconciliation to test the judgment, and four riders arrested in North Carolina were sentenced to thirty days on a chain gang.
Meanwhile the FEPC was not too effective because it lacked the power to enforce the law, and Congress ended its funding in 1946. In 1944 Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal published a massive study on race relations called An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, describing the conflict between the American creed of equal rights with the actual discrimination against Negroes. In December 1946 President Harry Truman appointed a Committee on Civil Rights that filed a scathing report on the crimes of lynching, police brutality, discrimination in public accommodations, and the lack of justice in the courts. They found that "separate but equal" had failed and that the rights to voting and education had not yet been secured. They recommended magnifying the civil rights section in the Justice department, establishing a Commission on Civil Rights under the President, making state and local police forces more professional, and action by Congress to protect voting rights and equal access to employment, education, and public services. In March 1948 Randolph warned President Truman that he would lead a civil disobedience campaign to protest segregation in the military. In July, Truman issued an executive order for equal opportunity in the armed services, and Randolph ended his call for civil disobedience.
Thurgood Marshall became chief counsel for the NAACP in 1940, and in 1946 he set up the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund. At an NAACP conference in New York in 1950 he argued that the "separate but equal" doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson from 1896 was unconstitutional by the 14th amendment because separate schools could not be equal. In 1951 Marshall and NAACP attorneys challenged school segregation in South Carolina, Kansas, and Delaware. On May 17, 1954 the new US chief justice Earl Warren announced a unanimous decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka overturning Plessy v. Ferguson and accepting the plaintiffs' argument by the NAACP lawyers that segregation has a detrimental effect on colored children, making separate educational facilities inherently unequal. Implementation was delayed by another hearing, but a year later the Supreme Court decided that educational authorities have the primary responsibility to solve these problems and must admit students "on a racially nondiscriminatory basis with all deliberate speed." The first major challenge came in September 1957 when Arkansas governor Orval Faubus used the National Guard to deny nine Negro children admission to Central High School in Little Rock. A district court ordered him to remove the Guard, and he did so; but the black students were assaulted by an angry mob. President Eisenhower then ordered the mob blocking the students to disperse and made a speech announcing that he was sending in a thousand paratroopers to enforce the law by protecting the minority students.
From 1956 until his tragic assassination in 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. was the foremost leader in African Americans' nonviolent quest for civil rights and a better life. He was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia and was named after his father, who was a successful Baptist preacher. His father taught him self-respect in the face of racial discrimination. Martin started at Morehouse College in Atlanta when he was only 15, and he graduated four years later. Choosing the ministry over medicine and law, he attended Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania for three years. While there he heard A. J. Muste lecture, and after hearing Mordecai Johnson lecture on Gandhi he went out and bought every book he could find on Gandhi and nonviolence. Martin had already read Thoreau's "Essay on Civil Disobedience" at Morehouse; he was so moved by the idea of refusing to cooperate with an evil system that he reread it several times. In his theological studies he leaned toward the social gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch. He read Marx and rejected his materialism and deprecation of individual freedom; however, he also questioned the materialism and injustices of capitalism.
In reading Gandhi, King realized that the love ethic of Jesus could go beyond individuals and be applied to the conflicts of racial groups and nations. He discovered the method for social reform in Gandhi's soul force (satyagraha) and nonviolence (ahimsa). After being elected student body president and graduating first in his class at Crozer, King moved on to Boston University, where he earned his Ph.D. in Theology. In 1953 he married Coretta Scott, a bright student of music, and they eventually had four children. Believing in the guidance of a personal God and equipped with the techniques of nonviolence, King accepted a pastorate in Montgomery, Alabama, hoping he could help his people achieve social justice.
King had only recently completed his doctoral dissertation and gotten settled in the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church when the issue of racial segregation on the public buses erupted in Montgomery. On May 17, 1954 the United States Supreme Court had declared, "Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,"1 and in 1955 the same Court ordered all public schools to be desegregated "with all deliberate speed." In Montgomery, King had become active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and in the integrated Alabama Council on Human Relations. In March 1955 a fifteen-year-old girl had been arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on the bus. King was on the committee that protested this, but no action was taken.
On December 1, 1955 Mrs. Rosa Parks felt her feet were too tired for her to stand up for a white man, who had boarded after her. The bus driver ordered her to stand up and give her seat to the white man, but she refused. She was arrested and taken to the courthouse. From there she called E. D. Nixon, who in turn made several calls. The Women's Political Council proposed a one-day boycott of the buses. The next morning, which was a Friday, Nixon called King, and he offered the Dexter Avenue Church as a meeting place for that night. Over forty black leaders showed up, and they agreed to boycott the buses on the following Monday and hold a mass meeting Monday night. Leaflets were mimeographed and distributed announcing these actions. Committees were organized, and alternative transportation was arranged. Recalling Thoreau's words about not cooperating with an evil system, King thought of the movement as massive noncooperation.
The word spread, and on Monday morning the Montgomery buses were practically empty except for a few white passengers. Mrs. Parks was convicted that morning of disobeying the city's segregation ordinance and fined ten dollars and court costs. Her attorney appealed. That afternoon Dr. King was elected president of what became the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA). The Holt Street Baptist Church had five thousand people standing outside listening to loudspeakers for the evening meeting. King spoke for the hearts of many when he declared that they were "tired of being segregated and humiliated."2 He affirmed that their only alternative was to protest for freedom and justice. Christian love and nonviolent principles provided the basis for his advice. No one must be intimidated to keep them from riding the buses. He said, "Our method will be that of persuasion, not coercion. We will only say to the people, 'Let your conscience be your guide.'"3 He quoted the statement by Booker T. Washington not to let anyone drag you down so low as to make you hate him. King concluded his speech,
If you will protest courageously,
and yet with dignity and Christian love,
when the history books are written in future generations,
the historians will have to pause and say,
"There lived a great people-a black people-
who injected new meaning and dignity
into the veins of civilization."
This is our challenge and our overwhelming responsibility.4
Ralph Abernathy proposed three moderate demands, which were unanimously approved at the mass meeting: 1) courteous treatment by bus operators; 2) passengers to be seated on a first-come, first-served basis with Negroes in the back and whites in the front; and 3) Negro bus drivers to be employed in predominantly Negro routes.
In his book Stride Toward Freedom King explained how Christian love and nonviolent methods guided the movement and how he spoke in weekly meetings.
I stressed that the use of violence in our struggle
would be both impractical and immoral.
To meet hate with retaliatory hate would do nothing
but intensify the existence of evil in the universe.
Hate begets hate; violence begets violence;
toughness begets a greater toughness.
We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love;
we must meet physical force with soul force.
Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man,
but to win his friendship and understanding.5
Although to King nonviolence was a way of life, he was glad that the black people were willing to accept it as a method; he presented it simply as Christianity in action. In Stride Toward Freedom King elucidated six key points about the philosophy of nonviolence. First, it is not based on cowardice; although it may seem passive physically, it is spiritually active, requiring the courage to stand up against injustice. Second, nonviolence does not seek to defeat the opponent but rather to win his understanding to create "the beloved community." Third, the attack is directed at the evil, not at the people who are doing the evil; for King the conflict was not between whites and blacks but between justice and injustice. Fourth, in nonviolence there is a willingness to accept suffering without retaliating. Fifth, not only is physical violence avoided but also spiritual violence; love replaces hatred. Sixth, nonviolence has faith that justice will prevail because it is a universal law.
Meanwhile, to get people to work and back, black taxi companies had lowered their fares, car pools were arranged, and many people walked. However, the city prohibited the taxi companies from doing this business and threatened people with vagrancy and illegal-hitchhiking charges; rumors spread that drivers might lose their licenses or insurance. King was arrested in January for driving 30 in a 25 mile-per-hour zone, even though he was driving very carefully since he was aware of being followed. The Kings' house was bombed; Coretta and a friend escaped injury by moving quickly to the back of the house. Martin rushed home from his meeting, and a furious mob gathered outside. He calmed them down and advised them to put down their weapons and go home. He said, "We cannot solve this problem through retaliatory violence. We must meet violence with nonviolence. We must love our white brothers no matter what they do to us."6 When the mayor tried to speak, he was booed and threatened; but again King quieted the crowd. His presence and words had prevented a bloody riot. The Kings often received threatening phone calls; but even after the bomb blast, King would not allow a weapon in his house.
While King was away lecturing at Fisk University in Nashville, the Montgomery attorney began arresting MIA leaders for violating an old state law against boycotts. Against the advice of his father, Martin returned to Montgomery to be placed under arrest. He was released on bail. On March 22 Judge Carter found eighty-nine defendants guilty. King was sentenced to pay a fine of $500 or serve 386 days hard labor. Appeals were filed. On June 4, 1956 a federal court held that bus segregation was unconstitutional. However, the city attorneys appealed to the United States Supreme Court. In November the city tried to ban the car pools. While they were in a Montgomery court on this charge, the Supreme Court affirmed the decision declaring Alabama's state and local laws requiring segregation on buses unconstitutional.
Rev. King told a mass meeting that they must act with "calm dignity and wise restraint" and not let their emotions run wild. He said, "We must now move from protest to reconciliation."7 Meetings were held to prepare the people for integration of the buses. Training sessions in nonviolent techniques enabled "actors" to play out different roles before a critical audience, which would discuss the results. Integrated bus suggestions were printed which recommended "complete nonviolence in word and action" and admonished them to be loving enough to absorb evil and understanding enough to convert an enemy into a friend. A few days before Christmas, after more than a year's boycott, the black ministers of Montgomery led the way in riding integrated buses. In January a few acts of terrorism by the Ku Klux Klan occurred, but again King urged nonviolence and the way of the cross. After a few weeks the transportation systems had returned to normal with integrated buses.
The Montgomery success gave King national prominence. Along with Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, and C. K. Steele, he formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) with headquarters in Atlanta. He urged President Eisenhower to call for a White House Conference on Civil Rights. When the Eisenhower administration failed to respond adequately, King organized a "Prayer Pilgrimage of Freedom" which drew 37,000 marchers to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on May 17, 1957. King led the cry of blacks for the ballot so that they could participate more fully in the legislative process.
In 1958 Stride Toward Freedom came out calling for a militant and nonviolent mass movement. King suggested in this book that if they remain nonviolent, then public opinion will be magnetically attracted to them rather than to the instigators of violence. A nonviolent mass movement is power under discipline seeking justice. He summarized his nonviolent intentions this way:
We will take direct action against injustice
without waiting for other agencies to act.
We will not obey unjust laws or submit to unjust practices.
We will do this peacefully, openly, cheerfully
because our aim is to persuade.
We adopt the means of nonviolence
because our end is a community at peace with itself.
We will try to persuade with our words,
but if our words fail, we will try to persuade with our acts.
We will always be willing to talk and seek fair compromise,
but we are ready to suffer when necessary
and even risk our lives
to become witnesses to the truth as we see it.8
He pointed out that nonviolence first affects the hearts of those committed to it, gives them greater self-respect and courage, and then it stirs the conscience of the opponents until reconciliation is achieved. He warned against using power to oppress others.
In an effort to achieve freedom in America, Asia, and Africa
we must not try to leap from a position of disadvantage
to one of advantage, thus subverting justice.
We must seek democracy
and not the substitution of one tyranny for another.
Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man.
We must not become victimized
with a philosophy of black supremacy.
God is not interested merely in the freedom
of black men, and brown men, and yellow men;
God is interested in the freedom of the whole human race.9
King suggested, "The constructive program ahead must include a campaign to get Negroes to register and vote."10 He also warned that in a world of ballistic missiles the choice was no longer between violence and nonviolence but between nonviolence and nonexistence.
On Lincoln's birthday in 1958 twenty-one mass meetings were held simultaneously in key southern cities calling for "freedom now." In September, King was arbitrarily arrested while in the Montgomery courthouse. He decided to refuse to pay bail or the fine. However, the officials preferred to pay his fine for him so that the taxpayers would not have to feed King for fourteen days.
While autographing copies of his book in New York, a psychotic woman stabbed King in the chest with a sharp letter opener. He remained calm and waited for a surgeon to remove the knife-like weapon. Its point had been touching his aorta; he was told that if he had merely sneezed, he probably would have died.
In February 1959 Martin Luther King made a pilgrimage to India and returned even more confirmed in the principles of nonviolence. In December, King called for a broad and bold progress in the southern campaign for equality. In 1960 student activists organized numerous sit-ins at lunch counters in order to end discrimination. King and James Lawson spoke on nonviolence at a meeting in Raleigh, North Carolina, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was formed. King and thirty-six others were arrested for sitting at the lunch counter in Rich's Department Store in Atlanta. The judge sentenced King to six months hard labor. This was on October 25, and the election was only a few days away. President Eisenhower considered making a public statement, but he and Vice President Nixon decided not to comment. However, John Kennedy and his brother Robert made some phone calls urging King's release. Some say that this gesture helped Kennedy win the election over Nixon by a narrow margin.
King was elected chairman of the committee on the Freedom Rides in 1961. To protect the freedom riders from the onslaught of violence, King requested Attorney General Robert Kennedy to send more federal marshals. King explained, "The law may not be able to make a man love me, but it can keep him from Iynching me."11 The Freedom Rides took the civil rights movement from the urban college campuses to the rural hamlets of the South.
King answered the call to help the movement in Albany, Georgia to desegregate public parks and other facilities. He and Ralph Abernathy were arrested in December 1961 for refusing to disperse. They were tried the following February and sentenced on July 10, 1962 to pay a fine or be imprisoned at hard labor for 45 days. They chose prison. Again an anonymous person paid the fines. King then announced a civil disobedience campaign. However, when two thousand people threw rocks and bottles at the police, he called for a "Day of Penitence" and a week of prayer vigils. King, Abernathy, and Dr. Anderson were arrested at the first vigil. They spent two weeks in jail before the trial and then were given suspended sentences. A new demonstration was planned after their release, but this time the city obtained a federal injunction against the demonstration. Since the federal courts had always been their ally, King reluctantly canceled the march. Many considered the Albany campaign a failure because it did not achieve desegregation; but King felt they learned tactical lessons and through increased voter registration began to affect elections more. Five percent of the black population had accepted nonviolence and had gone willingly to jail.
Fred Shuttlesworth of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights had been working to desegregate Birmingham, but he was meeting much resistance. He requested the help of the SCLC, and in April 1963 after the elections involving Eugene "Bull" Connor, they acted. Their organization had improved since Albany, and workshops on nonviolence and direct-action techniques were conducted. They began with sit-ins involving a few arrests each day. Mass meetings with talks on nonviolence were held each evening. Many volunteers came forward, and the movement grew into a nonviolent army. Each volunteer signed the following Commitment Card:
I hereby pledge myself-my person and body-
to the nonviolent movement.
Therefore, I will keep the following Ten Commandments:
1. Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
2. Remember always that the nonviolent movement
in Birmingham seeks justice and reconciliation, not victory.
3. Walk and Talk in the manner of love, for God is love.
4. Pray daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.
5. Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all men might be free.
6. Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
7. Seek to perform regular service for others and for the world.
8. Refrain from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
9. Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
10. Follow the directions of the movement and of the captain
on a demonstration.12
King chose to postpone his own arrest so that he could speak to meetings in the black community; he appealed to ministers for help in the struggle to improve social conditions. On Saturday April 6, forty-two were arrested for "parading without a permit." So far both sides were nonviolent, and they sang on their way to jail. The boycott of the downtown merchants was effective. There were kneel-ins at churches, sit-ins at the library, and a march to the county building for voter registration; the jails began to fill. They decided to disobey a state court injunction because they felt Alabama was misusing the judicial process. Although most of the leaders wanted King to stay free in order to raise money, he asked Ralph Abernathy to go to jail with him. On Good Friday they were arrested, and King was put in solitary confinement. Coretta contacted President Kennedy to request help in improving King's jail conditions, and Harry Belafonte was able to raise $50,000 for bail bonds.
On scraps of paper Martin Luther King wrote his famous letter from Birmingham jail in which he responded to ministers' public charges that his actions were "unwise and untimely." He explained that he came to Birmingham because of the injustice there. They had gone through the four basic steps of a nonviolent campaign: collection of facts about injustice, negotiation, self-purification, and direct action. Just as Socrates had been an intellectual gadfly, he too must struggle against injustice. He stated the hard truth, "We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."13 He quoted Augustine, who said that "an unjust law is no law at all."14 Segregation is unjust because it damages the personality and creates false concepts of superiority and inferiority. To break an unjust law "openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty"15 is to express respect for real justice. He pointed out that what Hitler did in Germany was "legal," while aiding or comforting a Jew was "illegal." Their action did not create the tension; it merely brought to the surface the seething hidden tensions. Nonviolence offers a creative outlet for repressed emotions which might otherwise result in violence. He said that if he is an extremist, then like Jesus he is an extremist for love.
After eight days King and Abernathy accepted bail. King then suggested that they enlist young people in the campaign. Andy Young sent some who were too young to the library to learn something. On May 2 over a thousand youths demonstrated and went to jail. King explained in his book Why We Can't Wait that all ages, sexes, races, and even the disabled can be accepted into a nonviolent army. When the jails were almost full, Bull Connor changed his tactics to violence, turning on the water hoses, sending in police with their clubs, and releasing the police dogs. Moral indignation swept across the nation. On May 4 the US Attorney General sent mediators to seek a truce. On May 10 an agreement was reached granting the major demands: desegregation of lunch counters, rest rooms, fitting rooms, and drinking fountains; upgrading and hiring of blacks on a nondiscriminatory basis; release of all jailed persons; and establishing communications between black and white leaders.
Segregationists reacted by bombing the house of Martin's brother A. D. King at midnight on Saturday in order to incite a riot. Followers of the movement sang "We Shall Overcome" to stop the violence. The next day President Kennedy sent in three thousand federal troops. On May 20 the Supreme Court decided that demonstrations against segregated institutions are legal. Justice had triumphed.
King went on a speaking tour from Los Angeles to New York. In Detroit on June 23, 1963 he led 125,000 people on a Freedom Walk. To this crowd he spoke of nonviolence as a strong method of disarming the opponent. He declared, "If a man hasn't discovered something that he will die for, he isn't fit to live!"16
At a conference with A. Philip Randolph and Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, John Lewis of SNCC, Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women, James Farmer of CORE, and Whitney Young of the Urban League, they planned a march on Washington for "Jobs and Freedom" in order to put pressure on Congress to pass President Kennedy's Civil Rights Bill. Some 250,000 people, about a third of them white, congregated at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. Randolph introduced King as the "moral leader of the nation." King began with his prepared speech about how America had given the Negro a bad check, and they had come there to collect on the promises. The great crowd's response inspired him, and he put aside his text and began to speak of his dream of equality, brotherhood, and freedom-a dream where people are not judged by their skin color but by their character. His oratory symbolically tolled the bell of freedom so that it would ring out all across the land.
When the assassination of President Kennedy was announced, King privately told Coretta that the same thing would happen to him, because "this is a sick society."17 The following June, Dr. King and Abernathy were arrested in St. Augustine, Florida. King explained how some people were trying to stop the movement by threatening them with physical death; but he responded, "If physical death is the price that I must pay to free my white brother and all my brothers and sisters from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing can be more redemptive."18 On July 2, 1964 King personally witnessed President Lyndon Johnson's signing of the Civil Rights law. King submitted an Economic Bill of Rights to the Democratic Party platform committee. He suggested that the disadvantaged, who have been denied so long, ought to receive something comparable to the G.I. Bill of Rights.
At age thirty-five Dr. Martin Luther King became the youngest person ever to receive a Nobel Prize. He accepted the prestigious award for peace on behalf of the Movement, saying it was "a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and racial questions of our time-the need for man to overcome oppression without resorting to violence."19
In 1965 the push for voter registration was accelerated, and Selma, Alabama was selected as the most challenging target. Mass meetings were held there throughout January and February. On the first day of February, King and Abernathy led a march of 250 blacks and 15 whites to the courthouse, where they all were arrested. On March 5 King spent two and a half hours with President Johnson urging him to expedite the Voting Rights bill. Two days later he announced a 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery. Although Governor Wallace prohibited the march, King exhorted the people to stand up for what is right. SCLC strategy was for the leaders to avoid arrest in the early stages of a campaign. Thus King was not at the front of the march when they were met by Alabama troopers with gas masks, tear gas, clubs, horsemen with whips, and deputies with electric cattle prods. The brutal attack was cheered by whites on the sidelines.
King announced that he and Abernathy would lead another march. A federal injunction was issued against it, but King made a nationwide appeal for ministers and others to join them. This time they crossed the bridge before coming to the troopers. Fifteen hundred people prayed on the road, and then to avoid a violent confrontation King asked them to turn back. That night a white minister from Boston was murdered by four Klansmen in Selma. Demonstrations were held across the country, and four thousand religious leaders picketed the White House to push for the Voting Rights bill. The evening of the funeral President Johnson gave his "We shall overcome" speech and made the Voting Rights bill his top priority. The injunction against the march was lifted, and the President federalized the Alabama National Guard and sent troops to protect the marchers. On March 21 the march was successfully carried out; when they got to Montgomery, they were a crowd of fifty thousand. Again King's oratory lifted the people as he declared that they would not have to wait long for freedom because "no lie can live forever," because "you will reap what you sow," because "the arm of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice," and because "mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."20 The Voting Rights bill was signed on August 6, 1965.
James Lawson refused to fight in the Korean War and was sent
to prison for his conscientious objection. Paroled under Methodist
ministers, he went to India as a missionary and studied the nonviolent
methods of Gandhi for three years. While enrolled at Oberlin College
in Ohio, he traveled to Montgomery during the bus boycott and
advised Martin Luther King, Jr. on applying nonviolence in a mass
protest. In 1958 Lawson and FOR minister Glenn Smiley began offering
workshops on nonviolence in Nashville. That year the NAACP won
some desegregation victories using sit-ins in Kansas and Oklahoma.
On February 1, 1960 four black freshman from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College sat in the Woolworth store in Greensboro without receiving service for an hour until the store closed. CORE was contacted, and Gordon Carey came from New York to organize more sit-ins by students. Fred Shuttlesworth was in North Carolina then and called SCLC's executive director, Ella Baker. She called people, and Ralph Abernathy helped students of Alabama State College to organize sit-ins in Montgomery. Columbia students picketed Woolworth's in New York city, and Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell called for a national boycott of Woolworth stores. In two weeks the sit-ins spread to fifteen southern cities. Julian Bond at Morehouse College led the effort in Atlanta.
The Nashville students were prepared, and on February 18 they mobilized two hundred people for sit-ins at several stores. On February 27 some white teens insulted and attacked the Negroes sitting at the lunch counter. The Nashville police arrived and arrested 81 black demonstrators but none of the whites; those arrested were replaced at the lunch counter by other protestors. The black community in Nashville raised nearly $50,000 for bail, but the judge turned his back on their black attorney, Z. Alexander Looby, and fined the demonstrators. On March 2 at the Nashville bus terminal 63 students were arrested. Two weeks later four blacks were finally served food there; but while they ate, they were beaten. Black customers boycotted the offending Nashville stores. Young John Lewis was arrested four times. Lawson refused to withdraw from the movement and was expelled by Vanderbilt's Divinity School; eleven faculty later resigned in protest when he was not re-admitted. After four days of nonviolence classes at Orangeburg, South Carolina, on March 15 a thousand Negroes protested lunch-counter discrimination; police used fire hoses and tear gas, and 388 students were arrested. Atlanta was changed forever when 76 students were arrested. NAACP executive secretary Roy Wilkins and Martin Luther King both made statements that the students would end segregation.
In April 1960 Ella Baker of the SCLC organized a conference at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina for students who wanted to challenge racial discrimination. Student leaders from 56 colleges in twelve southern states attended, and Lawson gave the keynote speech. They formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, pronounced "snick"), and the SCLC contributed $800 to get it started. After a bomb destroyed much of Looby's house in Nashville, 2,000 Negroes marched in protest to City Hall. In early May four theaters and six lunch counters in Nashville ended their Jim Crow policies. That spring lunch counters in seven Tennessee cities were desegregated. Although protestors remained nonviolent, sporadic acts of violence broke out against them in various places. In Jackson, Mississippi police used clubs, tear gas, and dogs against demonstrators, and in Biloxi whites with clubs and chains attacked Negroes at a public beach; ten were even wounded by gunshots.
In May 1960 SNCC met at Atlanta University, and James Lawson wrote the original draft for what became the following SNCC Statement of Purpose:
We affirm the philosophical or religious ideal of nonviolence
as the foundation of our purpose,
the pre-supposition of our faith, and the manner of our action.
Nonviolence as it grows from Judaic-Christian tradition
seeks a social order of justice permeated by love.
Integration of human endeavor represents
the crucial first step toward such a society.
courage displaces fear; love transforms hate.
Acceptance dissipates prejudice; hopes ends despair.
Peace dominates war; faith reconciles doubt.
Mutual regard cancels enmity.
Justice for all overthrows injustice.
The redemptive community supersedes
systems of gross social immorality.
Love is the central motif of nonviolence.
Love is the force by which God binds
man to Himself and man to man.
Such love goes to the extreme;
it remains loving and forgiving even in the midst of hostility.
It matches the capacity of evil to inflict suffering
with an even more enduring capacity to absorb evil,
all the while persisting in love.
By appealing to conscience
and standing on the moral nature of human existence,
nonviolence nurtures the atmosphere
in which reconciliation and justice become actual possibilities.22
SNCC elected Marion Barry chairman, and he testified before
the platform committee at the Democratic Party's national convention
at Los Angeles in July. By February 1961 more than 3,600 demonstrators
had been in jail. That month SNCC began a no-bail tactic when
Charles Sherrod, Charles Jones, Diane Nash, and Ruby Doris Smith
were arrested at Rock Hill, South Carolina; they were sentenced
to thirty days. In Atlanta eighty students stayed in jail. Also
in February SNCC began testing the Boynton decision that declared
discrimination at facilities of interstate travel illegal.
Freedom riders left Washington on May 4, and at the Rock Hill bus station John Lewis and Albert Bigelow were beaten while entering a white waiting room. At Anniston, Alabama, a bomb was thrown onto the bus; passengers suffered smoke inhalation but escaped as the bus burned up. A second bus arrived an hour later, and eight men beat up the protesting riders with metal pipes; James Peck needed fifty stitches in his head. At Birmingham drivers refused to take them farther, and they flew to New Orleans. Diane Nash in Nashville organized ten students, who took a bus to Birmingham, but Police Chief Bull Connor arrested them and drove them 120 miles to the Tennessee border. They tried again, and after President Kennedy's phone calls, a bus took them from Birmingham to Montgomery on May 20. Kennedy's representative in the Justice Department, John Siegenthaler, flew to Montgomery. There a mob of three hundred with clubs and sticks knocked out Siegenthaler, and no ambulance would come to help him or the other wounded demonstrators. Attorney General Robert Kennedy learned what happened and sent his deputy Byron White with US marshals. Governor John Patterson declared martial law, and the freedom riders were joined by 1200 people at Abernathy's Baptist church, where the marshals used tear gas to disperse the surrounding mob. With the National Guard on the streets the twelve freedom riders made it to the bus and Jackson, Mississippi, where they were arrested for entering a white waiting room. They refused to pay fines and were beaten in jail. William Coffin led a group of white ministers, and they were arrested in Montgomery along with Abernathy and Shuttlesworth.
The freedom rides continued, and by the end of the summer in 1961 more than three hundred had been arrested. Treatment was the worst in Mississippi, where prisoners, such as Stokely Carmichael, had their bedding removed for singing. That summer President Kennedy's assistant Harris Wofford, Burke Marshall from the Civil Rights Division, and the Taconic and Field Foundations offered SNCC funds to work on voter registration in the South. Tim Jenkins took this idea to a SNCC meeting, but many wanted to continue the direct action effort. Ella Baker suggested a compromise, and they agreed to work on both.
Bob Moses led heroic efforts in McComb, Mississippi despite violent opposition. Although Mississippi was 43% Negro, only five percent of them were registered to vote. The federal government filed some lawsuits but did not reign in the abusive police power in Mississippi. Although the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black ordered the University of Mississippi to admit James Meredith, in the fall of 1962 Governor Ross Barnett tried to resist until September 30 when President Kennedy federalized the Mississippi national guard and sent 400 marshals, who were attacked by a mob of two thousand whites; two people were killed, and more than 300 were injured. Within ten days the US Army had 12,000 troops in Oxford, Mississippi. Meredith graduated the following year and was wounded on a "walk against fear" in June 1966. On March 23, 1963 the SNCC office used for voter registration in Greenwood was destroyed by a fire. Four days later leaders Moses, Jim Forman, and eight others were arrested for marching to the county courthouse. They were released after the US Justice Department postponed its suit against local officials. NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers was murdered in his driveway at Jackson on June 12. By the end of 1963 SNCC had 130 staff working in the South. Historian Howard Zinn participated in the Freedom Day demonstrations at Hattiesburg, Mississippi on January 22, 1964, and in his book SNCC: The New Abolitionists he wrote an account of their efforts to register voters led by Bob Moses.
Charles Sherrod and Cordell Reagon began the SNCC effort in Albany, Georgia in October 1961. On November first they rode a Trailways bus to Albany with Charles Jones and Jim Forman to test compliance with the Interstate Commerce Commission's recent barring of segregation in terminals. Police ordered them to leave a white waiting room, and the violation was reported to the US Justice Department. A coalition of groups called itself the Albany Movement, and five students were arrested on November 22. When Albany State College expelled them and others were fired, students marched in protest. An interracial group of nine activists, which included Bob Zellner, Tom Hayden and his wife Sandra, were arrested with two others at the bus terminal by Albany Police Chief Laurie Pritchett on December 10. During their trial hundreds of students marched in protest, and a total of 737 were arrested, mostly for parading without a permit. A boycott of the city buses put the bus company out of business. Those disobeying segregation in the courtroom were dragged out. King and Abernathy returned to Albany for their trials in July 1962. They refused to pay a fine; but someone else did so secretly, and they left. That summer hundreds of youths were arrested for disobeying segregation at the library, restaurants, the park, the swimming pool, and the bowling alley. The Albany Movement registered five hundred Negroes to vote and began running candidates for office. When Charles Wingfield was expelled for putting up a petition on the wall of his school, more than a thousand students stayed out of school in protest. Wingfield was not re-admitted but began working for SNCC.
In April 1963 William Moore was carrying protest signs on a walk to Mississippi, but he was murdered on a highway in Alabama. SNCC and CORE organized an interracial group of ten to continue his walk. They left Chattanooga on the first of May and were accompanied by a group of reporters; they were frequently harassed by local racists. At the Alabama border Governor George Wallace had them arrested, and after 31 days in jail they were fined $200 each.
At the massive demonstration in Washington on August 28, 1963 SNCC chairman John Lewis was persuaded by other leaders to soften his criticism of the Kennedy administration's failure to protect civil rights in the South. Lawyers and historian Zinn pointed out that the US Code in Title 18 Section 242 makes it a crime to deprive any inhabitant of their rights, and Title 10 Section 333 authorizes the President to use armed forces to suppress domestic violence that opposes or obstructs the laws of the United States. Yet thousands of Negroes and some whites had been jailed and brutally treated in nonviolent efforts to secure their constitutional rights. Injunctions against officials could have been issued to deter violations and protect those rights. Judges could have jailed violators for civil contempt. Robert Moses brought a suit against Attorney General Robert Kennedy which had been denied and was being appealed. In his speech Lewis removed the complaint that the pending civil rights bill would not protect people from police brutality. He did criticize the federal government for indicting nine civil rights leaders for peacefully protesting in Albany, Georgia, and more than thirty FBI agents were on this case. His remark that this was a conspiracy to appease southern politicians was also self-censored.
Selma, Alabama had a history of being a slave market and a lynching town. In Dallas County 57% of the people were of African descent, but only one percent of eligible blacks were registered to vote compared to 64% of eligible whites. During voter registration efforts in early fall 1963 more than three hundred people were arrested as Sheriff Jim Clark and his deputies with clubs used electric cattle prods against demonstrators. At a church meeting Dick Gregory spoke for two hours, humorously pointing out the absurdities of segregation. On October 7, Freedom Day, 350 Negroes stood in line all day to try to register to vote; those trying to give them water or food were arrested while FBI officials watched and did nothing.
In June 1964 a group of 25 blacks traveled from Mississippi to Washington to ask the federal government for protection during Freedom Summer when seven hundred mostly white college students came to help the mostly black SNCC and other civil rights workers in Mississippi. On June 21 James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman were murdered in Neshoba County. Harvard law school professor Mark Howe blamed the Attorney General for not using the law to protect civil rights workers. About two thousand students attended more than thirty Freedom Schools that summer. The church in Gluckstadt used for the school was burned down. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) led by Fannie Lou Hamer decided to register voters independently of the state, and 80,000 registered with the new party. During the Freedom Summer more than a thousand people were arrested in Mississippi. The MFDP tried to get its delegates seated at the Democratic national convention in Atlantic City, but they were only allowed two delegates.
Federal indifference to police brutality continued during demonstrations at Selma in the first three months of 1965. Only for the large march from Selma to Montgomery did President Johnson authorize the national guard to protect marchers. After the murders of Jimmie Lee Jackson, Rev. James Reeb, and Viola Liuzzo, in the spring of 1965 Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) led the SNCC effort in Lowndes County, Alabama. In May the SNCC executive committee had a closed meeting about whether SNCC workers should carry guns, as some already were. Carmichael started the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (LCFO) as a black political party with the black panther as its symbol. By the fall SNCC workers had moved beyond the South and were working Boston, Detroit, Chicago, Washington, San Francisco, and Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. In January 1966 SNCC issued a strong statement opposing the Vietnam War. That month they started boycotting the buses in the District of Columbia and demanded home rule. In May 1966 Carmichael was elected chairman of SNCC, replacing John Lewis.
Meanwhile problems were surfacing outside the South. In one night of rioting in the Watts section of Los Angeles in August 1965 more people were killed than in ten years of nonviolent demonstrations across the country. On June 6, 1966 James Meredith was shot while leading a march in Mississippi. King visited him in the hospital and took his place on the march. Stokely Carmichael and the Black Power advocates wanted to exclude whites, but King said he would withdraw. They agreed to keep the march interracial and nonviolent.
In January 1966 King had moved his family into a Chicago slum to begin a protest for better housing and economic conditions. Mayor Daly closed up City Hall, but like his namesake Martin Luther, King nailed his specific demands to the closed door. Finally, to avoid a violent confrontation Mayor Daley met with King, Archbishop Cody, Chicago Real Estate Board representatives, the Chicago Housing Authority, business and industrial leaders, and black leaders of Chicago and the SCLC. An open housing agreement was announced on August 26. An SCLC poverty and unemployment program called Operation Breadbasket was put under the leadership of Jesse Jackson. At the annual SCLC convention in August 1966 at Jackson, Mississippi, King called for a "guaranteed annual income, and a convention resolution proposed $4,000 per year. In a debate on a 90-minute Meet the Press program on NBC television on August 21, King, Whitney Young, and Roy Wilkins argued for adhering to nonviolence while Stokely Carmichael, James Meredith, and Floyd McKissick advocated black power. King believed in black empowerment but considered it a tactical mistake to use the term "black power" because it tended to provoke the majority into crushing the minority.
In his last book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, Rev. King responded to the concerns of those advocating black power; but he still recommended nonviolent methods and reconciliation with whites. He warned that power without love is reckless and abusive, but he admitted that love without power is sentimental and weak. The aim should be justice. He argued that the recent riots showed the futility of using violence in the struggle for racial justice. Murdering liars and haters does not end the lie and the hate. Only nonviolence can break the chain reaction of evil. He believed that both education and social action are needed. King perceived that the root cause of both racial hatred and war was fear. He hoped that the greatest application of the nonviolent methods used in the civil rights movement would be for world peace, asking, "Do we have the morality and courage required to live together as brothers and not be afraid?"21 War, he said, had become obsolete; but he knew the danger when he saw the leaders of nations preparing for war while talking peace. He warned of the ultimate danger to the human race.
If we assume that life is worth living
and that man has a right to survive,
then we must find an alternative to war.
In a day when vehicles hurtle through outer space
and guided ballistic missiles carve highways of death
through the stratosphere,
no nation can claim victory in war.
A so-called limited war will leave
little more than a calamitous legacy of human suffering,
political turmoil and spiritual disillusionment.
A world war will leave only smoldering ashes
as mute testimony of a human race
whose folly led inexorably to ultimate death.
If modern man continues to flirt unhesitatingly with war,
he will transform his earthly habitat into an inferno
such as even the mind of Dante could not imagine.
Therefore I suggest that
the philosophy and strategy of nonviolence
become immediately a subject for study
and for serious experimentation in every field of human conflict,
by no means excluding the relations between nations.
It is, after all, nation-states which make war,
which have produced the weapons
that threaten the survival of mankind
and which are both genocidal and suicidal in character.23
He had faith that we can end war and violence as long as we do not succumb to fear of the weapons we have created. He recommended that the United Nations consider using nonviolent direct action as an application of peaceable power. He prophesied that achieving disarmament and peace would depend on a spiritual re-evaluation. He warned that a nation, which spends year after year more money on military defense than on social programs, is moving toward spiritual death. Ultimately there must be a world-wide fellowship based on unconditional love for all people.
King's conscience told him that he must speak out against the Vietnam War, even though the SCLC leaders asked him not to speak as SCLC President but as a private citizen. Many civil rights leaders considered his denunciation of Johnson's Vietnam policy a mistake. However, his wife Coretta, his former professor Harold de Wolf, A. J. Muste, and UN Ambassador Arthur Goldberg supported him for his courageous stand. In January 1967 in Los Angeles he complained that the promises of the Great Society had been shot down on the battlefields of Vietnam. He suggested combining the fervor of the civil rights movement with the peace movement. He spoke at the Spring Mobilization campaign organized by A. J. Muste. While in Geneva, King called for an immediate negotiated settlement to the "immoral" war. At Riverside Church in New York on April 4, 1967 he proposed a five-point peace program for Vietnam: an end to all bombing, a unilateral cease-fire to prepare for negotiation, curtailment of military build-ups throughout Southeast Asia, realistic acceptance of the National Liberation Front (NLF), and the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Vietnam in accordance with the 1954 Geneva agreement. He criticized current American values and suggested radical changes that are still needed.
I am convinced that if we are to get
on the right side of the world revolution,
we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.
We must rapidly begin the shift
from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society.
When machines and computers, profit motives
and property rights are considered more important than people,
the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism
are incapable of being conquered.24
King with Benjamin Spock and Harry Belafonte led a demonstration of more than 125,000 to the United Nations building in New York on April 15, and they sent a note to Ralph Bunche that they were supporting peace, equal rights, and the self-determination of peoples.
In 1968 Martin Luther King continued to criticize the war in Vietnam, and on January 14 he went to the Santa Rita jail to visit Joan Baez, who had been arrested with others at a draft board in California. He refused to segregate his moral concern for peace from that for justice, believing that there can be no justice without peace nor peace without justice. He recommended civil disobedience to stop the abominable and immoral Vietnam War. He was preparing a massive Poor People's Campaign for whites as well as blacks when he was called to Memphis to assist with a strike of the sanitation workers. Two thousand people at Clayborn Temple wanted to hear him speak. He declared his support for their cause, but then he began to reflect about the threats made against his life. He confessed that he would like a long life, but his main concern was to do God's will. He was glad that he had been to the mountain top and seen the Promised Land. The next day, April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed. He had already requested a simple eulogy in a sermon he had given two months before when he had said,
I'd like someone to mention that day
that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to give his life serving others.
I'd like somebody to say that day
that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to love somebody.
I want you to say that day,
that I tried to be right on the war question.
l want you to be able to say that day
that I did try to feed the hungry.
I want you to be able to say that day
that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked.
I want you to say, on that day,
that I did try, in my life, to visit those who were in prison.
I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.
Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major,
say that I was a drum major for justice;
say that I was a drum major for peace.25
Cesar Estrada Chavez was born near Yuma, Arizona on March 31,
1927. His grandfather had migrated from Mexico in the 1880s, and
his father, Librado Chavez, homesteaded land and ran a grocery
store. During the Depression, Librado had to sell his store to
pay his back taxes; a local banker had denied him a loan even
though he qualified under federal guidelines. During the 1930s
about a half million Mexicans were repatriated or deported from
the United States. In 1939 the Chavez family along with thousands
of poor whites from the Midwest and black sharecroppers from the
South went to California looking for work. His father joined various
unions, and the family often quit jobs in protest of bad treatment.
Cesar completed the eighth grade before he left school to work
when his father was temporarily incapacitated by a car accident
in 1942. The back-aching experience of using a short-handled hoe
stimulated Cesar to work years later for the banning of that tool.
He experienced racial discrimination, and he had been punished
at school for speaking Spanish. In 1944 he was arrested for refusing
to sit in the Mexican section of a theater in Delano. That year
he had joined the US Navy and was sent to the Mariana Islands
and Guam, where he worked as a painter. Cesar married his sweetheart
Helen Fabela in 1948, and on their honeymoon they visited all
the California missions. He and his parents worked as sharecroppers
growing strawberries for two years. Then Cesar with his growing
family spent a year and a half working in the forests of northern
California before settling in the Sal Si Puedes barrio of San
Jose, where Cesar got a job in a lumber mill in 1952.
Ernesto Galarza had earned a Ph.D. from Columbia University and organized for the National Farm Labor Union (NFLU); he initiated the supermarket picket lines to boycott table grapes. Galarza also worked for the AFL-CIO's Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) and advised Cesar during his early years of organizing. Under the leadership of Saul Alinsky, the Community Service Organization (CSO) had registered 15,000 new voters in 1949 and helped Edward Roybal get elected to the city council in Los Angeles. When drunk police officers beat seven Chicanos nearly to death in 1951, CSO efforts made authorities hold the officers accountable for what navy men had gotten away with during the Zoot Suit riots of 1942. Cesar Chavez worked as a volunteer for the CSO registering people to vote, and he became a friend and assistant of Catholic priest Donald McDonnell, who also served farm workers. Cesar studied on his own and was especially influenced by Louis Fisher's Life of Gandhi. In 1952 Fred Ross hired Chavez to work full-time as a CSO organizer for $35 a week. During the McCarthy era the FBI conducted various investigations of liberal groups, but Chavez persuaded the FBI not to allow the Republican party to interfere with their voter registration efforts. From 1953 to 1955 the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) deported nearly two million Mexicans. Chavez was an effective and hard-working organizer, and his family moved to Oakland and then to various places in the San Joaquin Valley; his salary was increased to $58 a week.
In the summer of 1958 the United Packinghouse Workers union promised the CSO $20,000 for a new chapter in Oxnard, and Cesar Chavez was put in charge. At this time a big issue was the competition with the bracero program of guest workers from Mexico that had started during World War II to provide needed labor. During a lemon workers strike Chavez and the CSO used persistent applications for jobs, boycotts, and sit-down strikes in the fields; they won their campaign to have local workers hired first, and their wages went up from 65 to 90 cents an hour. In 1959 Cesar wanted to start a union, but he was appointed state director of CSO and was assigned to Los Angeles, where he worked for two years. That year McDonnell and another priest named Thomas McCullough along with Dolores Huerta persuaded the AFL-CIO to support the forming of a farm workers union, and they founded the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC). Huerta persuaded the Filipino Larry Itliong to join them. Chavez began to work with Huerta and Gil Padilla.
At the 1962 annual CSO convention in Calexico, Cesar proposed a union movement for farm workers; when this was rejected, he resigned and moved to Delano in April. With little savings for his family of eight children, Chavez often worked in the fields with his wife Helen from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. and then organized on his own the rest of the day and evening. Traveling to their camps and fields and meeting workers in their houses, he passed out more than 80,000 questionnaires on the issues. Julio Hernandez had been blackballed for being in a union in 1951, but Cesar persuaded him to try again. Dolores Huerta was upset that AWOC organizers were too cozy with contractors, and she quit to work with Chavez, who set up an office in his brother Richard's garage.
In the fall of 1962 about 150 delegates of workers met at a theater and formed the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) with a flag of a black eagle in a white circle on a red background and the motto "Viva la Causa!" Chavez was elected president with Huerta, Hernandez, and Padilla as vice presidents. Dues were set at $3.50 per month, and the goal was to get the $1.50 minimum wage for farm workers with unemployment insurance. Richard Chavez was a carpenter and had built a house, and his brother Cesar got him to mortgage it so that they could start a burial-insurance program and credit union. Helen Chavez set up a co-op for auto supplies and administered the credit union. Cesar was offered a $50,000 grant from a foundation but turned it down to retain independence. He was the only union official at that time whose salary came completely from the workers. Chavez was offered a job as director of the Peace Corps in Latin America with an annual salary of $21,000; yet he rejected that offer even though he only was getting $50 per week and sometimes he still had to work in the fields.
Chavez wanted to build up the organization before going on strike, and by 1964 the NFWA had a thousand dues-paying members and more than fifty locals. In December they began their newspaper, El Malcriado, which means "the unruly one." In March 1965 flower workers, who had been promised $9 per thousand plants but were paid less than $7, went on strike. During the summer Gilbert Padilla and Protestant minister Jim Drake organized protest marches and a rent-strike because of the miserable shacks in the labor camps in Tulare County. The bracero program had been ended in 1964, but in the summer of 1965 growers persuaded Governor Pat Brown to pressure President Lyndon Johnson into reviving the program; pay had to be at least $1.40 an hour. When growers paid the domestic workers only $1.25, the Filipinos of the AWOC in the Coachella Valley went on strike and got better wages. However, other growers in the Delano area also paid less and wanted to pay Mexican-Americans only $1.10 per hour. On September 8 Larry Itliong led the Filipino workers on a strike. Chavez had been learning from the nonviolent civil rights movement led by Dr. King. He called a meeting and warned against using violence even though violence would be used against them, and the vote for a strike was unanimous. Chavez and others found that when they did not react violently, they gained the sympathy of other workers. Cesar said,
People don't like to see
a nonviolent movement subjected to violence,
and there's a lot of support across the country for nonviolence.
That's the key point we have going for us.
We can turn the world if we can do it nonviolently.26
Law enforcement tended to be on the side of the growers. Confrontations
occurred on the picket lines, and 44 pickets, including Helen
Chavez, were arrested and transported to Bakersfield in October.
Cesar Chavez publicized the violence used against them and found
that such unjust acts actually helped their cause. He coordinated
with AWOC leader Al Green. With Filipinos and Mexicans on strike,
48 ranches were affected. Chavez immediately sent letters to the
growers to negotiate, but they were returned unopened. SNCC organizers
began arriving to help, and Luis Valdez came from the San Francisco
Mime Troupe and started El Teatro de Campesino to perform skits
that would educate workers in the camps. In December, Walter Reuther
of the United Auto Workers came to support their effort, and the
UAW donated money to the strike. Reuther, who led the sit-down
strikes at General Motors in 1937, said, "There is no power
in the world like the power of free men working together in a
just cause."27 The NFWA was awarded a $267,887 grant from
the US Office of Economic Opportunity as part of its poverty program,
but Chavez asked Sargent Shriver to postpone the grant until the
strike was over. During hearings of the Subcommittee on Migratory
Labor, Senator Bobby Kennedy reminded Kern County sheriff Roy
Galyen, who had arrested picketers, of the US Constitution. Kennedy
even joined a picket line supporting the grape strike.
In March 1966 Cesar Chavez organized a 250-mile march to Sacramento in 25 days that ended on Easter Sunday, but Gov. Brown chose to go to Palm Springs. The Schenley Corporation was affected by the strike and offered Chavez a contract, but the powerful Di Giorgios made a deal with the Teamsters, who rushed an election on union representation. Chavez advised boycotting that election, and Dolores Huerta won the support of the Mexican-American Political Association (MAPA), which convinced Gov. Brown to investigate and invalidate the early election; a new election was scheduled for August 30. The NFWA merged with the AWOC to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) within the AFL-CIO; Chavez became director and Itliong vice director. The UFWOC got 530 votes to 331 for the Teamsters, and only twelve workers voted not to have a union. Martin Luther King sent them a congratulatory telegram, saying, "The fight for equality must be fought on many fronts."28 In another election at Arvin the UFW won by even more votes. Chavez began negotiating with Di Giorgio executives, but violence against strikers provoked Chavez into calling for a boycott against their TreeSweet juices and S&W canned foods. When Chavez went with newly converted strikers to pick up their things at a company labor camp, they were arrested and convicted of trespassing; but this outrage won over more workers.
In September 1966 the Perelli-Minetti winery made a deal with the Teamsters, and UFW declared a boycott against their labels and stores that sold their wines. In April 1967 Di Giorgio became the first employer that agreed to finance a health and welfare fund for farm workers with vacation and holiday pay. The UFW won another election against the Teamsters, and by July 1967 the biggest vintner Gallo and Christian Brothers, Almaden, and Paul Masson had all agreed to negotiate with the farm workers. Padilla and Drake went to Texas, where Rangers were breaking strikes. Chavez hired the lawyer Jerry Cohen, and he eventually won a suit against the Texas Rangers that was decided by the US Supreme Court in the 1970s. Cohen also proved that the injunctions against secondary boycotts did not apply because farm workers were excluded by the National Labor Relations Act. In August 1967 workers at the Giumara Vineyards voted to go on strike, and two-thirds of their 5,000 workers left their jobs during the harvest. Picketing was severely limited to three people at each entrance, and so Chavez announced a nation-wide boycott of Giumara grapes. Giumara used other names, and Huerta and Ross urged Chavez to broaden the boycott to all table grapes in January 1968.
Cesar Chavez was reading the writings of Gandhi and was adamant about holding to nonviolence. In October 1966 picketing Manuel Rivera was hit by a truck and disabled. An angry mob surrounded the truck, but Chavez pushed through the crowd and may have saved the driver's life. When Chavez found strikers with a few guns, he confiscated them. By February 1968 the black power movement and the Black Panthers had led Chicanos to form the militant Brown Berets. Chavez decided to go on a fast until the union members renewed their commitment to nonviolence. After thirteen days of fasting he had to appear in court and was supported by three thousand farm workers. After 25 days Cesar broke his fast with Bobby Kennedy, who announced his candidacy for President a week later. Chavez was too weak to speak standing, and his message was read aloud by Jim Drake. In their struggle of the poor against the rich he called upon their bodies and spirits in the cause of justice, noting that the true act of courage is sacrificing oneself for others in the nonviolent struggle. Their voter registration drive helped Kennedy win the California primary. However, that spring both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. After Nixon's election, the Defense department greatly increased its purchase of grapes for soldiers in Vietnam.
To spread the boycott in 1969 Chavez sent Al and Elena Rojas to Pittsburgh, Jessica Govea to Toronto and Montreal, and Eliseo Medina to Chicago, where he used sit-down demonstrations in the grocery stores. Others got the distribution of grapes curtailed in Detroit, New York, Boston, and Philadelphia as well. In May 1969 Chavez and Rev. Ralph Abernathy led a march from Indio to the Mexican border. In April 1970 a committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops persuaded Coachella growers to negotiate. Finally, 26 grape growers went to the UFW headquarters near Delano on July 29, 1970 and signed union contracts giving farm workers $1.80 an hour and contributing ten cents an hour to the Robert Kennedy Health and Welfare Fund and two cents per hour for UFW service centers. Chavez acknowledged the sacrifices of the strikers, 95% of whom had lost their homes and cars, but 85% of table-grape growers in California were now under union contracts. Chavez recognized the power of individuals working together for a common good in peaceful ways that could bring about a cultural revolution.
By August 1970 about 170 firms still had not switched from the Teamsters to the UFW, and Cesar Chavez called for a general strike. On August 29 more than 20,000 people in Los Angeles marched in protest of the Vietnam War; police used tear gas, and three people were killed, including Los Angeles Times reporter Ruben Salazar. Violence by the Teamsters was increasing, and the UFW's attorney Cohen was hospitalized. Dolores Huerta negotiated a two-year contract with InterHarvest that raised base pay to $2.10 an hour and eliminated the use of DDT and other dangerous pesticides. Chavez spent most of December in jail for not obeying an injunction against boycotting Bud Antle lettuce, but in April 1971 the California Supreme Court ruled in his favor, deciding that the strike and boycott were legal and that the Teamsters had colluded with the growers. In the Salinas Valley the Teamsters had made secret agreements with the growers without consulting workers, and they fired any who refused to pay dues. The UFW moved its headquarters south from Delano to La Paz. Republicans in the Arizona legislature passed laws against boycotts and limiting strikes. In April 1972 Chavez fasted for 24 days to raise public awareness, and in the fall Arizona elected its first Mexican-American governor, Raul Castro.
Because many growers were signing contracts with the bullying Teamsters, in April 1973 Chavez called for a strike. After Gallo signed a contract with Teamsters on June 27, Chavez announced a boycott of Gallo wines. Four days earlier Teamsters had attacked picket lines with weapons, injuring 25 people. In August two UFW members were killed, and Cesar asked union members to fast for three days. He cancelled the strike but continued the boycott. Under President Nixon and Governor Reagan law enforcement was hard on the strikers, and 3,500 were arrested in 1973; but most of the cases were dismissed by the courts. UFW membership fell from 40,000 to 6,500.
In 1974 Nixon resigned, and Democrat Jerry Brown was elected governor. In February 1975 the UFW organized a march from San Francisco to Merced, and that year the short-handled hoe was finally banned in California. Brown and his agriculture secretary, Rose Bird, pushed through the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in June. Yet growers still allowed Teamsters access while barring UFW organizers, who filed more than a thousand complaints. Eighty elections enabled the UFW to increase its membership. By the end of 1975 the UFW represented 27,000 workers to the Teamsters' 12,000, but then the legislature stopped funding the Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB). The farm workers union tried to remedy this by putting Proposition 14 on the ballot, but the growers contributed two million dollars to defeat it at the polls in 1976. The next year the Teamsters stopped contesting the farm worker elections, and in 1978 UFW membership passed a hundred thousand. Chavez ended the grape and lettuce boycotts. Strikers had to withstand tear-gas attacks during the lettuce strike in the Imperial Valley in 1979. Two marches to Salinas resulted in the Meyer Tomato company agreeing to pay $5 an hour, union representatives' salaries, and for a better medical plan.
The United Farm Workers experienced some dissension in the 1980s. Chavez fired some Salinas organizers; after they went on a hunger strike, he filed a $25 million lawsuit against them for libel. However, in 1982 a judge ruled that the Salinas group had been fired illegally and awarded them back pay. Some on the UFW staff objected to using the challenging interpersonal game of Synanon founder Charles Dederich. In September 1983 a security guard shot dairy worker Rene Lopez, and the day after his death a judge granted the union's request to disarm the grower Sikkim's guards. By 1984 UFW membership dropped below 12,000. In June of that year Chavez announced a grape boycott to call attention to the use of dangerous pesticides. In 1988 Cesar fasted for 36 days to protest pesticides. In 1991 the UFW lost a suit to an Imperial Valley grower that would cost them $2.4 million. When they were threatened in Arizona by a $5.4 million suit by Bruce Church, Inc., Chavez went to Arizona near his birthplace and fasted before testifying in court. After breaking his fast, he felt tired and died in his sleep on April 23, 1993. His funeral at Delano was attended by 40,000 people. By his own standard of how well an institution helps the poor, the work of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers should receive a favorable judgment by history.
1. Brown v. Board of Education, Supreme Court of the United
States, 1954. 347 U.S. 483, 74 S.Ct. 686, 98 L.Ed. 873 in Law
and American History: Cases and Materials by Stephen B. Presser
and Jamil S. Zainaldin, p. 738.
2. Stride Toward Freedom by Martin Luther King Jr., p. 61.
3. Ibid., p. 62.
4. Ibid., p. 63.
5. Ibid., p. 87.
6. Ibid., p. 137.
7. Ibid., p. 172.
8. Ibid., p. 216.
9. Ibid., p. 220-221.
10. Ibid., p. 222.
11. King by David L. Lewis, p. 133.
12. Ibid., p. 180-181.
13. Why We Can't Wait by Martin Luther King Jr., p. 80.
14. Ibid., p. 82.
15. Ibid., p. 83.
16. King by David L. Lewis, p. 211.
17. Ibid., p. 236.
18. Ibid., p. 242.
19. My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr.by Coretta Scott King, p. 12-13.
20. Speech on March 25, 1965 in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., p. 230.
21. Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? by Martin Luther King Jr., p. 182.
22. The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader, p. 119-120.
23. Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? by Martin Luther King Jr., p. 183-184.
24. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., p. 240.
25. Ibid., 267.
26. Quoted in Cesar Chavez: A Triumph of Spirit by Richard Griswold del Castillo and Richard A. Garcia, p. 47.
27. Quoted in The Fight in the Fields by Susan Ferriss and Ricardo Sandoval, p. 114.
28. Ibid., p. 133.
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