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Thursday, Apr 26 2012 10:19 PM

Dolores Huerta will be given Medal of Freedom, White House announces

BY RACHEL COOK Californian staff writer rcook@bakersfield.com

For Dolores Huerta, receiving a medal from the U.S. President is more than a nod to a lifetime dedicated to a multitude of social movements. It's a hearty recognition of community organizing's role in a democracy.

"Not only is (organizing) important, but it's the only thing we can really do to ensure that people know what's going on in our society and our country," Huerta said by phone Thursday night.

Related Info

Thirteen other 2012 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom are listed here. The biographies were provided by the White House:

* Madeleine Albright, the first woman to lead the State Department, served under President Clinton.

* John Doar, the assistant attorney general in charge of civil rights cases during the 1960s. Doer obtained convictions in several high-profile cases and led the effort to enforce the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

* Bob Dylan, songwriter, poet and musician. Dylan has won almost every other major award, including a Commandeur dans l'Ordre des Art et des Lettres, a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation and the 2009 National Medal of Arts.

* William Foege, physician and epidemiologist. Foege helped lead the effort to eradicate smallpox in the 1970s.

* John Glenn, a former Democratic senator from Ohio, was the third American in space and the first to orbit the Earth. Glenn returned to space in 1998 at age 77.

* Gordon Hirabayashi, who mounted a legal challenge to the forced relocation and internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Hirabayashi lost his case and served time in prison. His conviction was overturned in 1987. Hirabayashi died in January.

* Jan Karski served as an officer in the Polish Underground during World War II and provided among the first eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust to the world. Born in 1914, Karski became a U.S. citizen in 1954 and died in 2000.

* Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts, now the largest education organization for girls with more than 50 million members. The Girl Scouts is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Low died in 1927.

* Toni Morrison, author of "Song of Solomon," "Jazz" and "Beloved," for which she won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988. In 1993, Morrison was the first African American woman to win a Nobel Prize.

* Shimon Peres, the ninth president of Israel. Peres won the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for his work as foreign minister during the Middle East peace talks that led to the Oslo Accords.

* John Paul Stevens, who retired from the Supreme Court in 2010. Stevens was nominated to the court by President Ford. He was a veteran of World War II, in which he served as a naval intelligence officer and was awarded the Bronze Star.

* Pat Summitt, who has more wins than any men's or women's coach in NCAA history, and who stepped down from her post as the women's basketball coach at the University of Tennessee this month. Summitt, who was diagnosed last year with early-onset Alzheimer's disease, has been an advocate for Alzheimer's research. Summitt led the Lady Vols to eight NCAA national championships, second only to John Wooden's 10 titles as the men's basketball coach at UCLA.

-- Los Angeles Times

Huerta, the famed civil rights, labor and women's advocate, is among 13 people who will be honored this year with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, the White House announced Thursday.

Huerta co-founded the National Farm Workers Association, which later became United Farm Workers of America, along with Cesar Chavez.

Also among the honorees are musician Bob Dylan, writer Toni Morrison, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Shimon Peres.

"These extraordinary honorees come from different backgrounds and different walks of life, but each of them has made a lasting contribution to the life of our nation," President Obama said in a statement. "They've challenged us, they've inspired us, and they've made the world a better place. I look forward to recognizing them with this award."

Union leaders and activists said the award was fitting recognition of Huerta's work and devotion to her causes. In a statement sent Thursday night, United Farm Workers President Arturo S. Rodriguez and Cesar Chavez Foundation President Paul F. Chavez recalled that Cesar Chavez once described Huerta as "completely fearless, both mentally and physically."

"Her dynamic and inspiring leadership through the most difficult and turbulent times in the farm worker movement's history established her not only as a leader of farm workers but as a role model for women and men across this nation and beyond," the statement said.

Jack Brigham, executive director of the Bakersfield College foundation the Center for Kern Political Education, said "the Dolores" that he loves and respects is someone who is willing to put her neck on the line for controversial issues.

"I've worked with Dolores for over 40 years and I really have always admired her," Brigham said. "I don't know a finer person."

The former labor organizer said many people don't fully understand the significance of Huerta and the nonviolent farmworker movement she helped lead.

"There's a lot to say about her but in my estimation she is the leading Latina figure in the United States today," said Ray Gonzales, Ph.D., a former state assemblyman.

Gonzales pointed to Huerta's role in founding the union and her post as chief negotiator for the organization, work that went a long way toward recognizing the dignity of agricultural labor, he said.

"She's had a tremendous impact and now she's doing a lot of humanitarian work," Gonzales said.

Huerta's honor from the President comes as the UFW's 50th anniversary is approaching this year.

"It couldn't come at a better time for the union, for farm workers, for California," Gonzales added. "I think it's a great thing."

The honor, to be presented this spring, adds to the list of accolades Huerta has received, but Huerta talked about her successs in terms of better working conditions for farm workers, education campaigns and streetlights for poor communities Thursday night.

"I get the recognition for the work of hundreds of other people, of thousand of other people" behind the movements, she said.

Several things stand out for Huerta when she looks at her past. Founding a union that will celebrate half a century this year is one, raising 11 "wonderful children" who survived her activism is another, she said.

At 82, she is excited to talk about the Dolores Huerta Foundation's work in Tulare County, Arvin, Lamont and Weedpatch and shows no signs of slowing down. She continues to tour the country constantly for speaking engagements that raise money for the foundation while spreading the message of organizing. Huerta spoke Thursday night from Iowa where she had just finished a lecture at Cornell College before heading to another event in San Francisco.

"A lot of people tell me, 'Why don't you retire, you've done some much work all ready?'" Huerta said.

"We just have so much to do so I don't feel like I can slow down," she said.

The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.

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