Services are set for 1 p.m. Saturday, May 10, 2008 at Chapel of the Chimes, 4499 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, Calif. 94611. Services area also scheduled for 10 a.m. on Saturday, May 17, 2008 at Tel-Star Baptist Church, 2515 South Denley Drive, Dallas, Texas 75216.
Born on May 20, 1941 in Terrell, Texas, near Dallas, Mack was the youngest of his farm worker parents’12 children. He grew up working in the fields, picking cotton around the hot, dry and dusty farm town. After graduating from high school, he joined a brother in Las Vegas where he made a living hustling pool.
By 1965, Mack migrated to Bakersfield. He found work driving a cotton-picking machine and disking fields with a tractor – claiming experience he didn’t have, but learning the skills fast enough to mask his inexperience. When Latino and Filipino American farm workers walked out on strike against Delano-area grape growers that fall, pickets showed up at the grape vineyard where he was working, Mack and some friends “figured that we should find something else to do.”
Mack went to work in the grape vineyards around Arvin, Calif. owned by the vast DiGiorgio Fruit Corp. fruit-growing empire. That spring and summer witnessed a strike and boycott led by Cesar Chavez’s UFW against DiGiorgio (the fictional Gregorio Fruit Corp. in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath). Mack became interested in the UFW “because I did some farm work back in Texas, and it was real hard. I would be in the field and, man, I would be thinking, I wonder why in the hell do people have to work this hard…I was wishing, how come the hell something can’t happen to help people like this, to make their lives a little bit easier, a little bit better.”
Mack was fired for supporting the UFW, but refused to leave the vineyards, even after the company told him to get out. He simply ignored the hollering foreman and kept on picking grapes. He returned the next day and kept on working and guessed they forgot they had fired him. “Mack Lyons, a black farm worker from Texas, played a very important part in that fight,” Cesar Chavez later told his biographer, Jacques Levy. “He was aggressive, worked hard, and got caught on fire. The blacks were a very small percentage of workers at Arvin, but the Chicanos, Puerto Ricans and whites responded to him so well that they elected him their leader.”
After DiGiorgio workers voted for the UFW in a union election, handing the fledging union one of its earliest victories, Mack worked full time for the UFW, running the union’s Lamont field office south of Bakersfield. When threats were made on Cesar’s life, Mack organized his security detail. Mack traveled with Cesar across the country, including a fall 1969 national tour to promote the UFW’s international boycott of California table grapes.
Along with his wife, Dianna, whom he married in 1969, Mack was assigned that year to help organize the grape boycott in New York City. He was in charge of boycott activities in the Bronx. The boycott became so successful that organizers resorted to following the few retailers that bought grapes at New York’s Hunt’s Point wholesale market, to their stores and fruit stands; set up picket lines and persuaded the retailers to return the grapes to the wholesalers.
Mack returned to California in summer 1970 as the massive Salinas lettuce strike was unfolding—along with a new boycott, of head lettuce. Mack and Dianna Lyons were dispatched to Cleveland, Ohio to organize the lettuce boycott. Their work in Cleveland earned the union and the Lyons such lasting friends as future Ohio governor Dick Celeste and former presidential candidate, Dennis Kucinich. They left for central Florida during a blizzard in early 1972, after the UFW signed an historic union contract with the Coca Cola Co. covering its Minute Maid citrus groves.
Mack convinced Latino farm workers from Mexico, Puerto Rico and Cuba and black workers who were from the U.S. and the Caribbean who spoke different languages to realize they shared the same interests and to work together. He brought worker leaders from different ethnicities with him when he visited crews in the groves. Cooperation and close friendships evolved among people who didn’t know they had so much in common and even included former Ku Klux Klan members.
Mack was elected to the UFW’s National Executive Board during the union’s First Constitutional Convention in 1973. He moved to the UFW’s headquarters in Keene,
Calif. in 1976 to head up the union’s political action arm. By September he and Dianna moved to Sacramento where Mack oversaw legislative affairs at the state Capitol while Dianna finished law school. Mack coordinated political activities surrounding the union’s campaign for Proposition 14, a major statewide UFW-sponsored initiative.
He was very passionate about a unique campaign Mack organized to mitigate the devastating impacts of mechanization, which threw tens of thousands of farm workers out of work. The UFW didn’t oppose mechanization per se, but since most mechanization research and development was financed with taxpayer funds through institutions such as the University of California, the Union sought some consideration for the people whose livelihoods were wiped out by the machines—and to ensure farm workers had a shot at the remaining jobs. Mack set up a series of conferences around the state attended by farm workers, supporters and elected officials. UFW-sponsored legislation was also introduced.
Much of Mack’s focus in the mid- to late-‘70s was stopping agribusiness bills to gut or weaken the state’s landmark farm labor law. He also led efforts to defeat grower sponsored legislation that would have weakened California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act – the law that gave farm workers the right to organize, a right most other had under federal law since 1935.
Personal issues lead to Mack’s 1978 resignation from the UFW Executive Board. He trained Peace Corp volunteers for a time, and later launched a telephone and internet based small business consulting firm in Oakland that he and his sons ran and that his son Rick is continuing from Sacramento.
Although diagnosed with congestive heart failure twelve years ago, Mack continued working with the business until shortly before his death. During the past fifteen years, what he loved most and did best was being a loving grandfather. He leaves three sons: Mack Curtis Lyons Jr., Patrick Lyons from his first marriage; and Mack and Dianna’s son, Rick Jamison Lyons. His focus and passion during his later years was spending quality time with Mack Curtis’ Jr.’s daughter Jasmine and son Brandon; to Rick’s sons Rick Jr. and Jamison, and to three great nephews -- Dianna’s brother Richard’s grandchildren to whom he became a loving grandfather figure as Richard died before their birth.
Mack leaves behind three sisters -- Juanita Nickerson, Thelma Lee Perry, and Mary Brooks -- a brother, James Lyons, and at least 85 nieces and nephews whom he had planned to visit in Texas this month.