Labor leader, civil rights activist Dolores Huerta speaks of
past successes, challenges ahead
By Lou Fancher
One simple act of courage to remove injustice from society can start a community movement. Economic equality and exercising one's right to vote are the most powerful nonviolent weapons in the fight for civil rights. Know the past, unite to act in the present, believe "Si se puede" (Yes we can) when dreaming of the future.
These and other ideas were the messages delivered by labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta and former state Sen. Art Torres at a Barbara Lee & Elihu Harris lecture Saturday at Mills College.
Picking up on themes from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s final book, "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community," the two civil rights leaders delivered starkly contrasting lectures unified by a common idea that out of chaos can come community.
Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, hosting the 11th annual lecture series with co-founder former Oakland Mayor and state Assemblyman Elihu Harris, said that after the recent election, building enduring, disciplined, social justice organizations is ever more crucial. Introducing Huerta, the 84-year-old co-founder with César Chávez of the National Farmworkers Association, which later became the United Farm Workers, Lee said, "She is a great warrior woman, one of my personal 'sheroes.'" An incredible foot soldier and leader for peace and equality."
Huerta, a native of New Mexico, grew up primarily in Stockton. Standing with farmers in the field, most of them poor immigrants, and marching and speaking to protest unfair wage and working conditions, she fought for Spanish language voting ballots and driver license tests before joining forces with Chávez. In 1963, they worked to win disability insurance for farmers and, a decade later, the UFW played a pivotal role in the passage of a collective bargaining law, the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975. Winner of a Presidential Medal of Freedom Award from President Barack Obama in 2012 and the Eleanor D. Roosevelt Human Rights Award from President Clinton in 1998, Huerta was inducted into the California Hall of Fame in 2013.
If the string of accomplishments suggests Huerta may be considering retirement -- her 40-minute lecture proved otherwise. Painting a centuries-spanning mural of the challenges Americans have faced, Huerta said past victories had been eclipsed, people today are confused and discouraged by politics, civics education in schools is inadequate and the country is in crisis. "The lynching continues, but it's now done by the police," Huerta said, referencing the shooting by a white police officer of an unarmed black man, Michael Brown, on Aug. 9, in Ferguson, Missouri.
The solution, she said, was to bring education and community together. The Dolores Huerta Foundation she started in 2002 was developed to address health, environment, education and economic problems, particularly for working immigrants and people of color.
If Huerta's fiery speech was a sweeping diatribe, Torres presented blunt, edgy snapshots of critical issues facing Americans. During 20 years as a California legislator, Torres devoted himself to health care, education and environmental sectors, working to protect underserved school children, the water in San Francisco Bay, people suffering from HIV/AIDS or pesticide exposure and more. He is vice chair of the Governing Board of the California Stem Cell Agency.
Asked about the anger people expressed toward Obama, he said it comes from internal hatred and racism, not intellectual differences.
"Those people on the other side are angry that a bright, talented, compassionate African-American happens to be the president of the United States," he said.
Concerned about what he called a national spirit of apathy and low voter turnout during the recent election, he said change occurs at the polls and cited low voting statistics.
"That's all that voted," he concluded. "What does that mean? It's a tragedy. For those of us who believe in a nonviolent approach, this is the way to do it."