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‘Death of our future’: How RFK’s assassination set back Latino civil rights

June 6, 2018

The UFW had been allies of Kennedy going back several years prior to 1968, when he traveled to the union’s home base of Delano, California to participate in a Senate Labor subcommittee hearing on farm worker issues. He excoriated the county sheriff for arresting picketing workers who the sheriff said were “ready to violate the law.”

Kennedy questioned how people could be arrested without committing a crime, and suggested — to cheers and applause — that the sheriff should “read the Constitution of the United States” during his lunch break. No one as prominent as Kennedy had come forward before to advocate for the predominantly Mexican American farm workers, who were protesting harsh labor conditions in California’s grape fields and farms.

Kennedy returned to Delano to visit UFW co-founder César Chávez during his 25-day fast for farm worker rights in 1968 and also held fundraisers for the UFW’s health clinic. It was Kennedy who called off the police when law enforcement officials tried to block hundreds of protesters who were marching from Delano to the state capital of Sacramento in support of farm worker rights.

“It’s not really that well known but he was the one who told them, you can’t do this, you can’t block these people from marching,” Huerta said. These actions, she explained, helped Kennedy gain a UFW endorsement and the subsequent help from its army of farm workers who volunteered on his presidential campaign.

“We had been campaigning for the senator as soon as he made his announcement that he was going to run for office. We were registering people to vote, organizing rallies all up and down the state, getting them out to the polls,” said Huerta. “In that last week before the primary, we sent everyone down to L.A. to go door-to-door canvassing for him.”

Unprecedented turnout in largely Latino districts is credited with helping Kennedy achieve victory in the California primary and a commanding lead going into the Chicago Democratic convention. His assassination threw the Democratic Party into chaos; the convention itself that summer was marred by protests, violence and riots. “I was a Kennedy delegate and witnessed all that happened there,” Huerta said.

Though it has been 50 years since his death, Huerta painfully remembers the details of that fateful day.

Image: Kerry Kennedy, Dolores Huerta
Dolores Huerta and Kerry Kennedy, daughter of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, greet each other at the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Awards ceremony on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 5, 2018.J. Scott Applewhite / AP

“He was supposed to go with me to a press conference in the ballroom and he was walking with me when they came up to him and said ‘No, Senator, come this way, go through the kitchen,’ where they had set up for an (impromptu) press conference,” Huerta said. “I thought that was kind of strange to have a press conference set up in the kitchen, but that’s what happened. So instead of going with me to the ballroom where they had the mariachi band set up waiting for him, he went through the kitchen.” It was there where Kennedy was felled by three bullets.

Huerta, who had been campaigning tirelessly for Kennedy throughout the state in the weeks leading up to the primary, said she felt an enormous sense of survivor’s guilt, that maybe more could have been done to make sure he had extra security.

“I had been traveling with (UFW co-founder) César (Chávez) and he always had a lot of security and he always had a whole contingent of security guards that would come in and check out the buildings, even check out the closets to make sure the area that César was going to be at was safe as he had gotten a lot of death threats. And of course, the senator didn’t have any of that (security), unfortunately.”