Every year on March 31 Californians celebrate the life and legacy of my grandfather, Cesar E. Chavez. A Mexican-American son of migrant workers, he grew up at time when Latinos were treated as second class citizens. Having personally experienced injustice, he dedicated his life to achieving dignity and equality not only for Latino and farm worker communities but for all who suffered discrimination. He inspired millions to stand with pride in the face of adversity, and lives on in our memories as a figure who changed California and the world for the better.
Harvey Milk was a similar transformative leader at a time when lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people’s most basic humanity was denied. One of the nation’s first openly gay elected officials, he mobilized thousands in the LGBT community to fight against discriminatory policies, including the Briggs Initiative, which would have made it legal to fire school teachers simply because they were gay or supported equal rights. He also authored one of the nation’s first ordinances outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation.
But, like my grandfather, Harvey Milk was also an advocate for many causes that have shaped the state of California and the nation to bring us closer to the dream of social justice. He courageously fought for the civil rights of all those without a voice. He organized a successful boycott of Coors Beer when the company failed to negotiate a fair contract for its workers, many of whom were immigrant and low-income. He fought against powerful developers to preserve affordable housing for seniors and the poor. In public speeches, he talked about giving hope to the “us’es,” and forged coalitions to create a better world for all disenfranchised groups.
Harvey led by example, broke down the closet door for millions and made Californians understand that our LGBT brothers and sisters are just that: our brothers and sisters.
Unfortunately, Harvey was assassinated at City Hall less than a year after he was first elected. Even though he was gone before his time, he was with us long enough to teach us to speak up for ourselves and to fight for what is right. His spirit continues to live on so long as we continue to remember what Harvey taught us all.
The day my grandfather died was difficult. But I was able to move forward because I know that his spirit will always live on, not just with me but with millions of others. In commemoration of his legacy, my family along with millions of Californians pushed for a special day of significance recognizing the work and triumph of my grandfather. While we were faced with much opposition, the Legislature and Governor finally chose in 2000 to officially honor his birthday as Cesar Chavez Day. Today, Cesar Chavez Day gives the opportunity for us all to remember my grandfather, but more importantly to reflect on the lessons he taught us.
Now is our chance to ensure that Harvey did not die in vain and that the lessons he taught us are not forgotten. The California Legislature has passed a bill calling for May 22nd to be recognized as Harvey Milk Day, but we need Governor Schwarzenegger to sign it, and he vetoed a similar bill last year. President Obama has honored Harvey Milk with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award, and the Governor himself and First Lady Maria Shriver will be inducting Harvey into the California Museum Hall of Fame later this year. I call on Governor Schwarzenegger to lead California in remembering Harvey’s sacrifice, celebrating his achievements and learning from his example, and I hope you will, too. Every year, we want to celebrate Harvey Milk Day.
Christine Chavez has a made a lifetime commitment to public service, civil rights and the labor movement. Born in Delano, California, Christine Chavez was surrounded by the farm worker movement. For years, she worked with the United Farm Workers Union, the organization her grandfather Cesar Chavez helped to co-found 40 years ago.