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The forgotten history of Cesar Chavez Lane

Graphics by Sasha White

Take a summer bike ride under the cottonwoods along the Boise River and as you pass Boise State University, you’ll find yourself on Cesar Chavez Lane. 

It’s a street traveled by many, with a complicated history known to few.

Cesar Chavez, whom the busy street was named after, was a Hispanic labor and civil rights leader known for helping found the United State’s largest farm union, the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), along with co-founder Dolores Huerta in 1962. 

Chavez was known for adhering to nonviolent principles and generating controversy throughout his long career as an organizer, such as when he red-baited a longtime UFW volunteer to meeting with Philippines’ dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, in 1977. 

That visit prompted fellow UFW leader Philip Vera Cruz, a Filipino immigrant, to quit the organization, according to the LA Times.

Controversial legacy aside, a Hispanic union organizer isn’t a common figure you find being honored in Idaho, despite the state’s heavy reliance on exploiting Hispanic labor for its large agriculture economy. .

However, Chavez’s controversial legacy wasn’t relevant to Boise State until the ensued naming of a street near and dear to the university: Cesar Chavez Lane.

The Naming of Cesar Chavez Lane

In the mid-2000’s, Cesar Chavez Lane was born out of a pressure campaign led by students and faculty upset over Taco Bell’s sponsorship of the campus sports and music venue, as the national corporation was being boycotted for labor violations. 

The controversy began in 2004 when The Pavilion in Boise was renamed as Taco Bell Arena. This angered student groups and faculty because of an ongoing national boycott of Taco Bell in support of the Immokalee tomato farm worker’s strike in Florida.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) called for this boycott, urging the fast food giant to “take responsibility for human rights abuses in the fields where its produce is grown and picked,” according to CIW’s website.

One member of the Boise State community who attended the unveiling ceremony of Cesar Chavez Lane was Ro Parker, the current director of Student Equity at Boise State University. 

Parker said that there was a lot of pressure put on administration by student groups and faculty members at the time over the arena’s new name. Some expressed that the naming of Cesar Chavez Lane felt like a concession.

More specifically, student groups on campus targeted university president Bob Kustra to express disapproval over the university’s 15-year, $4 million deal with Taco Bell. In an attempt to appease students over the naming of Taco Bell Arena, Kustra decided to dedicate a street to a leader representing the other side of the fight for agriculture worker’s rights: Cesar Chavez.

Three groups played a heavy hand in applying pressure to the school. According to Parker, one group was Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, now known as Movimiento Estudiantil Progressive Action.

[Graphic depicting Velma Morrison and Cesar Chavez in front of Taco Bell Arena.]
Graphics by Sasha White

Other groups included students trained in civil disobedience such as the Idaho Progressive Student Alliance and the Cultural Ethnic and Diversity board, a group of staff and faculty. Both groups are no longer active on campus.

“I wouldn’t doubt that the Cesar Chavez naming was one way to deal with issues of the Taco Bell Arena,” former Boise State President Bob Kustra told The Arbiter by phone.

On March 6th, 2006, Boise State applied for the street “Campus Lane” to be changed to Cesar Chavez Lane, in case number SOS06-00003.

On that same day, the university’s planning director, Laurence Blake, wrote an email to the Boise City Council requesting approval for renaming Campus Lane to Cesar Chavez Lane.   

Just nine days later, on March 15, the Planning and Development Services for the City of Boise approved the request, according to public records.

Velma Morrison vs. Cesar Chavez

One person in particular was not a fan of the move: Velma Morrison. 

The Morrison family fortune comes from the late family patriarch, Harry W. Morrison. Morrison made his money in construction. He retired as chairman of the MorrisonKnudsen (MK) Company, Inc. several years prior to his death in 1971, according to The New York Times. 

MK executed projects all around the globe, including building the Hoover Dam and the San Francisco Bay Bridge.

His company received contracts for Cold War projects such as “Little America” in Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan. This project was the largest development program in the history of Afghanistan, constructing two large earth fill dams, 300 miles of irrigation canals and 1,200 miles of gravel roads. Overall, the project spanned 250,000 acres, according to The Atlantic. 

After Harry passed away in 1973, his wife of 12 years, Velma Morrison, built on Harry’s foundation and left her mark in the Boise area for endowing the arts and donating large sums of money to local institutions, one of those being Boise State University. 

Among other projects, Velma helped ensure Harry’s dream of establishing a performing arts center in his hometown, according to the Morrison Center’s website. This dream resulted in a public-private partnership through which the Morrison Center was born. 

Velma grew up on her family’s ranch in Tipton, California. Here, Velma and Harry started Gem State Stables, where they bred and raised racing horses. Governors from Idaho, California and Montana attended its grand opening, according to the Idaho Press.

On Dec. 20, 2006, Velma Morrison sent an email to Blake, expressing her disagreement with the street name change.

“I would like the name of the street location of the Morrison Center to remain Campus lane,” Velma Morrison said. “Please let me know what needs to be done to ensure that there is not a name change of this particular street.”

Velma’s reasoning was not made clear in the email. 

“I was told Velma Morrison was originally from the central valley of California where Chavez was very controversial in his early years as an organizer” Kustra wrote in a text message to the Arbiter, “and that is the reason Velma was opposed to renaming the drive.” 

Public records indicate the school was ready to make a concession for one of their most generous donors. 

On March 23, 2007, almost a year after the first application for Cesar Chavez Lane to be renamed, Boise State submitted a request for the “North Side of BSU campus, between Capitol Blvd & Brady Street” to be renamed from Cesar Chavez Lane to “Velma Morrison Lane” with Laurence Blake signing off on the email.

Associate Vice President James Maguire sent an email to the City of Boise Planning Director Hal Simmons on April 5, 2007, requesting the name change.

“Boise State University wishes to honor one of the University‘s most generous donors and longtime bronco supporter, Velma Morrison, by renaming that portion of Cesar Chavez Lane (formerly Campus Lane) in front of the Morrison Center to Velma Morrison Lane,” Maguire wrote in the email. “Dr. Kustra has asked that I expedite the formalization of the renaming to appropriately honor Miss Morrison.”

Kustra said he didn’t remember making that request. 

Velma Morrison Lane

About a month later on May 3, 2007, former opinion writer for The Arbiter, Kate Neal, published a critical piece in The Arbiter upon receiving an anonymous tip about the potential change.

“This situation is a clear demonstration of the classism that exists on this campus. If it doesn’t shout ‘money’ or ’Fiesta Bowl’ the President refuses to care or become involved,” Neal wrote. “Several attempts to meet with the President over this and other matters have also been ignored.”

Neal went on to say that this “clandestine approach to campus politics” was unacceptable and called on the administration to be held accountable for what she called “their dishonest actions.”

On May 16, 2007, Macguire followed up with Simmons in an email withdrawing the request. It is unclear why the university withdrew this application.

“I don’t remember the opinion piece, I do remember the fact that I had to break the news to Velma that we were going to go the route of Cesar Chavez Lane,” Kustra told The Arbiter over the phone.

To some, Cesar Chavez Lane didn’t appear out of the virtue of the university’s heart. Rather, the street naming and preservation was the result of student and faculty-led organizing. It shines a light on what students and faculty are able to accomplish, even when facing opposition from large donors.

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