Ross Sr. took on the role of organizing director for the United Farm Workers of America beginning in the mid-1960s, more than a decade after his initial meeting with Chávez. Before that he brought African-Americans and Latinos together to fight segregation in Southern California and helped Japanese Americans return to their homes from internment camps following World War II.
Writer and organizer Saul Alinksy heard about his talents and hired Ross Sr. to organize and train Mexican-American activists in the East Los Angeles community of Boyle Heights, where Ross Jr. was born, in the late 1940s. The activists then helped thousands of people obtain citizenship and register to vote, and elected the first Latino to the Los Angeles City Council. It was there that Ross Sr. quietly but persistently demonstrated to others that he was capable of not only organizing people, but organizing people across racial and religious divides.
Ross Sr. helped train his own son in the tenets of community organizing, and joined Ross Jr. in the 1980s to teach a younger generation how to challenge the U.S. aid that was funneling to Nicaragua's right-wing contras. Through a campaign called Neighbor to Neighbor, father and son helped show a younger generation that they could spark true change.
"The organizer is deliberately behind the scenes," Ross Jr. said, "coaching, teaching, prodding, agitating. The organizer is not a leader but a teacher and a trainer of leaders."
And while Ross Jr. is certain his father would direct attention to others if he were awarded a medal, this renowned labor organizer in his own right thinks his father deserves recognition for teaching some of the most successful leaders in the country's history the techniques they used to effect change.
He is, by some accounts, the most important organizer in American history.
An Appeal to Like-Minds
The timing of the campaign for the medal is anything but random. If any president understands the impact Ross Sr. has had on the community, it's Barack Obama, Ross Jr. said. Obama, who spent part of his 20s mobilizing people in poverty-stricken neighborhoods on the southside of Chicago, has said that Chávez inspired him to become a community organizer. But it was Ross Sr. who inspired Chávez.
"Fred Ross gave me and so many others a chance, and that led to a lot of things," Chávez once said.
Initially, Fred Jr. had hoped to make this push in 2010, when his father would have turned 100. But life intervened and he was plagued with a series of health issues that put the idea on hold.
But when Dolores Huerta received a medal last year and DREAMers started putting themselves on the line for immigration reform. Fred Jr. took this as a sign to get started.
"I knew my father would have been out there with them," he said of the young undocumented immigrants pushing for comprehensive immigration reform.
Not to mention, when Obama was re-elected with an overwhelming share of the Latino vote in 2012, the time seemed right. Longtime friend Nancy Pelosi also encouraged him to give it a go.
"She gave me heart to go forward," he said of the Democratic House Minority Leader.