Cesar Estrada Chavez was born in Yuma, Arizona on March 31, 1927. He grew up in an extended Mexican family that spoke Spanish at home. He lived in a succession of migrant camps and attended school sporadically. His religious education as a Roman Catholic was overseen primarily by his grandmother, and that training would inform and shape his later thoughts on social justice, organizing, and protests.
After spending two years in the navy, Chavez returned to work as an agricultural laborer and lumber handler. In his spare time, he helped establish a chapter of his Community Service Organization, a creation of Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation. He also helped build the first purpose-built Catholic church building in Sal Si Puedes and joined in voter registration drives. In 1953 he was laid off by the General Box company and began working full time as an organizer for the Community Service Organization. He spent several years traveling California, setting up chapters, and in 1959 he became the CSO’s national director, where he helped it reorganize and stabilize financially. In 1962 he resigned, to co-found the National Farm Workers Association with Dolores Huerta.
In September 1965 he began leading what became a five-year strike by California grape pickers and a nationwide boycott of California grapes that attracted liberal support throughout the country. Subsequent battles with lettuce growers, table-grape growers, and other agribusinesses generally ended with the signing of collective bargaining agreements. In 1966 the NFWA merged with an American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) group to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee. In 1971 this organization became the United Farm Workers (UFW).
Cesar Chavez died April 23, 1993. In recognition of his nonviolent activism and support of working people, Chavez was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 1994. In December 1970, Coretta Scott King visited Cesar Chavez while he was jailed in Salinas, California. He had been incarcerated for refusing to end a strike against Bud Antle lettuce, and spent 20 days in jail. After her visit with Chavez, Mrs. King addressed two thousand farm workers in a speech:
“Those who control the billion dollar economy have said Blacks and Chicanos do not have the right to a decent life or to human dignity… But Cesar Chavez challenged the tyrants, organized the working poor and became a threat, so they have jailed him. But as my husband so often said, “You cannot keep truth in a jail cell.”