Home / General / LGM Review of Books: Gabriel Thompson, America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century

LGM Review of Books: Gabriel Thompson, America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century

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Real organizing is very hard. There’s lots of talk on the left about organizing but most of it is just that. And talking is not organizing. Actually mobilizing people to take power for themselves is not something that comes naturally for most humans. It takes almost herculean self-sacrifice to do it effectively; moreover, for those inclined to change the world, subsuming your ego to a larger cause often doesn’t go well with people for whom an outsized personality is part of the reason they feel they have the power to make that change. Thus, the number of really effective organizers who are making a massive difference in the world remain relatively few.

One of the very greatest of all American organizers was Fred Ross, who is most known for his mentorship of a young Cesar Chavez. Gabriel Thompson’s useful, readable biography of this single-minded man reminds us of both the heroism and personal cost of the organizer. Born in 1910 to an unloving father and maybe not so loving mother either, he was a troubled rebel as a teenager who at first found his belonging lifting weights and hanging out on the beach, but who soon found the left. His parents and entire milieu was conservative and racist; his mother had once pulled him out of a school when she found out it was integrated. He got into USC and met a friend who pulled him into organizing. In fact, this friend was later killed while serving in the Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War, which deeply affected Ross and which seems to have driven him to his own sacrifices.

In the late 1930s, Ross started working in various New Deal agencies in southern California, which exposed him to the deep poverty of farmworkers and Mexican-American communities generally. He threw himself into the work, which sometimes annoyed supervisors far less committed to social change than he was. He reorganized the Farm Security Administration camp that John Steinbeck so beautifully, if romantically, described in The Grapes of Wrath after the previous administrator had destroyed the democratic foundations described in that book. He met Woody Guthrie and assisted in a UCAPAWA-led farmworkers strike, which got him later tainted as a communist, although he was not. During World War II, he actually helped administer Minidoka, the Japanese internment camp in Idaho, which created feelings of guilt that probably lasted his whole life. He later helped Japanese-Americans leave the camps and get jobs in Cleveland.

After the war, Ross became interested in the poverty and police violence faced by Mexican-Americans in southern California and, although he would never properly learn Spanish, began working with local leaders there to organize people against this. Honing his organizing skills, he fought to desegregate Riverside schools. He also met Saul Alinsky, who would become his mentor. Realizing a good organizer when he saw one, Alinsky schooled Ross on the need to build strong organizations. This led Ross to establish the Community Social Organizations, which was a terrible name for a project to organize Mexican-Americans to gain political power in their own communities, through registering them to vote, allowing them to pick out their own issues for which they wanted to work, and helping spearhead the efforts to fight for them. This was a hard, long process, and it was in the CSOs that Ross really became one of the nation’s leading organizers. He realized that organizing was a craft, not a hobby. It was a profession, not something for lazy blowhards who like talk more than hard work or those who wanted power for themselves. Through endless door knocking, community visits, and meetings, he and those he trained helped build the CSOs. They could accomplish a lot too, but they took a lot of time. A LOT of time. And Ross gave it. This became his entire life. No single person did more in the 1950s to build Mexican-American power and he constantly faced CSOs fading after he left to organize the next one, with local leaders enjoying the attention they received and attempting to consolidate power rather than continuing to organize. It drove him crazy, made him contemptuous of poseurs, and drove him to a righteousness about what made a good organizer, which was basically himself. And he was mostly right.

Thompson does not beat around the bush about what a horrible cost all this took on those who knew Ross. He was a terrible husband to both of his wives and a really awful father who simply did not take the slightest interest in his children when he was working on a campaign, which was most of the time. As everyone who knew him stated, he only cared about one thing in his entire life: organizing. The only child he really was close to was his youngest son and that’s because Ross himself exposed him to organizing and turned him into an organizer, thus providing the opportunity to spend time together. He was largely unable to relax, unable to compromise, unable to see other points of view. This would have been disastrous, and sometimes was, except that he was utterly brilliant at what he did.

Nowhere did that brilliance come more into focus than Ross’ mentorship of Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Marshall Ganz, and other key members of the United Farm Workers. He met Chavez in 1952 and quickly recognized that he would be a great organizer. He drilled Chavez in the principles of organizing he and Alinsky had developed and Chavez became the top CSO director. Huerta was another organizer he found and mentored. When they began the United Farm Workers, Ross was actually temporarily out of the game after a disastrous attempt to organize local impoverished communities in Syracuse that freaked out a Republican mayor. Chavez quickly brought him in and Ross took over, among other things, training the young people who would organize the grape boycott, including Ganz, who is probably the greatest living organizing theorist, channeling Ross into the present. Ross, who was well into his 50s by this time, did not often get along well with the activist students who volunteered by the late 1960s. They were individualists at heart and Ross was very much not. He didn’t care about their bullshit. He cared about how many doors they had knocked on, how many people had come to meetings, how many local leaders they had developed. Nothing else mattered. He could really break down these young people, not out of spite or a joy in it, but simply because he realized they weren’t actually good organizers.

Unfortunately, Ross was so close to Chavez that when the latter went off the rails in the 1970s, turning the UFW into a cult of personality, purging anyone who argued with him, opposing his own members’ desire to strike, praising Ferdinand Marcos, and using anti-Semitic campaigns to discredit Ganz and Jerry Cohen, Ross couldn’t break with him. Ross was older by this time and more or less away from the day-to-day happenings, but he knew what was going on. He was the only person who might have made Chavez listen, but he didn’t. That’s the great failing of his life, more than the personal failings, at least for Thompson, and I tend to agree. The one thing he cared about he failed when it mattered most. The UFW remains effectively a non-entity to the present.

Ross remained in organizing for most of the rest of his life, finally working on Central American solidarity campaigns in the 80s, before succumbing to Alzheimer’s. Ultimately, Thompson paints Ross as a brilliant but flawed man who did more than almost any other person to bring justice to Americans in the mid-20th century, someone who professionalized organizing and helped shape one of the most important social movements in American history. That his organizing principles, which are listed in the end of the book and include things such as that an organizer must have iron willpower, that any failures are on the organizer, that follow-up and details matter far more than sexy actions, and that you never, ever take a leadership position as an organizer, are still mostly true today helps remind us of just what it takes to organize people effectively. Unfortunately, it often comes at a massive personal sacrifice for the individual and everyone around them. Maybe there is a way around this conundrum, but there probably isn’t. There are so few people with the skills and desires and personality to be a good organizer that if they have all that mental makeup, they are probably going to be as single-minded as Fred Ross, with all that means, good and bad.

Also, if you want a short version of the book, Thompson wrote a piece for The Nation about Ross when the book came out in 2016.

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