Speech at Graham Memorial Chapel, (1 February 1973) St.Louis, MO

Speech Text

Father Tillman:

[1] My father could never write a poem but when he lined up his plow with a pine tree on a distant hill, he made furrow straight as an arrow across the length of his labor. My father could not write very many words but when he brought in his crop in the heat of a summer afternoon, he created a poem from the earth. A poem of the Mexican farm worker, the spirit of forty acres. Almost half the fruits and vegetables sold in the United States are grown in the Great Central Valley of Southern California: cotton, tomatoes, peanuts, asparagus, apples, plums, grapes, sugar beets, lettuce. It is growing which gives the valley year its rhythm. It is growing which gives valley life its particular tone. Growing, which has enabled valley people to remain largely insulated from what industrial America thinks and does and worries about.

[2] The concerns of the people in the agricultural communities are a way of life removed from those in the space industry of Southern California or on the assembly line in River Rouge. The prevailing ethic is that of a 19th century frontier and it is precisely this rhythm, this tone, this insulation, this ethic, which made the valley unable to understand an intense, unschooled Mexican American named César Chávez and a bitter labor strike, which broke out in the grape vineyard surrounding the little valley town of Delano in the Fall of 1965.

[3] It is in no way extraordinary that the valley was unable to understand César Chávez. He belongs to that inarticulate sub-culture of farm workers upon whom the valley depends but, on whose existence, does not impinge heavily on the valley’s consciousness. Their world is one of side roads and labor camps of anonymous toil under the blistering sun. The very existence of a farm worker is a mystery because they had never effectively organized. They had never been included under legislation that safeguards the rights of the industrial workers because they are excluded from the machinery of collective bargaining. They had never been able to organize effectively.

[4] César Chávez believed that in order for any movement to be lasting it must be built on the people. They must be the ones involved in forming it and they must be the ones that ultimately control it. It is harder that way, but benefits are more meaningful and lasting when won in this fashion. It is necessary to build a power base. Money by itself does not get the job done. This is why poverty programs have so much difficulty. Although many nice things are said, and many wheels are spinning, very little real social change takes place.

[5] If the workers are going to do anything, they need their own power, they need to involve themselves in meaningful ways. Once they achieve a victory, they can make use of their power to negotiate and change things for the better. A great deal of change has taken place among the farm workers since their struggle began in 1965. Before the strike started, they had to work ten days in order to get ten people together for a meeting. Now a thousand people assemble in only a few hours. The awareness of the people has been magnified a thousand times over. People have lost their fear and because there have been a concrete success in Delano and Salinas and Filmore, workers throughout the country are making demands on the organizers and the resources of the United Farm Workers Union.

[6] During the early part of 1973, the United Farm Workers launched a boycott throughout the United States on California lettuce. Rallies were held including one at Grand Chapel on the Washington University campus in St. Louis. Chávez attended the rally along with many of his sympathizers. The following is taken from a recording of the Saint Louis Rally.

César Chávez:

[7] Thank you. Sisters and brothers thank you very, very much. I want to thank Father Tillman for the introduction.

[8] We arrived this morning at four o’clock and we were told to come to the biggest standard sign in Saint Louis and we found it!

[9] And sure enough, we got there and there was Nancy Welsh whom you met who was in charge of the boycott. She was there waiting, it was almost four o’clock in the morning, and we went over to Concordia Seminary and we slept for a few hours. And—just—everywhere we’ve been today people wanted to do all kinds of things for us and we’re so grateful. So much love that you know—it really—well you can judge by the spirit of the strikers. We’re really in the clouds right now because everywhere we go people are—want to help, they—they—they—they feel very strongly about what we’re doing and great spirit! We have to leave tomorrow morning. So… we’ve been on the trip now since, you know, since last Thursday. We came to Tucson and met with some people who are recalling Governor Williams because he signed a bill against the farm workers that will destroy the union. It’s illegal in Arizona now to strike and boycott. It’s illegal to have a union of farm workers. And then we went to Texas to El Paso and there we met with the Farah strikers. And Brother Modregon told you about the—not wearing Farah—Farah pants. They’re too expensive anyways and…

[10] Then we came to Denver and we met at a seminary there and it was built to hold 800 people on the second floor, and we had about 2,000 and the floor was, you know, was moving and there were 300 people, 400 people downstairs waiting. I had to go down and speak with them because they couldn’t fit, you know. And we were—we were worried, but thank God everything worked out well. Then we came to—we came to Kansas City yesterday and something very strange happened to us. We got out of the—we stayed there with Father Lopez at the—at Saint Thomas Church and we slept there and as we left in the morning to go to the picket line, two policemen came in motorcycles. And I thought “Now what are we doing?” you know, I thought they were going to arrest us because in California every time a policeman gets near us it’s because he’s going to arrest us.

[11] They were really good. They escorted us to the state line and then we stopped there, and we waited a little while and three squad cars came, and I said, for sure, with the lights on and everything, I said, “For sure this time we’re going to be arrested.” No, they just came to escort us over to the safe way picket line. And…

[12] As it turned out— as it turned out, the—the men who were assigned to be with us were black and—and brown and they are—they are part of what they call the Community Relations division or something. And they’re not liked very well I understand by the—by the other policemen. But we turned them on. They were very happy and they were signing with us and they were—so…

[13] But anyway, the people who met us this morning and stayed up all night, we, of course, want to thank all of you very much. They drove us around town so we wouldn’t get lost because it’s so hard to get used to a city when you go to—you’re going from one city to the other every day. You know as soon as you leave one city, you’re just getting used to it, you’re on your way to another one. When you get to another city, it’s so hard. In fact, this morning some of the people were asking, “What city are we in today?” But, on the picket line I was asked, “Are you going to win the lettuce boycott?” and I said, “It never really occurred to me that we were not going to win.” And I said, “Yeah, we’re going to win.” And then he said, “Why?” And I said, “Well Jeff, because,” and it wasn’t until then that I began to think. You know, when we started the grape boycott we were told by the grape experts, “Oh don’t do that, it’s not going to work. The grape boyc—a national boycott against grapes, it’s really a bottomless pit.” And they said many other things, these are the grape experts.

[14] And thank God we were so dumb then. If we had been a little smarter, we would have taken the advice, but we didn’t. And we…

[15] The—the best way—see Gandhi said that, “The most near perfect method of non-violent work was boycotting.” And then he said, “because boycotts—boycotting—boycotts, are people.” And, it didn’t, when I had first heard that twenty years ago, it didn’t really—I couldn’t understand it how well I understand now, how well. In nineteen—you know, in July of 1970 the contract was signed with grapes and the grape boycott was terminated. But a few months before that day, a friend of ours travelling to Hong Kong hurried back to the Bay Area in San Francisco and then over to Delano to tell me a wonderful story. Let me tell it to you, it’s very short. He said he was in Hong Kong, just walking, listening, taking pictures and he came upon a very small, and he says “a very small” with emphasis, fruit stand. And in front of the fruit stand was a man, he thinks he was a Chinese man, with a picket sign and on the back of the picket sign were Chinese characters. He thinks because he doesn’t read Chinese, neither do I. But, and so, he looked at him with, “Well maybe some local labor dispute or something.” And—and when the man turned around to face him to walk back, there in front of the sign in bigger than life in English the words, “Do not eat California grapes.”

[16] And—and my friend was so, so happy that someone in Hong Kong was boycotting grapes, he rushes over and took his hand and, and talked to him to thank him, but the man didn’t speak English. And you ask me, “How did he? Why? 6000 miles away from Delano. How can you explain that?” I say it has to be the spirit, what else? See that’s what Gandhi meant by “boycott.” That’s why our opponents do everything they can to get away with, to make the boycott illegal. They would give their right arm and their fortune, half of their fortune, if they could stop us and the boycott. Because, the boycott is you. That’s what it is. And countless of thousands of people throughout the country. Or an experience I had in late 1969, when I—I had to visit prison. And I went to talk to my brothers in prison. And I went to McNeil Island. It wasn’t Washington State.

[17] It was a federal penitentiary. And I was a guest of the black brothers in the prison. And so, they toured me through the prison. At noon we went to eat. And we—and we were going by the serving line. They were serving rice pudding. And of course, I went, and I reached out because I like rice pudding. And I went over to get some rice pudding and one of the black brothers which was my guide reached out and grabbed my hand and said, “Don’t eat that because it has raisins in it.” And I was—I was embarrassed.

[18] And—and after my—I got over my embarrassment I thought, “How dumb. Why were not—I should have been the one that said that.” And we went out the line and sat at a table and sat with other black brothers there. And he said, “You know in this joint, we boycott dried grapes and we boycott fresh grapes” and then with a smile he says, “we also boycott fermented grapes, maybe not by choice.” But the point here is about 22-year-old black man doing 20 years in prison 1,000 miles from Delano. Most people in the grape boycott are Mexican and Filipino. What made him reach out there and so—want to help? That’s the boycott. I can’t explain it. And as long as it works, why should I explain it? But it’s a good feeling of, of having people. What about the very little girl in Washington D.C.? A family, very great supporters, she was born at the beginning. Because you see it was almost—the grape boycott lasted so long that there were some kids that were born after it started, and they had never seen a grape. But, in this house, the mother and the father were always talking about the grape boycott and were talking about the rights of farm workers and were saying things like “Viva la Causa” and “farm workers’ rights” and all these things. All these good things that one uses to describe the movement. And the mother tells me that the boycott was still going on and she was in a supermarket shopping. And she had a cart, going through the aisle, and they came up on a display of grapes. And of course, she looked at them, they’re scab grapes. She continued to walk by, but the little girl stopped, and called the mother and pulled the mother’s dress and made the mother stop and get her attention. The mother looked at her and the little girl asked her, “Mommy, when are you going to buy me some boycott?”

[19] You see it’s the—it’s that very powerful force that we call “love” that does these things. Love for one another. You know, we’re convinced that however many problems we have in this country, that the average citizen, whatever color he may be, is really truly concerned about justice. He is concerned. The problem is, what can he do? Have you ever—it happens to us every day, you see an injustice and you want to do something, but you don’t know how to do it, where do you start?  But once people are told very plainly, very—well, simply what to do, they will act. We have great faith in the public because it is—it is the last judge. And we have our case before you, and we had one long case. And it took almost five years to decide, but when the verdict came in, it was a sweet verdict—it was a victory verdict and we won. And those workers, men, women, and children who were working in the grapes now have a little better life. And we’re saying the same thing with lettuce. See the grape—the grape growers are making a lot of money today. We closed down New York, no more grapes in New York, so they had to go down to places like Dogfetch, Kentucky to open up a little market over there to open up sales. And we closed down Chicago and Boston and Philadelphia and all the other places in the country—they had to go all over the little towns to open up markets and sell their grapes.

[20] When the boycott was over, and we called off the boycott, then they had the little markets they had opened plus the big ones. There was a tremendous demand and not enough grapes. So they made money.

[21] Well, who had ever heard of a grape before the boycott anyways?

[22] Brothers and sisters, brothers and sisters, the men here, and women and children who are here, are very special people. These men, women, and children are really giving up their lives, you know their homes and the lives that they’re used to. They made a tremendous decision to leave that and come to an unknown place. To come to New York and to Boston to—to struggle. Many people who get to know them and get to understand—how in the world? How many of us would do that? Cramped up in an old bus and the cars that we’re traveling in. And—and we don’t know how long. We tell them, “We don’t know. Maybe a month, maybe a year, two years.” And they said, “If it takes a lifetime, we’ll go.” How then can we lose?

[23] Brother and sisters, just one last thought. Has it ever occurred to you that every time you sit at a table in the morning, at noon, at night when you touch the bread, fruit, vegetables, grains, nuts, everything that you eat at the table has come from the farm workers and has been produced with the sweat and the labor of the worker in almost every case? Through exploitation.

[24] You know, it’s a sad commentary when these men, women, and children work, they—they plant and they harvest, they cultivate, they’re asked to do stoop labor. They’re asked to live under tents and under bridges and in riverbanks—they still do that. And to travel in jalopies up the… up the Atlantic coast and down to the Pacific coast. Hundreds of miles looking for work. You know, and every time that they leave, take a black family leaving Florida and coming up the—up the East, up the Atlantic coast and going east. You know before they leave, because they’ve done it before, they know that they’re going to go and work and be subjected to all kinds of inhumanities and all kinds of exploitations and all kinds of risks in the road. Uncertainty of jobs, no place to live, all these things. And yet, and when they come back and before they leave, they know that they’re going to be just as bad off if—if not worse off than when they left. What makes them go and come back year-in and year-out? Certainly not because they’re going to get more money. Or you take a Mexican family from Texas going to California or Oregon, Washington, back to California, back to Texas in full unsafe conditions. And they know before they leave that when they get back to Texas or they get back to Florida and they take stock of themselves and they see how—how they did they’re going to be worse off than when they left and yet, they do it.

[25] And I think—I think that they do it because they, more than anybody else, understand that they have a terrifically, a very, very, very important responsibility. See, they keep you and me and the rest of the country and part of the world alive. They collect the fruits and the vegetables and the nuts and all the things that we eat. They do it. And when I wonder about these things, they’re not dumb, they know what they want. They want things for themselves and their children like we do, like anybody else. And they say, “Why do you do it then?” Well they do it, it seems to me, because they understand that they have this responsibility. Somehow working the land and—and working with—with food, is a very direct relation with human beings. And the great irony is that after they’ve done all the sacrificing and they plant it and cultivate it and harvest it, the greatest abundance of food that has ever been produced in any nation in the history of this world and they feed millions of people, they have very little food left for themselves. And that has to be changed. That’s why we’re here. The movie follows, thank you very much.