He Spent a Lifetime Fighting for the Poor


By Rick Rodriguez for the Sacramento Bee



Just about everybody likes an underdog.

Fred Ross Sr. loved them, so much, in fact, he spent his life helping them fight their causes.

As director of a farm labor camp near Arvin in 1939, he befriended poor Oklahoma dust bowlers who had migrated to the southern San Joaquin Valley.

During the war years, he worked with Japanese-American internees, ultimately assisting many in finding new jobs and building new lives.

After the war, Ross organized “unity leagues” in Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange counties, helping Mexican Americans fight segregation in schools, skating rinks and movie theaters.

A year later, Chicago-based community organizer Saul Alinsky hired Ross to teach Latinos in Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights barrios how to improve their living and working conditions.

Some were skeptical of the tall, slender, bespectacled man. In fact, Ross later would recall telling members of the Boyle Heights community: “I’ve got two strikes against me and I know it. First, I’m an outsider and second, I’m an Anglo. I hope you keep those doubts because having them is healthy. I hope you’ll hold onto them until I’ve had time to prove you’re mistaken.”

He did and then some.

Under Ross’ leadership, the Community Service Organization he founded in Boyle Heights helped register 50,000 new voters, which led to the election of the first Latino to the Los Angeles City Council.

At a time when McCarthyism and criticism of social activism were peaking, the Community Service Organization managed to grow. By 1952, it had expanded north to San Jose. There, Ross discovered a feisty young man working in the apricot orchards. He immediately saw what he had – a natural leader. The young man’s name was Cesar Chavez.

For the next 40 years, Ross was a mentor, friend and confidante of the man whose United Farm Workers movement helped to improve working conditions in the fields.

After learning of Ross’ death last Sunday of cancer in San Rafael at the age of 82, Chavez said, “He discovered me. He inspired me. He thought I had what it took to be an organizer. He gave me a chance. And that led to a lot of things.”

Ross was a steady, quiet hero to many fighters for social change. Others with whom he crossed swords surely considered him an agitator. No one could say he didn’t get things done.

Authors Margaret Mead and Murial Brown observed Ross at work in 1964 in Guadalupe, Ariz., where he was trying to help impoverished Yaqui Indians and Mexican Americans get basic municipal and health services.

“At first it was hard for anyone . . . to see what Ross was doing because he just seemed to be talking with anyone who would stop and talk with him. But because he was talking with townspeople about their problems and their feelings he stimulated them to continue the discussion with others.

Those days in Guadalupe also made a lasting impression on his youngest son, Fred Jr., who at age 16 joined his father for a stint in the Arizona town.

“That summer changed my life. I always knew my dad was doing good work, but I’d never seen it.”

What young Ross saw was hope where there was none before. He saw 400 people who had never participated in the governmental process ask local officials to treat them fairly.

“I saw results. They got a post office. They got their own deputy sheriff. That night they got a pledge from the Republican chairman of the Board of Supervisors for paved roads. . . . I thought, “My, God. This is the greatest part of democracy, when people take care of their lives.’ ”

Young Fred later joined his father on the staff of the United Farm Workers. The elder Ross spent the better part of 14 years with the union, training organizers, directing strikes and organizing boycotts.

During the 1980s, Ross Sr. turned his energies to world peace, training organizers to oppose the nuclear arms race. He did his last training session in December 1988 for Neighbor to Neighbor, the San Francisco-based human rights organization that Fred Jr. runs.

Through all the years of organizing, Ross stayed mostly in the background, feeling that the best role for an organizer was to help others become leaders.

Friends threw him a big party for his 75th birthday. “A lot of people came out and thanked him. He loved being thanked but was not the kind of guy who needed it, ” Fred Jr. said.

His friends and survivors – including his children, Robert of Davis, Julia of Larkspur and Fred Jr. – will thank him again by raising money for a documentary about his life and with a public memorial service Oct. 17 at 2 p.m. at the Delancey Street Foundation in San Francisco.

He’s more than earned it.


RICK RODRIGUEZ’S column appears Saturday. Write him at P.O. Box 15779, Sacramento, 95852 or call (916) 321-1138.

Published Captions:

Publication:     THE SACRAMENTO BEE

Edition:           METRO FINAL

Section:           MAIN NEWS

Page:    A2