Honoring Fred Ross Sr.: With Cesar Chavez, he formed the UFW
By Peter Dreier and Manuel Pastor
San Jose Mercury News
June 17, 2014
The California Hall of Fame honors trailblazers who embody the Golden State’s innovative spirit. Previous inductees include Ronald Reagan, Steve Jobs, Barbra Streisand and Magic Johnson.
This year’s list included a much less familiar name: Fred Ross Sr.
Ross (1910-1992) had an enormous impact on reshaping California from the bottom up. He was a community organizer in San Jose when he became the lesser known partner, with Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, in building the United Farm Workers union. Chavez called Ross his hero.
Born in San Francisco and raised in Los Angeles, Ross attended the University of Southern California intending to become a teacher. Instead, the upheavals of the Depression led him to seek more direct ways to challenge injustice.
He organized Dust Bowlers and migrant farmworkers, and eventually became manager of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Arvin Migratory Labor Camp — the same camp John Steinbeck visited to write “The Grapes of Wrath.”
The only manager of California’s 29 camps who challenged the practice of racial segregation of whites and Mexicans, Ross later went on to work with the War Relocation Authority to help thousands of imprisoned Japanese-Americans get jobs and housing.
After the war, Ross spearheaded Civic Unity Leagues in California’s conservative Citrus Belt, bringing Mexican- and black Americans together to battle segregation. In Orange County, parents organized by Ross won a landmark lawsuit (Mendez v. Westminster School District) that paved the way for the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision in 1954.
In the late 1940s, Ross began working in California’s Latino barrios to build chapters of the Community Service Organization, an influential civil rights group that challenged police brutality, fought discrimination and expanded political participation.
In 1952, while Ross was building the San Jose CSO chapter, a nurse told him about a young Navy veteran named Cesar Chavez.
A resident of the neighborhood then known as Sal Si Puedes (now Mayfair), Chavez at first avoided Ross, thinking he was just a white sociologist curious about barrio dwellers’ exotic habits. But he finally agreed to meet with Ross, and Chavez recalled that “as time went on, Fred became sort of my hero. I saw him organize and I wanted to learn.”
So Ross trained Chavez (who became CSO’s statewide director) as well as a young teacher named Dolores Huerta, and Gilbert Padilla, a spotter in a dry cleaning establishment. In the 1960s, this trio joined forces to build the United Farm Workers union, as depicted in the recent Hollywood film “Cesar Chavez,” with Ross played by Mark Moses.
In his 15 years with the UFW, Ross trained 2,000 organizers who led strikes and consumer boycotts leading to the 1975 California Agricultural Labor Relations Act.
In the 1980s, Ross joined his son, Fred Ross Jr., at Neighbor to Neighbor to train local organizers to challenge U.S. policy in Central America.
Ross Sr. once said, “A good organizer is a social arsonist — one who goes around setting people on fire.” He listened to people and helped them channel their anger into the building of powerful and constructive grass-roots organizations.
That’s the kind of positive and solutions-oriented community-building we desperately need today. Ross’s induction into the California Hall of Fame will inspire another generation to continue making California a more humane place to live and work.
Peter Dreier is professor of politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. Manuel Pastor is professor of sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at the University of Southern California. They wrote this for this newspaper.