Last year, the organization that founded Black History Month, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History ( ASALH), celebrated its centennial year. From 1915 to the present, this group has documented the contributions that black people have made to the incredible history and legacy of the United States.
But as much as we honor the people and events that brought African Americans from slavery to freedom, there are yet other ethnic groups whose struggles are similar to ours. And their contributions have helped us to sustain progress.
That’s why, during this year’s Black History Month, we recognize that just as our fight for freedom opened doors for all people, contributions by Hispanics and Latinos also enhance America’s progress.
One iconic example of someone whose advocacy for the economic future of Hispanic Americans affected the entire nation is César Chávez. As leader of the United Farm Workers of America for 31 years, he is recognized as a hero in the Hispanic community.
But Chávez’s championing the causes of Hispanic workers actually improved the lives of people across the land. His leadership for human dignity, fair wages and the rights of workers earned him the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 1994.
Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Chávez became “one of our greatest advocates of nonviolent change,” President Bill Clinton said while bestowing the medal.
Chávez, who founded the United Farm Workers of America in 1962, led demonstrations in the Hispanic American community at the same time that King was leading the black community. President Clinton said Chávez’s advocacy brought “dignity to the lives of so many others and provided for us inspiration for the rest of our nation's history.”
Sen. Robert F. Kennedy described him as “one of the heroic figures of our time.” But Chávez always gave credit to those whose examples he followed. And he encouraged others to do the same in order to honor what servants learn from each other. He concluded a 1965 speech with words that still ring true today: “ To truly honor Dr. King, we must do more than say words of praise. We must learn his lessons and put his views into practice so that we may truly be free at last.”
Photos: Chávez: Oscar Castillo/César E. Chávez Foundation, California Department of Education; 1000 Mile March: Cathy Murphy/Farm Workers Union, California Department of Education
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