In 1952, Fred Ross Sr. was combing the Latino barrios of San Jose, California, for places to hold house meetings. He was trying to build up a local chapter of the Community Service Organization (CSO), a grassroots effort aimed at empowering minority workers through everything from voter registration drives to lobbying campaigns. A nurse at one public health clinic in town suggested that he meet a then-relatively unknown labor organizer named César Chávez. He might be able to help, she said.
But Chávez wanted nothing to do with the white guy who showed up on his doorstep, and he asked his wife Helen to turn the man away. Ross Sr. returned later though, and an exasperated Helen told her husband that if he wanted the man to leave, he'd have to tell him himself. Besides, she said, he was driving a beat-up car and looked sincere. Chávez was suspicious but went out to the driveway to talk to Ross Sr. anyway, and reluctantly agreed to host the proposed house meeting. Unconvinced, Chávez then hatched a plan with a friend to drive Ross Sr. from the meeting with a volley of verbal insults.
Ross Sr. knew when he arrived to the meeting that he faced a suspicious audience. He was white and seen as an outsider. Already a successful organizer, he was well-aware that the root of his success was his ability to connect with people, and this was going to be a tough crowd. He knew just the way to do it. He was going to have to tell the story of a lifetime.
So Ross Sr. told the tale of how he successfully united blacks and Latinos in Southern California to build a case against L.A. police officers who brutally beat seven men on December 25, 1951, in what came to be known as "Bloody Christmas." The officers were eventually indicted -- the first grand jury indictments of serving Los Angeles Police Department officers -- and the incident resulted in the first convictions for the use of excessive force in the LAPD's history.
Chávez, in spite of himself, was hooked. His friend launched into their planned verbal assault during the meeting, but Chávez put a quick stop to it.
"You can go home," he told the man. "We changed the plan."
Who is Fred Ross Sr.?
César Chávez and Dolores Huerta became the public faces of the United Farm Workers movement that pushed for the fair treatment of laborers beginning in the 1960s. But it was Fred Ross Sr. who played a pivotal role behind the scenes.
Now there is a push from hundreds of labor leaders and politicos to recognize the impact one Caucasian man from California had in shaping the work of renowned community organizers. His son, Fred Ross Jr., is leading a campaign that asks President Barack Obama to award Ross Sr. the highest civil honor in the country - a Medal of Freedom.
Ross Sr., who died in 1992 at the age of 82, never looked for recognition. The San Francisco-born, University of Southern California-educated community organizer saw it as his duty to teach others how to mobilize and fight injustice for themselves. He started out as an organizer of migrant workers in the same California labor camps depicted by John Steinbeck in "The Grapes of Wrath."
The reason for his initial foray into community organizing was simple.
"He just had to do something about injustice," Ross Jr. said.