Activists, organizers and elected officials across the United States have come together to urge President Barack Obama to award posthumously the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the legendary organizer, Fred Ross Sr. The first to organize people through house meetings, a mentor to both Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, and a pioneer in Latino voter outreach since 1949 when he helped elect Ed Roybal as Los Angeles’s first Latino council member, Ross’ influence on social change movements remains strong two decades after his death in 1992. If there were a Mount Rushmore for community organizers, Ross’s angular face would be on it. Here is a brief summary of Ross’s remarkable legacy, along with instructions on how to get your message of support to President Obama in time for the February 28 deadline.
Like all activists familiar with his work, I had a reverence for Fred Ross, Sr. before I knew the full record of his accomplishments.
’Tis the season of miracles. There’s only enough oil to light the lamp for a couple of days, but it stays lit for eight. A peasant’s vision upsets a bishop, especially when the peasant returns with roses. Darkness grows until the earth shifts and the light returns. A child born in a stable turns out to be a presence of God. A festival celebrates the principles that make the miracle of human community. A star moves across the sky guiding astrologers on a quest.
These ancient tales and festivals, developed around the miracles of light and life, create the season’s themes of hope and love and peace. There are unsung miracles as well — happening in our own time that you will never read about in the papers or see on the nightly news. These stories tell about people without power claiming their strength and about the lowest-wage workers achieving victories.
President Obama this week designated the home and burial site of the legendary United Farm Workers (UFW) leader, César Chávez, a national monument. Known as La Paz, short for Nuestra Señora Reina de la Paz, or Our Lady Queen of Peace, the site is in Keene, California
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says the designation is a
fitting tribute for a man whose campaign for civil rights and respect for workers struggling in the shadows broke new ground and left an indelible mark on the pages of American history. The farm worker movement that Chávez is most often associated with was never deterred by their lack of money or clout. These workers knew that together they could form a mighty force for justice. Their collective action through the United Farm Workers brought national support to the moral cause and won historic victories and protections for agricultural workers.
Fifty years ago I graduated from high school on the other side of town from where Dolores Huerta had a decade earlier. My high school class will hold its reunion this fall. Also 50 years ago, Huerta and Cesar Chavez founded the United Farm Workers a few miles further south in Delano. The UFW just celebrated its half-century at its annual convention, this year in Bakersfield.
Long before I met Chavez I had heard of the legend. He had learned about organizing under Fred Ross, who was criss-crossing the state building the Community Service Organization (CSO) network among the Spanish-speaking urban barrios. But when Chavez wanted to expand CSO’s mission to organize farm workers in the Central Valley, CSO said no. So he did it on his own, with no money, no budget and only a handful of contacts. He went to Delano and began to work among the vineyards,