Soon after his union won a breakthrough contract in 1966, Cesar Chavez received a telegram from Martin Luther King Jr. lauding Chavez’s victory through perseverance. “Our separate struggles are really one—a struggle for freedom, for dignity and for humanity,” wrote King. “You and your valiant fellow workers have demonstrated your commitment to righting grievous wrongs forced upon exploited people. We are together with you in spirit and in determination that our dreams for a better tomorrow will be realized.”1 Chavez did not respond, perhaps because a contract with one grower, while important, simply represented just the first step for the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC). Much of the hard work lay ahead, requiring Chavez to stay focused on the fields of California and not risk any distractions that threatened the farm workers’ strike and boycott—including an alliance with the nation’s best-known civil rights leader.
Two years later, Chavez hinted at having a few regrets. In the summer of 1968, he lamented the fact that he and King never had the opportunity to sit down with each other. “I never met him,” Chavez told activist Eleanor Eaton of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). “In fact, I have never met any of the top SCLC staff.” Andrew Young, who led a small SCLC contingent during the four-hundred-mile Texas UFWOC march to Austin in September 1966, did not cross paths with Chavez there. Nor was King able to make a scheduled meeting with Chavez in March 1968 in preparation for the Poor People’s Campaign; King canceled in order to address striking sanitation workers in Memphis. Eaton found this missed opportunity “extraordinary and tragic” given the two men’s similar strategies and objectives. To Eaton, who knew both men, “There is no one… who best exemplifies the twin commitment to poor people and nonviolence for which Martin Luther King was fighting than Ceasar [sic].”2 This does seem remarkable, considering popular comparisons that often portrayed Chavez as the “Dr. King” of Mexican Americans. Such