“Open Mind” Civil Rights Issue Features Harvey Richards’ Photos
The Fall 2013 issue of Open Mind, A Publication of Cal Humanities, is about civil rights in California. In using the Harvey Richards photo taken during the 1966 March to Sacramento, California, by the United Farm Workers, the magazine draws attention to the important role that California farm workers have played in the civil rights movements in the state. People unaware of the situation can miss the connection between the union struggles of farm workers and civil rights. Today civil rights is associated with the fight against racial segregation in the southern US of the 1960’s, or more recently, with the struggle for the rights of gay and lesbians to marry. Civil rights protests are against legal barriers that discriminate against people because of race or gender identity. Farm workers efforts to unionize have always been a civil right issue because of the way that agribusiness has been able to hold its work force as second class citizens, denying them the right to organize, denying them access to unemployment benefits, health care, and education. Today, California farm workers are held in subservient conditions, as a sub-class of citizens, that differs little from the share croppers of the segregated southern US in the early 1960’s.
Agribusiness uses foreign labor, once called braceros during the years before 1964 when the US and Mexico allowed the legal importation of workers to displace domestic resident workers. Today, California agribusiness still recruits immigrant labor from countries near and far to work in agriculture at substandard wages in seasonal crops. Recruiting from the pools of extreme poverty in other lands has allowed the industry to staff its operations at very low wages while resident farm workers cannot make a living nor establish themselves in the communities where they work. As a result, there is a constant turn over in the labor force. People see better opportunities elsewhere and leave the fields as soon as they can. If agribusiness paid living wages in the same way that other industries do, the funneling of immigrant labor into the state would decline as people gained full citizenship and equal status under the law. As long as agribusiness is allowed to operate in the face of the laws of the country, the status of farm workers will remain a civil rights issue.