Meet the Mysterious Man Who Mentored César Chávez

Lawmakers want President Obama to award Fred Ross Sr. a Medal of Freedom.

March 17, 2013, 10:26 AM

March 19, 2013— -- In 1952, Fred Ross Sr. was combing the Latino barrios of San Jose, California, for places to hold house meetings. He was trying to build up a local chapter of the Community Service Organization (CSO), a grassroots effort aimed at empowering minority workers through everything from voter registration drives to lobbying campaigns. A nurse at one public health clinic in town suggested that he meet a then-relatively unknown labor organizer named César Chávez. He might be able to help, she said.

But Chávez wanted nothing to do with the white guy who showed up on his doorstep, and he asked his wife Helen to turn the man away. Ross Sr. returned later though, and an exasperated Helen told her husband that if he wanted the man to leave, he'd have to tell him himself. Besides, she said, he was driving a beat-up car and looked sincere. Chávez was suspicious but went out to the driveway to talk to Ross Sr. anyway, and reluctantly agreed to host the proposed house meeting. Unconvinced, Chávez then hatched a plan with a friend to drive Ross Sr. from the meeting with a volley of verbal insults.

Ross Sr. knew when he arrived to the meeting that he faced a suspicious audience. He was white and seen as an outsider. Already a successful organizer, he was well-aware that the root of his success was his ability to connect with people, and this was going to be a tough crowd. He knew just the way to do it. He was going to have to tell the story of a lifetime.

So Ross Sr. told the tale of how he successfully united blacks and Latinos in Southern California to build a case against L.A. police officers who brutally beat seven men on December 25, 1951, in what came to be known as "Bloody Christmas." The officers were eventually indicted -- the first grand jury indictments of serving Los Angeles Police Department officers -- and the incident resulted in the first convictions for the use of excessive force in the LAPD's history.

See Also: Photos: Community Organizer Fred Ross Sr. Through the Years

Chávez, in spite of himself, was hooked. His friend launched into their planned verbal assault during the meeting, but Chávez put a quick stop to it.

"You can go home," he told the man. "We changed the plan."

Who is Fred Ross Sr.?

César Chávez and Dolores Huerta became the public faces of the United Farm Workers movement that pushed for the fair treatment of laborers beginning in the 1960s. But it was Fred Ross Sr. who played a pivotal role behind the scenes.

Now there is a push from hundreds of labor leaders and politicos to recognize the impact one Caucasian man from California had in shaping the work of renowned community organizers. His son, Fred Ross Jr., is leading a campaign that asks President Barack Obama to award Ross Sr. the highest civil honor in the country - a Medal of Freedom.

Ross Sr., who died in 1992 at the age of 82, never looked for recognition. The San Francisco-born, University of Southern California-educated community organizer saw it as his duty to teach others how to mobilize and fight injustice for themselves. He started out as an organizer of migrant workers in the same California labor camps depicted by John Steinbeck in "The Grapes of Wrath."

The reason for his initial foray into community organizing was simple.

"He just had to do something about injustice," Ross Jr. said.

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.

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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