Fred Ross is an organizing legend. Best known for his recruitment and training of Cesar Chavez, Ross also pioneered the house meeting, Latino voter registration, and Get out the Vote campaigns in communities of color. Ross created the organizing template for decades of successful grassroots campaigns, and two decades after his death his voter outreach strategies helped elect Barack Obama.
Despite Ross’ remarkable success, Gabriel Thompson’s new America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century is the first biography of his work. Thompson’s depiction of Ross raises profound questions about the importance of grassroots organizing, its most successful methods, and the obstacles to its success. Ross treated organizing as a craft to be learned and honed. Nobody in the twentieth century practiced the trade longer and more diligently than Ross.
Becoming an Organizer
When Fred Ross began college at USC in 1932, few would have predicted he would become a lifelong organizer. His life trajectory turned when he became friends with Eugene Wolman, a Jewish student sympathetic to progressive causes including the Communist Party. Wolman connected Ross to activist campaigns and in 1936 the two drove to Orange County to support striking Mexican-American citrus workers. Football players from USC were serving as security guards and used baseball bats to beat strikers.
Such was Fred Ross’ introduction to California’s agricultural labor system, and to learning “what a strike is.”
After graduating in 1936, Ross worked to get a teaching credential while Wolman left to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain. Wolman was killed in 1937, leaving a legacy of having inspired Fred Ross to a lifetime of service. Ross felt guilty about not having gone to Spain himself, and it contributed to his feeling that no matter how hard and long he worked he had not had to pay the ultimate price for his values.
Ross deepened his commitment to the poor in 1937 as a caseworker for the State Relief Administration. This was during the Depression, a period whose high unemployment still confronted the widespread belief that those without jobs were “lazy” or “did not want to work.” Ross heard so many stories from co-workers about clients illegally working despite getting relief checks, and those suffering from “welfare dependency” that he sought to personally prove that those who wanted to work earn enough to not need welfare. But after working twelve hours in the fields tying carrots and coming home with 84 cents to show for it, Ross learned the truth. Ross got a further lesson in how the world actually worked when after relaying his experience in the fields he was sanctioned by his supervisor for “unprofessional behavior.”
By his mid-twenties Ross had critical experiences that pushed him toward organizing the poor, Mexican-Americans, and farmworkers. He deepened these connections in 1939 when he moved to the San Joaquin Valley while working for the Farm Security Administration’s relief office. Ross’s boss offered him two lessons that the budding organizer would always carry with him: really get to know the people you are working with, and put in the time it takes to get it done. Ross would carry out this practice while working for the Arvin Migratory Labor Camp (which became the model for the camp portrayed in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath). Ross saw firsthand the low-wage labor practices in Kern County, ignoring orders from his new boss that he stay neutral when the cotton workers in his camp went on strike.
Although the strike failed, it cemented Ross’ commitment to unions and recognition of farmworker exploitation. Ross’ identification with the oppressed then took a new form when Japanese-Americans were ordered to be relocated to internment camps. Ross saw this tragic chapter of American history as unnecessary and immoral, and went to a large camp in Idaho to help internees make the best of a deplorable situation (Ross was declared physically unfit for military service). He later worked in Cleveland to place Japanese-Americans in defense jobs, where his people skills again brought results. By war’s end Ross would return to the mission that would dominate his organizing life: promoting the social and political empowerment of California’s Mexican-Americans.
Ross Pioneers Latino Organizing
Thompson reminds us that in post-WW2 California, Mexican-Americans were treated a lot like African-Americans. Movie theaters forced them to sit in the worst seats, businesses posted “WHITE TRADE ONLY” signs, and deed restrictions prevented them from buying homes in white neighborhoods. Segregated schools offered an inferior education designed to give Mexican-Americans few job options other than low-wage work in the fields.
In Riverside in 1946 Ross chose a strategy to combat these injustices that he would follow throughout his career: mobilizing minority voters to force action from the white power structure. After Riverside sought to pass a school bond to improve the whites’ only school, Ross suggested that the city’s Latino and African-American residents mobilize to defeat it. The effort began by getting minorities to become voter registrars, who then registered voters. The white political leadership faced a choice: either desegregate the schools or a block of minority voters would defeat the bond. Riverside leaders chose the former.
Ross followed this with a campaign in a nearby town to unseat a Council member unresponsive to Latino concerns. Ross built support by holding small meetings and then asking those in attendance if they knew others who would be interested in getting involved. The house meeting was then born, which would later become the foundation of Ross and Cesar Chavez’s organizing of the farmworkers movement.
I describe in Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century how Fred Ross’s strategy for Edmund Roybal’s 1949 Los Angeles City Council campaign created the template both for later UFW statewide election victories in California and for Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. Thompson shows that Ross previewed this model on a small scale three years earlier in the Riverside county town of Casa Blanca. All the components were there —voter registration, door to door outreach, house meetings, multiple meetings of organizers each day, and as detailed and intensive Get Out the Vote operation as likely existed anywhere in the United States up to that point. Ross had a map of every home in Casa Blanca. He dispatched cars to pick up voters, arranged babysitters so parents could go vote, and when outreach workers failed to get someone to vote Ross got local priests to make personal visits.
On Election Day, the incumbent whose seat was targeted by Ross was so confident of victory that he spent the afternoon at a Council meeting voting against an antidiscrimination bill. He ended up losing his seat by 63 votes, with 47 of that margin coming from Casa Blanca.
The Roybal Campaign
Casa Blanca led to Ross’s campaign to elect Edward Roybal as the first Mexican-American on the Los Angeles City Council. Roybal’s district included Latinos as well as those living in the progressive stronghold of Boyle Heights (now waging a major battle against gentrification). Ross’s Community Service Organization (CSO) registered thousands of new Latino voters, connecting Roybal’s election to the past community struggles to obtain city services.
As Thompson describes, by 1949 Ross was operating a “grassroots machine.” Roybal won in a landslide, a tremendous breakthrough for Mexican-American politics in Los Angeles. Despite the historic victory, Ross saw evidence throughout the campaign of Roybal trying to diminish the organizer’s importance. Roybal often “forgot” Ross’s first name in public and tried to take credit for work Ross had done. Thompson notes that this experience taught Ross that he was happier organizing people “to move politicians to do what they wanted,” than in engaging in electoral politics.
Roybal’s victory should have led foundations and liberal donors to provide ample financial support for Ross and the CSO. But in a theme that dominates much of Ross’ fourteen year career with the CSO, his focus on directly organizing and empowering the poor and working class was disfavored by those with money; they preferred to fund conferences and Mexican-American “agenda setting” by middle class groups like the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). Ross’ inability to raise sufficient funds was the major factor in his leaving the Los Angeles division of the CSO in 1951.
Ross’s shift north in 1952 led him to recruit a young Latino named Cesar Chavez to become a CSO organizer. Thompson amplifies a point I make in my book that for all his legacy as the UFW founder and leader, Chavez was a remarkably successful community organizer. He and Ross were a great team, and the San Jose CSO chapter grew and won key victories.
Ross’s move to Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation temporarily eliminated his money troubles, but Alinsky’s policy was to fund groups for only three years. So despite Ross building Latino empowerment across California through the CSO, his inability to raise money created constant pressure. Ultimately the CSO died due to a lack of stable funding, an all too common experience in the organizing world.
The UFW Years
Fred Ross is probably best known today for recruiting and training both Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. His role in mentoring other UFW organizers, organizing the historic grape boycott, and winning a key UFW election has been described in my book and others. Thompson provides a truncated version of the UFW’s rise and fall, with the salient point being that Fred Ross saw Cesar Chavez begin to turn away from the mission of organizing farmworkers and remained silent. Ross’s deep affection and admiration for Chavez weakened his customary all business approach, but given Chavez’s paranoia and willingness to cut off anyone who challenged him, Ross’ raising objections would have simply added him to the ranks of those alienated from the UFW leader.
Ross was 69 years old when Cesar Chavez expedited his expulsion of those he deemed UFW “traitors.” Ross had spent more hours engaged in the nuts and bolts of community organizing during the preceding forty years than likely anyone. He continued to assist through the late 1980’s on projects like his son Fred Ross Jr.’s Neighbor to Neighbor to stop U.S. military assistance to El Salvador’s government and the Nicaraguan Contras. Those who first got training from Ross in Neighbor to Neighbor were as impressed by his tenacity, organization, and strategic savvy as were those in rural California fifty years earlier.
Ross’s Ongoing Legacy
In the closing of The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck, who modeled a character in the book after Ross, has Tom Joad telling his mother that he is leaving the family to fight for justice: “I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there… and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.”
As Gabriel Thompson shows, Fred Ross was the Tom Joad of the 20th Century. The diversity of his fights, from defending Japanese-American internees to Mexican-Americans beaten by police to African-American and Latino schoolchildren—may be unrivaled.
In Beyond the Fields I describe how Ross’s legacy extended to the building of the immigrant rights movement, the building of Latino political power in California and nationally, and even to the grassroots electoral strategies that brought Barack Obama to the White House. Thompson shows that building this legacy took a steep toll on Ross’ personal life, as he virtually spent years on the road away from his wife and kids.
But Ross felt deeply, as he stated in his legendary Axioms for Organizers, that organizing had to be done the right way and that “short-cuts usually end in detours which lead to dead ends.” Ross never regretted his life choices, and the United States is a better nation because of him.
This is an absolutely must-read book for organizers, those interested in organizing, and those interested in how to achieve progressive social change. It is also perfect for book groups, inspiring discussions sure to go far into the night.
Randy Shaw is also the author of The Activist’s Handbook and The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco.Filed under: Book Reviews