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Farmworker Movement Documentation Project > COMMENTARY > SENATOR ROBERT KENNEDY VISITS DELANO 1968


Senator Robert F. Kennedy Visits Delano 1968

Senator Robert F. Kennedy Visits Delano 1968

 Walking the Gauntlet: Bobby Kennedy’s Mission to Delano

 pauldarwinlee | August 02, 2010

Raw television outtakes of New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy arriving Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), where he was compelled to run a gauntlet of reporters before boarding a propeller aircraft for Delano, Calif., March 10, 1968.


No sooner had the senator deplaned than he was at the center of a swirling vortex of insistent print, radio and television reporters. In a walking news conference, they peppered Kennedy with questions about his presidential ambitions, if any; whether or not he would support liberal Minnesota Senator Eugene J. McCarthy, an insurgent anti-Vietnam war candidate, or endorse the increasingly unpopular President Lyndon B. Johnson in that year’s Democratic party presidential contest; if he would support Los Angeles Mayor Samuel W. Yorty (who detested Kennedy and had his feelings returned in full measure) in his U. S. Senate bid; and other matters.

However, it was only after Kennedy mentioned his reason for traveling to the small, grape-growing town of Delano in the state’s fertile Central Valley that reporters finally asked him about it.


There Kennedy would join an estimated 6,000-10,000 persons, mostly Chicano, or Mexican American, migrant workers, gathered to hold a “Mass of Thanksgiving” at Memorial Park for Cesar E. Chavez, president of the United Farm Workers (UFW), a union seeking to organize migrant farm laborers to improve their wages, education, housing and legal protections, including recognition of the UFW. (For Kennedy’s arrival, see the video “¡Si, Se Puede! (Yes, It Can Be Done!): Bobby Kennedy Supports Cesar Chavez” on this channel).

The diminutive Chavez, who was an admirer and friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and, like him, shared a profound commitment to Gandhian nonviolence, was breaking a 25-day “spiritual and penitential fast for nonviolence,” as a UFW statement described the act of the devoutly Catholic Chavez (Associated Press report, Feb. 26, 1968).

“There was demoralization in the ranks, people were becoming desperate, and more and more talk about violence,” Chavez later recalled. “…I thought that I had to … do something that would force them and me to deal with the whole question of violence and ourselves” (Roger Bruns, “Cesar Chavez: A Biography” [Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2005], p. 60).

Peter B. Edelman, one of Kennedy’s gifted young legislative aides and speechwriters, was the senator’s point man on migrant worker issues. He could be seen, wearing glasses, beginning at 00:31,1:40 and 2:16.


In a letter to this channel’s moderator, Edelman recalled that Kennedy “told me, [aides] Ed Guthman, and John Seigenthaler that day, on our way to Delano from Los Angeles, that he had decided to run for President. We had been in Des Moines on the evening of the 9th where Senator Kennedy addressed the Jefferson-Jackson day dinner for that year. I was with him in Iowa because I was the staffer who worked on issues related to Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers. John Seigenthaler met us there and flew on to Los Angeles with us. I thought that was a little odd but didn’t dwell on it. Then Ed Guthman joined us in Los Angeles for the trip up to Delano in a small chartered plane. I thought again that this was a bit odd. On that plane ride RFK told the three of us that he had decided to run.

“This is very important because the impression persists that Kennedy did not decide to run until after the stunning results of the New Hampshire primary on March 12 [in which McCarthy made a strong showing against President Johnson], two days later. I and others have written that RFK told us of his decision two days before the New Hampshire primary (and he had obviously come to that decision sometime before that), but I still encounter accounts … that are incorrect.

“Quite obviously, Kennedy was not about to share his decision with anyone but us on that day, but it is especially interesting to look at the footage in light of the knowledge that he had already decided to run for President.

With regards to the press gauntlets, Edelman added, “They were a bit silly but understandable and not inappropriate” (Peter Edelman email letter to Paul Lee, Sept. 5, 2010, 5:34 PM).

NOTE: The moderator would like to thank Peter Edelman, Peter Goldman and UFW spokesperson Marc Grossman for their kind and generous assistance in properly contextualizing this historic video.

 ¡Si, Se Puede! (Yes, It Can Be Done!): Bobby Kennedy Visits Cesar Chavez

 pauldarwinlee | August 02, 2010

Raw television outtakes of Senator Robert F. Kennedy arriving at Delano, Calif., to help United Farm Workers union president Cesar E. Chevaz break his nearly month-long “spiritual and penitential fast for nonviolence,” March 10, 1968. (For background on this visit, see the video “Walking the Gauntlet: Bobby Kennedy’s Mission to Delano-REVISED” on this channel). 


Kennedy was joined by UFW co-founder and vice president Dolores C. Huerta (beginning at 00:47).

Three months later, on the evening of June 4-5, Huerta would share the platform with Kennedy at Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel (now the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools) when he addressed his ecstatic supporters after winning the California Democratic presidential primary with the strong support of the Chicano, or Mexican American, and “black” communities. After leaving the dais to address a news conference, Kennedy was mortally shot in a pantry and died the following day.

At Delano, Kennedy wore on his left lapel a version of the UFW’s black and red Aztec eagle button (00:45), perhaps given to him by Peter B. Edelman, one of his legislative aides and speechwriters, who was Kennedy’s point man on the UFW’s boycott against table grape growers. “The significance was to show support for Chavez and the work of the UFW,” Edelman explained in a letter to the moderator of this channel (Peter Edelman email letter to Paul Lee, Sept. 6, 2010, 10:05 PM).


Edelman, who introduced Kennedy to Chavez, described the farm workers’ struggle and how the senator became involved with it as follows:

“Farmworkers have always been badly paid and the work has always been performed under very bad conditions. Prior to Cesar Chavez, the various sporadic efforts to organize farmworkers into a union had always failed. In 1966 when Kennedy first became aware of Chavez and the United Farm Workers, he was impressed and wanted to know more.

“In March of 1966 he went to California with the Senate Migratory Labor Subcommittee, of which he was a member, for hearings designed to give Chavez and the UFW a national platform and enhance their leverage in organizing against the entrenched and powerful growers. The two men took an instant like to one another and bonded immediately into a close relationship that lasted until RFK’s death. Kennedy became Chavez’s leading advocate in Washington, and the two men and their close associates were in frequent contact.

“Through the efforts of Kennedy and others, the Fair Labor Standards Act was finally amended in 1966 to extend the minimum wage and overtime rules to some of the farmworkers — about 1 percent of the nation’s farms and a third of the country’s farmworkers. …

“Chavez … went on a [fast] in early 1968. His staff was deeply worried that he would die, and that he was gravely at risk of permanent damage to his health. …

“Chavez’s staff got in touch with me and said the only way Chavez would break the fast would be if Kennedy came personally to see Chavez and ask him to resume eating. Kennedy agreed, and that was why he was on his way to Delano on March 10, 1968” (Edelman to Lee).


With passion and sincerity, in his typically halting manner, Kennedy spoke in support of Chavez’s attempt to keep the struggle of the farm workers nonviolent:

“I think people are frustrated and I think they’re terribly disturbed by the fact that they haven’t had more success and that the federal government in Washington has not been helpful to them and that the state has not been helpful to them, and this is not only true here, but elsewhere in the country, so that there is this frustration and there is apt to be this explosion.

“I think that Cesar Chavez is very influential, but I think also what in the last analysis is the answer is that we pass the laws that will remedy the injustices. That’s what we should do, that’s what those of us in Washington should do. We shouldn’t just deplore the violence and deplore the lawlessness. We should pass the laws that remedy what people riot about. We can’t have violence in the country, but we should also not have these injustices continue.”

NOTE: The moderator would like to thank Peter Edelman, Peter Goldman and UFW spokesperson Marc Grossman for their kind and generous assistance in properly contextualizing this historic video.


© 2004–2012 Si Se Puede Press

Primary source accounts: photographs, oral histories, videos, essays and historical documents from the United Farm Worker Delano Grape Strikers and the UFW Volunteers who worked with Cesar Chavez to build his farmworker movement.

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