Young Warriors for Justice: Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez and the People of San Jose, California

By Ramon J. Martinez, Ph.D.,

Founding Member of La Raza Historical Society of Santa Clara Valley


Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday January 18, 2021

" In this moment made so dark by white nationalism and truth denial, Americans should look to these examples of young leaders with forward-thinking wisdom to carry us through, to show how our civil rights ancestors got things done. This country can survey their organizing tactics to see step-by-step how Dr. King and his allies accomplished so much. Commemoration involves studying their careers as a strategy and amending their efforts to provide a road map to achieving political power".
- The Youthful Movement That Made Martin Luther King Jr. by Rich Benjamin, New York Times January 18, 2021.

Introduction One purpose of this essay is to remember our heroes as living human beings who organized and fought for their ideals with passion. Let us not be too quick to turn them into lifeless and unapproachable stone monuments. Let the next generation know that these heroes were just like them. They dreamed of a better world and organized and gathered their friends to take action to make change happen.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929 and was shot and killed on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee on April 14, 1968. He was 39 years old.

Cesar Estrada Chavez was born on March 31, 1927 and died on April 23, 1993. It is believed that Chavez's hunger strikes contributed to his death: He died on April 23, 1993, in San Luis, Arizona. He was 66 years old.

Both men were born in the same era and began their early public lives fighting RACISM in different regions of the country, with different social and cultural conditions.


Racism in 1950’s America and San Jose Martin met Coretta Scott and married her in 1953 when he was 24 years old. In 1954 King became pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. In 1957, King became Chairman of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) whose main objective was to assist local organizations working for the full equality of African Americans. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1963 when he was 34 years old.

In 1948, Cesar Chavez married Helen Favela when he was 21 years old, after he returned home from the Navy. They met while working in the vineyards of San Jose, California and settled in an East San Jose barrio, Sal Si Puedes.


In 1952, Cesar Chavez joined the newly established Community Service Organization (CSO) in San Jose that worked on statewide efforts to get pensions for old workers and on voter registration to gain power in local and state elections.

In 1955, Dolores Huerta helped create the CSO in Stockton, California and formed a union to help farmworkers there.


In Autobiography of La Causa (Chapter 5, Negreroes), Chavez recalls that in 1952 the local CSO had 880 members,“ a lot of poor people and a lot of lot of middle-class people” including about 50 Negroes from the local NAACP. One of them was Wester Sweet, a UC Student”.


Fred Ross, who organized the CSO in Los Angeles had come to San Jose and was Cesar’s mentor. Cesar recalls that “ Ross knew there was discrimination among the Mexicans towards blacks and others, so he was always pointing it out and eliminating it.Most CSO groups required members to be Mexican, but our group had no color, race, religion or any other restrictions and we stuck to it”.

An incident occurred when Wester and some friends decided to go to Leon’s Restaurant, and they were denied service. Mr. Leon was a CSO member. Cesar’s sister Rita was President and she and Ernie Abeytia planned a special meeting where they would bring up the incident and expel Mr. Leon and members who did not follow the policy of non-discrimination. “ It turned into a hot battle. Out of 9 officers, 7 resigned…about 70% of the membership walked out. It was the poor people, almost all illiterate, many of them from Mexico who backed our constitution. But most of the middle class walked out”.


1960’s Dr. King, Cesar Chavez and Mexican-American San Jose 1963 was when Dr. King became a national figure when he was arrested and wrote Letter from a Birmingham Jail, a defense of nonviolent resistance to racism. He had little support from most Negro ministers and other leaders who told him he was “moving too fast”. In 1963 he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom; Time magazine named him “Man of the Year.

In 1964 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize”; in 1966 King first spoke against the Vietnam War; on August 11, 1965 Rioting in the Watts section of Los Angeles lead King to address economic inequality.


The leaders of Mexican, Mexican American, and other Latinos of 1950’s and 1960’s San Jose were all very aware and supportive of these national events, but their own national political leadership was still developing. They worked hard to solve problems in the local community and felt that none of the bigger powers cared about their problems. They felt that if they took care of their families, worked, and tried harder, things would get better.

The veterans and mothers and families here had sent their youths to war in Europe, the Pacific, North Africa, Japan and to the frozen fields of Korea, but few had been to Washington, D.C. The American G.I. Forum (AGIF), the first national Latino veterans’ organization was formed in 1948 in Texas and the San Jose AGIF was established here in 1959. In 1960, the AGIF played a major role in electing John F. Kennedy President.


In the October 5, 1962 edition of the San Jose El Excentrico Magazine, an article by Bob Rodriguez, titled “We are Making Progress”, noted that “We are making progress but there are few organizations devoted to advancing the course of the Mexican American – the AGI Forum, CSO and the Mexican American Political Association( MAPA); the fight for the most part is a lonely one. There are 40,000 Mexican Americans in the area and active membership of these groups is 150 members combined”.


“While the problem of the Negro blazes across the front pages of our newspapers … the plight of the Mexican-American goes by unnoticed. We are the Forgotten People” ( another common statement at that time described the Mexican American as a “sleeping giant”).

He added, “it is generally believed that education will relieve most if the problem. For the migrant, a change in government policy will attack the problem, but the road ahead is rough in this area”. Was Mr. Rodriguez reflecting the idea that were we not trying hard-enough? His comment about the farmworker movement in Delano seems not yet optimistic of a victory. One note of optimism by Mr. Rodriguez was the last line in his article: “Target – San Jose City Council 1965”.


Dolores Huerta was born on April 10,1930 in Dawson, New Mexico. She moved as a child with her mother to Stockton, California where she grew up and went to school and became a teacher for a short time. In 1955, when she was 25 years old, Dolores helped found the Stockton Chapter of the Community Service Organization. In 1960 at age 30, she created the Agricultural Workers Association (AWA) to help further her cause of gaining rights for farm workers, which included allowing migrant workers without U.S. citizenship to receive public assistance and pensions and creating Spanish-language voting ballots and driver's tests.

On his 35th.birthday on March 31, 1962 Cesar resigned from the CSO, leaving the first decent-paying job he had ever had with the security of a regular paycheck. Cesar Chavez left San Jose for Delano, California where he and Dolores Huerta joined forces to found the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA)

In 1965, the NFWA joined the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee. (AWOC), primarily made up of Filipino Americans, and began their the 5-year strike against grape growers in Delano. Cesar and Dolores had spent a little time in the hallways of Sacramento but not much time in Washington D.C. But soon, their support from national labor unions and national church groups got them much national attention.


The National Marches, Demonstrations and Latino Leaders

As one of the key national leaders of marches and protests discrimination and in favor of civil rights legislation, Dr. King’s messages were beginning to be heard by Latino Leaders who began to attend these events and spread information and call for support. Puerto Rican leaders on the East Coast remember that they were invited to participate in these marches by Dr. King himself. He visited Puerto Rico at least twice. In 1962, he spoke at what is now the Interamerican University in San Germán and at the University of Puerto Rico in Río Piedras. He also visited in 1965 after his Nobel Peace Prize win.

In California, the leaders of national Mexican American groups such as the American GI Forum and The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and California Congressman Ed Roybal and longtime activist Bert Corona who formed the Asociacion Nacional México-Americana, began to cross the state bringing news and encouraging affiliation with Dr. King and his national efforts.


In the October 5,1963 edition of El Excentrico Magazine, Bob Rodriguez reported that on September 27,1963, at Installation Dinner of the local Political Education Group (PEG) held at Lou’s Village, the speakers were Attorney Henry Gonzalez, Bert Corona and Ernesto Galarza. He said that Gonzalez and Corona “made appeals for the Mexican American joining the Negroes for greater progress and recognition. In spite of the great respect held for both Attorney Gonzalez and Mr. Corona, the idea scored a dull thud with a majority of those present”.


September 22,1966:The First Telegram from Martin Luther King Jr. Most historians believe that Dr. King and Cesar Chavez never met face to face, but staff and politicians who worked with King and national civil rights groups, did visit and work with the Delano effort. Many of Dr. King’s closest aides and successors were strong supporters of the United Farm Workers, including Andy Young, Jesse Jackson, Ralph Abernathy and Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King. Later, US Attorney General Robert and Ethyl Kennedy also visited Cesar and Helen often.


On September 22, 1966 Dr. King sent Chavez and the United Farm Workers a telegram that acknowledged their work and detailed why they were allies.

“As brothers in the fight for equality, I extend the hand of fellowship and good will and wish continuing success to you and your members. The fight for equality must be fought on many fronts–in the urban slums, in the sweat shops of the factories and fields. Our separate struggles are really one–a struggle for freedom, for dignity and for humanity. You and your 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.”

Thanks to the leadership of Dr. King and the Black Civil Rights Movement, the 1965, the Civil Rights Bill became law in Washington D.C. The War on Poverty soon came to the San Jose region and in the many new anti-poverty agencies, local leaders began to learn how to operate inside local and regional government institutions.

The grass roots community leaders began to see that change from these efforts would be slow from the top and began to focus on change from the ground up and they focused on the energy of young people in the schools and colleges. The farmworker movement also focused on the idealism of youth for support and fundraising. The roots of the Chicano Student Movement were beginning to take hold.


March 5, 1968: The Second Telegram from Martin Luther King Jr.

The struggle in the cities and in the farmworker, movement became increasingly difficult and violence became more and more appealing. Dr. King himself was being challenged as too slow and out of fashion. Cesar turned for inspiration to Dr. King and his call for nonviolence. Cesar turned to fasting to encourage self-sacrifice. He was fasting for 25 days in February - March of 1968.


On March 5, 1968 Dr. King sent a telegram addressed to “Cesar Chaves [sic], United Farm Workers, P.O. Box 120, Delano, Calif.”

“I am deeply moved by your courage in fasting as your personal sacrifice for justice through nonviolence,” King wrote, “Your past and present commitment is eloquent testimony to the constructive power of nonviolent action and the destructive impotence of violent reprisal. You stand today as a living example of the Gandhian tradition with its great force for social progress and its healing spiritual powers. My colleagues and I commend you for your bravery, salute you for your indefatigable work against poverty and injustice, and pray for your health and your continuing service as one of the outstanding men of America. The plight of your people and ours is so grave that we all desperately need the inspiring example and effective leadership you have given.”


April 4,1968:Assassination and Marching Continues

One month later, on April 4,1968, the forces of violence struck. Martin Luther King Jr. was fatally shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee at 6:01 p.m. CST. He was rushed to St. Joseph's Hospital, where he died at 7:05 p.m. He was 39 years old.

The June 19, 1968 The Poor People’s Campaign was still in the planning stages when Dr. King was as killed. Nevertheless, the Poor People’s March planned by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) took place on June 19, 1968 led by Ralph Abernathy, a longtime friend of Dr. King who had been promoted to president of the SCLC. The participants demanded that the government formulate a plan to help redress the employment and housing problems of the poor throughout the United States. Cesar Chavez was ill from his recent fast, but Reies Lopez Tijerina from the New Mexico Alianza Federal de Mercedes, and Corky Gonzales from the Denver, Colorado Crusade for Justice were a few of the Latinos who were there.


10 years after Dr. King’s death, Chavez wrote in Maryknoll Magazine that the civil rights leader led the way through his nonviolence, which inspired the United Farm Workers’ philosophy.

“It has been our experience that few men or women ever have the opportunity to know the true satisfaction that comes with giving one’s life totally in the nonviolent struggle for justice,” he wrote. “Martin Luther King, Jr., was one of these unique servants and from him we learned many of the lessons that have guided us. For these lessons and for his sacrifice for the poor and oppressed, Dr. King’s memory will be cherished in the hearts of the farm workers forever.”

Cesar Chavez lived 25 years longer than Dr King until his own passing on April 23, 1993 at age 66. It is believed that Chavez's hunger strikes contributed to his death in San Luis, Arizona. In 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that Chavez's birthday, March 31, would be recognized as a federal commemorative holiday."

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