Dolores Huerta, the famed civil rights advocate of the farm worker movement, received the nation’s highest civilian honor Tuesday when President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
A crowd of an estimated 300 persons packed the ceremony in the East Wing of the White House. Supporters from as far as Los Angeles applauded as president Obama stood up and awarded the medal to Huerta along with 12 other notable figures, including folk singer Bob Dylan and novelist Toni Morrison.
The medal is the highest civilian award in the United States. It recognizes those individuals who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
President Obama spoke personally about the inspiration each recipient has made in his life during the ceremony.
“Without any negotiating experience, Dolores helped lead a worldwide grape boycott that forced employers to agree to some of the country’s first farm worker contracts,” said Obama. “Ever since she has fought to give more people a seat at the table. ‘Don’t wait to be invited, step in there, she says.”’
On a personal note, he jokingly added, “Dolores was very gracious when I told her I had stolen her slogan: Yes we can. Knowing her, I’m pleased she let me off easy. Dolores does not play,” he said.
Huerta, 82 and the mother of 11 children, co-founded the National Farmworkers Association in 1962 with Cesar Chavez. It later became known as the United Farm Workers of America. She was influential in securing the passage of California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975.
She has been arrested 22 times and at one time she was brutally beaten by San Francisco police during a 1988 peaceful protest. Yet, her perseverance has been an astonishing reminder to the movement as well as an inspiration to many, including Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis.
“She has advocated for non-violent protest and has taught people that they have both the personal power and the responsibility to work together to improve their lives. Back then, I never dreamed that I would ever meet her, let alone have the honor of calling her my friend,” wrote Solis. “I don’t know if Dolores inspired me to become a public servant, but I do know that she inspired — and insisted — that I become the best public servant I could be.”
Addressing a gathering of Hispanic media during a roundtable discussion earlier today, Huerta emphasized her commitment to upholding civil rights in the community through voter registration and education. She also cautioned that there’s still a lack of sufficient resources to compel the masses to mobilize.
“We need to take the street marches to the neighborhoods,” said Huerta. “If we don’t take political action nothing will change.”
Huerta pointed to how influential Latinos were in Nevada during the 2010 midterm elections. Senate Majority Leaders Harry Reid (D) was in a political fight for his life against tea party favorite Sharron Angle. But high turnout among Latinos is credited, in part, with Reid being able to keep his Senate seat. She cited other examples, including the massive immigration mobilization in 2006.
“What is lacking for us? Organizing our people. There is no reason for why these laws (immigration enforcement laws) that are against us should pass. For me, what is lacking is organizing. If the pueblo isn’t organized we can’t sustain a democracy,” said Huerta. “Leaders are there, but we just need the resources to go to these towns and educate the people.”
She later founded the Dolores Huerta Foundation, which is dedicated to developing community organizers and national leaders. Her next step is to encourage voter registration by organizing a grassroots campaign to get out the vote.
In addition to Huerta, other honorees included: former Department of Justice civil rights lawyer John Doar; epidemiologist William Foege; novelist Toni Morrison; former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens; women’s college basketball coach Pat Summitt; folk singer Bob Dylan; former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; and astronaut John Glenn.
Obama expressed his gratitude to each recipient. Through his college years, he said Bob Dylan’s music opened up his world because Dylan captured “something about this country that was so vital.”
He remembered reading Morrison’s Song of Solomon and aside from figuring out how to write, he was figuring out “how to be.”
“Everybody on this stage has marked my life in profound ways,” said Obama.