Paul Robeson, Black Dockworkers, and Labor-Left Pan-Africanism, by Peter Cole

Actor Paul Robeson, photographed at Madame St. Georges studio in London in 1925 (AP Photo/Courtesy Paul Robeson Jr.). Click to hear Robeson’s incomparably beautiful baritone voice sing ‘Shenandoah’

In honor of singer, actor, and civil and labor rights activist Paul Robeson’s birthday, April 9, 1898, here’s an excellent piece by Peter Cole, originally published at the African American Intellectual History Society blog

Paul Robeson was one of the greatest black internationalists of the twentieth century. A gifted actor and singer, he was also an unabashed leftist and union supporter. This resulted in his bitter persecution, destroying his career and causing, to a surprising degree, his disappearance from popular–if not academic–memory. Robeson’s connections to the fiery black dockworkers of the San Francisco Bay illuminate a form of black internationalism still left out of scholarly analyses –what I will refer to as Labor-Left Pan-Africanism.

Robeson’s life exemplified Pan-Africanism, a global movement of politically conscious black people who believed they shared much in common with all people of African descent in Africa and across the African Diaspora. In the 1930s, Robeson embraced this ideology, along with communism, and supported the Soviet Union. Robeson and other leftwing, Pan-African black intellectuals and activists—such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Eslanda Robeson, Vicki Garvin, and Hubert Harrison—fought long and hard for racial equality in the United States and for liberation of African and Caribbean nations abroad.

Robeson connected struggles for civil rights with socialism and working class politics. His interest in black equality first came from his father, William Drew Robeson, who was born a slave and successfully liberated himself. Robeson’s leftist politics emerged in the 1930s, first visiting the Soviet Union in 1934, and subsequently embracing socialism for treating black people as equals. He combined politics and artistry from then onwards.

In 1935, Robeson performed in the London debut of the American play Stevedore.1 The reviewer in the NAACP’s Crisis magazine concluded: “Stevedore is extremely valuable in the racial–social question—it is straight from the shoulder.” Later that year, he also played the lead in C. L. R. James’ take on Toussaint L’Ouverture, itself written shortly before James’ classic history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins (1938).

In 1937, back in the United States, Robeson helped to establish the Council on African Affairs (CAA), which promoted African liberation in an era when few Americans actively engaged in such matters. Perhaps its greatest achievement came in 1946, when the CAA submitted a memorandum to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in support of the African National Congress (ANC). Led by its US-educated President, Alfred Xuma, the ANC successfully fought to prevent the annexation of South-West Africa (now Namibia) by racist, white minority-ruled South Africa. Alas, the CAA was red-baited out of existence shortly after this victory.

In 1942, during WWII, Robeson traveled to Oakland to champion the black and white union workers contributing to the Allied war effort on the home front. One of Robeson’s most famous photos shows him singing the “Star Spangled Banner” amidst a sea of black and white workers at Moore Shipyard in Oakland. The image captures his politics brilliantly, all the more so since Robeson had worked as a shipbuilder during WWI.

Paul Robeson, world famous baritone, at Moore Shipyard in Oakland, CA, leading workers in singing the Star Spangled Banner.

After WWII, the Cold War commenced and black people linked to communism, like Robeson and Du Bois, were persecuted by the US State Department, the FBI, and many so-called patriots intolerant of dissent. Historian Penny M. Von Eschen cites Robeson’s “extreme advocacy on behalf of the independence of the colonial peoples of Africa” as an explanation for his career’s destruction in the Red Scare. I would also add his labor activism.

Just like Robeson, many of the black dockworkers I study adhered to Labor-Left Pan-Africanism. In the San Francisco Bay Area, thousands of African Americans belonged to the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU).2  This leftwing union was renowned for its fierce and proud commitment to racial equality and black internationalism. Indeed, during WWII, Robeson became an honorary member of the ILWU. Robeson and the ILWU were, in many ways, a perfect fit.

The ILWU was—and remains—amongst America’s most radical unions, led for decades by its leftist President Harry Bridges and supported by many leftists in the rank-and-file. The union put socialism into action in its hiring halls, which dispatched members based upon a “low man out” system in which the person with the fewest amount of hours worked, that quarter, received the first available job.

In keeping with its politics, the ILWU attacked racism on the waterfront beginning with its initial “Big Strike” even though the workforce was 99% white in 1934. Local 10 welcomed thousands of African Americans during the WWII-induced shipping boom and these blacks, alongside leftist white allies, fully integrated their union and fought for civil rights in the Bay Area and nationwide. Due to their aggressive efforts, ILWU Local 10, which represents dockworkers in San Francisco, Oakland, and throughout the Bay Area, became black majority in the mid-1960s with blacks elected to every leadership position available. Truly, the ILWU embodied what historian Robert Korstad labeled “civil rights unionism.”

Robeson understood the significance of the ILWU as a platform from which to demand civil rights. Two of Robeson’s best friends– Joe Johnson and Revels Cayton— belonged to the ILWU. Together, these three black men articulated a commitment to Labor-Left Pan-Africanism.

The best example of its Pan-Africanism was ILWU’s commitment to the struggle against apartheid and, more broadly, for the liberation of all the peoples of southern Africa. In the 1950s and 1960s, the union repeatedly condemned white-minority rule in South Africa and also noted the ironic similarities with Jim Crow segregation in the States. In the 1970s and 1980s, rank-and-file members of ILWU Local 10 formed the Southern Africa Liberation Support Committee, which stood at the vanguard of black working class anti-apartheid activism during this period. Leo Robinson, Texas-born and a child of the 2nd Great Migration to Oakland, followed in his father’s footsteps to the waterfront in 1963. In Local 10 Robinson became a communist and activist who helped found the SALSC after the Soweto student uprising of 1976. Although Robeson died that same year, after declining health and decades in forced retirement due to McCarthyism, other radical longshoremen inspired by socialism and liberation movements in Africa joined Robinson and following in Robeson’s footsteps.

The black and white members of the SALSC fought for the liberation of black people in South Africa, Mozambique, Rhodesia, and elsewhere in the best way they knew how: direct action on the job. To leftist, Pan-African dockworkers, the most logical way to attack apartheid and racial capitalism was flexing their economic muscle, i.e. stop work. In 1962, 1977, and for eleven days in 1984 (shortly after Reagan’s landslide re-election), they refused to unload South African cargo. By contrast, other black Pan-Africanists embraced consumer boycotts or economic divestment. Local 10’s actions set the bar for US anti-apartheid activism and helped inspire many in the Bay Area to join the solidarity struggle. Nelson Mandela thanked the union on his first visit to Oakland in 1990 and Robinson received a posthumous award from the now-democratic South African government.

Long after his death, Paul Robeson continued to inspire African Americans in the ILWU including the Bay Area’s Alex Bagwell. Like Leo Robinson, Bagwell’s family moved to San Francisco during WWII. In the 1960s, he dropped out of college after admission to the union, which had elevated so many black folks into the middle class. Like Robeson, Bagwell was a leftist and active in the union’s anti-apartheid efforts. He and his wife, Harriet, belonged to a radical choir, Vukani Mawethu, founded by a South African who belonged to the ANC and had gone into exile. Alex and his wife were among those in Vukani who sang when Mandela visited Oakland.

In the early 1990s, though not yet retired, Bagwell finished his B.A. and then earned his M.A. in Creativity and Arts Education at San Francisco State University. For his graduate degree, he wrote a play on Robeson’s life, conducting interviews with twenty people who knew him including Local 10 member Joe Johnson, Robeson’s long-time friend.

After the birth of a multiracial, democratic South Africa, the Bagwells traveled to the country, as part of Vukani Mawethu, to perform there. Other black and white radicals in the ILWU did so, as well. The Pan-Africanism of these dockworkers clearly followed in the footsteps of Robeson, who first championed the rights of black South Africans in the 1940s. The spirit and ideals of Robeson continue to shape the Pan-Africanism of working class black dockworkers who now have established connections with black dockworkers in South African ports. Robeson would be proud.

  1.  Stevedore is an older term for dockworker or longshoreman, workers who load and unload cargo ships.
  2. The ILWU’s original name was the International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union but, in 1997, a resolution was approved, unanimously at its biennial convention, that made its name gender-neutral. “What’s in a Name? For ILWU, it’s not ‘men’,Journal of Commerce, May 4, 1997

~ Peter Cole is a historian of the twentieth-century United States, South Africa and comparative history. Dr. Cole is Professor of History at Western Illinois University. He is the author of Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive Era Philadelphia (University of Illinois Press, 2013) and currently at work on a book entitled Dockworker Power: Race, Technology & Unions in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area. He writes on labor history and politics (Bio credit: AAIHS)

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Cesar Chavez Day, by Alejandro Magaña

Cesar Chavez visits college - By Movimiento - Own work, cropped - CC BY-SA 3.0 httpcreativecommons.orglicensesby-sa3.0 via Wikimedia CommonsEvery year around Cesar Chavez’s birthday, as media outlets report of festivities in his honor, I’m reminded of a joke in a Simpsons episode and the strange sadness it elicited in me when I saw it: Homer Simpson is on his front lawn and is confronted with the apparition of a debonair, mustachioed man who introduces himself as, “the spirit of Cesar Chavez.”

In typical Homer confusion he asks, “Then why do you look like Cesar Romero?”

The ghost replies, “Because you don’t know what I look like!”

Cesar Chavez is certainly revered by many people, especially within the Latino community, but despite the steadily increasing ubiquity of his name across the United States, especially the American Southwest, there are still many Americans today who don’t really know who he is, let alone what he stood for, or what he accomplished.

Cesar Chavez was a Mexican-American community organizer turned labor leader. A former migrant farmworker recruited by the Community Service Organization (CSO) in its heyday of the 1950s, he co-founded the National Farmworkers Association (NFWA,) which later became the United Farm Workers (UFW,) the first successful union for migrant farmworkers. The UFW’s membership consisted mostly of indigent Latinos and Filipinos, and their struggle for justice and dignity, fighting to gain higher wages and better conditions in the fields where they were deprived of basic needs such as clean drinking water and bathrooms, became a national moral cause under the stewardship of Chavez, who courted national and international sympathy using militant non-violent tactics in the vein of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, such as strikes, boycotts, fasts, and peaceful marches.

Chavez was not an imposing orator with the fire-and-brimstone timbre of the Reverend Dr. King, nor did he cut as iconoclastic a figure as Gandhi, but in his unassuming way he could be just as charismatic and endearing, and this often caught people off guard, as it did an interviewer for the New Yorker in 1973, who, “had expected, if not a Mexican-American Lenin…a young, hard, intense man bristling with revolutionary zeal. Instead we found Mr. Chavez to be a stocky man…about five feet seven …with Indian features…and a pleasant earnest manner.” With his trademark regular boys’ haircut parted on the side and wearing simple cardigans with button down plaid shirts and slacks, his fashion was more Mr. Rogers than Mr. Lenin. He looked the part of the humble Everyman that people felt they could relate to.

On a personal note, my parents actually met while working with Cesar Chavez in the early ‘70s, and when they tell stories of those days, they both recall how approachable he was with his easy but confident demeanor; how people were drawn to him and trusted him, even as he took them out of their comfort zones, like the time he sent my mom and a few other farmworkers to Chicago, to publicize and organize the Grape Boycott, even though they spoke very little English and were armed with just a few phone numbers of sympathizers there along with the names of some churches that might possibly provide them with food, room and board. They believed they could accomplish such ambitious plans because this diminutive, unpretentious man seemed capable of stopping the engine of the entire agricultural industry and took on Big Agribusiness all by himself. Before it became widely known as the slogan of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, I grew up with my father reminding me, “¡Si se puede!” (Yes, you can!) a phrase Chavez often chanted before throngs of people at picket lines and marches.

Like Gandhi and King, he was intensely spiritual and absolutely committed to non-violence. In what may be his most recognizable aphorism, he said, “It is my deepest belief that only by giving our lives do we find life. I am convinced that the truest act of courage…is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally non-violent struggle for justice.” Self-immolation was a recurring theme in both word and deed: in 1968, during the Delano Grape Strike, after several tense confrontations at the picket lines nearly devolved into violence, he fasted for 25 days to encourage and remind the farmworkers that their fight was to be a non-violent one. He would fast for 24 days again in 1972, and in 1988 he fasted for 36 days(!) to bring attention to the pesticide poisoning of grape workers and their children. It is thought that his relatively early death at the age of 63 in 1993 was probably due to aggregated health complications suffered from these sacrifices. Still, even now, if you talk to people who marched with Chavez and the UFW back then, most speak of Chavez in reverential, even hagiographical ways, for to them he was como un santo: like a saint..

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, as the UFW made sweeping legislative strides on behalf of organized farm labor, Chavez was also becoming the most widely known leader within the broader Chicano Movement, or “El Movimiento,” a civil rights movement which empowered Mexican Americans caught between two cultures, not quite Mexican enough for their Mexican immigrant forebears, nor seen as truly American by the white hegemony. The term “chicano” was originally a derogatory term for the American children of Mexican migrants, but in the Movement it was flipped, transmogrified, to be a badge of ethnic pride. Of course Chavez always made sure to situate the fight of the UFW as united with the struggle of “all farm workers across the country, the Negroes and poor whites, the Puerto Ricans, Japanese, and Arabians…the races that comprise the oppressed minorities of the United States,” but “The Plan de Delano,” a text co-authored by Chavez with Dolores Huerta and the Chicano playwright Luis Valdez, reifies and emboldens his ethnic heritage, declaring “We are sons of the Mexican Revolution.” To this day, the flag of the UFW, showing a black Aztec eagle on stark red background, is widely considered a symbol of Chicano or Latino pride. Those of us who wear this symbol, or even, as in my case, have it tattooed on their body, recognize that the life we have so firmly rooted in the United States, with access to resources and opportunities that our parents or grandparents did not have, is due to the hard work and vigilance of people like Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, or my mother, Maria Saludado.

The identity politics that certainly began to swell in the 1960s have persisted despite reactionary criticism and remain particularly relevant today; an era in which the ugly scars of racism seem as starkly etched in our national consciousness as ever. As we near the end of the second term of America’s first ‘non-white’ President, as Mexican immigration continues to be a galvanizing and polarizing issue in the US, and the Latino vote is highly prized on both sides of the political aisle, conditions would seem fecund for a reboot of El Movimiento. In appropriate fashion, this year the Cesar Chavez Foundation, an offshoot of the UFW, began its annual celebration in San Fernando, the first city in the nation to commemorate Cesar Chavez Day with a paid holiday, with a rally and march to encourage activism to “Dump Trump.”

¡Que viva César Chávez!

(this piece has been published previously in Ordinary Philosophy)

~ Alejandro Magaña is a musician, poet, and songwriter some of the time, and a father and husband all of the time. He blogs at Aether Ore and lives in San Diego with his wife and son and books and records.

Sources and Inspiration:

● My mother and father. ¡Que viva mis padres!
● Chasan, Daniel. “‘Marcher,’ an interview with Cesar Chavez,” The New Yorker, May 27, 1967.
● Chavez, Cesar, Huerta, Dolores, and Valdez, Luis. “The Plan of Delano,” El Malcriado, March 17, 1966.
● Chavez, Cesar. An Organizer’s Tale: Speeches Ed. Ilan Stevens. London: Penguin Books, 2008.

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

Paul Robeson, Black Dockworkers, and Labor-Left Pan-Africanism, by Peter Cole

Actor Paul Robeson, photographed at Madame St. Georges studio in London in 1925 (AP Photo/Courtesy Paul Robeson Jr.). Click to hear Robeson’s incomparably beautiful baritone voice sing ‘Shenandoah’

In honor of singer, actor, and civil and labor rights activist Paul Robeson’s birthday, April 9, 1898, here’s an excellent piece by Peter Cole, originally published at the African American Intellectual History Society blog:

Paul Robeson was one of the greatest black internationalists of the twentieth century. A gifted actor and singer, he was also an unabashed leftist and union supporter. This resulted in his bitter persecution, destroying his career and causing, to a surprising degree, his disappearance from popular–if not academic–memory. Robeson’s connections to the fiery black dockworkers of the San Francisco Bay illuminate a form of black internationalism still left out of scholarly analyses –what I will refer to as Labor-Left Pan-Africanism.

Robeson’s life exemplified Pan-Africanism, a global movement of politically conscious black people who believed they shared much in common with all people of African descent in Africa and across the African Diaspora. In the 1930s, Robeson embraced this ideology, along with communism, and supported the Soviet Union. Robeson and other leftwing, Pan-African black intellectuals and activists—such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Eslanda Robeson, Vicki Garvin, and Hubert Harrison—fought long and hard for racial equality in the United States and for liberation of African and Caribbean nations abroad.

Robeson connected struggles for civil rights with socialism and working class politics. His interest in black equality first came from his father, William Drew Robeson, who was born a slave and successfully liberated himself. Robeson’s leftist politics emerged in the 1930s, first visiting the Soviet Union in 1934, and subsequently embracing socialism for treating black people as equals. He combined politics and artistry from then onwards.

In 1935, Robeson performed in the London debut of the American play Stevedore.1 The reviewer in the NAACP’s Crisis magazine concluded: “Stevedore is extremely valuable in the racial–social question—it is straight from the shoulder.” Later that year, he also played the lead in C. L. R. James’ take on Toussaint L’Ouverture, itself written shortly before James’ classic history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins (1938).

In 1937, back in the United States, Robeson helped to establish the Council on African Affairs (CAA), which promoted African liberation in an era when few Americans actively engaged in such matters. Perhaps its greatest achievement came in 1946, when the CAA submitted a memorandum to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in support of the African National Congress (ANC). Led by its US-educated President, Alfred Xuma, the ANC successfully fought to prevent the annexation of South-West Africa (now Namibia) by racist, white minority-ruled South Africa. Alas, the CAA was red-baited out of existence shortly after this victory.

In 1942, during WWII, Robeson traveled to Oakland to champion the black and white union workers contributing to the Allied war effort on the home front. One of Robeson’s most famous photos shows him singing the “Star Spangled Banner” amidst a sea of black and white workers at Moore Shipyard in Oakland. The image captures his politics brilliantly, all the more so since Robeson had worked as a shipbuilder during WWI.

Paul Robeson, world famous baritone, at Moore Shipyard in Oakland, CA, leading workers in singing the Star Spangled Banner.

After WWII, the Cold War commenced and black people linked to communism, like Robeson and Du Bois, were persecuted by the US State Department, the FBI, and many so-called patriots intolerant of dissent. Historian Penny M. Von Eschen cites Robeson’s “extreme advocacy on behalf of the independence of the colonial peoples of Africa” as an explanation for his career’s destruction in the Red Scare. I would also add his labor activism.

Just like Robeson, many of the black dockworkers I study adhered to Labor-Left Pan-Africanism. In the San Francisco Bay Area, thousands of African Americans belonged to the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU).2  This leftwing union was renowned for its fierce and proud commitment to racial equality and black internationalism. Indeed, during WWII, Robeson became an honorary member of the ILWU. Robeson and the ILWU were, in many ways, a perfect fit.

The ILWU was—and remains—amongst America’s most radical unions, led for decades by its leftist President Harry Bridges and supported by many leftists in the rank-and-file. The union put socialism into action in its hiring halls, which dispatched members based upon a “low man out” system in which the person with the fewest amount of hours worked, that quarter, received the first available job.

In keeping with its politics, the ILWU attacked racism on the waterfront beginning with its initial “Big Strike” even though the workforce was 99% white in 1934. Local 10 welcomed thousands of African Americans during the WWII-induced shipping boom and these blacks, alongside leftist white allies, fully integrated their union and fought for civil rights in the Bay Area and nationwide. Due to their aggressive efforts, ILWU Local 10, which represents dockworkers in San Francisco, Oakland, and throughout the Bay Area, became black majority in the mid-1960s with blacks elected to every leadership position available. Truly, the ILWU embodied what historian Robert Korstad labeled “civil rights unionism.”

Robeson understood the significance of the ILWU as a platform from which to demand civil rights. Two of Robeson’s best friends– Joe Johnson and Revels Cayton— belonged to the ILWU. Together, these three black men articulated a commitment to Labor-Left Pan-Africanism.

The best example of its Pan-Africanism was ILWU’s commitment to the struggle against apartheid and, more broadly, for the liberation of all the peoples of southern Africa. In the 1950s and 1960s, the union repeatedly condemned white-minority rule in South Africa and also noted the ironic similarities with Jim Crow segregation in the States. In the 1970s and 1980s, rank-and-file members of ILWU Local 10 formed the Southern Africa Liberation Support Committee, which stood at the vanguard of black working class anti-apartheid activism during this period. Leo Robinson, Texas-born and a child of the 2nd Great Migration to Oakland, followed in his father’s footsteps to the waterfront in 1963. In Local 10 Robinson became a communist and activist who helped found the SALSC after the Soweto student uprising of 1976. Although Robeson died that same year, after declining health and decades in forced retirement due to McCarthyism, other radical longshoremen inspired by socialism and liberation movements in Africa joined Robinson and following in Robeson’s footsteps.

The black and white members of the SALSC fought for the liberation of black people in South Africa, Mozambique, Rhodesia, and elsewhere in the best way they knew how: direct action on the job. To leftist, Pan-African dockworkers, the most logical way to attack apartheid and racial capitalism was flexing their economic muscle, i.e. stop work. In 1962, 1977, and for eleven days in 1984 (shortly after Reagan’s landslide re-election), they refused to unload South African cargo. By contrast, other black Pan-Africanists embraced consumer boycotts or economic divestment. Local 10’s actions set the bar for US anti-apartheid activism and helped inspire many in the Bay Area to join the solidarity struggle. Nelson Mandela thanked the union on his first visit to Oakland in 1990 and Robinson received a posthumous award from the now-democratic South African government.

Long after his death, Paul Robeson continued to inspire African Americans in the ILWU including the Bay Area’s Alex Bagwell. Like Leo Robinson, Bagwell’s family moved to San Francisco during WWII. In the 1960s, he dropped out of college after admission to the union, which had elevated so many black folks into the middle class. Like Robeson, Bagwell was a leftist and active in the union’s anti-apartheid efforts. He and his wife, Harriet, belonged to a radical choir, Vukani Mawethu, founded by a South African who belonged to the ANC and had gone into exile. Alex and his wife were among those in Vukani who sang when Mandela visited Oakland.

In the early 1990s, though not yet retired, Bagwell finished his B.A. and then earned his M.A. in Creativity and Arts Education at San Francisco State University. For his graduate degree, he wrote a play on Robeson’s life, conducting interviews with twenty people who knew him including Local 10 member Joe Johnson, Robeson’s long-time friend.

After the birth of a multiracial, democratic South Africa, the Bagwells traveled to the country, as part of Vukani Mawethu, to perform there. Other black and white radicals in the ILWU did so, as well. The Pan-Africanism of these dockworkers clearly followed in the footsteps of Robeson, who first championed the rights of black South Africans in the 1940s. The spirit and ideals of Robeson continue to shape the Pan-Africanism of working class black dockworkers who now have established connections with black dockworkers in South African ports. Robeson would be proud.

  1.  Stevedore is an older term for dockworker or longshoreman, workers who load and unload cargo ships.
  2. The ILWU’s original name was the International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union but, in 1997, a resolution was approved, unanimously at its biennial convention, that made its name gender-neutral. “What’s in a Name? For ILWU, it’s not ‘men’,Journal of Commerce, May 4, 1997

~ Peter Cole is a historian of the twentieth-century United States, South Africa and comparative history. Dr. Cole is Professor of History at Western Illinois University. He is the author of Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive Era Philadelphia (University of Illinois Press, 2013) and currently at work on a book entitled Dockworker Power: Race, Technology & Unions in Durban and the San Francisco Bay Area. He writes on labor history and politics (Bio credit: AAIHS)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Cesar Chavez Day, by Alejandro Magaña

Cesar Chavez visits college - By Movimiento - Own work, cropped - CC BY-SA 3.0 httpcreativecommons.orglicensesby-sa3.0 via Wikimedia CommonsEvery year around Cesar Chavez’s birthday, as media outlets report of festivities in his honor, I’m reminded of a joke in a Simpsons episode and the strange sadness it elicited in me when I saw it: Homer Simpson is on his front lawn and is confronted with the apparition of a debonair, mustachioed man who introduces himself as, “the spirit of Cesar Chavez.”

In typical Homer confusion he asks, “Then why do you look like Cesar Romero?”

The ghost replies, “Because you don’t know what I look like!”

Cesar Chavez is certainly revered by many people, especially within the Latino community, but despite the steadily increasing ubiquity of his name across the United States, especially the American Southwest, there are still many Americans today who don’t really know who he is, let alone what he stood for, or what he accomplished.

Cesar Chavez was a Mexican-American community organizer turned labor leader. A former migrant farmworker recruited by the Community Service Organization (CSO) in its heyday of the 1950s, he co-founded the National Farmworkers Association (NFWA,) which later became the United Farm Workers (UFW,) the first successful union for migrant farmworkers. The UFW’s membership consisted mostly of indigent Latinos and Filipinos, and their struggle for justice and dignity, fighting to gain higher wages and better conditions in the fields where they were deprived of basic needs such as clean drinking water and bathrooms, became a national moral cause under the stewardship of Chavez, who courted national and international sympathy using militant non-violent tactics in the vein of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, such as strikes, boycotts, fasts, and peaceful marches.

Chavez was not an imposing orator with the fire-and-brimstone timbre of the Reverend Dr. King, nor did he cut as iconoclastic a figure as Gandhi, but in his unassuming way he could be just as charismatic and endearing, and this often caught people off guard, as it did an interviewer for the New Yorker in 1973, who, “had expected, if not a Mexican-American Lenin…a young, hard, intense man bristling with revolutionary zeal. Instead we found Mr. Chavez to be a stocky man…about five feet seven …with Indian features…and a pleasant earnest manner.” With his trademark regular boys’ haircut parted on the side and wearing simple cardigans with button down plaid shirts and slacks, his fashion was more Mr. Rogers than Mr. Lenin. He looked the part of the humble Everyman that people felt they could relate to.

On a personal note, my parents actually met while working with Cesar Chavez in the early ‘70s, and when they tell stories of those days, they both recall how approachable he was with his easy but confident demeanor; how people were drawn to him and trusted him, even as he took them out of their comfort zones, like the time he sent my mom and a few other farmworkers to Chicago, to publicize and organize the Grape Boycott, even though they spoke very little English and were armed with just a few phone numbers of sympathizers there along with the names of some churches that might possibly provide them with food, room and board. They believed they could accomplish such ambitious plans because this diminutive, unpretentious man seemed capable of stopping the engine of the entire agricultural industry and took on Big Agribusiness all by himself. Before it became widely known as the slogan of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, I grew up with my father reminding me, “¡Si se puede!” (Yes, you can!) a phrase Chavez often chanted before throngs of people at picket lines and marches.

Like Gandhi and King, he was intensely spiritual and absolutely committed to non-violence. In what may be his most recognizable aphorism, he said, “It is my deepest belief that only by giving our lives do we find life. I am convinced that the truest act of courage…is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally non-violent struggle for justice.” Self-immolation was a recurring theme in both word and deed: in 1968, during the Delano Grape Strike, after several tense confrontations at the picket lines nearly devolved into violence, he fasted for 25 days to encourage and remind the farmworkers that their fight was to be a non-violent one. He would fast for 24 days again in 1972, and in 1988 he fasted for 36 days(!) to bring attention to the pesticide poisoning of grape workers and their children. It is thought that his relatively early death at the age of 63 in 1993 was probably due to aggregated health complications suffered from these sacrifices. Still, even now, if you talk to people who marched with Chavez and the UFW back then, most speak of Chavez in reverential, even hagiographical ways, for to them he was como un santo: like a saint..

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, as the UFW made sweeping legislative strides on behalf of organized farm labor, Chavez was also becoming the most widely known leader within the broader Chicano Movement, or “El Movimiento,” a civil rights movement which empowered Mexican Americans caught between two cultures, not quite Mexican enough for their Mexican immigrant forebears, nor seen as truly American by the white hegemony. The term “chicano” was originally a derogatory term for the American children of Mexican migrants, but in the Movement it was flipped, transmogrified, to be a badge of ethnic pride. Of course Chavez always made sure to situate the fight of the UFW as united with the struggle of “all farm workers across the country, the Negroes and poor whites, the Puerto Ricans, Japanese, and Arabians…the races that comprise the oppressed minorities of the United States,” but “The Plan de Delano,” a text co-authored by Chavez with Dolores Huerta and the Chicano playwright Luis Valdez, reifies and emboldens his ethnic heritage, declaring “We are sons of the Mexican Revolution.” To this day, the flag of the UFW, showing a black Aztec eagle on stark red background, is widely considered a symbol of Chicano or Latino pride. Those of us who wear this symbol, or even, as in my case, have it tattooed on their body, recognize that the life we have so firmly rooted in the United States, with access to resources and opportunities that our parents or grandparents did not have, is due to the hard work and vigilance of people like Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, or my mother, Maria Saludado.

The identity politics that certainly began to swell in the 1960s have persisted despite reactionary criticism and remain particularly relevant today; an era in which the ugly scars of racism seem as starkly etched in our national consciousness as ever. As we near the end of the second term of America’s first ‘non-white’ President, as Mexican immigration continues to be a galvanizing and polarizing issue in the US, and the Latino vote is highly prized on both sides of the political aisle, conditions would seem fecund for a reboot of El Movimiento. In appropriate fashion, this year the Cesar Chavez Foundation, an offshoot of the UFW, began its annual celebration in San Fernando, the first city in the nation to commemorate Cesar Chavez Day with a paid holiday, with a rally and march to encourage activism to “Dump Trump.”

¡Que viva César Chávez!

~ Alejandro Magaña is a musician, poet, and songwriter some of the time, and a father and husband all of the time. He also works full-time as an office manager at Urban Ore in West Berkeley. He lives in North Oakland with his wife and son and books and records.

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources and Inspiration:

● My mother and father. ¡Que viva mis padres!
● Chasan, Daniel. “‘Marcher,’ an interview with Cesar Chavez,” The New Yorker, May 27, 1967.
● Chavez, Cesar, Huerta, Dolores, and Valdez, Luis. “The Plan of Delano,” El Malcriado, March 17, 1966.
● Chavez, Cesar. An Organizer’s Tale: Speeches Ed. Ilan Stevens. London: Penguin Books, 2008.

This piece was first published one year ago today here at Ordinary Philosophy

Cesar Chavez Day, by Alejandro Magana

Cesar Chavez visits college - By Movimiento - Own work, cropped - CC BY-SA 3.0 httpcreativecommons.orglicensesby-sa3.0 via Wikimedia CommonsEvery year around Cesar Chavez’s birthday, as media outlets report of festivities in his honor, I’m reminded of a joke in a Simpsons episode and the strange sadness it elicited in me when I saw it: Homer Simpson is on his front lawn and is confronted with the apparition of a debonair, mustachioed man who introduces himself as, “the spirit of Cesar Chavez.”

In typical Homer confusion he asks, “Then why do you look like Cesar Romero?”

The ghost replies, “Because you don’t know what I look like!”

Cesar Chavez is certainly revered by many people, especially within the Latino community, but despite the steadily increasing ubiquity of his name across the United States, especially the American Southwest, there are still many Americans today who don’t really know who he is, let alone what he stood for, or what he accomplished.

Cesar Chavez was a Mexican-American community organizer turned labor leader and . A former migrant farmworker recruited by the Community Service Organization (CSO) in its heyday of the 1950s, he co-founded the National Farmworkers Association (NFWA,) which later became the United Farm Workers (UFW,) the first successful union for migrant farmworkers. The UFW’s membership consisted mostly of indigent Latinos and Filipinos, and their struggle for justice and dignity, fighting to gain higher wages and better conditions in the fields where they were deprived of basic needs such as clean drinking water and bathrooms, became a national moral cause under the stewardship of Chavez, who courted national and international sympathy using militant non-violent tactics in the vein of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, such as strikes, boycotts, fasts, and peaceful marches.

Chavez was not an imposing orator with the fire-and-brimstone timbre of the Reverend Dr. King, nor did he cut as iconoclastic a figure as Gandhi, but in his unassuming way he could be just as charismatic and endearing, and this often caught people off guard, as it did an interviewer for the New Yorker in 1973, who, “had expected, if not a Mexican-American Lenin…a young, hard, intense man bristling with revolutionary zeal. Instead we found Mr. Chavez to be a stocky man…about five feet seven …with Indian features…and a pleasant earnest manner.” With his trademark regular boys’ haircut parted on the side and wearing simple cardigans with button down plaid shirts and slacks, his fashion was more Mr. Rogers than Mr. Lenin. He looked the part of the humble Everyman that people felt they could relate to.

On a personal note, my parents actually met while working with Cesar Chavez in the early ‘70s, and when they tell stories of those days, they both recall how approachable he was with his easy but confident demeanor; how people were drawn to him and trusted him, even as he took them out of their comfort zones, like the time he sent my mom and a few other farmworkers to Chicago, to publicize and organize the Grape Boycott, even though they spoke very little English and were armed with just a few phone numbers of sympathizers there along with the names of some churches that might possibly provide them with food, room and board. They believed they could accomplish such ambitious plans because this diminutive, unpretentious man seemed capable of stopping the engine of the entire agricultural industry and took on Big Agribusiness all by himself. Before it became widely known as the slogan of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, I grew up with my father reminding me, “¡Si se puede!” (Yes, you can!) a phrase Chavez often chanted before throngs of people at picket lines and marches.

Like Gandhi and King, he was intensely spiritual and absolutely committed to non-violence. In what may be his most recognizable aphorism, he said, “It is my deepest belief that only by giving our lives do we find life. I am convinced that the truest act of courage…is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally non-violent struggle for justice.” Self-immolation was a recurring theme in both word and deed: in 1968, during the Delano Grape Strike, after several tense confrontations at the picket lines nearly devolved into violence, he fasted for 25 days to encourage and remind the farmworkers that their fight was to be a non-violent one. He would fast for 24 days again in 1972, and in 1988 he fasted for 36 days(!) to bring attention to the pesticide poisoning of grape workers and their children. It is thought that his relatively early death at the age of 63 in 1993 was probably due to aggregated health complications suffered from these sacrifices. Still, even now, if you talk to people who marched with Chavez and the UFW back then, most speak of Chavez in reverential, even hagiographical ways, for to them he was como un santo: like a saint..

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, as the UFW made sweeping legislative strides on behalf of organized farm labor, Chavez was also becoming the most widely known leader within the broader Chicano Movement, or “El Movimiento,” a civil rights movement which empowered Mexican Americans caught between two cultures, not quite Mexican enough for their Mexican immigrant forebears, nor seen as truly American by the white hegemony. The term “chicano” was originally a derogatory term for the American children of Mexican migrants, but in the Movement it was flipped, transmogrified, to be a badge of ethnic pride. Of course Chavez always made sure to situate the fight of the UFW as united with the struggle of “all farm workers across the country, the Negroes and poor whites, the Puerto Ricans, Japanese, and Arabians…the races that comprise the oppressed minorities of the United States,” but “The Plan de Delano,” a text co-authored by Chavez with Dolores Huerta and the Chicano playwright Luis Valdez, reifies and emboldens his ethnic heritage, declaring “We are sons of the Mexican Revolution.” To this day, the flag of the UFW, showing a black Aztec eagle on stark red background, is widely considered a symbol of Chicano or Latino pride. Those of us who wear this symbol, or even, as in my case, have it tattooed on their body, recognize that the life we have so firmly rooted in the United States, with access to resources and opportunities that our parents or grandparents did not have, is due to the hard work and vigilance of people like Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, or my mother, Maria Saludado.

The identity politics that certainly began to swell in the 1960s have persisted despite reactionary criticism and remain particularly relevant today; an era in which the ugly scars of racism seem as starkly etched in our national consciousness as ever. As we near the end of the second term of America’s first ‘non-white’ President, as Mexican immigration continues to be a galvanizing and polarizing issue in the US, and the Latino vote is highly prized on both sides of the political aisle, conditions would seem fecund for a reboot of El Movimiento. In appropriate fashion, this year the Cesar Chavez Foundation, an offshoot of the UFW, began its annual celebration in San Fernando, the first city in the nation to commemorate Cesar Chavez Day with a paid holiday, with a rally and march to encourage activism to “Dump Trump.”

¡Que viva César Chávez!

~ Alejandro Magaña is a musician, poet, and songwriter some of the time, and a father and husband all of the time. He also works full-time as an office manager at Urban Ore in West Berkeley. He lives in North Oakland with his wife and son and books and records.

~ Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and is ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sources and Inspiration:

● My mother and father. ¡Que viva mis padres!
● Chasan, Daniel. “‘Marcher,’ an interview with Cesar Chavez,” The New Yorker, May 27, 1967.
● Chavez, Cesar, Huerta, Dolores, and Valdez, Luis. “The Plan of Delano,” El Malcriado, March 17, 1966.
● Chavez, Cesar. An Organizer’s Tale: Speeches Ed. Ilan Stevens. London: Penguin Books, 2008.