It is 1963, and I am 17, and the contrast is sharp between the vibrant colors of the fields in California’s Central Valley and the black-and-white images on the evening news. During the day, Mexicans, Filipinos and others picked grapes, tomatoes and oranges under a stinging sun for $1.05 an hour.
At night, I wondered where the justice was, and I saw in those reports on the civil rights movement that folks on the other side of the country were wondering too. When I saw what they were able to accomplish through the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, I knew change was possible.
These are the thoughts that come to me as we reach the 50th anniversary of the march and I recall what it was like as a young man, watching nightly news coverage of the civil rights movement and, from afar, seeing the historic march come together. The sea of marchers inspired everyone who knew it was time for America to fundamentally change the status quo and recognize the dignity of every person — even immigrant farmworkers.
It was painfully easy to see the loss of that dignity for anyone working in the fields of Delano, Calif. Our wages were bad; the conditions were worse. Days of 12 hours in 110-degree heat were the usual as was no access to indoor bathrooms. It was hard to bear myself and infuriating to see my mother and my sister treated this way.
For me, the fight waged by civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and labor leaders such as A. Philip Randolph was life-changing. In spite of codified racial discrimination and segregation, these leaders built a movement in which people stood up for themselves and demanded rapid change. Though many of the images from the civil rights movement came from the segregated South, it made me believe that those of us toiling in the fields in the West, too, were not helpless and could stand up for ourselves. Just months after Selma (Ala.), Cesar Chavez and the National Farm Workers Association marched from Delano to Sacramento, Calif., to demand better wages and treatment.
The most important lesson we learned is there is enormous power in a moral message delivered creatively with an appeal to the best in people. Minds and hearts will change. Looking back, that’s what King’s speech said to me: America can be more than it is today, and we are going to get there.
We are going to “work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day,” King said. I know I am not alone in being motivated by these words in today’s fight for immigration reform.
America’s 11 million aspiring citizens still suffer from discrimination, from exploitation in the workplace, from attacks on justice that become assaults on dignity. Families bear the anxiety of knowing they could be pried apart through deportation. None of this is consistent with our ideals as a nation. But King warned that we must not “wallow in the valley of despair.”
The coalition of groups supporting a comprehensive solution includes not only leading Latino voices and unions, but also prominent political figures from both sides of the aisle, business interests, environmental groups and houses of faith. Our progress is reflected in the broadest and most diverse consensus on any issue, voicing their support for real reform with a road map to citizenship.
Fifty years after the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, we must recognize that it falls to us to continue to fight for civil rights — for human rights — the march represented. The chances for change are better than at any other time in American history. Let us therefore celebrate and remember, but also reaffirm our focus on the present and on the future. America can be more than it is today, and we are going to get there.