In the 1960s, mass demonstrations, boycotts and the figures who led them were considered novel, activists and writers say. Now that the newness has worn off, media interest has faded. Even Chavez, who campaigned for higher farm wages just nine months before his death, received scant coverage in recent years.
Some critics believe the lack of media interest can be traced to the fact that many nonviolent tactics either take a long time to be effective or fail to generate the dramatic images favored particularly by television news.
It took five years, for example, for a strike and boycott to force major growers to sign contracts with the UFW in 1970. And letter-writing campaigns, while compelling, do not make for exciting pictures.
Yet, despite the lack of attention and the mood of a cynical society, many people still use nonviolent means to seek social justice. Hundreds of individuals have stepped into the void once filled by one or two larger-than-life personas.
"When you till the soil and plant organizational seeds, it's possible for ordinary people to do heroic things," says Lou Negrete, a senior leader for United Neighborhoods Organization in East L. A. "The media . . . perpetuate that expectation that some charismatic leader will come around and rescue the poor. That's not going to happen. The poor have to organize themselves."
In the 25 years since Chavez launched the UFW's historic grape boycott, individuals have organized protests and civil disobedience for causes ranging from the environment to nuclear disarmament.
In 1987, three church-based groups whose members came from Los Angeles' minority, working-class communities, organized and rallied for a "moral" minimum wage.
The collective efforts of UNO, the South Central Organizing Committee and the East Valleys Organization helped raise California's minimum wage from $3.35 to $4.25 an hour. These three groups and another grass-roots organization, VOICE, are building a complex of townhouses for working-class families in Bell Gardens, and are backing a countywide campaign to help keep youths out of gangs.
In Central California, UFW Vice President Dolores Huerta has continued efforts to seek better treatment of fieldworkers. The Rev. Johnny Ray Youngblood and his New York City congregation help build housing for the poor and provide help to drug addicts. And activists such as Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund have spent decades fighting for the rights of young people.
"There are thousands of us who draw energy from things Chavez, and King and Bobby Kennedy did," says Jim Drake, a grass-roots organizer in the South Bronx, N.Y., who began working with Chavez in the 1960s. "I think that's a great tradition very much alive today."
Activists admit that some younger people, after watching unemployment rise, wages fall and civil rights gains erode, wonder what the fabled nonviolent struggles have really accomplished.
Linda Schoyer, co-director of education at the Pittsburgh Peace Institute, says the concept has become distorted with time. She recalls how a professor, attending a class she gave on alternatives to war, asked if nonviolence was simply giving up.
"When he heard nonviolence he equated it with passivism, walking away from a fight," Schoyer says. "I said, 'We're talking about action that often takes a lot more courage and bravery.' And you could see this light go on, as though he'd never thought of it in that way."
Still, many activists note that tactics associated with previous nonviolent struggles have been adopted by contemporary movements, such as last month's Gay Rights March on Washington and protests by Greenpeace, animal-rights groups and some leaders on both sides of the abortion debate. And more college students and community organizers have adopted the concept when tackling complex social problems.
It's understandable that some yearn for a larger-than-life persona to represent struggles for justice, says Frady: "I tend to think that we need an apostle every now and then to the degree they lend that focus and direction, the drama and the theater."
But others say it is perhaps a good thing there are no contemporary figures like King or Chavez to symbolize a whole struggle.
"Maybe we've depended too much on waiting for others to win our rights and fight for our causes," says Father David O'Connell, of the South Central Organizing Committee. "I think people are realizing we can't wait anymore for individuals to take responsibility for our lives. . . . I think people are more and more willing to take on leadership themselves."
Too often, many say, the death of a legendary figure creates the perception the movement they represented has died with them. But with numerous individuals struggling onward, albeit in relative obscurity, the struggle never ends.
There are efforts to put Chavez's likeness on a postage stamp. On Tuesday, the L. A. City Council voted to name a thoroughfare for him, and children will likely attend schools bearing his name someday.
But many who marched beside Chavez say they hope he does not become canonized. Then, his virtues would seem unattainable.
That would be unfortunate, they explain, because Chavez's greatest achievement was teaching others to find the heroes within themselves.
"I know people are saying I hope we find another Dr. King, another Chavez," says the IAF's McNeil. "I'd say stop hoping and start organizing. There's some part of us that hopes somebody else knows more than we.
"But my experience tells me the best people to solve problems are those being affected by them."