It was 1939, the Depression was a decade old and the cotton pickers were on strike near Bakersfield when the federal Farm Security Administration sent Fred Ross, a 29-year-old USC graduate, to quell the unrest at the Arvin Migratory Labor Camp.
The camp was filled with Dust Bowl refugees, many of them strikers, who had come to California for work. John Steinbeck had spent considerable time in the camp while researching "The Grapes of Wrath," a novel that portrayed the harsh lives of migratory laborers.
"I began visiting eight or 10 families every morning about daybreak," Ross said.
Pretty soon, a group of strikers admitted Ross to their "Spit and Argue Club," where they debated the strike and the merits of joining a union. Visitors included actor Will Geer, Eleanor Roosevelt and folk singer Woody Guthrie, who took his guitar to the cotton fields and sang, "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You," to strike breakers, Ross said.
They would ask Guthrie about the union, Ross recalled, "and he would answer, 'It's the onliest thing a workin' man's got around here.' "
In the half century since those days, Ross has remained true to his attachment to labor and social reform in a variety of campaigns across the country. He is credited with developing an effective organizing tool called "house meetings," where organizers dramatically describe their cause and recruit new members.
But Ross is perhaps best known for igniting a spark in a young Latino lumber handler and former strawberry picker named Cesar Chavez, who led the first successful drive to unionize farm workers and became president of the United Farm Workers.
Saturday night, scores of social reformers came to East Los Angeles--where Ross scored his first major organizational victory 36 years ago--to honor him for his 48 years of community organizing.
Among the more than 400 guests at Ross' 75th birthday party at Our Lady of the Rosary Talpa Church were Chavez, Rep. Edward R. Roybal, (D-Los Angeles), State Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso and playwright-producer Luis Valdez. There were others who, like Ross, have toiled in virtual obscurity for years or decades.
Reynoso said Ross represents "the great practical idealism of America." Chavez called Ross "a great teacher."
"He has always kept our feet on the ground. And spiritually, the guy is like a model for us in his caring and his total commitment," Ross' former pupil said.
The church hall where the gathering took place was bedecked with balloons and colorful decorations--including a "Happy Birthday" banner. Ross energetically greeted the entering guests, reminisced and signed an occasional autograph.
Surrounding him were his grown children, who inherited his activist bent: Julia Ross runs an outpatient drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in San Francisco; her brother Bob is a Davis schoolteacher and local activist, and brother Fred Jr. works with groups opposing the Reagan Administration's position on Central America.
The evening put Ross in the center of attention, a position he has studiously avoided during his decades as an activist. Ross has preferred to let others stand in the limelight as he showed residents of countless communities that they had a right to demand "social justice," whether it be sidewalks for their streets, school buses for their children or compensation for their labor in the fields.
"All my life I've been looking to go to work with people who are in trouble of some kind," Ross said in an interview. "My goal was to help the people do away with fear--fear to speak up and demand their rights.
"The more you put yourself out in front, the more enemies you're going to make. Your job is to push the people to get out in front so they can prove to themselves they can do it."
During World War II, Ross joined the War Relocation Authority, which was supervising the movement of Japanese-Americans to internment camps. In Cleveland, he convinced defense plant operators to hire Japanese-Americans, who were allowed to leave the camps for new jobs in the East.
Hired after the war by Saul Alinsky, the famous social reformer from Chicago, Ross quickly built up the fledgling Community Service Organization in Lincoln Heights and Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles, then helped establish chapters all over the state.
Overcoming initial distrust among the mostly Latino organization in Los Angeles, Ross increased the chapter's membership from less than 100 to more than 450 in less than two years. He also led a voter registration drive that resulted in 14,000 new Spanish-speaking voters and the election of Roybal to the Los Angeles City Council in 1949. Roybal became the first Latino elected to the council in more than 70 years.
"We were just all amazed that he was so sincerely dedicated to working with us," said Henry Nava, an early leader in the Los Angeles Community Service Organization. "He would put in 14, 16 hours a day at least six days a week."
"He would get people excited about doing something for themselves--teaching them how to get their sidewalks in where before it was all mud," said Carmen Benitez, who registered voters for the group in the early 1950s. "When he's involved, he eats and sleeps the program."
In 1952, while Ross was trying to build the Community Service Organization chapter in San Jose, he heard about Chavez, who lived with his wife in a barrio called Sal Si Puedes, which translates "Get Out If You Can."
Chavez has said he first avoided Ross because he was tired of sociologists from Stanford University and San Jose State poking around asking questions about the eating habits and living conditions of community residents. "I was fed up with that," Chavez recalled.
But the two finally met, and when Ross went home that night, he wrote, "I think I've found the guy I've been looking for."
As for Chavez, learning that Ross had worked with the Los Angeles group on a police brutality case known as "Bloody Christmas"--in which officers who beat Latinos were sent to jail--helped him decide to join the Community Service Organization.
Chavez worked for the organization for a decade, learning the techniques of organizing that he would later use in his quest to organize farm workers. He is still the president of the United Farm Workers union.
Ross, in turn, joined Chavez at the union in 1966. He advised Chavez, directed labor elections and strikes and trained boycott organizers in the United States and Canada for the next 14 years.
Recalling the early days of the organizing effort, when the Teamsters and farm workers were battling for union contracts, Ross said there were times when he was afraid to get out of the car because of violence associated with the picketing.
"Every day when I parked my car, I had to practically push myself out," he said.
Eliseo Medina, 39, formerly a leader in the farm workers' union, who now directs organizing efforts for the Communication Workers of America in Austin, Tex., remembers Ross as "one of the hardest working teachers I ever had. Fred was the first one to put me in charge of a boycott picket line in San Francisco."
Although Ross still consults with the United Farm Workers, he has also been training organizers for the nuclear freeze movement and for grass-roots organizations opposed to Reagan Administration policies in El Salvador and Nicaragua.
When asked about Ross, social activists and labor organizers at the party and across the country agreed on one point: it was high time to recognize the career of a man regarded as one of the most selfless, dedicated and legendary figures still active in community organizing.
Ross, divorced twice, lives alone in a one-bedroom cabin in Corte Madera in Marin County. He is supported by Social Security and a nominal income derived from consulting work for the farm workers' union and various community organizations. Much of his time is spent writing a book on his organizing experiences. On Saturday night, the people who lived those years with him paid Fred Ross tribute.
"It's a great night," he said. "I can't tell you how many people have come up to me to thank me for helping them."