THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Maurice Jourdane Headshot

An American Hero Joins Lewis & Clark, Medgar Evers and Sacagawea

Posted: Updated:

This weekend, the United Farm Workers is holding its fiftieth anniversary. In 1962, Cesar and Helen Chavez and Dolores Huerta began their struggle to improve the life of farm workers.

Last week, on Cinco Mayo in San Diego's Barrio Logan, the United States Navy christened and launched the USNS Cesar Chavez over Republican opposition for naming the cargo ship after the civil rights leader and union activist. Earlier, Senator Barbara Boxer, D-California, credited the Navy "for continuing the Navy's rich tradition of naming these supply ships after pioneers, explorers and visionaries by honoring Cesar Chavez, who worked tirelessly to promote fair working conditions and equal rights for all Americans."

The USNS Cesar Chavez is the fourteenth and final ship in the Lewis-and-Clark class of cargo ships. The first, in 2001, was the Lewis and Clark named after the pioneers who ventured, overland from the East to the Pacific, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

The names of the other 12 Lewis & Clark cargo ships are:
The USMS Medgar Evers named after the slain African-American civil rights activist from Mississippi involved in efforts to overturn segregation at the University of Mississippi.
The USNS William McLean, named for a Navy physicist, who developed the Sidewinder missile.
The USNS Washington Chambers named in honor of a pioneer in naval aviation.
The USNS Charles Drew named after a physician who researched blood transfusions and blood banks that saved thousands of lives in World War II.
The USNS Matthew Perry named after Commodore Matthew C. Perry who led the Nineteenth Century to open Japan to trade with the West.
The USNS Wally Shirra named for one of the first astronauts and the only one to fly in all three pioneering space programs - Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.
The USNS Carl Brashear named after the first African American to become a U.S. Navy Master Diver despite having lost a leg in bomber crash.
The USS Amelia Earhart, name after the historic female aviator and women's rights advocate.
The USNS Robert E. Peary named for the Arctic explorer.
USNS Richard E. Byrd named after a polar explorer.
The USNS Alan Sheppard named for the first American in space, Rear Adm. Alan B. Sheppard Jr.
The USS Sacagawea, named after the Shoshone who acted as guide and interpreter the Lewis & Clark expedition.

Several years ago, Barack Obama said, "As farm workers and laborers across America continue to struggle for fair treatment and fair wages, we find strength in what Cesar Chavez accomplished so many years ago. It's time to recognize the contributions of this American icon."

The recognition was displayed at the launching of the USNS Cesar Chavez when Assistant Secretary of the Navy Juan Garcia told the thousands of spectators, many of whom were those who built the ship, "This is the perfect name of an American hero who embodied American values that will inspire a generation of sailors." Garcia told the audience that the Navy named ships in the Lewis & Clark series after persons whose achievements had a positive impact on the lives of many Americans. He told those in attendance that Chavez had joined the Navy when he was 17, in a time when Hispanic and African-American sailors were relegated to working in the kitchen, deck or chipping paint. Garcia proudly reflected that naming a Navy ship after Chavez shows that we continue to overcome racism and inequality.

Admirals who spoke at the christening, reminded the audience that as a Lewis & Clark cargo ship, the USNS Cesar Chavez would be a world ambassador providing food and water to the desperate like the Japanese after the tsunami or in Central or South America after a hurricane.

At the moment of launching of the USNS Cesar Chavez, with the fireworks exploding overhead and "from sea to shining sea" blaring, the 689 foot ship briskly slid into the San Diego bay. The spellbound crowd returned my thoughts to hearing De Colores sung by striking Delano farm workers at a vigil for fasting Cesar Chavez.

After the launching of the USNS Cesar Chavez, Cesar's widow Helen smiled and nodded when I said, "Cesar would be Proud." But the struggle to improve the working conditions of farm workers continues. Farm workers are still dying from heat when they toil in California's 100 degree fields.