A good organizer is a social arsonist who goes around setting people on fire. — Fred Ross Sr.
On June 9, 1952, Fred Ross knocked on the door of Cesar Chavez, then struggling to support his family through part-time work.
Ross launched into his pitch, talking about how Mexican Americans could become a political force. “He started talking—and changed my life,” Chavez later remarked. “Fred did such a good job of explaining how poor people could build power that I could even taste it. ”
The episode was vintage Ross. As an organizer, he spent his life knocking on doors and breaking down barriers, encouraging and training people to stand up and fight back.
Although Ross was one of the most influential grassroots organizers of the twentieth century—mentoring individuals like Chavez and Dolores Huerta, running the Dustbowl migrant camp fictionalized by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, securing the release of Japanese-American internees during World War II, organizing black and Latino parents to help end school segregation in California, going on to spearhead a campaign that elected the first Latino to Los Angeles’s city council since the 1800s, and strategizing with Saul Alinsky—he remained largely in the background, unknown to the general public.