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"Si se puede": Dolores Huerta's 50 years of activism

Dolores Huerta has been speaking up for social justice and workers' rights for 50 years
Labor of Love: Activist Dolores Huerta still fighting for change 05:20

While the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. led the charge in the South, one California woman was fighting on the front lines for workers' rights.

Dolores Huerta barely stands 5-feet-tall, but she's been a giant in the fight against inequality for more than 50 years, and 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 told CBS News' Michelle Miller.

When CBS News caught up with her, Huerta was leading protesters to the office of Congressman Kevin McCarthy, the newly-elected Majority Whip of the House of Representatives.

When asked by Miller what she would like to tell the congressman, Huerta said, "To do his job. The majority of people in California support immigration reform."

From the archives: LBJ signs the Civil Rights Act 07:17

Her passion and determination go back to a battle she began in the 1960s. Hers was the rallying cry that would later come to define the presidential campaign of candidate Barak Obama.

"Si se puede! Si se puede!" Huerta chanted. Spanish for "yes we can."

"President Obama stole your line?" Miller asked.

"Well, when I met the president, he did say that to me," Huerta said, laughing. "He said, 'You know I took your line.' And I said, 'Yes you did!'"

In 2011, Obama awarded Huerta with the Medal of Freedom.

"I'm pleased that she let me off easy 'cause Dolores does not play," noted Obama.

Huerta has received the nation's highest honors. She co-founded the United Farm Workers Union with Cesar Chavez, fought for feminism with Gloria Steinem and battled for social change. A new photo exhibit in Los Angeles pays tribute to her early life.

"I was one of the first Latina majorettes in California," she said, pointing to a photo of herself.

She grew up in Stockton, California, 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.

"Many of the children that were in my classroom -- and by the way, they were not Latino children, most of them were Anglo children, they used to call them the 'Okies' -- and I could see that they were threadbare and malnutritioned," recalled Huerta.

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

"The philosophy that we had in common with Martin Luther King was that of organizing through non-violence," she said.

By 1968 they'd gained a powerful ally, one they believed would soon become president.

"And Dolores Huerta, who is an old friend of mine, who has worked with the union, I want to thank her..." Robert Kennedy said, as Huerta stood by his 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 of color," Huerta said.

The joyous feeling that night was soon replaced by worry.

"I remember thinking, 'he doesn't have any security,' and that thought came to me three different times during the night, but I didn't say anything 'cause I didn't want to put any kind of damper on the evening," Huerta said.

"And then I felt guilty for years. I felt so guilty because if I just would have said something," she said.

Kennedy's assassination came 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, and has no plans to retire anytime soon.

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

Or as Huerta would say, "si se puede."

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