Fifty years ago this week, a historic moment took place in south Texas – though chances are, you never heard of it.
Most people know of Cesar Chavez, whose workers’ rights movement started in the fields of California. But in 1966 in Starr County, farm workers did something that would come to be seen as the start of the Chicano movement in Texas.
Rebecca Flores, former director of the United Farm Workers in Texas, hasn’t forgotten what locals remember as the Melon Strike. She says farm workers were only being paid 40 cents per hour to pick melons in the humid summer heat. Meanwhile the federal minimum wage was $1.25 per hour.
“(The workers) threw down their sacks that they picked the melons in, and they picked up a picket sign and everything pretty much stopped,” Flores says.
Four hundred workers went on strike against six melon growers in Starr County. But authorities pushed back against the protests. Flores says the Texas Rangers were sent in, and local elected officials like Justices of the Peace and the prosecutor for the county.
“Everybody was working against this effort by farm workers to really protect themselves under the Constitution and their right to assembly and speech,” she says.
The workers organized a march from Rio Grande City to Austin, known as La Marcha. They were met in New Braunfels by Gov. John Connally, who told them he would not be in Austin.
“But the workers continued, and on Labor Day of 1966, they arrived at the Capitol with 10,000 people supporting them, and demanding that they be treated equally,” Flores says.
The minimum wage wouldn’t be raised until years later, but the Supreme Court would eventually rule that the statutes that Texas had used to arrest the workers were unconstitutional. So while change was slow, the events in Starr County was part of the tide of workers’ rights earned by farm workers.
“Many changes have occurred since then, everyone in this state has benefited from the constitutional decisions of assembly and of speech,” Flores says. “From that strike, and from that march, the Chicano movement began to move actively in the state of Texas.”
Prepared for web by Alexandra Hart.