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. During World War II, 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.
Until now there has been no biography of Fred Ross, a man who believed a good organizer was supposed to fade into the crowd as others stepped forward. In America’s Social Arsonist, Gabriel Thompson provides a full picture of this complicated and driven man, recovering a forgotten chapter of American history and providing vital lessons for organizers today.
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America's Social Arsonist
Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century
By Gabriel Thompson
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
All That You Do, Do with Your Might
BEFORE HE BECAME AN ORGANIZER, Fred Ross wanted to be a writer. He wasn't a particularly good writer, and his penmanship was often illegible. But throughout his life he would fill countless yellow notebooks with his left-handed scrawl, working on various versions of an autobiography that was never published.
In his writings he tended to repeat the same stories. There was the college party he attended, where he passionately argued in support of striking citrus workers until a woman boldly interrupted. "All you do is blab, blab, blab," she said. "When are you going to do something about it?" There was the episode, several years later, when he experienced the misery that can be farm work, spending twelve hours in the carrot fields and coming home, exhausted, with eighty-four cents to show for it. There was the Depression, when Ross took a job as a relief worker and visited his first client, an older man who had spent most of his life working in a cement quarry. The company had fired the man just days before he was to earn his pension. He now sat mute, staring at a blank wall in the corner while his wife sobbed. And there was, of course, the evening when Ross first crossed paths with a young Cesar Chavez, an encounter that would eventually be told so many times, by so many people, that it took on the power of a myth.
For Ross, these were the stories that explained who he was and how he had become that way. About his childhood he had less to stay, though it would also leave a mark.
Ross described his childhood home as located on a hill that also served as a status marker: the wealthier you were, the higher you lived. "We lived fairly close to the bottom," he remembered, "but not so close that we couldn't look down on other people." Above the Ross household lived lawyers and doctors; below, construction and service workers. When his parents sent him out to play with neighborhood kids, they always encouraged him to travel uphill.
The hill was in Echo Park, a middle-class neighborhood of Los Angeles kept entirely white by the restrictive racial covenants that forbid people of color and Jews from buying properties. To his parents, this homogeneity was both natural and desirable, but the effect on the youngster was a budding fascination with those kept out. The only person of color who entered the neighborhood was an African American woman who cleaned a neighbor's house, and the young Ross would press his face to the window when she passed. On occasions when the family drove through the city's east side, Ross recalled his father cursing the "goddamn dirty greasers" who clogged the streets with wedding processions, while Ross peered out at the forbidden territory, "launching dangerous exploratory expeditions from the carefully protected confines of the back seat."
His parents, Daisy and Frederick, did not share their son's curiosity. Ross's father was born in Evansville, Indiana, and had inherited the region's racial prejudices. The son of a postmaster, Frederick worked as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River before moving to Los Angeles in his early twenties and meeting Daisy Crowell. They married on March 23, 1908, with the Los Angeles Herald noting that the guest list was kept low despite the fact that "the bride is a popular young society woman." After the wedding, they left for San Francisco, where Frederick had found work in the advertising department of the San Francisco Examiner. Two years later, on August 23, 1910, the couple celebrated the birth of their first son, Frederick Williams Ross Jr.
The marriage of Daisy and Frederick wasn't without controversy. Daisy's parents, industrious owners of a modest hotel, had prepared their daughter for a life beyond the limited roles open to women. In 1905, Daisy had graduated from the prestigious Girls' Collegiate School, located in the West End neighborhood of Los Angeles. One private-school directory noted that the institution sent girls "to the leading colleges East and West," and Daisy had continued on to Stanford University, whose tuition was free. But to the chagrin of her parents, she dropped out of school to marry Frederick and became a housewife. (Daisy's brother attended MIT and would become a respected chemistry professor at UCLA.)
Soon after Ross's birth, the family returned to Los Angeles, where Frederick had landed a position managing automobile advertising for the Los Angeles Times. His politics meshed with the conservative paper, whose larger-than-life publisher, Harrison Gray Otis, waged an around-the-clock campaign to keep organized labor out of Los Angeles, calling unions "leeches upon honest labor." In 1910, after Otis spearheaded efforts to break a strike of metal workers, two union employees dynamited the Times headquarters, killing twenty-one people. The brazen attack, which occurred just before Frederick started his job, underscored the dangers represented by radicals and likely did little to soften the senior Ross's attitude to the working-class. Ross remembered both parents referring to poor people as "trash."
There is little to indicate that much tenderness — or even much of a relationship — existed between father and son. If Ross had any happy memories of his father, they went unrecorded. Daisy was the nurturer and the protector. One year, the boundaries of her son's elementary school district changed. On the first day of school, Daisy marched Ross to his new school and demanded a transfer. Her complaint? The new school taught both black and white children. She stomped into the principal's office and announced, according to Ross's childhood memories, that her son "didn't get along well with Negro children." Ross was embarrassed — he didn't even know any black children — but remained silent. When the principal refused to budge, Daisy put her foot down. "That's not the way my son's been raised," she exclaimed. "I've brought him up to stay with his own kind and that's the way it's going to be." The statement was racist, but it also took courage to make such a public stand. The principal eventually gave in and sent Ross back to the all-white school. Her son would later prove wildly disobedient: staying "with his own kind" was precisely the opposite of what the adult Ross would do.
The most formative event of Ross's youth was the divorce of his parents in 1921, when he was ten. After the divorce, Frederick dropped out of his son's life, remarried, and eventually moved to New York City, where he worked for the National Association of Manufacturers. After Frederick died in 1961, Saul Alinsky, who was estranged from his own father, mentioned the passing in a letter. "Knowing your relationship with him somewhat paralleled the relationship I had with my father, I am not going to engage in a lot of conventional condolences."
Ross never wrote in detail about the divorce, though it appears that his father was cheating on Daisy and that Daisy initiated the proceedings. More certain is that Daisy was suddenly responsible for raising two boysalone — Ross by now had a brother, Bob, younger by four years — and was forced to take a secretarial job in the office of the county assessor to make ends meet. She returned home from work exhausted and, in the eyes of her oldest son, paid far too much attention to little Bob. The divorce was a confusing affair for Ross, and he acted out, teasing and tormenting his brother. Daisy, overwhelmed, tried to discipline Ross, but nothing seemed to work. Finally, she began sending him across town to San Pedro, where her parents lived and ran their small hotel, called the Esterbrooke.
From then on, Ross arrived home from school every Friday afternoon to find his bag packed for the weekend. He would set off alone through a small African American neighborhood — a route Daisy expressly forbid him to take — and catch a streetcar that took him to his grandparents. Soon he was passing his summers at the Esterbrooke as well. Ross took the forced exodus hard. His father had disappeared, and now his mother was sending him away, while Bob stayed home and soaked up all of Daisy's affection. When he was home, Ross would sometimes retreat to his room, screaming hysterically and pounding his pillow. "I was so sad ... total rejection," Ross later remembered, convinced — as he would be for many years — that his mother loved his brother best.
In an attempt to win her affection, Ross wrote poems to Daisy. During high school, one of those poems, "I Love Her," was published in a local paper, whose editors noted that it had "attracted wide attention among Los Angeles literary people." An illustration of a stern-looking woman staring down at her child accompanied the verse. The two middle stanzas capture both the turbulence of the relationship and Ross's feelings of guilt:
She rants an' rages 'round the place,
An' swears by saints above 'er,
An' makes a terrible lookin' face;
But just the same, I love 'er.
Sometimes I pull a little trick.
An' thin I run fer cover.
'Cuz I ain't hankerin' for no stick;
But just the same, I love 'er.
Ross's doubts about his mother's love were mitigated by the affection displayed by his maternal grandparents, Lillie and Hiland Crowell, whom he called Nanny and Boppy. The Crowells had moved from Massachusetts to California shortly after Daisy's birth, settling in the small town of Santa Paula in Ventura County. Here they ran the general store, and after several years they had saved enough to purchase the San Pedro hotel, located near the water at 810 Beacon Street, where they lived and rented out half a dozen rooms. The Crowells were deeply religious Congregationalists, influenced by "a very strong Puritan and Calvinist strain," Ross recalled, who "put a lot of stock in such things as total and complete honesty, perseverance, tenacity." While Daisy could become hysterical at Ross's outbursts, his grandparents considered him "just a nervous little tyke" in need of the discipline only religion could instill. They also made it clear that he was special. His grandmother Lillie, in particular, drilled into the young boy the notion that he was a gifted child, with the makings of a great writer.
At the Esterbrooke, every night after dinner Ross happily wedged between his grandparents, listening to stories from an illustrated children's Bible. The young boy loved the tales, finding the pictures of a "jealous, wrathful, vindictive God" both unforgettable and a bit terrifying. One year, for his birthday, his grandparents gave him a new Bible, demanding that he commit verses to memory. He took up the challenge with gusto, eventually memorizing so many psalms that he became the junior pastor at his grandparent's Methodist church. This would later amuse Alinsky, as by adulthood Ross had completely shrugged off any interest in religion. But the stress his grandparents placed on values like perseverance and commitment grew deep roots. His grandmother drilled countless rhymes into Ross's head, each with a simple moral. Don't procrastinate. Don't complain. Don't give up. And don't ever do something halfway.
Sixty years later, Ross could recite many of the rhymes from memory, including one of his favorites: "All that you do, do with your might / Things done by halves are never done right." Although he never published a book on organizing, he did eventually write up a series of pithy statements, called Axioms for Organizers, where the lasting influence of his grandparents is obvious. Here's Ross, for example, on an organizer's need for total commitment: "In any kind of work if you do a half-assed job at least you get some of the work done; in organizing you don't get anything done." His grandparents had Ross baptized, turned him into a junior pastor, drilled Bible verses into his head, and taught him to meet life's challenges with religious fervor. He would do so, eventually, but the religion he found was organizing.
Ross lived two very different lives as a youth. On the weekends and during the summer, while living on Beacon Street with his grandparents, he was a studious and serious young man. But at home in Echo Park, he was a slacker and a rebel. He flunked classes, spent days on end in the principal's office, even tossed fireworks into his elementary school graduation rehearsal. By the time he reached high school, teachers complained about constant classroom disruptions, and his mother had had enough. For the second semester of his freshmen year, she sent Ross off to the San Diego Army and Navy Academy, a school of several hundred students that overlooked the harbor. It was a financial stretch that attested to her desperation: the school cost eight hundred dollars a year, more than half of Daisy's annual salary. (At this time, Ross's father was also providing twenty-five dollars a week in child support.) But the military discipline didn't take. In one memorable event, during a chapel service that hosted a visiting dignitary, Ross got into trouble after "screeching out some weird, ungodly noise." His stay at the school was cut short by a bout of rheumatic fever, and he returned to Los Angeles thoroughly unreformed, taking from the experience only the words of a few new dirty songs.
The teenage Ross returned to a city that was still relatively homogenous. In 1926, the year he turned sixteen, more than 90 percent of Los Angeles residents were white, the vast majority Protestants. For boosters, the result was a "city without slums" and "the last purely American city in the nation." One article in the Los Angeles Times described the city as "more Anglo-Saxon than the mother country today." But such claims masked an anxiety. The rapidly growing city, whose population would triple to nearly 1.5 million from 1920 to 1930, was becoming increasingly diverse. Ethnic Mexicans began to expand beyond the downtown plaza into various neighborhoods of the east side; by 1930, Los Angeles was the largest home to Mexican Americans in the country. This growth sparked a nativist backlash. One reporter, in the Saturday Evening Post, described a city filled with "endless streets crowded with the shacks of illiterate, diseased, pauperized Mexicans, taking no interest whatever in the community, living constantly on the ragged edge of starvation, bringing countless numbers of American citizens into the world with the reckless prodigality of rabbits."
Daisy sought to shield her oldest son from what she viewed as dangerous influences. But after the divorce, Ross had more freedom to explore the city, and there were two exceptions to his "lily white" upbringing that, in his adult years, he would recall as formative. On his southbound walks to the H Line streetcar, en route to his grandparents, he often stopped in the small black enclave along Temple Avenue known as Dinge Town — at least by whites — to play basketball. On one occasion he stuck around until it was late, with the game interrupted by the calls of mothers to come in for dinner. Rushing to the streetcar, he passed the lit-up houses. After all of the warnings about staying away from the neighborhood, with the implied dangers he would face from the exotic people within, the scenes looked ordinary and familiar: fathers, mothers, and children were gathered around tables, preparing to eat.
The second experience he often recounted occurred on the banks of the Los Angeles River. Today the river is paved and usually dry, but at the time it ran along a muddy track and created swimming holes, serving as a natural barrier between the city's west (white) and east (Mexican) sides, with youth from both groups coveting the holes. Usually an unspoken system governed the charged territory: whichever group arrived first had the right to the whole spot, until others showed up, at which point you pulled back to your side. But on "a particular summer's day," as Ross recalled, "I didn't drift back quite soon enough, a shouting match ensued, and all of a sudden a little Chicano about half my size sort of exploded across the river and charged me." Ross slapped him away, but the boy was determined and charged again, cheered on by his friends. This time Ross hit him hard enough to make him cry. While Ross watched the boy wipe tears from his face as he waded across the river in retreat, he became overcome with feelings of guilt and nausea. But those only lasted so long: before dropping from sight, the boy turned back to Ross, raised his fist, and let out "the worst string of obscenities" he had ever heard. Ross would later jokingly refer to the episode as his first "contact" with Mexican Americans.
Excerpted from America's Social Arsonist by Gabriel Thompson. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations,
PART ONE: THE EDUCATION OF AN ORGANIZER (1910–1947),
1 All That You Do, Do with Your Might,
2 Dealing Firsthand with the Rotten System,
3 Witness to The Grapes of Wrath,
4 Doing Penance,
5 The Mexican Problem,
6 Red Ross,
PART TWO: ORGANIZING A MOVEMENT (1947–1963),
7 Viva Roybal,
8 Bloody Christmas,
9 Finding Cesar,
10 On the Road,
11 Growing Pains,
12 The Life and Death of the CSO,
PART THREE: ORGANIZER AS TEACHER (1964–1992),
13 Poverty Fiasco,
14 David vs. Goliath,
15 Don't Buy Grapes,
16 The Battle of the Butcher Paper,
17 Blind Spot,
18 The Forever Project,
Appendix: Axioms for Organizers,