To March for Others: The Black Freedom Struggle and the United Farm Workers

To March for Others: The Black Freedom Struggle and the United Farm Workers

To March for Others: The Black Freedom Struggle and the United Farm Workers

To March for Others: The Black Freedom Struggle and the United Farm Workers

Synopsis

In 1966, members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, an African American civil rights group with Southern roots, joined Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union on its 250-mile march from Delano to Sacramento, California, to protest the exploitation of agricultural workers. SNCC was not the only black organization to support the UFW: later on, the NAACP, the National Urban League, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Black Panther Party backed UFW strikes and boycotts against California agribusiness throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s.

To March for Others explores the reasons why black activists, who were committed to their own fight for equality during this period, crossed racial, socioeconomic, geographic, and ideological divides to align themselves with a union of predominantly Mexican American farm workers in rural California. Lauren Araiza considers the history, ideology, and political engagement of these five civil rights organizations, representing a broad spectrum of African American activism, and compares their attitudes and approaches to multiracial coalitions. Through their various relationships with the UFW, Araiza examines the dynamics of race, class, labor, and politics in twentieth-century freedom movements. The lessons in this eloquent and provocative study apply to a broader understanding of political and ethnic coalition building in the contemporary United States.

Excerpt

On March 17, 1966 a group of around sixty Mexican American farm laborers representing the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) began marching nearly 250 miles from the farming town of Delano through California’s Central Valley to the state capitol in Sacramento. Led by Cesar Chavez, who had founded the union in 1962 and would go on to become one of the foremost labor leaders in the United States, the farmworkers undertook this arduous, twenty-five-day pilgrimage to draw attention to their strikes and boycotts of grape growers in Delano. the Sun-Reporter, a progressive African American newspaper in San Francisco, reported on the march two days into it. in the midst of explaining the particulars of the union’s crusade, reporter Eleanor Ohman abruptly admonished her readers: “Those who march for Negro freedom have to also march for freedom of other men, for economic freedom and justice.” Ohman was echoing criticisms of the black freedom struggle that had arisen by 1966—that the movement needed to more directly confront economic inequality and, particularly in the multicultural West, should include other minorities in the pursuit of racial equality. According to Ohman, supporting the nfwa was both fitting and necessary for the movement’s evolution.

Although admirable, the potential for cooperation between the civil rights movement and the farmworkers’ struggle—the latter commonly referred to as la causa (the cause)—faced many challenges. While both groups shared similarities, especially experiences of discrimination, their histories and cultures were distinct. For African Americans and Mexican Americans to come together in solidarity meant overcoming racial and ethnic differences, and in some instances those of language and religion. Geography could also divide them. in the South and Northeast, African Americans were generally . . .

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