The Cesar Chavez Student Center has a strong program of naming spaces and creating murals in honor of people and communities whose lives and struggles for equality have inspired students and staff for a long time and who became role models for generations.
Malcolm X was born in 1952 (May 19th) as Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska. Malcolm’s father, Earl, was a very outspoken Baptist minister and supporter of Marcus Garvey, the Black Nationalist leader.
In 1931, the dead body of Earl was found while lying across the trolley tracks. The Little family believed that Black Legion members, a white supremacy group, killed him. His father’s murder began a series of painful events for Malcolm. His mother went insane, he and his brothers and sisters were separated among foster homes, and he dropped out of school.
Eventually, Malcolm made his way to Harlem, New York where he participated in narcotics, prostitution and gambling rings. At the age of 20, he was arrested for burglary. While in prison, he turned his life around and became interested in the teachings of the Nation of Islam, a militant Islamic sect for black people. Malcolm was paroled after seven years and joined the Nation of Islam where he was appointed minister and national spokesman.
He discarded his last name as a slave name, and became Malcolm X. The letter “X” also represented his true and unknown African name. After learning that the leader of the NOI, Elijah Muhammad practiced a personal life that counteracted his teachings, Malcolm separated from the group and founded the Muslim Mosque, Inc. and later the Organization of Afro-American Unity.
In 1964, he went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia as a converted orthodox Muslim. Malcolm came back from the trip with new ideals and beliefs, including the desire to fight for the human rights of all mankind, not just African Americans. He later adapted the name El-Hajji Malik El-Shabazz. The surname Shabazz is an Asian Black Nation name, and was taken by his wife Betty and their six daughters.
Malcolm’s life was constantly being threatened. On February 21, 1965, at the age of 39, Malcolm was assassinated while speaking in the Manhattan Audubon Ballroom. His wife and daughters witnessed the murder, which occurred on the first day of National Brotherhood Week. Three members of the NOI rushed the activist on stage and shot him fifteen times at close range.
His wife gave birth to their twin daughters later that year. Malcolm X was an advocate of black pride, economic self-reliance, human rights and identity politics. He was both a spiritual and political leader who fought for social change, justice and mental and physical freedom for all.
On March 31, 1927, Cesar Chavez was born to a farming family. At the age of 10, the family lost their farm during the Great Depression and was forced to become migrant laborers. His family later settled in San Jose. After attending over 30 schools, Chavez graduated from the eighth grade – only to devote his time to farming.
Chavez joined the U.S. Navy in 1944 and served in the western Pacific for two years. Once his service was completed he returned to California and married Helen Fabela.
As a married man, Chavez continued to work in the fields, but also fought for change. In 1952, he began working as an organizer for the Latino civil rights group, the Community Services Organization. During his time with the CSO, he recruited Mexican-Americans to register and vote, and traveled throughout California encouraging the rights of laborers. He became their national director in the late 1950’s.
Four years later Chavez formed the United Farm Worker’s Association, which he would later merge with the Filipino Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee. Together the two groups formed the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, which evolved into the United Farm Workers of today.
In 1965, the UFWOC protested in the Delano grape strike for higher wages and better working conditions. The organization encouraged all Americans to boycott table grapes in support of the effort. The strike lasted five years and gained the support of Robert Kennedy, resulting in the first major labor victory for migrant workers.
Chavez drew inspiration from Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. All of his protests were non-violent, such as his 1968 fast to call attention to the migrant workers’ cause. In 1972, Chavez underwent a 24-day water-only fast, and in 1988, a 36-day fast. After completing the latter, Reverend Jesse Jackson took up where Chavez left off and fasted for three days before passing it on to celebrities and leaders. Martin Sheen, Emilio Estevez, Danny Glover, Carly Simon and Whoopi Goldberg were all involved.
Chavez’s protests were peaceful yet powerful, such as the 1966 march from Delano to Sacramento and then through the Imperial and Coachella Valley to the border of Mexico in 1969, to protest growers’ use of illegal aliens as strikebreakers. In 1993, the migrant farmer and Mexican leader died peacefully in his sleep in San Luis, Arizona where he had gone to testify against vegetable growers.
Chavez was one of the definitive labor activists of the 20th century and a leading voice for farmworkers. His leadership focused national attention on laborers’ terrible working conditions and lead to improvements. President Clinton awarded the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor to Chavez’s widow in 1994.
March 31 is now considered Cesar Chavez Day in California and Texas, and is an optional holiday in Arizona and Colorado. It is the first holiday in the history of the country that commemorates a Mexican American.
Rosa Parks is most famous for her resistance to move to the back of the bus, but perhaps the greatest misconception about the fiery woman is that she did so because she was tired. Although the 42-year-old had just finished a day of work, she was no more physically tired than normal, rather she was tired of the way African Americans were being treated.
On December first, 1955, Parks refused to move to the back of the bus for a white person. Believing that she had just as much right to sit where she pleased, she began a historical fight for equality.
Parks was arrested and found guilty of disorderly conduct and violating a local ordinance. She appealed the court’s ruling and challenged the legality of racial segregation. Others joined her in an effort that became about much more than a bus seat.
Four days after being told to relinquish her seat, she and others began the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The boycott asked all black people to refuse Montgomery’s bus system.
The community obliged and instead carpooled, walked or took cabs (driven by black drivers who charged the same fare as a bus ride, 10 cents). The boycott lasted for 382 days and severely damaged the bus company. The Supreme Court finally deemed the transportation segregation law unconstitutional in November 1956.
The Montgomery bus boycott was one of the largest and most successful mass movements against racial segregation in history. Violence ensued following the boycott and many black churches were destroyed and Martin Luther King’s house burned. Parks’ efforts and the boycott catapulted King to the head of the Civil Rights movement. She had an effect on people both locally and internationally. The boycott even inspired a similar event in South Africa.
Not only did Parks start one of the most important movements in history, she was also heavily involved with her community and the African-American plight. She served as secretary of the NAACP, advisor to the NAACP youth council, tried to register to vote several times before it was legal, and was a member of the Board of Advocates of Planned Parenthood.
Parks worked as a seamstress until 1965 when U.S. Representative John Conyers hired her as secretary for his congressional office in Detroit. In 1987, she co-founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development in honor of her husband who died of cancer in 1977. She died at the age of 92 on October 24, 2005.
She had been diagnosed with progressive dementia the year before. Parks was an icon of the Civil Rights Movement and was awarded numerous awards throughout her lifetime including the NAACP’s highest honor – the Spingarn Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal
Rigoberta Menchu was raised in the Quiche branch of the Mayan culture in Guatemala amidst civil war. At a young age, she became involved in social reform activities through the Catholic Church and became a prominent figure in the women’s rights movement. She grew up in a peasant family in a village that was often visited by Marxist guerrillas and attacked by the Guatemalan army.
During the disruptive time in her town, Menchu lost her parents, two brothers, a sister-in-law and three nieces and nephews. Rigoberta became involved with the Committee of the Peasant Union in 1979 after her family had been targeted as being a part of guerilla activities. She remained politically active while teaching herself Spanish and other Mayan languages.
In 1980 she participated in a strike for better working conditions for Pacific Coast farm workers and was regularly active in large demonstrations. She later joined the radical 31st of January Popular Front, where she educated peasants in resistance to massive military oppression. After fleeing to Mexico, Rigoberta became an organizer of resistance to oppression in the struggle for Indian peasant people’s rights.
In 1986 she co-authored an autobiography entitled, “I, Rigoberta Menchu.” The book received high praise and became required reading for many higher education schools. Menchu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 for her activism and human rights work. She remains an advocate of Indian rights and ethnocultural reconciliation. Her work has earned her several national awards.