Cesar Chavez: 1968 Fast For Nonviolence

Chávez carried National Farm Workers Association and United Farm Workers signs on many picket lines.

The National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) was founded by Cesar Chavez, a Mexican- American farm worker, in 1962 in response to the unequal and unfair treatment of farm workers in the United States, the majority of whom were Latino immigrants. Most farm workers were underpaid, did not have insurance, and were not registered to vote [6]. The National Farm Workers Union had thousands of farm workers from many counties join, and as a collective they fought for medical coverage, just living conditions, and fair wages.

 

The National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) merged with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (NWOC) to create the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (NFWOC) 

The NFWA also aided the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, whose members were Filipino American grape workers, in fighting for worker rights as well [4]. The Latino and Filipino farmworkers worked together in fighting for their civil rights, often engaging in the same strikes; the two organizations merged in 1966 and became the United Farm Workers (UFW) [4].

As the NFWA grew in numbers, it also grew in partnerships. One such significant partnership the organization made was with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a youth led civil rights organization, as it taught the Union many modes of nonviolent resistance [5]. Nonviolence is an outlook the NFWA came to adopt and apply to all of their methods in gaining civil rights for the farmworkers, despite harassment and oppression from dissenting groups of people.

Cesar Chavez and union members engaging in peaceful protest in the nonviolent Farm Worker’s Civil Rights Movement

Some members of the NFW did not believe in non-violent tactics and believed it was cowardly not to fight back. Therefore, they thought that they should use violence on their employers, especially since it would depict “machismo” or manliness [3]. However, Cesar Chavez was rooted in the principle of nonviolence, especially since he had seen it work for two of his greatest heroes: Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr [3].

Cesar Chavez at the 1968 Fast with R.F.K.

Despite the impatience and doubt of some union members, Cesar Chavez was dedicated to the nonviolent, persistent work of the NFW and everything the union stood for. He was even willing to die for their cause. This was especially evident in 1968 when Chavez committed himself to a 25 day fast where he only drank water. He wanted to show angry and disheartened farm workers that nonviolent methods of resistance were effective, as long as they were hard working, faithful and dedicated [3]. Chavez had many other reasons for conducting the fast as well. Firstly, he viewed it as a personal cleansing of the mind, soul and body. He also believed that the fast served as a prayer to purify and strengthen everyone who was fighting for the rights of farm workers. Additionally, Chavez believed it served as “an act of penance” [1] for all activists who should have been doing more for the farm workers movement; he was grabbing their attention. Lastly, the fast represented a peaceful method of strong resistance to supermarkets the fruit of farm workers’ labor (quite literally) went to, especially those that made a profit off of California grapes, as grape workers had some of the worst pay and working conditions.

On March 10th, 1968, Cesar Chavez broke his 25-day fast by accepting bread from Senator Robert Kennedy, Delano, California.

Chavez’s 25 day water only fast commenced on February 11, 1968 in the UFW headquarters, located right outside of Delano California. The only people who truly understood why he was conducting it was farm workers; not everyone in the NFW understood or agreed with his choice to complete the fast, and therefore it caused a rift between Union and staff members [3]. Many people worried about Chavez’s health as well; he lost 35 pounds in 25 days, and was in grave danger as a result [3]. However, Chavez’s goal of re-centering the focus of the farm workers movement on non-violent modes of resistance in reaching civil rights for them worked, as the fast caused people to cease talking about violent methods of resistance. Everyone who was fighting for these rights started to stand in non-violent solidarity with their leader.

In this July 2, 1974, file photo, United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez, right, marches in a picket line with Archer Cole, an official of the New Jersey AFL-CIO in Hopelawn, N.J., against Pathmark supermarket, urging shoppers to boycott non-union picked lettuce and grapes.

This site of memory made lasting impacts in history, as it drew national attention to the struggles of farm workers and the cause NFW was fighting for. The fast was also repeated twice more in history to continue fighting for farm workers right in nonviolent ways [6]. Cesar Chavez’s fast also inspired the continuation of peaceful boycotts of produce like grapes and lettuce, which connected families from various income levels all over the nation to the poorest farm workers, as they were helping these workers through their simple sacrifices of certain produce [3]. Chavez’s demonstration of non-violence and dedication taught people nationwide that even the smallest of acts can directly help people in need without having anyone get hurt. The grape boycott was wildly successful, and by 1970 Table grape growers signed union contracts that gave farm workers better benefits, more protection and increased pay [3]. Nonviolent efforts like the fast and boycott are still employed today as a result.

Thousands of local students sit for 17 minutes in honor of the 17 students killed in a high school shooting in Florida, during a nationwide student walkout for gun control in front the White House in Washington, DC, March 14, 2018.

One such example of a recent peaceful protest movement employed in the 21st century is the National School Walkout, where thousands of students from across the country left class to bring attention to the dire need for gun reform in America [2]. Just like Cesar Chavez’s boycotts and fasts, the walkouts gained nationwide recognition for the students’ cause and for peaceful modes of resistance. The National School Walkout not only was in response to the February 14th mass school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High school, but was also conducted on the anniversary of the 1999 Columbine High School Massacre. This interweaving of past and present events into a collective, growing movement is a distinct and powerful example of collective memory, as the dark, troublesome memories of each tragic massacre fueled this non-violent movement. Fifty years later, Cesar Chavez’s resilient nature, peaceful approach to conflict, and proactive activism is still being honored and emulated by these student participants and leaders, as youth in America carry on the legacy of activists like Chavez and takes peaceful, yet powerful leaps in the fight for current issues like gun reform.

 

Works Cited

[1]“Fighting for Farm Workers’ Rights: Cesar Chavez, the Delano Grape Strike and Boycott.” Tavaana tavaana.org/en/content/fighting-farm-workers-rights-cesar-chavez-delano-grape-strike-and-boycott.

[2] Karimi, Faith, and Holly Yan. “’We Won’t Stop’: Students across US Renew Demand for Gun Safety in Second Walkout.” CNN, Cable News Network, 20 Apr. 2018, www.cnn.com/2018/04/20/us/national-school-walkout/index.html.

[3]“Kim, Inga. “Today in History: Cesar Chavez Began His 25-Day Water-Only Fast in Delano, Calif. on Feb. 11, 1968.” United Farm Workers ¡Si, Se Puede!, United Farm Workers, 7 Mar. 2017, ufw.org/today-history-cesar-chavez-began-25-day-water-fast-delano-calif-feb-11-1968/.

[4]“National Farm Workers Association (NFWA).” SNCC Digital Gateway, snccdigital.org/inside-sncc/alliances-relationships/national-farm-workers-association/.

[5] “SNCC Digital Gateway.” SNCC Digital Gateway, snccdigital.org/.

[6] “The Story of Cesar Chavez.” The Story of Cesar Chavez – UFW, ufw.org/research/history/story-cesar-chavez/.

One thought on “Cesar Chavez: 1968 Fast For Nonviolence”

  1. This post is well-written. Chavez’s willingness to sacrifice his health shows just how much he cared about the fight. I like how you connected the acts of non-violence in 1968 to acts of non-violence in the present, and I think this connection shows the long history and importance of non-violent protests. You should add some live links to other students’ posts, but overall, this post is wonderful as it is!

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