Latino History of Rhode Island

A Timeline | 1968-1969 | César Chávez Grape Boycott Reaches Rhode Island

Above photo: Journal-Bulletin; October 5, 1969

Rhode Island Latino History | César Chávez and the National Boycott

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In February of 1968, César E.Chávez, Mexican-American leader of the United Farm Workers (UFW), led a 25-day fast and lost 35 lbs. to draw attention to the plight of the Mexican and Filipino braceros who were working in the fields of California.

Photo: Associated Press

Soon after he ended his fast, César and the UFW decided to use a boycott to resolve the labor dispute. The boycott changed the scene of the battle from the fields, where the odds were stacked against farm workers, to the cities, where the braceros could appeal for help to the American people, whom Cesar called “our court of last resort.”

Hundreds of grape strikers traveled across the U.S. and Canada, telling their stories and organizing mass support for the grape boycott. The strikers were joined by thousands of supporters who helped tirelessly organize the boycott.

César and the farm workers believed if consumers in communities throughout North America knew about the suffering of field laborers—and saw the grape strikers struggling nonviolently—they would respond. For César, nonviolence couldn’t be understood in the abstract. It could only be seen in action. He said, “the whole essence of nonviolent action is getting a lot of people involved, vast numbers doing little things.”

He knew most people couldn’t drop what they were doing and dedicate themselves completely to the movement like the grape strikers, most of whom lost their homes, cars and worldly possessions. But César and the farm workers showed ordinary people that by making little sacrifices every day—by not eating grapes—they could directly help the poorest of the poor.

The boycott connected middle-class families in big cities with poor farm worker families in the California vineyards. Millions stopped eating grapes. At dinner tables across the country, parents gave children a simple, powerful lesson in social justice.

Source: UFW website

Between 1968-1970, social advocates and religious leaders in Rhode Island led efforts to raise consciousness about the plight of the California farm workers by joining César Chávez and the national boycott. At one point, César himself visits Rhode Island.

The boycott made Rhode Island history in this way:
First public act of support in Rhode Island is made by the UFW, AFL-CIO National Democratic Coalition of Rhode Island Co-Chairs, Eleanor Slater and David Walsh on December 11, 1968. The call was for Rhode Islanders to support the striking farmers of California by not buying table grapes, particularly during the Christmas holidays, and urged them to join picketing efforts when possible.
December 11, 1968
A group of picketers made up of students and religious leaders picket Almacs in East Providence and A&P and Star Market in Warwick urging shoppers to boycott the stores because of their refusal to stop selling California grapes. Local leaders express dismay at the general lack of support and indifference by Rhode Islanders to the plight of the farm workers and the call by César Chávez to boycott the purchase of California grapes.
January 19, 1968
Gary Hamelin, a 23-year-old Jesuit seminarian begins a hunger strike in front of Almacs in East Providence to support the national grape strike.
September 23, 1969
Boston Mayor Kevin White bans municipal purchases of grapes.
September 27, 1969
Star Market and Stop&Shop both announce that they would stop selling California grapes.
September 29, 1969
Almacs Supermarket continues to sell California grapes and soon begins to feel the pinch as the boycott spreads to other stores in Providence. They launch a series of advertisements in the local newspapers to counter the negative press.
September 29, 1969
Bishop Bernard Kelly and Fr. Ray Tetrault join the picketers at Almacs to offer their support for the boycott. They spend the day with Hamelin and start a fast that lasts until midnight.
September 30, 1969
Due to health concerns, Hamelin ends his hunger strike at an Ecumenical Service in the Manning Chapel at Brown University, after 27 days of fasting.
October 11, 1969
Hosted by the Urban Priests Alliance, César Chavez visits Rhode Island and joins Hamelin and other picketers at Almacs. He later speaks to a crowd of 300 people at the SS Peter & Paul Cathedral. Before he leaves, he stops at the Rhode Island State House to meet with Gov. Licht. Governor Licht offers verbal support.
October 16, 1969
Almacs files a legal complaint against Hamelin charging him and other with illegal picketing and trespassing. They spend two days in Superior Court.
October 16, 1969
November 7, 1969 - Another act of resistance in support of the national grape boycott is held at the Almacs Supermarket on Bellevue Avenue in Newport, led by women from Salve Regina College who carry signs and urge shoppers not to shop there.
Superior Court Judge Weisberger issues an injunction against grape picketers at Almacs, stating that "the assembly of crowds in excess of 200 persons at one store is calculated to do more than disseminate ideas … it creates an atmosphere of turbulence and terror which [...] prevents reasonable access to stores by customers and employees."
November 8, 1969
Almacs Supermarkets continue to sell California grapes. A group of nuns and students from Salve Regina form a grape boycott committee led by Mary Burns and they picket the Bellevue Avenue Almacs in Newport.
November 21, 1969
A group of activists, joined by Hamelin, plan to picket the Grand Central Market in Fall River, but the store manager quickly removes California grapes from the shelves and vows not to order anymore.
December 18, 1969
Gary Hamelin, who has left the Jesuit order, is guest speaker at Luke's Episcopal Church in Fall River.
May 16, 1970
The strike ends when the UFW signs a contract with most California table grape growers.
April 1, 1970

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