Plowed Ground
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In Observance of Hispanic Heritage Month

What Latin American labor leader led strikes and protests over wages and maltreatment received by farm workers? 

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Historical Notes

Cesar Chavez (1927-1993) was a migrant farm worker, prominent union leader and labor organizer. Hardened by his early experience as a migrant worker—he attended 37 schools and graduated from the eighth grade—Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962. His union joined with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee in its first strike against grape growers in California, and the two organizations later merged to become the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO. Stressing nonviolent methods, Chavez drew attention to the plight of farmworkers via boycotts, marches and hunger strikes. Despite conflicts with the Teamsters union and legal barriers, he was able to secure raises and improve conditions for farm workers in California, Texas, Arizona and Florida.

Cesar Chavez died on April 23, 1993 in San Luis, Arizona, not far from the place of his birth.  He was posthumously awarded the Nation’s highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, on August 8, 1994 at a White House ceremony.  His widow, Helen Chavez, accepted the Medal for her late husband from President William Jefferson Clinton.  In the citation accompanying the honor, President Clinton acknowledged Chavez’ courageous life in which he faced formidable, often violent, opposition with dignity and nonviolence.

His legacy lives through his eight children, grandchildren, the many individuals and organizations that continue to fight for decent working conditions, fair pay, decent housing, health care, and educational opportunities for farm workers and their children, and in the many school buildings and community centers that bear his name.

In 1955, Emmett Till was a 14 year old African American from Chicago visiting relatives in Mississippi.  He was accused of whistling at a White woman storeowner after he purchased candy.  The woman’s husband and his brother-in-law took Till from his relatives’ home in the dead of night, brutally beat him, shot him and dumped him into the Tallahatchie River.  Even though the two men were acquitted, they still confessed and bragged about the killing to a reporter who wrote a story for Look Magazine.

Till’s mother insisted on an open casket funeral.  Images of Till’s face—badly beaten to a point beyond recognition and printed in The Chicago Defender and Jet Magazine—made international news and directed attention to the plight of Blacks in the U.S. South. This galvanized the nation to take notice of the mistreatment of Blacks in the South, including the question of how to handle race-related news in the news media.

By 1960, observers and the press agreed that coverage of Blacks had improved in both the Northern and Southern press. The Till case gave America a harsh, inescapable glimpse of racial violence and injustice. It was one of the turning points in the struggle for social justice and human rights.