Miriam Pawel: We Should Critically Examine, Not Just Praise, Cesar Chavez

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Miriam Pawel is the author of "The Union of Their Dreams -- Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez's Farm Worker Movement."]

Two years ago, a presidential contender touting his roots as a community organizer endorsed the idea of a national holiday to honor a legendary organizer.

"As farmworkers and laborers across America continue to struggle for fair treatment and fair wages, we find strength in what Cesar Chavez accomplished so many years ago," said Barack Obama, then on the verge of his own improbable victory. "It's time to recognize the contributions of this American icon."

An icon, according to Webster's, is "an object of uncritical devotion." And that's precisely the problem: Cesar Chavez has been elevated to iconic status, his name reverently placed on schools, streets and postage stamps, without his legacy having been critically examined.

Chavez merits an important place in the history books, as a civil rights leader, an inspiration for a generation of Chicanos and the founder of a movement that transformed thousands of lives. But the history is more complex than the hagiography, and more enlightening. His birthday, March 31, should be an occasion to educate new generations about Chavez's remarkable accomplishments, and to learn from his life in all its complexity and contradictions....

Chief among the lessons we should take from his life is that heroes are human, with real flaws. You follow them blindly at your own risk. The biggest regret that many who worked closely with Chavez now express is that they did not speak up for what they believed in when it might have mattered. They failed to fight to keep building a labor union when Chavez veered determinedly toward his vision of a communal movement for poor people, based on an ideology of sacrifice.

A second lesson is that the inspirational leaders who build movements are not necessarily suited to run organizations. Chavez was a brilliant strategist, most comfortable in the adversarial role he termed the "nonviolent Viet Cong." By contrast, he dismissed as "nonmissionary work" the day-to-day routine of administering a labor union, negotiating contracts and resolving grievances. He lacked the interest to focus on those more mundane issues -- or the will to delegate the work to others and relinquish control....

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