Coretta Scott King on César Chávez and the farmworkers’ struggle

From left to right, Cesar Chavez, Senator Edward (Ted) Kennedy, and Coretta Scott King.

In December 1970, César Chávez was incarcerated for 20 days for refusing to end a strike against large lettuce growers in the Salinas Valley. After visiting Chávez in jail, Coretta Scott King spoke to an assembly of two thousand farm workers; below is an excerpt from her speech:

Those who control the billion dollar economy have said Blacks and Chicanos do not have the right to a decent life or to human dignity. They must live on the crumbs from the tables groaning with food.


For more than thirty years farm workers were thought to be unorganizable and so powerless they could not demand and achieve security and dignity. But César Chávez challenged the tyrants, organized the working poor and became a threat, so they have jailed him. But as my husband so often said, “You cannot keep truth in a jail cell.” Truth and justice leap barriers, and in their own way, reach the conscience of the people. The men of power thought my husband was a powerless man with grandiose ideas. He had nothing but an idea that people at the bottom could be aroused to fight for dignity and equality.


They believe the heritage of this nation is decency and fair play. They would not eat grapes when grapes became a symbol of oppression and they will not eat lettuce, now that it has become tainted with injustice.


Social progress has always come when the people on the bottom, who in organized strength and from the foundation shook the whole structure. Social change does not come from voluntary good will and charity from the top. It comes from motion at the bottom.


Black people and Brown people are herded at the bottom and told to be quiet and to wait for slow change. But change has never come to us in waiting. Waiting has multiplied the profits of the rich, but it deadens and depresses those below.


We are tens of millions strong, and waiting not only offends our dignity, but leaves us in deprivation. We know our own history, waiting and patience have resulted in economic exploitation and racial abuse, and finally together, we have said there is an end to waiting.


We are not enemies of the nation, but we are treated as if we were conquered and enslaved. We have fed and clothed the nation by our sweat and toil, but our share in its goods is the share of prisoners….


In closing, I want to express a personal note. I do not have to read books or stimulate my imagination to understand how grueling it is to work in a sun-baked field all day. I was born on the land in rural Alabama and worked in the cotton fields. Although my family owned the land, the system was organized to keep the earning from cotton too low to maintain an adequate subsistence. My father worked at two jobs in advance, and he managed to educate his children and provide security. Often I think what a remarkable man he is and what a greater contribution he would have made to society if it had given him opportunities that it gave to others.


So I know that among you your children are undiscovered, undeveloped people of talent. César Chávez is not an accident; he is a genius of his people, and their union, the farm workers union, is a hero union. When you have succeeded in making your lives more secure and richer, the whole nation will benefit. That is why your struggle has deeper dimensions than a strike for wages. You are demanding a place in the halls of man. You are saying there are no lowly people, there are only people who are forced down.


If this nation can produce a trillion dollars every year, it is a disgrace in the eyes of God that some people should be haunted by hunger and hounded by racism. The President of the United States should not gloat and take pride in a trillion dollar economy. He should be ashamed and mortified to acknowledge that abundance exists while the system producing it still cheats the poor. His days should be restless until the crime and violence of poverty is rooted out of the land rich beyond imagination. While the President stands before the flashing lights of the computer that says a trillion dollars, we stand before a dark jail that says oppression. America cannot be both and be America.

The full speech was published in El Malcriado, a newsletter of the United Farm Workers’ Organizing Committee, on January 1, 1971. See the full newsletter »

Gladys Perez