VI. Out of the Shadows: The Challenges of Giving Meaning to Freedom and Equal Opportunity
Our training center also includes a photograph of Cesar Chavez, one of the founders of the United Farmworkers (UFW).113 Viewing this photo, I have flashbacks. As a child, my parents used to make me march with the UFW and boycott grapes sold by non-union farms. I hated every single minute of it. The tension, the chanting, the singing. . . I wanted to be at home with my books or baseball cards, anywhere but with the UFW and their omnipresent leader. I would ask my parents, “Why can’t we be normal . . . like the Brady Bunch?” My parents were patient, extremely patient. They would tell me, “mijo, you have an obligation to others who are not as fortunate, you have the obligation beyond yourself.” I would then roll my eyes and say the late-sixties early-seventies equivalent of “whatever!” Yet, I eventually learned the difference between hearing and listening – a valuable distinction to remember with kids of my own. My parents’ words echoed through the years and finally took hold.
Though Chavez may not have brought or advanced civil rights legislation per se, his photograph hangs in our training center as a reminder that the laws we enforce are only as powerful as their ability to protect the most vulnerable among us, the poorest of the poor, those living in the shadows. He can be seen in the context of the Magna Carta of Civil Rights as a symbol of the prohibitions against national origin discrimination,114 which has a legislative history as scant as the prohibition against sex discrimination, but not as fully and vigorously developed.115
Cesar Chavez broke his twenty-five day fast with Robert Kennedy at his side in 1968.116 Like Dr. King, Chavez was a disciple of nonviolence, spurred by Gandhi-like power through sacrifice.117 He began his first public fast in 1968, amidst the escalating grape boycotts in California and a waning belief in the strategy of nonviolence.118 He called a meeting of the union to announce his penitent fast, an effort to ground the organization in tenets of nonviolence.119
Dr. King noticed and admired Chavez. I recently discovered an amazing March 6, 1968, telegram from Martin Luther King to Cesar Chavez during the fast.120 It says: “My colleagues and I commend you for your bravery, salute you for your indefatigable work against poverty and injustice, and pray for your health and continuing service as one of the outstanding men in America.”121 This telegram bonded the men in their faith in nonviolence and quest for social justice for the most vulnerable in our society.122
Later that month, Dr. King would, against the counsel of his advisors, fly to Memphis in support of African-American sanitation workers on strike, fighting a way out of the shadows for better working conditions after two of the their colleagues were killed while eating lunch in the back of a garbage truck.123 The “I am a Man” strike, as it came to be known, turned violent and Dr. King despaired.124 He believed his ideals of nonviolent disobedience had been compromised. He vowed to return to Memphis in early April to get it right.125
On April 3, 1968, sick with the flu he addressed a packed crowd at the Masonic Temple, “I may not get there with you . . . but I want you to know, tonight . . . that we as a people will get to the Promised Land!”126
The following morning, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel.127 At King’s funeral, Dr. Mays delivered the second eulogy, stating “[Dr. King] believed especially that he was sent to champion the cause of the man farthest down. He would probably say that, if death had to come, I’m sure there was no greater cause to die for than fighting to get a just wage for garbage collectors.”128
By the end of the 1980s, the generational conversation about equal opportunity soon turned to the rights of persons with disabilities to lead economically independent and productive lives.129 In this photo from a disability rights march in the eighties, the marchers carry a banner quoting Dr. King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail, “Injustice everywhere is a Threat to Justice Everywhere.”130 This energy led to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.131
In 2014, the broad purpose of the ADA, to achieve economic independence for persons with disabilities, converged with the EEOC’s longstanding efforts to ensure civil rights protections for the most vulnerable workers in an astonishing case in Iowa.132 In Atalissa, Iowa, an old school house was home to thirty-two intellectually disabled workers brought there by Hill Country Farms (a for-profit company located in Texas) to work in a turkey evisceration plant, until it was closed down by the state of Iowa for rodent infestation and decrepit conditions.133 While here, the men were denied access to medical care, dental care, locked in their rooms and subject to verbal, and sometimes physical abuse.134
When our Dallas Regional Attorney, Robert Canino learned about this situation from a parishioner at his church, he vowed to chase them to the ends of the Earth.135 First, he filed for summary judgment based on discriminatory wage disparities between the disabled workers and the non-disabled workers.136 We won.137 Next, he focused on the horrible employment and living conditions and tried the case on the basis on discrimination with respect to the terms and conditions of their employment before a federal jury in Davenport, Iowa. The jury came back with a verdict of $240 million, the largest won under the ADA, the largest won by the EEOC, and the second largest won under any federal anti-discrimination statute.138 However, under federal statutory caps, the verdict was reduced to about .67% of the jury’s verdict.139
Nonetheless, the jury’s verdict sent a powerful statement heard internationally that what happened to the men in Atalissa, should never occur in Muscatine County, the United States, or anywhere on this planet. This case received enormous attention from the human rights community worldwide.140 Even though the workers were American, they shared many characteristics with trafficking victims, such as extreme vulnerability and misplaced trust. Recently, the New York Times did an above the fold article on this case, called “Boys in the Bunkhouse,” asking what the people in Muscatine County knew and when did they know it.141 The article calls Robert Canino “the men’s last, best hope for justice,”142 and I believe the Commission has aspired and proved to be just that for the past fifty years.
The thirty-two men, whose stories we told, also stand on the shoulders of those young students marching for freedom and opportunity in Birmingham, Alabama.
VII. Final Thoughts
This is our legacy at the EEOC and we carry it with us from the intake room to the courtroom.143 To close, let me return to one of the mysteries of this story. This march to greater freedom and opportunity has been the product of countless anonymous patriots: teachers and students; veterans – like Medgar Evers; grandmothers and grandfathers; parents and children. It has been the product of Dr. King and Cesar Chavez, lionized as titans,144 their complexities and humanity frequently subordinated to a grander story of heroic self-sacrifice and moral focus. It is the product of Willie Griggs, Lily Ledbetter, Samantha Elauf, and countless unnamed others, who had the courage and endurance to stand up for great principles that opened doors for us all.145
And we remember the efforts of President Lyndon Johnson, who led the way for enactment of the Civil Rights Act, though historians have treated him much less reverentially. Indeed, he was a complex man, and perhaps the most Shakespearean of all of our presidents. He was sometimes mean, he was sometimes insecure, and in a very real way flawed.146 Growing up in South Texas, his father wanted him to be a great man, his mother wanted him to be a good man.147 In this imperfect man, perhaps we find the greatest lessons in this story for us all. That beneath the many complex foibles of a deeply flawed man, there is a transcendent sense of justice and humanity that can change the world. Why did he push so hard for the passage of the civil rights bill? Was he trying to emulate his hero Franklin Roosevelt in his historical impact? I do not know. Here is what he said though in 1965 when he signed the Voting Rights Act, the other great piece of civil rights legislation passed in the Sixties.
My first job after college was as a teacher in Cotulla, Texas, in a small Mexican-American school. Few of them could speak English and I couldn't speak much Spanish. My students were poor and they often came to class without breakfast and hungry. And they knew even in their youth the pain of prejudice. They never seemed to know why people disliked them, but they knew it was so because I saw it in their eyes. I often walked home late in the afternoon after the classes were finished wishing there was more that I could do. But all I knew was to teach them the little that I knew, hoping that I might help them against the hardships that lay ahead. And somehow you never forget what poverty and hatred can do when you see its scars on the hopeful face of a young child. I never thought then, in 1928, that I would be standing here in 1965. It never even occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students, and to help people like them all over this country. But now I do have that chance. And I'll let you in on a secret— I mean to use it. And I hope that you will use it with me.148
Perhaps it is fitting that we close with Johnson, who struggled to summon his better angels to transcend his fallibility. This has been the story of our country’s ongoing freedom march - sometimes rocky and sometimes violent - toward full opportunity and dignity for all. Looking back over the past fifty years, everyone one of us who dares to dream stands on the shoulders of those young people in Birmingham and the previous generations who gave their time and sometimes their lives, to open hearts, minds, and opportunity.
This story makes clear though that the progress has been inchoate at best: our benevolent self-interest in ensuring opportunities for ourselves or loved ones has impelled much forward movement, while creative empathy for those viewed as “other” has proven to be a more checkered catalyst. Consider the issue of race - the original catalyst for the Act. While progress in eradicating race discrimination is difficult to deny, redressing racial discrimination remains a persistent and central challenge of our times.
Thus, looking forward to our unfinished business over the next fifty years, it is necessary to remember whatever progress has been achieved was not inevitable, nor was it smooth and free from demoralizing setbacks, nor is it irrevocable. The Civil Rights Act (and the subsequent legislation it inspired) remains a bulwark. By expanding ideas of equality “as old as the scriptures and . . . as clear as the American Constitution”149 to the economic sphere, it enshrined them in the ideals of American civil society. This triggered an ongoing American and increasingly international conversation about the scope and substance of these fundamental human rights, which in my humble opinion, are as concretely and more consciously integral to our daily lives than even the Magna Carta itself!