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“Hopelessly heterogeneous…  Honeycombed with diverse and racial sub-elements….

Thus read the Federal Housing Authority report on the Boyle Heights neighborhood in Los Angeles in the summer of 1947, giving it the lowest rating to possible lenders.  Into this neighborhood a thirty-six year old Fred Ross moved, intent on applying lessons from his 11 years of organizing in rural California to the larger possibilities in a big city.  Police violence against minorities, discrimination in housing and lending, segregated schooling, lack of political power or representation in local governments were all crying out –to those who could hear– for solutions.

Since his graduation from USC in 1936 Ross had been busy.  A position with the State Relief Administration took him to the Depression ravaged skid rows doing relief work.  Then, with the Farm Security Administration to California’s Central Valley to manage migrant camps.

These were not migrants from Mexico–some 2 million had been deported over the course of the Great Depression, including many U.S. citizens-– but Dust Bowl refugees from Oklahoma, Arkansas and other drought stricken states.  Despite their citizenship and shared ethnicity, it was declared “that no greater invasion by the destitute has ever been recorded in the history of mankind.”  They were accused of “sordid, depraved acts,” of being “a different race …  shiftless trash who live like hogs.” Ross didn’t see them that way.  Despite a childhood of being kept separate from those “who are not our kind,” by his severely conservative mother, somehow he saw that whatever their conditions and behavior it came from lack of organization and power, not from innate racial or ethnic attributes.

In Arvin, California he took over the camp which John Steinbeck had visited and made into Weedpatch in The Grapes of Wrath. He encouraged camp democracy and the election of governing councils.  He allowed labor organizing in the camps, which his predecessor had halted with grower and police help.  In the late summer of 1939 cotton workers went out on strike; a communist organizer slept on the grass outside Ross’ tent; Woody Guthrie came to the camp to boost morale and fighting spirit .

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent Executive Order 9066 to remove ethnic Japanese from the West Coast, Ross was sent by the FSA to “facilitate” the process, trying to set up fair sales for farm land and equipment. Disturbed by what he saw, he became an advocate and organizer for the War Relocation Administration, finding locations and work for camp families in cities in the mid-west. From there he was hired by the American Council on Race Relations which had come into being in the wake of serious and savage white-on-minority violence in many cities during WWII.  He was to organize “councils for civic unity … to bring full democracy into race relations,” in Southern California.  This was the beginning of the rest of his life. He was thirty-six years old.

Books Social ArsonistAll this is ably chronicled in Gabriel Thompson’s America’a Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grass Roots Organizing in the Twentieth Century. Thompson became aware of Ross after a stint in a lettuce crew in California’s Imperial Valley, while planning a book on migrant labor.  Fortuitously reading Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and Peter Matthiessen’s, Sal Si Puedes, made him aware of Cesar Chavez, the best known of the founders of the United Farm Workers and more importantly, the man who had found Chavez (then a young man with an 8th grade education) and trained him for ten years grabbed his attention.  Chavez had been much written about, Ross not at all.  Thompson had found his project.

After years of research, laboring over Ross’s crabbed handwriting in the Stanford University holdings of his papers, and interviewing hundreds, including family members and many who had been trained by him, the book was published by the University of California Press in 2016.  It has been praised by many, including California Governor Jerry Brown and Robert Reich, the former Secretary of Labor.  I have seen, at book parties in Marin and Fresno, people line up to buy dozens of copies to hand out to friends.  This is the story of a man whose life was spent helping the poor and disenfranchised find a voice, a means to project it and a way to social and political equality.

Though it won’t substitute for an organizing manual, many of the elements are there:

  • attention to detail;
  • multiple reminders;
  • not taking no for an answer;
  • persistence;
  • learning from failure;
  • let women lead;
  • this is your organization, not mine — get to work;
  • enable people to get what they want, not what the organizer wants.
  • have a fighting program.

And Ross had an axiom to cover most of them, some included in a nice appendix:

  • The Incidentals make up the Fundamentals;
  • Reminding is the essence of organizing;
  • “Maybe” is a double, triple, “No!”

His weapons of choice were house meetings to talk up current issues — lack of sidewalks, inadequate sewage, police brutality– identification of leaders with energy, subsequent house meetings called by new members, voter registration (widely and crudely suppressed in most areas), voting local politicians out of or into power, showing up at decision points —  city council meetings, politician’s offices.

More than a book of praise for an extraordinary man, Thompson lets us see the man.  Interviews with his children, now in late-middle age, reveal a father who, in his own words, “was a failure.”  Thompson lets us see painful scenes with Francis, his second and very supportive wife, stricken with polio and essentially left on her own.  His first son, by his first wife, was brought into the family and raised by Francis, through years of abandonment reaction.  Ross saw all this, and blamed himself.  He couldn’t let go of the obligations he had undertaken with those he was organizing.  If he was going to miss something it was going to be the birthday, not the house meeting.

We don’t get any inner exploration of why this was so: nothing about deep motivations, conversion of parental/grandparental values into his own.  The recognition-egotism that drives so many public figures seems not to have been part of his character: he found local leaders and they took the limelight.  He was not a follower of any of the big ideologies.  The only one he had was his own: organize locally, around issues of importance, and grow.  He wasn’t without grander visions, especially as Chavez began to bring together farm laborers in California; there were national aspirations, perhaps international.  Farm labor was typically, and everywhere, excluded from labor agreements, unionizing rights, governmental recognition.  The time, for a while, seemed ripe to change that.

He was always mistrustful  of outside agencies and benevolent-seeming groups; he didn’t want the college educated in leadership positions — they were far too likely to identify with the upper social tiers in town; he did not like Alinsky’s ‘Organization of organizations’ model where various groups, already in place, federated.  It was too predictable that one or the other would try to take over the agenda for all.

One of the revelations of the book, especially for those who already have some idea or history of the United Farm Workers with Cesar Chavez, is the importance of the Community Service Organization (CSO) — for Ross’s maturing as an organizer, for the California Mexican-American community, for the education of Chavez (for ten years) as an organizer and, after both Ross and Chavez left, as the in-place network from which the UFW was built.  Though I myself worked for three years with the UFW and have read most of the books about, though I had heard often about the CSO and the pride of its early members, I was not at all aware of its foundational importance.   Just for that the book is worth reading.  The first significant success in organizing migrant farm labor in the U.S. did not happen by magic.  Years and years of laying the groundwork were vital. Ross invented the tools; Chavez, with Ross’s constant presence, grew them and used them to great effect.

They are still being used in campaigns across the country — from Howard Dean’s presidential run, to Barack Obama [the UFW “Si se Puede” became the Obama “Yes We Can”] and Bernie Sanders, from climate change activists to police brutality organizers.  Through the work of one of Ross/Chavez most successful practitioners, Marshal Ganz, the techniques and outlook, particularly the model of “public narrative,” have spread to Slovenia, Germany, Japan, India and Ghana and elsewhere.

The second revelation to some ,but not to many who worked in the UFW, comes in the last forty pages or so.  Necessarily, Thompson departs from the Ross dominated pages preceeding to follow the shrinking of the union.  Following the defeat of the UFW sponsored California Proposition 14 in November, 1976, purge followed purge, followed resignations, followed dissension in the workers ranks.   By 1980 the once strong and promising union was a shell of its former self. Ross wasn’t involved in much of it but knew of the implosion and was present for some of the very contentious meetings.  Many who were in the exodus felt he was the one person who might have intervened to keep Chavez from hurtling off the democratic leadership-growing path Ross had set him on.  He didn’t.   For those who don’t know about these years it will be unwanted news; for those who were there, and especially those who lived through it, it is simply sad, still, frankly, gut-wrenching.

America’s Social Arsonist, is more relevant today than either Ross, or Thompson, his writer, would like.  The issues which drew Ross into a life of organizing are more visibly present in this summer of Trump than for years before: fears of immigration, threats of deportation; a shadow great depression with hundreds of thousands not able to make a living despite steady employment, police brutality, voter suppression.  Too many of the articles and books tell us about what makes Donald Trump a roaring, and frightful success; too few say what can be done.  Fred Ross knew, and he did it.

“The thing I like most about Fred was there was no bullshit, no pretensions, no ego gimmicks; just plain hard work–at times grinding hard work.”  Cesar Chavez


[For more from Ganz, see The Leading Change Network.]

For another good, labor oriented review of the book see here.

For more about Thompson, here is his site, and here, more of his journalism.