Old as election-year stump speeches and baby-kissing contests is the great American tradition of presidential pandering. Candidates ensure various demographic groups get their quadrennial 15 minutes of fame in exchange for turning out the vote. Call it what you will, it’s a quid pro quo as old as Washington itself.
But sometimes what appears to be little more than campaign commodification can be a tool for good. Witness President Obama’s 11th-hour recognition of civil rights activist/union organizer Cesar Chavez.
In September, Chavez’s Central Valley (California) home/headquarters was christened as our latest national monument – a veritable miracle for those who knew his work in real time, so threatening was he to the economic and political structures of his day.
From the late ’60s through the late ’70s, Chavez (along with Delores Huerta) fused a national movement of grassroots activism with the Ghandian principle of nonviolence. Over the course of two decades he and the labor union he helped establish tackled unjust corporate farming practices from the Desert Southwest to Ohio.
But the progress came at great price. Chavez, like King, lived with death threats. His fellow organizers were beaten as a matter of corporate farming’s protocol to put down collective bargaining.
When Chavez expanded his scope of interest to include the documented effects of pesticides on field workers, the results were likewise predictable: the industry cried foul, employed questionable research to fend off congressional inquiries and blamed Chavez for slumping sales.
And as with every movement aimed at organizing American workers, there were those within the fold who opposed the walkouts and strikes; Chavez’s prophetic voice and leadership were not uniformly popular among those with the most to gain.
Chavez remained engaged in progressive causes, many beyond the scope of labor. He died of natural causes in 1993 at age 66.
In a perfect political world the passage of time and pending elections have nothing to do with it.
But this is not that perfect world. Worthy heroes can go neglected for want of the conscience and will to do the right thing. Obama’s timing is dubious, maybe obvious. But that doesn’t make it wrong.
Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Eugene, Ore. Email donaldlrollins@ gmail.com.
From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2012
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