For more than half a century, Fred Ross, Sr. educated, agitated and inspired people of all races and backgrounds to overcome fear and despair. As he said, Ross’s goal was “to help people do away with fear, to speak up and demand their rights, to push people to get out in front so that they could prove to themselves that they could do it. “ He brought a passionate sense of justice, a focused energy and a matchless persistence to the craft of organizing.
Ross was a pioneer for racial and economic justice. In the thirties and early forties, he organized “Dust Bowl” refugees in the migratory worker camps that John Steinbeck wrote about, helping them form camp councils and self-governance. In the mid forties, he worked with Japanese Americans during World War II, helping them get jobs and housing as a precondition to getting out of the internment camps.
After the war, in the midst of KKK activity, he organized eight Civic Unity Leagues in California’s Citrus Belt, bringing Mexican Americans and African Americans together to battle segregation in schools, skating rinks and movie theatres. In Orange County he organized parents to fight the practice of segregation of local schools and successfully integrated School Boards across the Citrus Belt through voter registration drives and civic engagement. One of the most dramatic outcomes of his work in Orange County occurred when parents sued the School Districts and prevailed. (Mendez et al vs. Westminster School District, et al.) , creating the legal precedent and laying the foundation for the landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education decision.
In 1947 Saul Alinsky hired him to organize the Community Service Organization (CSO) in Los Angeles’ eastside barrio. The CSO activists helped 50,000 individuals obtain citizenship, registered 500,000 voters, elected the first Hispanic to the Los Angeles City Council, and won a major legal victory against police brutality directed at Mexican-Americans. In the early 1950s, he met Cesar and Dolores, recruiting them to the cause and becoming a lifetime mentor. Together with CSO leaders across California and Arizona, they successfully overcame voter suppression efforts and passed landmark legislation on behalf of immigrants.
In 1966 Fred Ross became the fulltime Organizing Director for the United Farmworkers Union (UFW) where he trained organizers for the strikes and boycotts for the next ten years. And the rest is history! Jerry Cohen, former UFW General Counsel stated, “Fred fought more fights and trained more organizers and planted more seeds of righteous indignation against social injustice than anyone we’re ever likely to see again.” In the 1980s, he joined me at Neighbor to Neighbor and trained another generation of organizers to challenge the Reagan foreign policy in Central America.
On the occasion of my father’s 80th birthday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said, “Fred Ross Senior left a legacy of good works that have given many the courage of their convictions, the powers of their ideals, and the strength to do heroic deeds on behalf of the common person.”
His influence continues through the thousands of leaders and organizers he trained. Today they are working day in and day out for immigrant rights, human rights, labor, and environmental justice and in electoral politics. Their work is his most enduring legacy.
This year marks my father’s 103rd birthday. To honor his living legacy, many of us want to explore having President Obama award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.