Dolores Huerta profiled on anniversary of Civil Rights Act - CBS 3 Springfield - WSHM

'Si, se puede': Dolores Huerta continues fight for civil rights

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Dolores Huerta stands alongside Robert Kennedy after he wins the Democratic primary in California in 1968. (Source: CBS) Dolores Huerta stands alongside Robert Kennedy after he wins the Democratic primary in California in 1968. (Source: CBS)

NEW YORK (CBS) - When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act 50 years ago Wednesday it unquestionably inspired people to speak up for social justice, but Dolores Huerta believes its legacy is left unfinished.

She barely stands 5 feet tall, but Huerta has been a giant in the fight against inequality for a half century. At 84, she's still at it.

"Many of the issues that we fought and won in the civil rights movement have been rolled back," Huerta said.

A new CBS News poll shows 76 percent of Americans believe the Civil Rights Act was a "very important" event in U.S. history.

However, only 5 percent think all of the goals of the civil rights movement have been achieved.

Huerta's passion and determination go back to a battle she began in the 1960s.

She grew up in Stockton, CA - the center of the state's migrant farming community made famous in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Teaching the children of farm workers opened her eyes to injustice.

Her rallying cry - "Si, se puede!" - would later come to define the first presidential campaign of Barack Obama: "Yes, we can!"

"Many of the children that were in my classroom - and by the way, they were not Latino children - most of them were Anglo children," Huerta said. "They used to call them the "okies," and I could see that they were threadbare and malnourished."

About the time the civil rights movement was gaining momentum in the South, Huerta met Caesar Chavez and established a partnership that would define the labor movement in the West.

By 1968 they'd gained a powerful ally they believed would soon become president - Robert Kennedy.

Huerta stood by Kennedy's side the night he won the California Democratic primary.

"It was absolutely joyous because we knew that we were going to have a president that really cared, that cared about poor people, working people, people of color," Huerta said.

The joyous feeling that night was soon replaced by worry.

Kennedy's assassination was just two months after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. Despite the loss of those civil rights icons, Huerta continued to fight.

She's still speaking out and teaching a new generation to do the same.

"As long as I have my health and energy, I want to teach people to organize," Huerta said. "We can do it!"

In addition to labor rights, Huerta fought for feminism with Gloria Steinem and battled for social change. A new photo exhibit in Los Angeles pays tribute to her early life.

She met Obama in 2011 when he awarded her the nation's highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, and the president acknowledged he made her rallying cry his own for his 2008 campaign.

"I'm pleased that she let me off easy because Dolores does not play," Obama said during the ceremony.

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