Fred Ross; Worked Quietly for Downtrodden Laborers

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Fred Ross, who for most of his 82 years toiled in obscurity on behalf of farm laborers, Okies and interned Japanese-Americans alongside such public figures as Eleanor Roosevelt and Woody Guthrie, is dead.

Ross, who was the first to encourage future United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez after finding him living in 1952 in a San Jose barrio called Sal Si Puedes (“Get Out if You Can”), died of what were described as natural causes Sunday in San Rafael in Northern California.

Called by author and California historian Carey McWilliams “a man of exasperating modesty . . . who never steps forward to claim his fair share of credit,” Ross was a young USC graduate when he was sent by the federal Farm Security Administration to the Arvin Migratory Labor Camp near Bakersfield to quell labor unrest.


The year was 1939 and Ross was greeted by hundreds of disgruntled Dust Bowl refugees who had come to California seeking work but found only chronic joblessness or jobs that paid too little to buy milk for their children. It was the same camp John Steinbeck had visited while researching “The Grapes of Wrath.”

Ross eventually gained the confidence of the strikers and sat around their campfires while Guthrie played his guitar and Mrs. Roosevelt encouraged their demands. Guthrie also took his guitar into the cotton fields, singing “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You” to the strikebreakers the growers had imported.

Ross had wanted to be a teacher but opted for what he called a life of seeking “social justice,” after a close friend was killed during the Spanish Civil War.

During World War II Ross joined the War Relocation Authority, which was handling the movement of Japanese-Americans to internment camps. In Cleveland he was credited with persuading defense plant owners to hire Japanese-Americans, who were then freed from the camps to work.

From the cotton fields of Arvin he moved on to work with Chavez, who would later call Ross “a great teacher.”

Chavez, who initially resisted Ross’ efforts to begin a farm labor union because he was “tired of sociologists” poking around the migrants’ camps, changed his mind after learning that Ross had helped send some Los Angeles police officers to jail for beating Latinos.


Ross also created the Community Service Organization in East Los Angeles, where thousands of new voters were registered. Those primarily Latino voters were credited in 1949 with electing the first Mexican-American--Edward R. Roybal--to the Los Angeles City Council.

During the years with Chavez, Ross also took on other causes, helping poor Yaqui Indians in Guadalupe, Ariz., get paved streets, sewers and mail.

Most recently he had been working with his son, Fred Jr., in an organization called Neighbor to Neighbor, seeking an end to U.S. intervention in Central America.

In 1985, at a party in East Los Angeles honoring his years helping others organize, Ross looked back at half a century and said simply:

“My goal was to help the people do away with fear--fear to speak up and demand their rights.”

Besides Fred Jr. he is survived by another son, Robert, a daughter, Julia, and three grandchildren.


Contributions in his name may be sent to the Delancey Street Foundation, 600 Embarcadero at Brannan, San Francisco 94110. The fund is being used to make a documentary of Ross’ life.