FBI agents tailed farm labor leader Cesar Chavez for more than seven years in the 1960s and 1970s, investigating reports he was a Communist or “subversive,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
Investigators shadowed Chavez under the Johnson and Nixon administrations and compiled a 1,434-page file on the charismatic migrant labor leader, the Times reported Tuesday. The newspaper obtained a copy of the file under the Freedom of Information Act.
Chavez, who died in 1993, led the first successful farm workers union and a national boycott of grapes. He pressed for a 1975 California state law that guaranteed farm workers union elections with secret ballots.
Last year, President Clinton called Chavez “a Moses figure” as he gave him, posthumously, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The Times said the rationale for the FBI’s intense interest in Chavez is unclear. No evidence of communist or subversive activities was found while hundreds of agents kept tabs on him and on the farm workers’ marches, pickets and meetings.
In the first entry, dated Oct. 8, 1965, an FBI informant suggests to investigators that Chavez “possibly has a subversive background.” Another source “has a file on Chavez allegedly showing a communist background,” the file says.
The FBI alerted the military, local police and the Secret Service about upcoming farm worker activities, the file showed, and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was kept apprised of even mundane developments, the Times said.
“It was a witch hunt and an exercise in guilt by association,” said Jerry Cohen, who was general counsel to the farm workers union and who reviewed the file. “I was just amazed at how dumb and what a waste it was - and to what extent the abuse went on.”
The FBI said the information in the Chavez file was “collected during an earlier era in our history when different concerns drove the government, the news media and public sentiment.”
A spokesman told the newspaper: “Under today’s laws and guidelines, this kind of investigation would not be initiated by the FBI.”