Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day (left, wearing glasses) is at the Fresno County Jail, August 1973. Photo by John Kouns.

Dorothy Day was a lifelong activist and no stranger to being put in jail for protesting. The first time she was put in jail, she was the youngest; during the United Farm Workers’ grape strike protests in Fresno, she was the oldest, at the age of 75. Day was the editor of The Catholic Worker and the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, and she flew to California from New York to support the strike.
In 1973, UFW grape and lettuce contracts were expiring, and growers decided to sign contracts with Teamsters. The resulting strikes were met with violence against the protesters from growers and the sheriffs on their side; people were maced, beaten with nightsticks, and many were arrested for breaking injunctions against picketing.

In Fresno County alone, there were 1993 people jailed, including seventy priests and nuns—Dorothy Day was one of them. The presence of religious people in jail called attention to the farm workers who couldn’t be released on their own recognizance, even though the option was available to the priests and nuns.

Dorothy Day (center) is at the Fresno County Jail, August 1973. Photo by John Kouns.

Dorothy Day and a priest at the Fresno County Jail, August 1973. Photo by John Kouns.

Dorothy Day called her green jail uniform her “habit,” and had it signed by the women imprisoned with her. The back of the habit had the UFW’s Thunderbird and “Viva la causa,” and César Chávez also signed it. She was held in jail for 11 days, while others had been held for up to 14 days. The strike would end in August of 1973 and the UFW Convention solidified the Union’s organizing efforts against the growers.
Dorothy Day writes on a piece of paper at the Fresno County Jail. Her jail uniform is signed by the women imprisoned with her. August 1973. Dorothy Day escribe en una hoja de papel en la carcel de condado de Fresno. Su uniforme de la cárcel está firmado por sus compañeras arrestadas, agosto de 1973.

Dorothy Day at the Fresno County Jail, August 1973

On August 8, Joan Baez, her mother, and Daniel Ellsberg visited the farm labor camp where Dorothy Day and other strikers were being held. ​ Joan Baez sang a poignant prison song to the prisoners in the yard, turning her back to them and singing directly to other prisoners brought to the dining room. ​ Daniel Ellsberg mentioned that the thought of Cesar Chavez had given him courage during his two-year ordeal in the courts. ​ It was a peaceful Sunday, and Mass was held in the evening. ​ The Mexican girls in the camp sang, clapped, and taught the sisters some Mexican dancing. ​ The power of prayer seemed to have some effect, as Mr. Fitzsimmons, president of the Teamsters, canceled or disavowed contracts signed by another Teamster leader in Delano. ​

The morning after her release from jail, Dorothy Day arrived at the courthouse park for a press conference called by César Chávez. She climbed on a bench next to Chávez and said, “This strike is not just for wages, hours, or conditions. It involves men’s dignity.” She also mentioned the 60 priests, ministers, and nuns who were among the 500 people jailed for picketing. “To see the church in jail,” she said, ” is to see real Christianity.”

Later, she showed Chávez her memento of the days in jail, a green jail uniform he called her “habit.” The front had the signatures of the women imprisoned with her and on the back was the black eagle of the UFW and “Viva la Causa.” She asked Chávez to autograph the uniform. “But I wasn’t in jail with you,” said Chávez, who ended up signing Day’s habit.


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