Fred Ross (1910 – 1992) was an American community organizer. He founded the Community Service Organization (CSO) in 1948, which, with the support of the Industrial Areas Foundation, organized Mexican Americans in California. The CSO in San Jose, CA gave a young Cesar Chavez his first training in organizing, which he would later use in founding the United Farm Workers. Ross also trained the young Dolores Huerta in community organizing.
Ross worked with Edward Roybal and other Mexican-Americans to form the CSO in East Los Angeles, and Roybal became its first President. This chapter of the CSO became politically active and help to elect Roybal to the City Council of Los Angeles in 1949, the first Mexican-American to serve as such since the 19th century.
Experience in Organizing
In John Steinbeck’s famous novel, The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck describes the journey and tribulations of the Joad family, a group of migrant workers looking for work in California. He describes a labor camp that was based on a real camp in Arvin. Fred Ross Sr. was placed in charge of this camp shortly after Steinbeck left the area. Ross was later promoted to cover about 25 camps similar to this one all over California and Arizona. In the camps, Ross saw the poverty and poor working conditions experienced by the workers. He found in his heart the desire to organize, and he did so by earning the trust of the workers and beginning a form of self-government in the camp so that the workers could band together to fight to improve their conditions. He encouraged them to speak up and be heard, despite the fear of confrontation with power holders. After the war, Ross worked for the American Council of Race Relations, whose goal was to “create unity, and end the riots…between whites and minorities.” 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) in 1947 that paved the way for the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision in 1954. Ross began organizing and obtained the interest of Saul Alinsky, a well known organizer and head of the Industrial Areas Foundation. In September 1947, Alinsky hired Ross to organize Mexican-Americans in Los Angeles. He organized in Southern California for 6 years before moving on to San Jose, which was the largest Spanish center outside of Los Angeles.
Ross worked on voter registration in Riverside County, in the town of Belltown, where there was a segregation problem in the public schools. The Mexican and African-American children were all attending one school and the Anglo children were picked up by a bus and taken to another school. There was a bond election to provide funding to fix the predominantly Anglo school, but there was to be no money spent on the other school. The mainly Hispanic area was the Casa Blanca barrio, but their city council representative was an orange grower that refused to visit the people and address their grievances because of previous worker strikes against him. Ross, alongside numerous NAACP workers, registered voters in this area and unified the Hispanic community to vote against the orange grower in the city council election. Belltown eventually integrated the schools and the bonds passed. After this experience, Ross began to believe in the success of his type of organization. From then on, Ross and the CSO established two broad-based programs wherever they went – voter registration and citizenship classes.
It was during his organizing in Southern California that Ross developed the house-meeting technique that he would soon teach to Cesar Chavez; it would become the hallmark tactic of the UFW. Although many sources state Saul Alinsky trained Ross and Chavez, Ross claims it is not true. He says, “I’d been at it over a year before I met him.” The house-meeting technique involved about a three-week period in which Ross would hold small house meetings to build up to one large organizing meeting to set up temporary officers. Then there would be more house-meetings for several more weeks to lead up to another larger meeting to set up a working CSO chapter.
Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Fred Ross Jr.
Fred Ross Sr. trained a myriad of successful organizers during his lifetime. The most renowned of these organizers are Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and his son, Fred Ross Jr. Ross recruited Cesar while he was in San Jose; at first when Ross Sr. visited Chavez at his home, he was doubtful of his intentions. However, he soon saw that Ross was a man whose life calling was to help people in need. Chavez believed in Ross’s technique and after their first house meeting, he accepted Ross’s offer to join the CSO. That night, Ross wrote in his journal, “I think I found the guy I’m looking for.” Ross continued to be an advisor and confidant to Chavez for the remainder of his life even when Chavez split from the CSO and began his own union. Another young and intelligent organizer that Ross recruited was Dolores Huerta. She met him in Fresno in 1955. He showed her pictures of mobilized workers in Los Angeles and she knew she wanted to be a part of this organization. She began working with CSO in Stockton, helping run civic and educational programs. She soon met Chavez and so began their lifelong friendship and coalition to organize farmworkers. When Chavez decided to form his own union, the UFW, Huerta was shocked. However, “when the initial shock wore off, I thought it was exciting,” said Huerta. Huerta would be a main organizer and leader in the UFW until the late 1980s. Fred Ross’s son, Fred Ross Jr., followed in his footsteps by becoming a community organizer. He retained the tactics learned from his father and worked alongside both Chavez and Huerta. Ross Jr. played a large role in the Active Citizenship campaign, Gallo march, and other UFW events. Ross Jr.’s legacy remains in the national organization he began with the help of his father, Neighbor to Neighbor. Neighbor to Neighbor was founded in 1986 to recruit and train organizers to put political pressure on Congress to stop U.S. military aid to right wing forces in Central America. Neighbor to Neighbor employed similar techniques to the UFW, including a boycott of Salvadoran coffee, and provided a vital training ground for young activists to become the key organizers in the mid-to-late 1980s.
Ross is the author of Conquering Goliath: Cesar Chavez at the Beginning (El Taller Graphico Press; 1989 - ISBN 0-9625298-0-X) and Axioms for Organizers, a booklet produced by the Neighbor to Neighbor Education Fund (San Francisco, 1989).
Ross had three children, Robert, Julia, and Fred. Fred was named after his father.
Ross was inducted into the California Hall of Fame in 2014.
- A Trailblazing Organizer's Organizer, essay about Ross by Dick Meister
- The Fred Ross Papers at Stanford University
- Editors (2007) "Dolores Huerta Biography." Dolores Huerta Foundation.
- Library of Congress web site (2009)
- Levy, Jacques E. Cesar Chavez: Autobiography of La Causa. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1975. Print.
- Bruns, Roger. Cesar Chavez: A biography. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2005. Print.
- Shaw, Randy. Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California, 2008. Print.