Fred Ross Was Orange County's Loss—But César Chávez's Gain

The legendary community organizer influenced a generation of Latino civil-rights activists. But in OC, he was run out of town

Fred Ross Sr. is one of the most influential Californians no one has ever heard of, a Johnny Appleseed of the state's civil rights movement whose influence is still felt today. As a young man just out of the University of Southern California, he ran a labor camp that John Steinbeck used as a basis for the utopian government commune featured in The Grapes of Wrath. Ross fought for the rights of Japanese-Americans during their World War II internment and worked for legendary community organizer Saul Alinsky. He helped orchestrate the rise of Latino power in Los Angeles during the 1950s and mentored a young César Chávez and Dolores Huerta before their United Farm Workers (UFW) campaigns, an episode only briefly covered in the current Chávez biopic but fondly recalled by both activists throughout their careers. Progressive historian Carey McWilliams once said of Ross that he was "a man of exasperating modesty, the kind that never steps forward to claim his fair share of credit for any enterprise in which he is involved."

Yet even in the autumn of his years, Ross never got over what he considered his one true "failure" as an organizer, according to his son, Fred Ross Jr.: In 1947, Orange County's power structure united to drive him out just as he was organizing the barrios of la naranja—and the Latino leaders he had schooled stood silent.

It's a tale exiled to the footnotes of Chicano Studies texts, forgotten by mainstream historians in light of Ross' more famous triumphs and scrubbed out of the Orange County story. But for his son—a respected organizer in his own right and currently working for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 1245 based in Vacaville, California—it's one of the great what-ifs in OC history.

Ross with Chávez
Courtesy Fred Ross Jr.
Ross with Chávez

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"If you look at some of the leaders that he helped train, and if you think about OC—who are the untapped leaders that he could've trained and mentored in OC?" says Ross Jr., who recently visited to give the keynote speech at the Orange County Interfaith Committee to Aid Farm Workers' annual dinner. "And they, in turn, would've gotten leadership roles in Orange County. That's the big loss."

Ross père found his organizing chops in two of Orange County's most formative Mexican-American civil rights events: the 1936 Citrus War, in which county leaders brutally suppressed an orange-pickers' strike, and the influential Mendez, et al. v. Westminster, et al. school desegregation case. In fact, according to his son, Ross' first-ever political action happened during the Citrus War: "While he and his USC friends were trying to help the strikers, they ran into USC football players and frat boys who were going down to bash the strikers."

The young activist wouldn't return to Orange County until 1946, when he was assigned to El Modena as part of his work for the American Council on Race Relations (ACRR) to organize in Southern California's Citrus Belt, areas with significant Mexican-American barrios but no political power. El Modena parents were fighting the school district in court as part of the Mendez, et al. case but wanted to push the trustees further. Parents had unsuccessfully tried to run a Latino for school board, and that's when Ross came in and taught Latino parents the power of the ballot box.

"Fred Ross said, 'We'll get [the Latino candidate in] next time, because we'll start recruiting voters,'" said Hector Tarango, an Orange County civil rights activist, in a 2005 oral history. "So we started."

With Ross' help, El Modena parents elected the first-ever Latino to an Orange County elected office, even after trustees shut the polls down right after lunch in an effort to discourage the Mexican vote. But Ross didn't stop there. He set up voter registration drives in Fullerton, Placentia and Santa Ana, training future community leaders who'd get elected to city council and school boards in the 1950s and 1960s. During this time, Ross perfected what he later called the "house meeting" approach to organizing: Ross would ask an interested person if he could give a presentation to their neighbors in a home setting, then he'd make the same request to those who attended. From there, Ross bounced across Latino OC, preaching the gospel of community politics.

"So Fred started having these series of meetings, and soon he called them all together," Huerta told an audience at UC Santa Barbara during a 1985 conference, explaining how Ross taught her and Chávez how to organize. "And they started on this voter registration drive, got people elected to the school board and eventually ended the segregation in that town [of the school system]."

Ross was successful—too successful. On Cinco de Mayo, 1947, the Associated Farmers of Orange County, the powerful group that controlled OC politics at the time, sent a letter to the very Latino leaders Ross trained, warning them that the ACRR was "so infiltrated with communists and fellow travelers that now rather than functioning as organizations for the promotion of better race relations [they] have become subservient to the aims and purposes of the Communist Party.

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If Chavez and Ross really wanted to help poor Latinos why didn't they do more to help them learn English and go to college..  That would have been the most sensible way out of poverty .. Oh that's right.. They were trying to turn them into good communists .. 

Marie Dixon
Marie Dixon

Better be making your life choices not based on pursuit of fame nor fortune. Un idea that needs a comeback.

sweetliberty17761776 topcommenter

In 1969, Chavez and members of the UFW marched through the Imperial and Coachella Valleys to the border of Mexico to protest growers' use of undocumented immigrants

the UFW and Chavez went so far as to report undocumented immigrants who served as strikebreaking replacement workers (as well as those who refused to unionize) to the Immigration and Naturalization Service

What would the Dems call him now

especially if those FACTS as stated above were included by all who speak and/or write about him

Mick Slick
Mick Slick

Well, interesting to say the least; Having read Fred Ross's story, it seems to differ from my father had told me about life in the Central Valley back the 20's and 30's. He explained to us that while one may have gone to school with Latinos, one did NOT go to school with okies. And I have class photos from the 30's, taken in Salinas, to attest to this.


Thank you for keeping this history alive.  Fred Ross is never forgotten to those of us who study Labor history or Chicano history, or who are actively engaged in these movements.  He worked closely with Congressman Ed Roybal at the beginning of his career.  He played a critical role in forming the CSO and helping ordinary people learn how to engage in political action, so that politics isnt just for the rich and the powerful.  Today his legacy lives on in the thousands of people trained directly or indirectly by his style and influence.  The People of the OC's loss was L.A.s gain!

Anne Bagasao
Anne Bagasao

If anything of value has come from the Chavez bio-pic it's that it has brought to light a more in-depth history of the movement and lit a fire under the otherwise apathetic and unconscious asses of my community who suddenly all seem to know about the Delano Manongs.

JGlanton topcommenter

Thank god the OC chased off that vile Alinskyite. Their only goal is to destroy our country and our freedoms (revolution, yay) and replace it with a marxist dictatorship.  He also passed on Alinsky's example of abusing his workers to Chavez, working them to death for only $5/week for 16 hour days, 7 days a week. They had to beg for food to survive. When he wasn't rounding up illegal aliens and driving them back across the border.  Orange County was lucky to get rid of the cretin and the utterly corrupt power structure that inevitably follows places where "organizers" have had an impact.

sweetliberty17761776 topcommenter


I do agree that it is very important 

the essence of a democracy to have all people participate

can you explain to me why , as a group, latinos, stereotypically hard working folks,

continue to vote for the party that hurts the middle class hence the poor the most, the dems



So reptilian logic comes to the conclusion that it was Chavez that owned the land and raised the crops and set the price of wages paid to the workers he hired to harvest those crops?? And here I thought all these years he was working tirelessly to help organize the farm workers and fight to change the very conditions you just described. I've been such a fool not to close my mind to historical facts before now. It so liberating not to have to worry about actually knowing what the hell I'm talking about. Thank you! 

GustavoArellano moderator editortopcommenter

@JGlantonAs Tarango said: "This is what we're doing. We're parents of kids and want to end segregation. We're registering our fellow citizens, we're helping people to become citizens. What is un-American about that?"

Nice to see you support segregated communities, cretin. Just go slither back to the OC Register already, and leave the discussion to the adults. 

sweetliberty17761776 topcommenter

@GustavoArellano @JGlanton  


but it doesnt change NOR DID you ( or could you?)  

refute what JGlanton posted

as far as wanting to "end segregation"

that is a lie

to "end segregation" means you are willing to denounce Sec 8 housing etc 

B/c to TRULY end segregation you have to ADMIT

that people should live in homes they can afford

not ones that subsidized which is a nicer way of saying forced

you ready to make that leap Gustavo??

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