For more than a half-century Fred Ross was among the most influential, skilled, dedicated and successful of the community
organizers who have done so much for the underdogs of American society.
Yet most people have never heard of Ross, a tall, gray, lean man, a quiet but fiercely committed man who died in California
15 years ago this month at age 82.
That, however, is exactly how Fred Ross wanted it. He saw his job as training others to assume leadership and the public
recognition that accompanies it. And train them he did, hundreds of them, including farm worker leader Cesar Chavez.
Chavez was a typical Ross trainee - a poor, inexperienced member of an oppressed minority who was inspired to mobilize
others like him to stand up to their oppressors.
"Fred did such a good job of explaining how poor people could build power I could taste it," Chavez recalled.
Chavez was among the Mexican-Americans living in California's barrios in the 1950s that Ross, then with Saul Alinsky's
Industrial Areas Foundation, was helping form political blocs to demand improvements in the woefully inadequate community
services provided them,
Ross' approach was, as always, to get people to organize themselves, and he sensed correctly that young Chavez was "potentially
the best grass-roots leader I'd ever run into."
Within just a few years, the small organizations formed by the residents of particular barrios joined into a potent statewide
group, the Community Services Organization, headed by Chavez.
A few years later, Chavez founded what became the United Farm Workers union. It was the country's first effective organization
of farmworkers precisely because it was built in accord with Ross' principles - from the ground up by Chavez and other farmworkers
relying heavily on such non-violent tactics as the boycott.
Ross had started out to be a classroom teacher after working his way through the University of Southern California in
1936. But he could find no teaching jobs in that dark year of the Great Depression. He took other public work, eventually
managing the federal migratory labor camp near Bakersfield, California, that novelist John Steinbeck used as the model for
the camp that had a central role in "The Grapes of Wrath."
Fiction though it was, Steinbeck's account was accurate. Conditions in the camp were deplorable. So were the conditions
imposed on the migrants by the local growers for whom they worked.
But the migrants organized themselves to win better living and working conditions, thanks to young Fred Ross. He went
from cabin to cabin and tent to tent - every morning after daybreak, encouraging camp residents to form the organizations
that helped improve their conditions.
Ross had found his life's work. He would become a full-time organizer, a task he described as being "a social arsonist
who goes around setting people on fire." Never was Ross paid more than a marginal salary, sometimes no more than room,
board and expenses, but never would he falter.
His goal was "to help people do away with fear - fear to speak up and demand their rights - to push the people to
get out in front so they could prove to themselves they could do it."
Ross left the migrant camp to work with the Japanese-Americans on the West Coast who were herded into internment camps
during World War II. Ross, then with the American Friends Service Committee, helped internees win release by finding them
jobs in the manpower-short steel plants and other factories in the Midwest that produced vital war materials.
After the war, he returned to southern California to help African-Americans and Mexican-Americans fight against housing
and school segregation. They fought effectively, too, against police brutality and elected Los Angeles' first Hispanic City
Ross also worked in Arizona, helping Yaqui Indians get sewers, paved streets, medical facilities and other basic needs
that had been denied their communities.
Ross' most ambitious and probably most satisfying work came during his 15 years of training hundreds of organizers and
negotiators for the United Farm Workers from the UFW's inexperienced and long oppressed rank-and-file members.
Ross kept at it for virtually the rest of his life - organizing grass-roots campaigns for liberal politicians, joining
his son Fred Jr., a highly regarded organizer himself, in the national campaigns against U.S. policies in Central America,
and working with anti-nuclear and peace groups.
It was not until just four years before his death, when Alzheimer's Disease struck, that he finally stopped.
Fred Ross was an organizer's organizer, a trailblazer, a pioneer. He was - and he remains - a vitally important model
for those seeking to empower the powerless and to truly reform, if not perfect, this imperfect society.
"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," noted Jerry Cohen, formerly the UFW's general counsel.
"He was a giant," said filmmaker, playwright and former UFW activist Luis Valdez."He was an uncommon common
Copyright © Dick Meister