Under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI maintained heightened vigilance against radical and subversive threats to national security. Exercising wide discretionary powers, Hoover transformed the FBI into a powerful agency by employing such controversial techniques as illegal wiretapping, burglaries, intercepting mail, extortion, and infiltration.
As the United States experienced a period of upheaval and dissent in the 1960s and 1970s, the FBI created the COMINFIL program to monitor anti-war activists, civil rights organizations, and leftist groups in order to prevent communists from infiltrating mass organizations. Information was not only used to ward off attacks, but also to discredit and harass individuals for the purposes of preventing the spread of communism.
Among the civil rights protests in the 1960s and 1970s, the migrant farm worker movement championed the rights of agricultural laborers to organize through unions, receive fair wages, and work in safe environments. In 1962, Chávez founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA)—later known as the United Farm Workers (UFW)—and joined the Delano grape strike against California growers. Adopting nonviolent tactics of boycotts, strikes, marches, and fasting, Chávez and his followers gained wide support from organized labor, religious leaders, minorities, liberals, and politicians.
The activities of the migrant workers movement drew the attention of the FBI. Dated on October 8, 1965, the first entry in Chávez's FBI file describes a telephone call from an informant, who accused Chávez of "allegedly showing a communist background." The initial report also listed other union activists who were said to have "subversive backgrounds." Though further FBI inquiries indicated that the allegations were based on vague information and rumors, the investigation into Chávez and labor leaders continued, due in part to the support they received from civil rights and leftist groups who had been targeted by the FBI, including the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). In a July 16, 1966, memo to Hoover, Los Angeles agents noted that the Communist Party was called upon to support the grape strike, but no serious attempts were made to infiltrate or influence the union.
Although the FBI did not appear to use wiretaps and other illegal methods to collect data on Chávez, their investigation involved hundreds of field agents, informants, and other sources. The bureau observed protest rallies, surveyed pamphlets, and monitored radio broadcasts calling for public solidarity with the workers. Agents collected addresses, birthdates, marriage statuses, telephone numbers, and immigration statuses of Chávez and union organizers. Additionally, the FBI tracked Chávez's daily routine, travels, associations, speeches, and role in NFWA/UFW activities. During Chávez's 250-mile march to Sacramento in 1966, the bureau assembled a daily report on the march route and logistics, the number of participants, nightly briefings, and the radio call numbers used by march organizers.
The FBI's information on union activities was sent to the military, law enforcement agencies, and the Secret Service. As boycotts by the NFWA/UFW spread to other cities, the bureau coordinated action with their field offices and local police in California, Texas, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Arizona. According to a March 1972 report, the FBI had warned President Richard Nixon's reelection campaign that the UFW was planning on protesting Vice President Spiro T. Agnew's appearance in New York. The FBI sent 72 agents to monitor the event, which resulted in 50 people picketing and chanting for an hour. On more than one occasion, the bureau characterized protests by Chávez and the labor union as well-organized and peaceful.
Although it is unclear when the FBI ceased tracking Chávez and labor leaders, in 1973, acting FBI director William Ruckelshaus called off the surveillance, regarding the bureau's coverage as "not warranted" due to the "absence of any indication of subversive influences or motivation." Nevertheless, the file contains a July 1974 correlation summary on Chávez, which indexed his known associations, and the last report was filed in 1975.
The FBI's investigation into Chávez was not publically known until The Los Angeles Times reported the story on May 30, 1995, after acquiring a copy of the file under the Freedom of Information Act. Supporters of Chávez, who had died in 1993, denounced the FBI for wasting resources in pursuit of unsubstantiated allegations against Chávez instead of investigating threats and attacks directed at protesters. According to Chávez allies, the file demonstrates that the FBI not only mischaracterized the labor movement, but also failed to protect the civil rights of the farm workers.
“F.B.I. Followed Cesar Chavez, Paper Reports.” The New York Times, May 31, 1995; Carroll, James R. “FBI Had Cesar Chavez’s Union Under Intense Scrutiny for Decade.” Inquirer, October 30, 1994; Miller, Alan C. “FBI Spied on Cesar Chavez for Years, Files Revealed.” The Los Angeles Times, May 30, 1995; Street, Richard Steven. “The FBI’s Secret File on César Chávez.” Southern California Quarterly 78, 4 (1996).