The following is an introduction speech for Rev. Jesse L. Jackson on the occasion of his visit to Europe during Diversity Tour 2010, organized and executed by Layla Zijp (GrapeVine Promotions International). The speech kicked off a press conference held at the Steinberger Kurhaus Hotel, the Hague (the Netherlands) on 4 February 2010. I’m reprinting it in honor of César Chávez Day, 31 March, 2012.
I was born and raised in California, on the west coast of the US, in 1957. When I was coming of age in the 1960’s, the most prominent civil rights leader for us was César Chávez. As head and co-‐founder of the United Farm Workers, señor Chávez was the embodiment of the migrant workers’ struggle for basic human rights in California and the Southwest. He was, for us, the most visible figure in the struggle for human rights in general.
During his “Fast for Life” on August 21, 1988, Chávez was visited by the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson. Of course, by 1988, I had heard of Rev. Jackson and knew who he was. But Rev. Jackson was “East Coast” (according to Californians, pretty much everything east of Las Vegas is “East Coast”). He was for the blacks; he was distant. Chávez was our man, la familia, the one fighting for la raza. Until that day in August, 1988.
There is an iconic photograph from that day that for many represents putting in perspective the local and regional struggle for migrant workers’ rights in the larger global struggle for human rights everywhere. It shows Chávez, weak and thin from 36 days into his hunger strike, sitting in a simple wooden chair in the dusty sunlight. Kneeling next to him in the dirt is Rev. Jackson. Chávez is passing a simple crucifix that represents his “Fast for Life” to Rev. Jackson. The two appear to be praying together. At this moment, not only is Rev. Jackson accepting the symbolism of shouldering Chávez’ struggle, he is also accepting the practice of the fast. From this moment, he himself begins a 3-‐day fast, going from this time forward with only water to sustain him, before passing the cause on to others. This symbolic struggle was then assumed by leaders across the country, which gave enormous attention to the workers’ struggle that Chávez advocated. After this, the plight of migrant workers in California became a national issue, thanks to the intervention of Rev. Jackson. But even more, for we “nativos” it symbolized a joining of forces. Jackson literally and figuratively offering his hand to Chávez, and to us, with a simple, “Hermano, sí se puede.”
And of course that gesture has now echoed across generations and across continents, to where, finally, a man also from a disadvantaged background and of color, ascended the steps to the White House using the same words, “Sí se puede,” – “Yes we can.”
It is with great honor and humility that I introduce to you the pre-‐eminent civil rights leader of our time, the champion of the voiceless and disenfranchised everywhere: Reverend Dr. Jesse Louis Jackson, Sr.
4 February 2010
The Hague, the Netherlands