Fred Ross: America’s Social Arsonist

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"A good organizer is a social arsonist who goes around setting people on fire."—Fred Ross
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Raised by conservative parents who hoped he would “stay with his own kind,” Fred Ross instead became one of the most influential community organizers in American history. His activism began alongside Dust Bowl migrants, where he managed the same labor camp that inspired John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

InAmerica’s Social Arsonist (University of California Press, 2016), Gabriel Thompson documents the life of Fred Ross. Ross worked for the release of interned Japanese Americans, and after the war, he dedicated his life to building the political power of Latinos across California. Labor organizing in this country was forever changed when Ross knocked on the door of a young Cesar Chavez and encouraged him to become an organizer.

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On a warm June evening in 1952, two figures approached the front door of a small, wood-framed house in East San Jose. The first, Alicia Hernandez, was a young nurse who ran a well-baby clinic out of a nearby church. Accompanying Hernandez was a tall, square-jawed man named Fred Ross, whose erect bearing made him appear taller still. Ross was new to San Jose and learning his way around this neighborhood, which locals called Sal Si Puedes.

Sal si puedes is Spanish for “get out if you can.” And there was plenty to get away from. Many streets were without lights, sidewalks, or sewers. A nearby packinghouse dumped refuse into a creek, and when it rained the creek over- flowed, flooding the neighborhood with toxins. Afterward, stagnant cesspools glistened in the sun for weeks, littered with the occasional drowned and decomposing rat. Two years earlier, residents had gathered signatures asking the city to pave the east side’s dirt roads. Nothing had happened. Mexicans were meant to pick and pack the valley’s fruits and vegetables, and stay quiet. Sal Si Puedes was the embodiment of what author Michael Harrington would call, in a decade’s time, the other America: separate, unequal, invisible.

Hernandez was a familiar figure, but many must have looked at Ross with a sense of puzzlement. White and wiry, with movie-star looks and a poor grasp of Spanish, he seemed in need of directions back to the freeway. The forty-one-year-old had recently moved to the Bay Area from East Los Angeles, where he had helped form the Community Service Organization (CSO). In five years, the group with an innocent name had turned the city’s growing Mexican American population into a political force. They registered thousands of new voters, elected a Spanish speaker to the city council, and waged a high-profile campaign against police brutality that helped put cops behind bars. “New England–style Town Hall with a touch of old Mexico has mushroomed in the socially bypassed hills, hollows and flats of Los Angeles, and the back streets will never be the same,” reported the Los Angeles Daily News.

After the successful experiment in Los Angeles, Ross dreamed of expanding the CSO into a statewide organization. San Jose was his first stop. Soon after landing in the city, he had linked up with Hernandez, who was enthusiastic about the project and had agreed to introduce Ross to families she thought might want to get involved. Tonight, she had brought Ross to meet a young man named Cesar Chavez.

In time, Chavez would rise to international fame as the public face of the farm-worker struggle. He would march until his feet were blistered and fast until he was faint. Millions of people would rally to the cause, refusing to eat grapes. But on June 9, 1952, when Ross showed up at his door, Chavez was still an anonymous twenty-five-year-old struggling to support his growing family. The young man knew little about organizing and was suspicious when he heard that “this gringo,” as he later put it, wanted to talk to him.

Two hours later, Chavez’s skepticism had transformed into wide-eyed enthusiasm. In his short life, Chavez had seen plenty that wasn’t right. His father had lost their ranch during the Depression, and much of Chavez’s boyhood was spent on the road, picking crops under a scorching sun. The problems seemed vast, the only solution to buckle down, work harder, and rise above. That night, Ross presented another option: Mexican Americans rising together. And he somehow made progress feel not just possible, but inevitable. “Fred did such a good job of explaining how poor people could build power that I could even taste it,” Chavez recalled. “I could really feel it. I thought, gee, it’s like digging a hole. There’s nothing complicated about it.”

When they met, Chavez would later say, Ross had been “about the last person I wanted to see. Then he started talking — and changed my life.”

“A good organizer,” wrote Ross, “is a social arsonist who goes around setting people on fire.” He began organizing after World War II, when he was in his mid-thirties, and he pursued this calling — and for Ross, it was indeed a calling — over the next four decades, until Alzheimer’s forced him to stop in the late 1980s. During those forty years he directed groundbreaking campaigns and pioneered tactics that are widely used today. But his greatest legacy is in the people he inspired and mentored, who went on to shape California and US history.

Ross shaped history too, of course. But he did so as an organizer who worked behind the scenes, and he was easy to miss. As far as I can tell, only five articles were written about Ross while he was alive. That he largely escaped public notice isn’t surprising. For Ross, an organizer was supposed to fade into the crowd as others stepped forward. As he wrote, “An organizer is a leader who does not lead but gets behind the people and pushes.” He spent his life pushing people to lead — in living rooms, in union halls, on picket lines — and in so doing; he pushed himself right out of the spotlight. That he is both an obscure figure and one of the most influential organizers in American history is not as paradoxical as it may seem. These dual facts are what caused me to write this book.

Ross was an unlikely radical. Born in 1910 to conservative parents, his turn to the political left occurred during the Depression. After graduating from the University of Southern California, he spent a decade working for the government, engaged in projects that he considered interesting and meaningful. But his life shifted into another gear when he discovered organizing, like an artist who has found his medium. His first campaign involved black and Mexican American parents who were protesting segregated schools. He spent many weeks away from his family, living out of motels. He worked so hard that he frequently made himself sick. Still, he was hooked. He was fascinated by the nitty-gritty of the craft, the daily efforts that were needed, as he once put it, to pull people “over the edge of their life grooves” into taking public action. This involved a lot of grunt work, like making endless house calls in neighborhoods like Sal Si Puedes. Some people, including Saul Alinsky — who worked closely with Ross for nearly twenty years — considered such work tedious. Ross found it

When I came across this recording, early in my research, I took the statement as bravado. Now I think he was telling the truth.

Ross did his most important work during the McCarthy era, when he crisscrossed the state to organize chapters of the CSO, occasionally tracked by the FBI and investigators from California’s Un-American Activities Committee. Historians have largely overlooked the CSO, perhaps in part due to its boring name. (Alinsky once complained to Ross that it made even “the Junior League sound militant.”) There is little doubt, however, that the organization altered the political landscape of California in ways that reverberate to this day. People could arrive at the CSO curious but skeptical. They often left, years later, as seasoned political actors who had tasted some measure of victory and wanted more. This confidence seeped into the following decades, when CSO leaders like Chavez and Dolores Huerta — whom Ross also recruited and mentored — founded what became the United Farm Workers (UFW). And when Chavez went about organizing the union, he did so using tactics he had learned from Ross.

That Ross felt his proper place was in the background is not to suggest that he was an especially modest man. He held a high opinion of his work and tended to be dismissive of people who proposed other organizing strategies. In the last quarter of his life, in which he trained thousands of organizers, he would often respond to suggestions by saying something along the lines of, “Sure, you could try it that way… but it won’t work.”

He also believed that only a select few — the word he used was “fanatic” — were cut out for organizing. An organizer had to be ready to shove aside all other priorities, no matter the personal consequences. (Ross practiced what he preached: twice divorced, he spent his later years living alone in a primitive one-room cabin.) And if someone burned out, he or she was a “loser” who was “just not committed enough.” This almost gladiatorial attitude inspired some people to become organizers, but it also led others to drop out. “Injustice never takes a vacation,” Ross liked to repeat, underscoring the need to push through without rest. But plenty of people found that they needed time to rest, relax, and pursue interests outside of work. Ross was an organizing fanatic, and this served his career — if not his family — well. But it shouldn’t be held up as the only model to emulate.

His ferocious internal drive meant that, aside from a few breaks to focus on writing, he was nearly always in motion. Fortunately, he left behind a rich archival record. Reports and other documents from his time as a government employee — when he worked with Dust Bowl migrants and Japanese Americans — have been preserved, as has significant material from his years with the CSO and the UFW. I have also been able to draw from the extensive correspondence between Ross and Alinsky, most of which hasn’t been seen by scholars, thanks to his son, Fred Ross Jr. Another important source of information was Ross’s own writings, along with his vast audiotape collection, which includes interviews he gave and trainings he conducted. Both can be found in his papers at Stanford University. Even short-lived projects — such as his one-year stint at Syracuse University, where he trained students in a controversial “War on Poverty” organizing initiative — generated boxes of archival material.

It took me four years to research and write this book. Along with examining archives in six states, I interviewed dozens of people, read widely in relevant fields, and scoured newspapers and census data for glimpses of Ross. But biography is a strange and obsessive creature, and I kept coming up with more questions, many of them ultimately unanswerable. Ross was a private person who rarely divulged details of his personal life, and there are gaps that I would like to fill in but can’t. Still, one doesn’t need to know everything about a person to know something important about that person. While trying to track down countless documents, I was often reminded that it is sometimes the small detail, or the story told as an aside, that can capture an essential characteristic, without which an individual doesn’t entirely make sense. So before diving into the narrative, let me share one story about Ross.

It is the second week of January in 1945. Ross is driving from Cleveland to California, accompanied by two Japanese American men. The US government had evacuated ethnic Japanese from the West Coast during World War II, and Ross’s two companions are among the first to legally return. They cross into Southern California on Highway 10 and stop for the night in Indio, a dusty desert city near Palm Springs. When they walk into a crowded restaurant, the room falls silent. After they take their seats, several burly men stand up and walk over, staring with hatred. Another man picks up the phone and calls the police, loudly reporting that “a couple of Japs” have walked through the door and predicting trouble. Ross hurries the men outside.

Back at the motel, Ross gathers what he calls his “propaganda” pamphlets and flyers that document the bravery of Japanese Americans who have volunteered for the army. He returns to the restaurant alone, armed with these papers, and proceeds to explain to the men, not all of whom are sober, that the Japanese are now welcome on the West Coast and that many fought honorably for their country. He stays until the men seem to agree with him. Then he picks up three meals and returns to the motel.

What struck me about this story? First, of course, was the measure of bravery involved in the act of returning to the restaurant. I would not have done so. Much easier to cut my losses and go somewhere else, especially since no one was there to judge. But more fundamental was what the decision to return revealed about how Ross thought about people. It only made sense to return if he believed that men threatening violence in one moment could be convinced that they were wrong in the next.

Ross had that kind of faith. His belief in the decency and potential of ordinary people ran deep, even though, as he had many chances to witness in his life — indeed, as he had just witnessed — ordinary people often behaved badly. They could be moved and transformed; they could act in ways that would surprise themselves. This conviction inoculated Ross against cynicism and probably goes a long way toward explaining why, unlike his onetime student Chavez, he never gave up on organizing. It didn’t matter how bad things had become or how many defeats had been suffered. An organizer could always go looking for the next person, because one never knew what the next person might be capable of.

To find more books that pique our interest, visit the Utne Reader Bookshelf.

Reprinted with permission from America’s Social Arsonist by Gabriel Thompson and published by the University of California Press, 2016.

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