Cesar Chavez’s Mysterious Mentor Finally Gets Recognition

Photo credit: Victor Aleman, Union City, CA, 1988. Courtesy of Fred Ross Jr.

The man who helped labor leader César Chávez launch a massive migrant worker movement in the 1960s is finally getting some recognition.

Community organizer Fred Ross Sr., who passed away in 1992 at the age of 82, will be inducted into California’s Hall of Fame for his years of work championing labor rights and desegregation. Ross will be inducted into the Hall of Fame as part of the 8th class, which includes California greats Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Charlotta Bass, Joan Didion, Francis Ford Coppola, Stephen Schneider and Mimi Silbert, according to an announcement this week by California Gov. Jerry Brown.

Ross served as organizing director of the United Farm Workers of America in the 1960s, where he helped Chávez and Dolores Huerta lead a fight for migrant worker rights. Before that, he united Latinos and African Americans in Southern California to fight segregation, and helped Japanese Americans return home after their internment during World War II. He and his son, community organizer Fred Ross Jr., worked closely with the Manongs, Filipino farm workers who helped launch the 1965 Delano Grape Strike.

Photo credit: Jon Lewis, Delano, CA, 1966. Courtesy of Fred Ross Jr.

Governor Brown remembers meeting Fred Ross in 1972, when he was serving as California’s secretary of state.

“At the time, the national farm bureau was running a dirty campaign to pass a ballot initiative that would have strangled the nascent farmworkers’ movement,” Brown wrote. “We worked to defeat that measure, and I got to see Fred’s work up close. I can attest to both his amazing talent for training organizers and his deep commitment to justice and equality.”

Still, until now, Ross has remained a relatively anonymous figure. That was by design, according to his family.

“That was an intentional choice he made,” Ross Jr. told Fusion. “Organizers should be pushing from behind.”

But by avoiding the limelight, Ross Sr. didn’t get the recognition he deserved. Most people remember and celebrate Cesar Chavez, but not Fred Ross. His son is trying to change that.

Over the last couple of years, Ross Jr. has led a movement to draw attention to his father’s work. Though Ross Jr. was unsuccessful in his campaign last year to get his dad a Presidential Medal of Freedom – the nation’s highest civilian honor, and one that was bestowed upon Chávez and Huerta – he says the Hall of Fame recognition is an important step.

Photo credit: Cathy Murphy, Modesto, CA, 1975. Courtesy of Fred Ross Jr.

“The effort last year put him on the map,” Ross Jr. said. “The California Hall of Fame award is a significant recognition, the most significant recognition his life and legacy have been given.”

The Hall of Fame induction ceremony will take place this fall in Sacramento.

Ross Jr. hopes the honor will encourage the White House to reconsider his father for a presidential medal — a call echoed by Huerta, former Labor Secretaries Robert Reich and Hilda Solis, and a number of other lawmakers and labor leaders. Ros Jr. thinks President Obama, who worked in Chicago as a community organizer before making his foray into politics, is someone who can relate to his father’s work. If any president understands the impact Ross has had, Ross Jr. told Fusion, it’s this president.