“Shy,” “self-effacing” and “introspective.” The words LIFE used to describe Cesar Chavez in 1966 may not sound like the qualities befitting one of America’s most effective labor leaders. But Chavez’s power, at least as LIFE observed in that year, was not to be found in displays of volume or might. It was his quiet leadership and deep commitment to nonviolence that empowered thousands of farm workers to transform their working conditions into something more humane.
This legacy has, in recent years, been both recognized and complicated. Last year, President Obama declared Chavez’s birthday, March 31, a national holiday. Also in 2014, author Miriam Pawel published The Crusades of Cesar Chavez, the first comprehensive biography of Chavez, offering a more nuanced view of his leadership. For decades, Chavez had been held up more as hero than human, and Pawel’s thorough excavation of his life injects humanity—blemishes and all—into the narrative.
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