Cesar Chavez, who organized the United Farm Workers union, staged a massive grape boycott in the late 1960s to dramatize the plight of America's poor farmhands, and later became a Gandhi-like leader to urban Mexican-Americans, was found dead Friday in San Luis, Ariz., police said. He was 66.
Authorities in San Luis, a small farming town on the Mexican border about 25 miles south of Chavez's native Yuma, said the legendary farm workers' leader apparently died in his sleep at the home of a family friend.
"He was our Gandhi," said Democratic state Sen. Art Torres, a prominent Chicano politician from Los Angeles' Eastside, upon hearing news of Chavez's death. "He was our Dr. Martin Luther King.
"It's hard to find people like him who epitomized the spiritual and political goals of a people."
President Clinton said in Washington, "The labor movement and all Americans have lost a great leader with the death of Cesar Chavez. An inspiring fighter for the cause to which he dedicated his life, Cesar Chavez was an authentic hero to millions of people throughout the world."
Indeed, to many, America's quest for equality for its ethnic and racial minorities had largely been framed in terms of black and white. Mexican-Americans, and Latinos in general, were largely ignored by politicians except at election time.
That changed when Chavez, the son of migrant farm workers, became the head of the UFW in 1965.
A dedicated advocate of nonviolence, Chavez galvanized public support on behalf of farm workers, many of them illegal immigrants who averaged as little as $1,350 a year in the farm industry that at the time grossed $4 billion annually. Workers lived in substandard housing.
The early struggles in the San Joaquin Valley were marked by bitter and sometimes brutal incidents involving picketing farm workers who screamed " Huelga! " -- "Strike!"--and growers who vowed never to give in to Chavez and his followers.
Chavez's greatest achievement was the 1968 boycott of California grapes. Beginning in the spring, more than 200 union supporters, many of them earning $5 a week for their help, fanned out across the United States and Canada to urge consumers not to buy grapes.
The mayors of New York, Boston, Detroit and St. Louis directed their purchasing agents not to buy non-union grapes. In Cleveland, Mayor Carl B. Stokes encouraged major grocery stores to prominently display the UFW symbol, the black Aztec eagle, to encourage shoppers to observe the boycott. A 300-mile march from Delano to the Capitol in Sacramento was an emotional high point for the cause.
By August, California growers estimated that the boycott had cost them about 20% of their revenue.
At times, the struggle looked especially bleak to Chavez when he had to beg for food for his wife and eight children from the very farm workers he sought to help.
"It turned out to be about the best thing I could have done," he would say later, "although it's hard on your pride. Some of our best members came in that way. If people give you their food, they'll give you their hearts."
He caught the attention of national figures, including U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who sought the Democratic Party nomination for President before his assassination in 1968. The New York senator called the soft-spoken Chicano "one of the heroic figures of our times."
In addition to the boycotts he mounted, Chavez also used a series of fasts to rally support, including a 36-day, water-only fast in 1988 that severely affected his health.
At its peak in the 1970s, the UFW said that about 70,000 workers in California's fields were covered by its collective bargaining agreements.
In focusing attention on migrant workers, Chavez also helped millions of urban Mexican-Americans who were chafing for more educational opportunities, better housing and more political power.
El Movimiento , the Chicano civil rights campaign of the late 1960s, was characterized in many barrios such as East Los Angeles by marches opposing the Vietnam War and supporting the UFW.
By the 1980s, however, the union lost the earlier gains and Chavez found less and less public enthusiasm and support for boycotts. Union membership dipped to below 10,000. Many of the detractors in recent years called him an irrelevant force in today's labor and political situations.
Nevertheless, he was remembered Friday as a giant in the civil rights movement of the United States.
U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said that Chavez "was one of the great pioneers for civil rights and human rights of our century."
"His tireless commitment to improve the plight of farm workers profoundly touched the conscience of America and inspired millions of others to work for justice in their own communities," Kennedy said in a statement released by his Washington office.
Lane Kirkland, president of the AFL-CIO, said Chavez was instrumental in organized labor's efforts to improve the lot of the rank and file.