The Interconnected Lives of Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, and Cesar Chavez

Next Year It Will Be 50 Years Since
the Assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. & Robert F. Kennedy 

Joe Colletti, PhD
Hub for Social Reformers
A Project of Urban Initiatives
July, 2017

We are approaching the appalling assassinations of two accomplished advocates, Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) who died April 4, 1968 and Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) who died two months later on  June 6, 1968 (click here). Connecting their achievements and actions to the present, and the achievements and actions of other social reformers such as Cesar Chavez, can help present-day reformers solve social struggles and guide others who seek to be future social reformers, which is the purpose of the Hub for Social Reformers (click here).

Kennedy was born in 1925 and Chavez was born two years later in 1927. Kennedy enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1944 and received an honorable discharge two years later in 1946. Chavez enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1946 and received an honorable discharge two years later. Kennedy and Chavez were both devout Catholics.

King was born two years after Chavez in 1929. They were both committed to nonviolent resistance when it came to overcoming inequality. The teachings of Mahatma Gandhi deeply permeated their lives. Both lead peaceful marches against injustices. Many streets throughout the United States have been named, or renamed, in honor of them.

The lives of King, Kennedy, and Chavez are interwoven forever because of the civil rights movement that heightened in the 1960s in the United States.

Cesar Chavez

After serving in the U.S. Navy, Chavez worked in the fields as a farmworker until he became a community organizer in 1952 for the California-based Community Service Organization, which campaigned for civil rights for Latinos. He applied what he learned to build a union for farmworkers. In 1958, he became the organization’s National Director.

Chavez continued to dedicate his life to create a movement for improving treatment, increasing pay, and advancing better working conditions for farm workers. He led strikes and marches that gained national attention in the United States.

On February 11, 1968, Chavez announced that he was fasting to rededicate the movement to nonviolence. He saw it as an act of penitence for those persons who advocated violence within the movement. He was also following the example of Gandhi.

He fasted for 25 days while only drinking water. He started to lose weight to the point that his life was in danger. Word spread through the media and soon hundreds surrounded the tiny windowless room in which he fasted each day.

A Catholic mass was celebrated each day. Finally, Chavez ended the fast during a mass with thousands of persons crowded around. One of those persons was Kennedy, who stated that he came “out of respect for one of the heroic figures of our time.”

Chavez was so weak he could not speak. A statement from him was read to the crowd, which ended with

“It is my deepest belief that only by giving our lives do we find life. The truest act of courage, the strongest act of manliness, is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally nonviolent struggle for justice. To be a man is to suffer for others. God help us to be men.”

Nearly two months after Chavez began his fast, King was assassinated. Two months after King was assassinated, Kennedy was assassinated. Chavez died in 1993.

To learn more about Cesar Chavez visit the Cesar Chavez Foundation web site.

Robert F. Kennedy

Kennedy and Chavez bonded because of their commitment to social justice. Two events heightened their relationship, which occurred in Delano, California. The first occurred in March, 1966. Kennedy was a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare’s Subcommittee on Migratory Labor. At this time, Chavez was leading a strike against grape growers for better wages and working conditions that began six months earlier.

The subcommittee held hearings in March, which focused on amending the National Labor Relations Act to include farm workers so that they would have the basic rights of private sector employees. Kennedy’s attendance heightened media attention. Both Chavez and Kennedy were critical of local law enforcements’ treatment of farmworkers. At one point, the media focused on an exchange between Kennedy and a local sheriff, which ended with Kennedy advising the sheriff to use his lunch break to read the U.S. Constitution. Kennedy’s words and actions lifted the spirits of Chavez and the striking workers.

The second event that heightened the relationship between the two occurred two years later. Kennedy returned to Delano when Chavez was ready to break his 25-day fast. The two attended mass and had their picture taken together. The photo of the two of them sitting next to one another with Chavez offering to Kennedy a piece of the bread that he was given to him to break his fast became one of the most iconic photos of the farmworker movement.

Nearly a week later, Kennedy announced his candidacy for the U.S. Presidency. Chavez backed Kennedy. A few months later, Kennedy won the California Democratic Primary, and likely the Democratic nomination to be the party’s candidate. Chavez left the celebration a little early. Kennedy was assassinated a little later.

To learn more about Robert F. Kennedy visit the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Center web site.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

King and Chavez never met in person but were in contact with one another. In a telegram sent by King to Chavez on September 22, 1966, King viewed Chavez as a brother in the fight for equality. King wrote:

“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 valiant 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.”

Both of them were influenced by the nonviolence tactics to achieve social equality used by Gandhi before he was assassinated in 1948. When Chavez spoke, he often referred to the “spirit of Zapata and the tactics of Martin Luther King.”

A couple of years after King’s assassination, his spouse Coretta Scott King, visited Chavez who was sent to prison in December, 1970 for contempt of court and refusing to obey a court order to stop the boycott against Bud Antle lettuce.

Her visit came shortly after Ethel Kennedy visited Chavez in jail a couple of years after her husband’s (Robert Kennedy) assassination. Just as Ethel Kennedy marched and protested by climbing on a flatbed truck to the pleasure of other protestors, so did Coretta Scott King. After visiting Chavez in jail, she said, “I expressed to him the fact that my husband had been an example for him and to all his people.” She also met with Chavez a couple of years later during his 24-day hunger strike, which began on May 11, 1972 and was reminiscent of Robert Kennedy. 

Martin Luther King holiday was first observed in January 1986. During January, 1990, Chavez celebrated the holiday by giving a speech entitled “Lessons of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He began his speech by stating that King

“was a powerful figure of destiny, of courage, of sacrifice, and of vision. Few people in the long history of this nation can rival his accomplishment, his reason, or his selfless dedication to the cause of peace and social justice.”

In the middle of his speech, he noted that

“During my first fast in 1968, Dr. King reminded me that our struggle was his struggle too. He sent me a telegram, which said, "Our separate struggles are really one. A struggle for freedom, for dignity, and for humanity."

and ended his speech emphasizing that

“If we fail to learn that each and every person can make a difference, then we will have betrayed Dr. King's life's work. The reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. had more than just a dream, he had the love and the faith to act.”

To learn more about Martin Luther King, Jr. visit the King Center web site.

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