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

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.

“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.

“We suggest,” the letter continued, “that it would be in [your] best interest . . . to refrain from any association” with Ross.

Shortly after, those same Latino leaders were called to a meeting at the Orange County District Attorney's Office. There, OC DA James Davis and Los Angeles Archbishop John Joseph Cantwell told them in no uncertain terms to run Ross out of town. Decades later, Tarango told Ross Jr. what happened during that meeting: “Hector told me that he told the DA and the bishop, '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?'”

Bishop Cantwell responded that OC's Latinos just “didn't understand,” and that Ross was “a real subversive character.” Only Tarango sided with Ross; the other leaders quietly told their mentor his help was no longer needed. Undeterred, Ross moved to Boyle Heights the next year and started Community Services Organization (CSO), the group that would help elect Edward Roybal to the Los Angeles City Council and eventually hire and train a young Chávez.

“He invited Tarango for the CSO chapter dinner shortly after it started,” Ross Jr. says with a laugh now. “And Dad told him, 'Hector, I learned from my failure in OC.' And the lesson he learned, from then on, before he started any drive, he'd introduce himself to the bishop and DA. And he never failed after that.”

The momentum that Ross had started in OC came to a halt—after Mendez, et al., Orange County wouldn't see any noticeable civil rights victories for Latinos until the tenant strikes of the 1980s. Los Angeles, on the other hand, changed radically with Ross' influence—and the story of the UFW, of course, is well-known.

Ross Jr. is trying to get his father inducted into the California Hall of Fame and awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor. And though Orange County didn't want Fred Ross, it did serve as motivation for the rest of his life.

“One of Dad's favorite sayings was, 'The organizer is a social arsonist that goes around setting people on fire,'” Ross Jr. says. “'The organizer is the catalyst or the spark. The embers are there—you've just got to reach inside there and fight back against the injustices.'”

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