The struggle for social justice is never easy, as United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta knows full well. Many of the problems from lack of independent media to police brutality remain the same as communities seek solutions to the challenges that they face, Huerta told Dennis J. Bernstein.
By Dennis J. Bernstein
Dolores Huerta, a co-founder of the United Farm Workers and 2012 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, says the causes of economic and racial justice for which she has devoted her life require truly independent media as well as a recognition of the challenges that previous generations of activists have faced and overcome.
Huerta, now 85, was born 1930 in Dawson, a small mining town in New Mexico. Her father, a farmworker and miner by trade, became a union activist and ran for political office, winning a seat in the New Mexico legislature in 1938.
In the 1960s, Dolores Huerta made history as a co-founder of the United Farm Workers, along with Cesar Chavez. At 58, Huerta was beaten by police in San Francisco during a protest against the pro-war/anti-worker policies of then-presidential candidate George H.W. Bush. A baton-wielding officer broke four of her ribs and split her spleen.
Yet, Huerta has continued to devote her time to developing leaders and advocating for the working poor, women, and children. As founder and president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, she travels across the country engaging in campaigns and influencing legislation that supports equality and defends civil rights. She often speaks to students and organizations about issues of social justice and public policy.
In 2012, President Barack Obama presented Dolores Huerta the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States. Upon receiving this award Dolores said, “The freedom of association means that people can come together in organization to fight for solutions to the problems they confront in their communities. The great social justice changes in our country have happened when people came together, organized, and took direct action.”
Dennis J Bernstein, executive producer of Flashpoints on Pacifica Radio, spoke to Huerta recently about her decades of work for social justice, as well as current issues of police brutality and the need for independent media noting recent anniversaries for Pacifica Radio and KPFA, the first listener-supported radio station in the U.S.
DB: Well, first of all this is our 66th birthday here; Flashpoints has been on now over twenty years. Maybe you could say a little bit about the importance of having a community, non-corporate radio station, and a show like Flashpoints to work with groups like the farm workers.
DH: I just have to say that our movement was pretty invisible to the corporate media, and it was always KPFA and KPFK, that always brought the news to the public about what we were doing. And what I’m saying is the real story of the farm workers struggle … and it has been really the voice of the voiceless for everyone.
I’m sure that the archives will just show the historical events and activities, and the people that really made the movement back in the 60’s, and the 70’s and the 80’s. And we know now that so many of those important events that were happening then that they had an impact on today’s world. They were like the movers and the shakers of everything that happened later on. I want to give a little example, this is going back now to 1988 when Cesar Chavez did his 36-day, water-only fast to call to the attention of the American public about the issue of pesticides. Cesar was like already on his second week of his water only fast, and no media would cover it, except your radio station. It was the only one.  KPFA, KPFK have always been there, on the scene, giving the story to the public about what movements are doing, and what they’re accomplishing.
So, just personally, I want to just say I am so grateful for the organization, for the people’s radio station, for Flashpoints, for all of the various programming that you have that really brings truth to the listening public. Because it’s not corporate, it’s not manipulated, it’s not distorted. And I don’t know what we would do without you. And I know that you were the symbol, and the example for radio stations that followed in your wake.
So the service that has been given to the American public to have free speech radio, and, of course, we know later on now we have free speech television but you were the initiators and, really a Godsend to everyone. So I want to thank you very much, and not only on my behalf, on behalf of the farm workers’ movement, the martyrs of the farm workers’ movement, the immigrants’ rights movement, people that are still organizing today, the peace movement, the women’s movement, the LGBTQ movement, and, of course, we also know that we have a great environmental movement right now, that is trying to save our planet. And, I guess, I need to add the income equality movement, right? That is also going on right now. So, this is a place where one goes to get truth and the voices of the people that are making these changes in our world.
DB: I do remember Dolores, about 15 years ago, when I was forced, if you will, to go on the air, and sit down, and lock down, in order to stand up for free speech radio because we had some corporate raiders. You were there. You stood up, you came down, you spoke with us, you protested with us, you walked with us. You were there with us, and you played a key role in keeping us alive. So I must say thank you to you for that, it was amazing.
DH: Yes, of course, as you know, I was not the only. I think the whole community really stood up for … on KPFA at that time. Those protests were really amazing, and the fact that you were able to survive this kind of corporate takeover that was happening at the time and I think that’s a great example of how you are able to maintain your purpose, and not let people take it over because, as they would say for a better financial resource, etc. And that’s a struggle that, I think, all movements have.
You start a movement, and then how do we keep it true to its purpose, for what it wanted to be. And I think many movements are often faced with that, and it’s very hard to combat this, and the fact that … there was so much … I’m going to say conflict, and I’m going to use the word suffering, on the part of many of you that had to go through that. And we know it’s a volunteer station to begin with, and so people are giving of their time to make the station work, and then in addition to that you had to give more time in order to just to save the station the way that it was supposed to be. So I’m happy that I was able to be a part of that movement to save the station, at that time.
DB: [C]an I ask you to talk a little bit about … you’re in L.A. now. You’re there now for a very special purpose. Could you talk about what’s happening in the context of Jackie Robinson and why you’re there?
DH: Yes. There’s a celebration of the civil rights movement, there’s a 50-years celebration. We have so many celebrations going on right now, which is really wonderful, so that people can remember how difficult it was for movements to begin, and the integration of the American Baseball League, it was a very significant moment. And Jackie Robinson was the first African-American that was hired at that time. But it was rather interesting that, when that was going on, and, of course I grew up in the 40’s, in terms of the Latino issues in sports, it was the same thing. The local baseball league would not let Latinos play in those leagues. I grew up in Stockton, California, and we actually started our own baseball league. It was called The Mexico Club. And this was not just in Stockton, but they were able to form like a baseball league of Mexican American baseball players, throughout the state of California.
And I remember going to the different games, where we’d go to San Jose, and we’d go to Sacramento, and we’d go to all these different cities to follow our baseball players. So the discrimination was not only against African Americans, but it was also against Mexican Americans.
I don’t know if a lot of listeners know this fact but when they had Jackie Robinson, he was not like the best player in the Negro Baseball League. He was kind of mediocre but he was so superior … and they didn’t want to bring in the best players because they would make the other white players look bad. So that’s why they got Jackie Robinson because they thought again he had the stamina, and was able to take all the harassment that he received. But at the same time they didn’t want to make the other players look bad by bringing in the best of the Negro Baseball League.
The other thing is, when you look at that history, the Negro Baseball League was so huge, and it attracted such a following that the white leagues were kind of losing the crowd, and losing money so the competition was so great by the Negro Baseball League, that it was kind of an economic reason why they thought that they had to integrate baseball because they were just losing so many fans to the Negro Baseball. So it’s kind of an interesting history of the way that things have evolved in our United States of America, in terms of ending racism.
DB: And let me just talk to you about one more very significant and serious thing. This is a situation in which you directly had your life put at risk. And we’re talking about out of control police violence we’re really seeing now. I don’t know if it’s worse or just more cameras filming it. But there does appear to be a pandemic of police violence against brown and black young people, and poor people. You were beaten, I think, by the L.A. police. You’ve been attacked many times. Could you talk a little bit about whatever your experience has been?
DH: It’s always been. I think that what’s happening now that’s different is that you finally have the eye of the public on what’s going on. But the systemic killing by police and the brutalization of people of color by police has been ongoing. I mean, since I was a teenager … you know I just turned 85 years old .
But I remember when I was a teenager, coming home from a baseball game or a football game, and the police stopping us and harassing us … racial profiling us the words didn’t exist at that time. But that was just very common. And I’ve seen so many of our young people, some of my friends that were incarcerated. I remember part of our social life when I was young was going to visit our friends that were in Juvenile Hall, and in some of these places where they were put.
And I actually worked for the police department, the sheriff’s office in Stockton, California and saw all the illegal things that the police actually did in terms of trying to get convictions on people that they were targeting. So this has been going on now for decades. And the only thing that’s different right now that finally it’s in the public eye. I remember when I was lobbying for the community organization back in 1961, and I tried to pass some bills. I tried to pass a bill that they wouldn’t be able to take a child out of school, that the police would not arrest a child out of school unless they notified the parents first, any child under 16.
My God, you would have thought…the whole capital was filled with police against that little, teeny bill that I had. I tried to get the attorney general’s office at that time to see if they could start investigating police slayings. This was back in 1961. And of course, it didn’t go anywhere because I was told at that time that the attorney general had to defend the police department. They couldn’t investigate the police department.
I think Camilla Harris recently … that the attorney general’s office, is starting to look into the discrimination issues of law enforcement and also, of our schools. My organization, The Dolores Huerta Foundation, we have recently filed a lawsuit in addition with the California Rural Legal Assistance, Mexican American Legal Defense Fund and the civil rights group from San Francisco, Leo Pattersons’ organization against the Kern County … the Kern High School District because of the discrimination against African American students, and Latino students who are suspended and expelled hundreds of times higher than white kids. So this racial issue is still with us.
We’ve seen it publicly also in terms of the lack of cooperation from the Congress with our president, Barack Obama, because he just happens to be half black. And so I think the one thing that’s different now it’s in the open and hopefully that we can use this moment in time to really go forward and do everything that we can as progressives to say “This has got to stop. We are sick and tired of the racism in our country.” And it’s being used politically by the right wing, in order for them to get control of the legislatures and get control of the Congress. So it is a very, very big issue.
DB: You know, to correct, I misspoke before it was San Francisco’s finest that beat you up pretty brutally. Not that the L.A. police and the L.A. sheriff have a good record. But I just wanted to get the record straight, in that regards. Again, Dolores Huerta we really appreciate you taking the time out there in L.A. on the way to celebrate the life and times, and the work of Jackie Robinson, and all the things that came around that. We thank you for taking the time to be with us and helping us to celebrate Pacifica Radio, KPFA, here on our 66 birthday. And, again, happy 85th to you.
[Flashpoints Senior producer, Miguel Gavilan Molina contributed to this interview.]