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New Navy Ship to Be Named After Civil Rights Leader Cesar Chavez

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cesar chavez cargo shipCivil rights leader Cesar Chavez will have a new Navy cargo ship named after him — despite Republican protest that the honor was too “political” a move.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus confirmed yesterday that the last of the 14 Lewis and Clark-class cargo ships built by NASSCO will be christened the USNS Cesar Chavez.  At a visit to a San Diego shipyard on Wednesday, Mabus said

Cesar Chavez inspired young Americans to do what is right and what is necessary to protect our freedoms and our country. The Cesar Chavez will sail hundreds of thousands of miles, and will bring support and assistance to thousands upon thousands of people. His example will live on in this great ship.

Chavez is famous for his work in the migrant community, mobilizing immigrant farm workers, organizing nationwide grape boycotts, forcing growers to respect labor rights, and working toward ending discrimination against Hispanics.  Chavez died in 1993 and was posthumously awarded the U.S. Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor, by President Bill Clinton in 1994.  Before he began organizing, Chavez served in the Navy after WWII and was honorably discharged two years later. 

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), however, saw the decision to honor him as more of a political statement than a move to uphold the Navy’s history and tradition: 

If this decision were about recognizing the Hispanic community’s contribution to our nation, many other names come to mind, including Marine Corps Sgt. Rafael Peralta, who was nominated for the Medal of Honor for action in Iraq.  Peralta is one of many Hispanic war heroes — some of whom are worthy of the same recognition.

Peralta died in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004 after pulling an enemy grenade under his body before it detonated.  Rep. Hunter alternatively suggested the new cargo ship be named after John Finn, a Medal of Honor recipient who manned a machine gun under heavy fire during Pearl Harbor.

The blog Latina Lista this week agreed with Rep. Hunter that Peralta, or other distinguished Latino service members, would have been a better choice for the ship’s name.  The problem is: 

The at-large Latino community and the mainstream public don’t know enough about the other Latino heroes who have every right to be remembered and honored…The opportunity to hear about heroic acts by Latinos are so few and far between that the same names are recognized time and time again.

Glenn Beck also felt the need to chime in, comparing naming a ship for Cesar Chavez to naming a ship for Josef Stalin, or naming a ship for women’s rights activist Margaret Sanger.  (“The cannons could shoot out fetuses.”)

The Navy Secretary chooses ships’ names after receiving recommendations from the Naval History and Heritage command, from service members and veterans, and from the public.  Chavez will become the first Mexican American to have such a Navy ship named after him; other ships have been named after explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, civil rights activist Medgar Evers, and aviator Amelia Earhart.