Forty-seven years ago today, Robert F. Kennedy went to Delano, California to help Cesar Chavez break his first and most famous lengthy fast. Speculation was rampant about whether the junior senator from New York would enter the Democratic presidential primary, a contest where, at the moment, President Lyndon Johnson faced a challenge from the left from Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy.
On his way to Delano, Kennedy landed at Los Angeles, and the press followed him out onto the tarmac as he went to board a small private plane. (Yes, in those days, people could walk freely through airports, even out on to the tarmac.) Here is a great video of the conversation, as they badger him about his intentions: RFK on the tarmac
In fact, he told his top three aides on the plane ride to Delano that he was going to enter the race. A few days later, Johnson almost lost the New Hampshire primary, and declined to run for reelection. The California primary became key for Kennedy, who had a late start. While he was still recuperating from the fast, Chavez received a call from Kennedy asking the UFW leader to be a Kennedy delegate. He not only agreed, he campaigned for Kennedy, and mobilized the farmworker movement on his behalf. Here’s Chavez on the campaign trail.
In the final weeks before the June primary, Chavez took dozens of farmworkers to East Los Angeles and dispatched them in a systematic get-out-the-vote effort that turned out 100 percent of the vote in certain precincts. Here is a link to an oral history interview with Walter Sheridan, a top RFK campaign aide, in which he describes watching in awe as Chavez turned out the vote and ran the campaign. Sheridan also talks about the mariachi band that the campaign hired, at Chavez’s request, for the election eve party. Then Chavez basically insisted the mariachis come to the victory party as well. (It’s well worth reading Sheridan’s account, which is vintage Chavez.) And here are the mariachis performing, with the Kennedy campaign sign in the background.