The Faith of Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez

In Ethnic Studies, Christianity is commonly decried as a racist, classist, and sexist religion which stands opposed to racial justice.  Ironically, at the same time that this is true, Ethnic Studies also upholds Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez as icons of civil rights—despite the fact that their respective movements were grounded in Christian faith.   This post explores the spiritual formation, theology, and religious practices of King and Chavez, and argues that they were both organic Christian intellectuals raised up by God to lead the civil rights movement and be His witnesses to American society. This post is indebted to Professor Hak Joon Lee of Fuller Theological Seminary. Three years ago I took his class on MLK and it launched me into my historical studies on the faith of Chavez and King.

The Christian spiritualities of Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez were shaped primarily by their families and the popular cultures and religions in which they were raised.  King’s family, church, and southern upbringing formed the basis for his Christian spirituality (Lee 2006, 49).   His grandmother, in particular, played a critical role in both his religious and emotional formation (Lee 2006, 52).  According to King, she was “a saintly grandmother,” and “a strong spiritual force, a bearer of culture, and a pillar of strength” for the King family.  King learned about the intersection of faith and social justice, or, “political-prophetic spirituality,” from his family, church, and local community (Lee 2006, 58).  From “Daddy King,” Martin came to understand Christian ministry as a vehicle for social change. (Lee 2006, 59-60).

Similar to King, Chavez’ early spirituality was shaped by his family and grounded in what Virgilio Elizondo terms “Abuelita Theology” (Garcia 2007, 25; Del Castillo and Garcia 1997, 5-6).   Because formal religious instruction is often lacking among  Latinos, Elizondo argues that the best theologians of the Mexican American community are often grandmothers, or, “abuelitas” (Dalton 2003, 33-34).  According to Elizondo, “Our abuelitas [grandmothers], viejitas [older women], and madrecitas[mothers] have been the functional priestesses and theologians of our iglesia del pueblo [church of the people]” (Dalton 2003, 34).   In consonance with this common pattern, Chavez acquired Mexican popular Catholicism from his “abuelita,” “Mama Tella.”   She taught him about prayer, the Catholic catechism, and devotion to the Virgin Mary:

“Mama Tella [grandmother] gave us our formal religious training…[S]he was always praying, just praying.  Every evening she would sit in bed, and we would gather in front of her. …After the Rosary she would tell us about a particular saint and drill us on our Catechism”  (Garcia 2007, 26- 27).

From his mother, Chavez learned the biblical value of loving the poor:

“[M]y mother would tell us, ‘You always have to help the needy, and God will help you” (Garcia 2007, 26).

Similar to the biblical account of the Exodus, it can be said that the farm worker movement has its origins in women—specifically, in the faithfulness of Chavez’ mother and grandmother who first taught him to love God and care for the marginalized of society (Lecture 2).

In another interesting similarity, King and Chavez both expanded their spiritual formation through the influence of liberal white clergy.   Although the black church formed the basis for King’s spirituality and ministry, his understanding of race, social justice, and theology was further honed as part of graduate studies at the liberal white institutions of Crozer Theological Seminary and Boston University (We Lee 2006, 65).   While at Crozer and Boston University, King gained exposure to progressive theologians such as Paul Tillich, Walter Rauschenbusch, and Reinhold Niebuhr, and he developed the theological concepts which would later serve as the foundation for the black civil rights movement (Lee 2006, 66).   As discussed in lecture, “seminary life made MLK as we know it” (Lecture 1).

Unlike King, Chavez did not expand his theological understanding through a process of formal seminary education. In fact, Chavez dropped out of school after the 8th grade in order to help support his family in the fields  (Del Castillo and Garcia 1997, 12).  Chavez’ introduction to the theology of social justice began in 1952 under the mentorship of white Roman Catholic clergyman Father Donald McDonnell.  The two met in a parish church in the barrio of Sal Si Puedes in San Jose, and McDonnell was one of four priests comprising the “Spanish Mission Band” which was assigned to ministry among Mexican rural communities such as San Jose and Stockton (Del Castillo and Garcia 1997; Dalton 2003, 48-49).  In an interesting side note, Chavez met Dolores Huerta, another key figure in the farmworkers’ struggle, through the work of the Mission Band in Stockton (Dalton 2003, 49).

Seeing his leadership potential, McDonnell took Chavez under his wing and  introduced him to labor history, community organizing, and the social teachings of the Catholic church (Dalton 2003, 48).   In the words of Chavez:

“I began to spend a lot of time with Father McDonnell. We had long talks about farm workers.  I knew a lot about the work, but I didn’t know anything about the economics…And then we did a lot of reading.  That’s when I started reading the Encyclicals, St. Francis, and Gandhi and having the case for attaining social justice explained.” (Dalton 2003, 48).

Chavez was especially influenced by Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum which discussed the moral duties owed by capital to labor (Moral vision 48).   According to papal teaching in Rerum Novarum, employers possess a moral obligation to pay their workers wages which are sufficient to sustain the livelihood of their families (Rerum Novarum, p. 46).  Moreover, this encyclical upholds the right of workers to form trade union associations and to go on strike (Dalton 2003, 49).   In powerful assertion of God’s love and concern for the poor and marginalized, Pope Leo XIII asserts in Rerum Novarum:

“God Himself seems to incline rather to those who suffer misfortune; for Jesus Christ calls the poor "blessed"; He lovingly invites those in labor and grief to come to Him for solace;  and He displays the tenderest charity toward the lowly and the oppressed”(p. 24).

In sum, God honed the spiritual training of King and Chavez through the influence of sympathetic white clergy.

In further parallel, both were thrust from relative obscurity into the international lime light through a series of unplanned circumstances.  In King’s case, he was launched into the civil rights spotlight as part of the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955.   While just a young minister of 26 years old, King was unexpectedly and hastily selected by local clergy to lead a religious coalition during the boycott--precisely because he was unknown (Lecture 1 and 2).   After only 15 minutes of prepartion following his selection, King preached his famous bus speech at the Holt Street Baptist church which launched the black civil rights movement and eventually led to the dismantling of official racial segregation in America (Lecture 1 and 2).

In a similar manner, Cesar Chavez rose to prominence as part of a sequence of spontaneous, unplanned events which evidenced the hand of God.  Following his formative training with Father McDonnell, Chavez went to work as a community organizer with Fred Ross as part of the Community Service Organization (CSO) (Garcia 2007, 9).  Chavez served for ten years as a community organizer among Mexican American urban populations in California (Garcia 2007, 9), eventually rising to the rank of national director (Dalton 2003, 7).   In 1962, Chavez quit his post with the CSO to pursue his dream of organizing Mexican farm workers (Dalton 2003, 8).   With little funding and few supporters, Chavez launched the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) in the San Joaquin Valley (Garcia 2007, 11; Dalton 2003, 8).   The NFWA functioned largely as a mutual aid association, as opposed to a traditional union, sponsoring burial insurance, a credit union, a gas station, and a grocery store (Garcia 2007, 11). In 1965, the fledgling organization was asked by a smaller union of Filipino agricultural workers to participate in a strike against the major grape growers of the Central Valley.  On Mexican Independence Day, September 16, 1965, Chavez and the NFWA joined the strike.   The strike lasted five years and it catapulted him into international acclaim.  The strike also represented the first successful organizing of agricultural workers in U.S. history (Garcia 2007, 1, 12).   In a strange twist of irony, Chavez did not even start the very strike which made him famous.  Perhaps God was keeping Chavez humble and showing him that his success did not originate in his own efforts but came from God alone.   Like King, Chavez “placed himself at God’s disposal, and God acted” (Lecture 1).

P.S., be sure to download your free e-book copy of Jesus for Revolutionaries: An Introduction to Race, Social Justice, and Christianity!