Meet the Mysterious Man Who Mentored César Chávez

Former President John F. Kennedy established the Medal of Freedom in 1963 as a way to recognize people who have made "an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors." The honor typically goes to about a dozen people each year. Names are usually announced in April.

Chávez got one posthumously in 1994, a year after his death. Now, Ross Sr. supporters believe it's his turn.

"You and President Clinton have bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and Justice Cruz Reynoso - three of Fred Ross Sr.'s students," wrote former Labor Secretaries Robert Reich and Hilda Solis in a letter to the president. "It is only fitting that this year, their teacher and mentor be recognized."

A Victory Regardless

Regardless of whether his father is awarded the medal, Ross Jr. considers the campaign itself a victory. There has been an outpouring of support from generations of activists. What they have done with their own lives is a powerful affirmation of his father's work, Ross Jr. said. Ross Sr. did, after all, develop so many of the techniques that have become standard practice in their own organizing.

He pioneered the house meeting style of community organizing that attracted Chávez, and he taught organizers how to recruit people by going door-to-door and speaking to them directly and individually. Huerta met Ross during a house meeting in Stockton, California, in 1955, and learned from him the grassroots organizing techniques that would become her life's work.

"We are all Fred Ross's alumni," Huerta wrote in a letter that calls for Ross to receive a medal.

"I consider Fred Ross Sr. my spiritual father," she wrote. "He had such a high ethic and integrity. He devoted his whole life to help build organization at the grassroots level. His organizing lessons included civic participation and the requirement to register voters and participate in civic action to make changes, always reminding us, 'You pay taxes, politicians and agencies work for the citizen.'"

The outpouring of support from Ross Sr.'s students has been overwhelming for his son. Everyone from Rep. Ruben Hinojosa (D-TX), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, to president of the AFL-CIO Richard Trumka has endorsed the medal campaign.

While Ross Jr. has received no word on whether Obama will choose to award his father the medal, he said he has heard indirectly that the White House is very impressed with the level of support the campaign has generated.

The White House declined to comment on the record for this article.

More than a call for a medal, Ross Jr. wants the effort to be a "massive public education campaign through the voices his father has inspired" so that fewer people will ask, "Who is Fred Ross?"

And it's working.

"We've already achieved far beyond my wildest imagination in terms of educating the public and reeducating the communities he worked with," an audibly emotional Ross Jr. said. "His legacy lives on today in the new generation - in the DREAMers and the LGBT community and environmental rights activists and across the board, it lives on."

If you would like to learn more about Fred Sr. or sign a petition to ask President Obama to award him the Medal of Freedom, go here.

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