Marching for a "Ghastly Recompense" in Texas


The strikers' march from the Rio Grande Valley was at an end. Ten thousand voices roared out "Viva la huelga!" long live the strike — at the front door of the Texas capitol, Labor Day, 1966.
Generation after generation, Americans of Mexican descent have been victims of the harshest kind of economic persecution, though in South Texas they are the majority. Their lot is worse than that of the migratory worker from Mexico, whose country contracts minimum standards that are not guaranteed to a Juan Tortilla born on the north side of the Rio Grande; he makes about 50 cents an hour.

The 400-mile march began in early July from Rio Grande City, roughly halfway between Laredo and Brownsville. The stars and stripes and the banner of the National Farm Workers Association - red background with a black thunderbird in a white circle - fluttered in the breeze at the head of the marchers, who were led by a Baptist preacher. Rev. James L. Navarro, Roman Catholic Father Antonio Gonzales wearing the Star of David and with a crucifix in hand, and Eugene Nelson, picket captain in the farm laborers' strike last year against the grape growers of California. Alongside them marched a burro named "$1.25," symbolizing the minimum wage the marchers would ask Governor Connally and the legislature to establish by law.

In Rio Grande City, the Rev. William Killian, editor of Archbishop Robert E. Lucey's newspaper, shouted through a portable loudspeaker, "We're saying loud and clear in the presence of God and in the presence of the Mother of God that we're marching under the banner of the United States; we're marching under the banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe. And I say to the power structure that these people are going to march and march until they have their rights." (Archbishop Lucey has brought to his diocese courageous, sophisticated young priests; he integrated his schools before the Supreme Court decision in '54; he has insisted that local churches pay union wages on construction contracts; he has opposed anti-labor legislation.)

Through the hot and dusty towns of South Texas the marchers made their way. At night, buses would take them to shelter, usually a Catholic school dormitory. The Texas AFL-CIO began to show more interest. Hank Brown, its president, a two-fisted plumber who has clawed his way to the top in Texas labor circles, began to raise money. National AFL-CIO hesitated at first, but it too made significant financial contributions as the marchers got closer to Austin.

In San Antonio, Archbishop Lucey honored the Rio Grande pickets with a solemn pontifical mass at San Fernando Cathedral. Denouncing even a $1.25 per hour wage, Lucey said, ". . . It is a ghastly recompense for exhausting labor under the burning sun of Texas. This explanation and this apology to the nation are necessary because I have approved this brutal wage scale."

"Lady of Guadalupe, help us," cried out an old woman in the silence of the cathedral when the archbishop paused in his sermon.

By now the marchers were miles from Austin and on the front page of every newspaper in Texas. In the German-American community of New Braunfels, Governor Connally suddenly made an appearance in the company of Waggoner Carr, Democratic nominee for the US Senate, and Texas House Speaker, Ben Barnes. "I did not want our absence to be an indication of a lack of interest in the problems of Texas," Connally began, "but in all candor I do not think I would have met with you [in Austin] anyway. You are not unaware of the difficulty of marches [which] have resulted in loss of life and property damages. My door has been open since before the march started. I do not feel as governor that I should lend the dignity and prestige of my office to dramatize any march. . . ."

"We are not in a ghetto of Chicago," interrupted Father Sherrill Smith, "we had no violence. Your remarks are not in context, governor."

On Labor Day the marchers were on the outskirts of Austin at St. Edward's University. By the time they reached the state house thousands more had joined them, including Senator Ralph Yarborough. By inference, Yarborough accused Connally of "attempting to bluff you out," and then added, "You were told that there would be no elected officials to greet you. I want to remind you that under protocol, I am your senior senator and the highest official in the state, and I welcome you to my home town with open arms and open heart." "Viva Yarborough! Viva! Viva!"

Then a telegram from Senator Robert Kennedy: "I regret that I am unable to accept your invitation to address the labor rally, but you can be sure I share your aspirations and will continue to try to obtain for all farm workers a decent minimum wage and protection under the law."

"Viva Kennedy! Viva! Bobby will get us $1.25!"

Father Gonzales announced that two Americans of Mexican descent would be at the front steps of the capitol to pray and say the rosary eight hours a day, every day in the week until Governor Connally and the legislature pass the $1.25 minimum wage. Then a final prayer from a Houston rabbi, flanked by the Baptist holding the flag of the Southern Baptist Church, and a Catholic priest, crucifix held high, still wearing the Star of David.

Maury Maverick, Jr., The New Republic, September 24, 1966

No comments:

Post a Comment