LOS ANGELES – As protests against the war in Iraq grow across our nation, it is not uncommon for leaders to invoke the name of Cesar Chavez, the founding president of the United Farm Workers.

That is natural because Cesar stood as one of our nation’s most outstanding leaders for peace, justice and non-violence alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, and the Southern civil rights movement, Cesar maintained his commitment to non-violence even in the face of violent attacks from growers.

“Those who oppose our cause are rich and powerful, and they have many allies in high places. … But we have something the rich do not own. We have our own bodies and spirits and the justice of our cause as our weapons.

“I am convinced that the truest act of courage, the strongest act of humanity, is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally non violent struggle for justice.”

Those words by Cesar were communicated in a statement that had to be read for him because of his weakened condition from a 25-day fast. The purpose of the fast was to send a message to some farm workers who began to speak of responding in kind to the violent assaults against them by growers.

Cesar lost 35 pounds on the fast and had to be carried to a park where the fast was to end. Surrounding him were thousands of farm workers who had been moved by Cesar’s message. The talk of violence was over.

Chavez did not view non-violence as passivity. He saw it as a winning strategy. “Violence just hurts those who are already hurt … Instead of exposing the brutality of the oppressor, it justifies it … We can turn the world if we can do it non-violently,” Cesar said.

True to his words, the working-class David turned the agribusiness Goliath world. Millions nationwide joined UFW picket lines and marches. They stopped eating grapes in support of the UFW boycott. A union was won, historic legislation adopted, and dignity for farm workers and their families achieved.

Chavez, like King, was a leader for all races and nationalities, for both citizens and immigrants, for men and women of all faiths and beliefs. They both worked for the benefit of all. Their calls to the nation for justice knew no color or boundary.

Although they did not work directly together, they expressed important solidarity with one another in their common struggles. Dr. King called their efforts “one and the same.” Coretta Scott King visited Chavez in jail when he was arrested for violating an anti-boycott injunction. The two families are closely allied.

Also, like King, Chavez was opposed to the war in Vietnam. He supported the protest by the National Chicano Moratorium, a demonstration of over 30,000 held in East Los Angeles on Aug. 29, 1970. That demonstration brought national attention to the fact that Mexican American youth were being drafted and killed in disproportionate numbers by the war.

But Cesar also saw the war in a broader framework. In a letter written to the Chicano Moratorium Committee, Cesar said, “It is now clear to me that the war in Vietnam is gutting the soul of our nation. Of course we know the war to be wrong and unjustifiable, but today we see that it has destroyed the moral fiber of the people.”

It serves our nation well to remember Cesar’s contributions to peace and nonviolence as we celebrate his birthday March 31.

Arturo Rodriguez, the president of the UFW, said, “Cesar Chavez’s legacy is all about peace and non-violent action. If there was ever a time for Cesar’s legacy to come alive it is now. Basic principle demands that the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO, joins national and global efforts in opposing the Bush administration’s plans to mount a ‘preemptive’ war in Iraq.”

Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the UFW with Cesar, is an unstoppable voice against the war on Iraq as she joins marches and rallies in numerous cities.

The UFW has called on all its supporters to join them in calling for an end to war.

We in the Cesar E. Chavez National Holiday Campaign join the UFW and those honoring the legacy of Chavez and King in the call to stop the war. We oppose Bush’s unprecedented preemption policies, which violates United Nations rule, is causing untold devastation to the Iraqi people and could lead to more Iraq’s.

We see our best support for the troops is to call for bringing them home and out of harm’s way.

We also share the UFW concerns that funds for war will deplete communities of much needed funds for jobs, health care and education. It is millions of poor families, racial minorities, immigrants and farm workers who will take the brunt of the war budget and deaths of our young. What will these war budget cuts do to the 90 percent of California farm workers who earn less than $10,000 a year and have no health coverage?

Cesar’s legacy is being kept alive across our nation in a multitude of ways. From coast to coast and border to border, marches, parades, banquets, school assemblies, rallies and other events will take place in the weeks before and after his birthday. A musical about Cesar Chavez, produced by actor Ed Begley, has premiered in Los Angeles.

California, Texas, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico will celebrate official holidays. Rhode Island celebrates a Cesar Chavez Day. Coalition efforts in Michigan and Washington are seeking an official state holiday.

This year, the United States Postal Service will issue a stamp in honor of Cesar Chavez on the ten-year anniversary of his death on April 23.

Support for an official national holiday also continues to grow. Resolutions for the holiday have been adopted by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the Utility Workers Union of America, the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees and the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA), representing Latino unionists nationwide. Numerous Central Labor Councils and other unions have joined the effort as has the Democratic National Committee.

Many of the thousands of events around Cesar’s birthday will incorporate the demand for a national holiday.

The holiday movement has helped elevate a deeper understanding about Cesar’s rich legacy. More legislation has been won for farm workers in California. The movement is helping to unite the broad forces for justice.

The United Domestic Workers of America, a union that began in an organizing committee formed in Chavez’s back yard, just announced that the union will celebrate Cesar’s legacy by mounting an organizing drive called the “Chavez-25-Organizing Drive.” The UDW which last year won union elections in six California counties representing 22,600 homecare workers adopted a goal to bring 25,000 new members into their ranks.

Our hope is that this year’s commemorations will remember Cesar Chavez by activating millions more into the massive movement to end the war in Iraq.

Each one of us can do something, which can make a difference. Cesar had great confidence in the power of unity of ordinary men and women – and in the power of peace. As he said, “We can turn the world if we can do it nonviolently.” Si Se Puede!

This is a statement issued by the Cesar E. Chavez National Holiday Campaign on the occasion of his birthday on March 31. Evelina Alarcon is the National Coordinator of the campaign and can be reached at Evnalarcon@aol.com

PDF version of ‘Cesar Chavez: A legacy for peace, justice and non-violence’