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As a veteran civil rights attorney, I have often been struck about how quickly a leader’s legacy disappears from one generation to the next. Perhaps this is because, as a society, we do not do a good job of creating a narrative about important leaders to pass on to our children and those who come after them. All that remains, at best, is their name — not the history of their struggle or the depth of their impact on society.

One such narrative we should keep alive is the legacy of César Chávez, whose birthday we commemorated March 31. César was born in 1927 and died in 1993. He was one of the nation’s preeminent farm labor organizers, and one of country’s outstanding Mexican American leaders. He dedicated his life to improving the wages and working conditions of one of the country’s poorest and most exploited groups of workers, a large share of whom are in Texas.

César lead the historic non-violent movement for farm worker rights. He also motivated thousands of people, who never worked in agriculture, to commit themselves to social, economic and environmental justice and civil rights. And he helped grow leadership in the Hispanic community to throw off centuries of discrimination.

César’s impact is reflected in the holiday designated for him in 11 states and in the parks, cultural centers, libraries, schools and streets carry his name in cities across Texas and the United States. In Texas, his birthday is an optional state holiday.

Cesar Chavez and Juanita Valdez-Cox seen in a photo that hangs in her office at La Unión del Pueblo Entero Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, in San Juan. (Delcia Lopez | [email protected])

César knew the hard life of farm laborers firsthand. He had to leave school after eighth grade to work in the fields as a migrant to help support his family. After serving in the U.S. Navy, César coordinated voter registration drives and campaigns against racial and economic discrimination, and in 1962, he helped found the National Farm Workers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers of America. César led the first successful farm workers union in U.S. history and won the first industry-wide labor contracts in American agriculture. The union helped achieve dignity, respect, fair wages, medical coverage, pension benefits, humane working conditions and other protections for hundreds of thousands of farm laborers.

In Texas, UFW melon workers went on strike in Starr County in 1966-1967. Their 500-mile march to Austin in 1966 led to 10,000 people rallying at the Capitol with César on Memorial Day, demanding higher wages. The Texas Rangers brutally broke the strike and were censored for it by the U.S. Supreme Court and then reorganized by the legislature.

César inspired farm workers in Texas to organize and bring agricultural laborers under workers compensation, attain unemployment benefits, be protected against pesticides when harvesting crops, and require sanitary facilities in the fields.

César believed in the peaceful tactics of Mohandas Gandhi and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: fasts, boycotts and strikes. People felt the justice of his cause. When he died, more than 50,000 people of all walks of life marched in his funeral procession under the hot Delano, California, sun.

César’s influence on Texans extended far beyond the thousands of Texas farm laborers who work here or as migrants in California and around the country. His efforts to open the doors of colleges and universities to the Hispanic community reached deep into Texas, especially at UT-Austin and at UT El Paso and, in turn, opened to doors to economic and political opportunity.

We do not measure César’s life in material terms, but rather as that of a person who stood, and worked, for equality, justice and dignity for all Americans, and who inspired many others to do the same.

César’s birthday should not be just a day on which we honor his name, but a day on which we tell his narrative and on which we re-commit ourselves to the struggle to make our community and our country a better place for our children and grandchildren.

James C. Harrington is the retired founder of Texas Civil Rights Project. He worked with César Chávez in Texas for 18 years.

James C. Harrington