Fifty years ago this month, a small group of activists left Delano, California and began a march to Sacramento to raise national awareness about the plight of farmworkers. By the time the march made it to the state capitol, its ranks had swelled to over 10,000 people. California politicians and their agri-business supporters realized that they were facing a major civil rights movement in the Central Valley, and that its leader, Cesar Chavez, was someone to contend with.
The importance of the Sacramento March today is more than just historical. The march is a lesson about how to use nonviolence to respond to economic hardship in a way that builds a powerful force for justice. In an era like ours–in which the income of the top one percent continues to pull from the rest of us, inequality is at its highest level in almost a hundred years, and politicians use our fear of losing our jobs, homes, and family security to scapegoat whole groups of people—the Sacramento March takes on a new significance.
The mood among the farmworkers at the time was not unlike a general feeling among many voters today who feel that the promise of the American dream is slipping away as a result of an unjust collusion of government and economic elites. Chavez viewed the march as a symbolic pilgrimage that would literally occupy the highest seat of political power in the state. The farmworkers were journeying to put politicians on notice that they were not going to allow the exploitation and oppression they suffered to continue. “We are tired of words, of betrayals, of indifference”, Chavez wrote in The Plan of Delano, the manifesto laying out the reasons behind the protest march.
But, unlike today, the farmworkers were not banking on some politician to arise to champion their cause and alleviate their desperation with the promise of new government programs. Chavez explained that the farmworkers were radicals; they were their own leaders. And they wanted to dissolve the existing social order and to build a new system in which they had power to have a say in the decisions that directly affected their lives: “We do not want charity at the price of our dignity. We want to be equal with all the working men in the nation; we want a just wage, better working conditions, a decent future for our children.”
However, the difference of the farmworker revolution as compared to the great social upheavals in the past, Chavez pointed out, was that it was going to be nonviolent. Instead of seeking solutions through violence, the farmworkers would march and show that they could take their suffering and channel it into righteous anger at the institutions that cheated them and robbed their families of a decent life. Instead of holding onto their pain and turning it into hatred and fear of others, the farmworkers sought to engage in action that created unity among all the different ethnic groups that worked in the fields: “We know that the poverty of the Mexican or Filipino worker in California is the same as that of all workers across the country, the Negroes and poor whites, the Puerto Ricans, Japanese and Arabians; in short, all of the races that comprise the oppressed minorities of the United States.” They refused to let politicians and bosses use racism to divide them and turn on each other, as had happened in past decades, and as is now happening in this election season, when we are told that the American Dream requires walls and barriers to keep Muslims or Mexicans out.
The lesson of Cesar Chavez’s Sacramento March is that it is possible to build a social movement to respond to economic hard times that does not depend on violent protests, or on savior politicians, or on racist stereotypes that demonize groups of people as the causes of our misfortune. It is an example that it possible for ordinary groups of people to come together, decide that they can be their own leaders, and forge their own alternatives to the power structures that ignore their interests. As Chavez wrote: “To the politicians we say that the years are gone when the farm worker said nothing and did nothing to help himself. From this movement shall spring leaders who shall understand us, lead us, be faithful to us, and we shall elect them to represent us. We shall be heard.”