Robert Kennedy and California’s Farm Labor Movement

Sacramento Bee Staff Photo

In the 1960s, Latino and Filipino farmworkers in California’s Central Valley were struggling to unionize in a battle for better pay and labor conditions. More fundamentally, they were fighting for recognition as human beings in an industry that could still resemble a feudal system when it came to the treatment of laborers.

“The world of a farm worker in ‘65 in California was just utterly dismal,” said Miriam Pawel, a historian of California’s farm labor movement and the author of “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez.”

At the time, there were no health and safety protections and no access to bathrooms and cold drinking water in the fields. Laborers were expected to shut up and put up with conditions.

“It was also the loss of dignity and respect that was as much a crippling thing to them as anything else,” said Pawel. “Because they were just really treated as farm implements.

In the 1960s, labor activists led by Cesar Chavez worked to organize farm laborers in California. Their tactics included strikes in the fields and a national boycott of California’s agricultural products. (Photo: Courtesy of Miriam Pawel)

In 1966 New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy, was invited to California to tour the farm fields and meet labor leader Cesar Chavez. But despite his growing commitment to social justice issues, Kennedy was reluctant to make the long journey west.

“There’s a story that one of his aides always tells about him sort of saying on the plane, ‘Why am I going to California? What’s this about? Why am I even doing this,'” said Pawel.

But when Kennedy arrived, the farmworkers’ living and working conditions shocked him. “This,” he said, “is worse than Mississippi.”

Kennedy was also angered by the actions of big agricultural landowners and local law enforcement, who worked together to suppress union organizing and strikes in the Central Valley.

In a packed hearing held in the farm community of Delano, Kennedy sparred with Kern County Sheriff LeRoy Gaylen for arresting union organizers who hadn’t committed a crime.

“How can you go arrest somebody if they haven’t violated the law?” Kennedy asked the Sheriff.

“They are ready to violate the law,” Gaylen responded, sparking boos and jeers from the audience.

Kennedy shot back, suggesting that during the lunch break, the Sheriff and Kern County’s District Attorney read the Constitution.

Kennedy’s rebuke of Gaylen instantly made him a hero to California’s farmworkers, people who had never seen one person in a position of power, especially a member of America’s most famous political family, challenge another person in authority for their benefit.

Kennedy returned to California’s Central Valley in March of 1968. He wanted to be there when  Cesar Chavez broke a 25-day fast to highlight the need for peaceful resistance in the farmworkers movement.

“That kind of influence, that is committed to nonviolence and committed to try to perform some good for his people, is desperately needed, for these people and for the country as a whole,” Kennedy told reporters as he arrived in Delano.

The photo of Kennedy seated beside side a thin and visibly weak Chavez as he ended his fast became one of the iconic images of the farmworkers movement. Kennedy went on to address the gathered crowds in broken Spanish, telling them that being there to support Chavez made them all a part of history

Less than a week later, Kennedy announced he was running for the presidency on a platform of civil rights and social justice.

Cesar Chavez mobilized on Kennedy’s behalf, sending scores of farm labor activists to Los Angeles. When they arrived, they quickly set up a sophisticated  precinct-by-precinct get out the vote operation in East Los Angeles and other heavily Latino neighborhoods in the city.

Kennedy went on to narrowly win the 1968 California Democratic Primary. But at his victory celebration at L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel, Kennedy was struck by three bullets. He died 26 hours later.

In death, Kennedy’s stature only grew among California’s farm labor rangers and the wider Latino community, to the point where he became a kind of secular saint, honored in words and song. Musician Lalo Guerror wrote a song about him.  And to this day in rallies and marches, you can still hear people yell out together ¡Que Viva, Robert Kennedy!” or “Long Live Robert Kennedy!”

The site of Robert Kennedy’s assassination is now marked by a memorial, which includes quotes from Cesar Chavez and fellow labor leader Dolores Huerta. (Photo: Saul Gonzalez)