biographies of icons frequently fall into one of two categories. On the
one hand they may be laudatory, in some cases turning the subject into
a saint. At the opposite end, they can tend towards tell-all pieces, in
some cases aiming to tear down the subject. What makes America's Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century,
Gabriel Thompson’s new biography of the legendary community organizer,
unusual is that it presents a very balanced account of the life and
work of one of the foremost progressive organizers of the 20th century,
while at the same time offering very useful insights into the art and
craft of progressive organizing.
many respects, Ross’s life is the story of a significant segment of the
progressive movement in California. He came of age politically during
the 1930s; witnessing the great agricultural worker struggles of that
era which came in the aftermath of the mass deportation of Chicanos and
Mexicans in 1930s which came to be associated with the term, “Los
Repatriados,” found himself face-to-face with the imprisonment of
Japanese-Americans in concentration camps during World War II and his
slow but steady emergence as an organizer and theorist within the
Community Service Organization (and later, the United Farm Workers).
Although Ross and legendary organizer Saul Alinsky were
quite close, and Ross actually worked for Alinsky for a period of time,
Ross departed from his mentor in two important respects. First, central
to Alinsky’s approach to organizing was the notion of building an
organization of organizations. Through the Industrial Areas Foundation,
locally-based coalitions were put together, frequently rooted in the
religious community. This aimed to guarantee some level of credibility
for the organizing effort. But Ross disagreed: He believed in the need
to create new community-based organizations that were unencumbered by
older leaderships who he frequently believed to be too passive or
other difference is that Ross recognized the importance of the Chicano
movement in California and was prepared to engage in struggles that
some organizers, influenced by Alinsky, would have concluded were far
too divisive. The Community Service Organization, which he helped to
build, was rooted in the Chicano movement, though open to others. It
fought against police brutality that was directed at Chicanos and
attempted to build Chicano political power in Los Angeles.
Ross did not present himself as a person of the Left (probably in part
due to the Cold War persecution of leftists), his inclinations were
clearly toward the Left. He mostly refused to engage in the sort of
red-baiting that was common from the 1940s to the 1960s, even among
This fact gave me pause. I have been highly critical of Alinsky and those who have followed in his wake for their de-ideologizing of
organizing: an approach that suggests that it is almost unimportant
what one organizes around; it is the act of organizing itself that
raises the political consciousness of those engaged, and raises it in a
progressive direction. This de-ideologizing by many of Alinsky’s
followers made its way into the ranks of organized labor, particularly
in the 1980s and 1990s and played a counter-productive role in efforts
at labor renewal.
Ross described by Thompson appears to have been a somewhat different
sort of character. On the one hand, there is no attention to ideology
and leftist political education in the organizing that he conducted. In
that sense, there is a consistency with Alinsky. At the same time,
Ross’s approach, as demonstrated by the sorts of struggles in which he
engaged, seems more akin to a sort of “evolutionary leftism,” that
through various forms of progressive organizing, we will naturally
achieve the kinds of transformations we need as a society—no larger
an approach eschews the importance of movement-wide strategic
objectives, rooted in a larger political vision. Nevertheless, this
appears to be a difference between Ross and Alinsky that was
overshadowed by their close friendship over the years.
other aspect of Thompson’s treatment that I especially appreciated
revolved around the question of family. Ross’s family life was largely
tragic. It is not just that his two marriages ended in divorce. Rather,
Ross’s approach towards his organizing life was to put organizing
before everything else.
one point in history such an approach would have been considered noble,
if not heroic. Yet, in reading about his ignoring his two wives, and
spending limited amounts of time with his children (with the notable
exception of Fred Ross, Jr. who followed in his father’s footsteps as
an organizer), what was striking was both Ross’ sexism and his
blindness to the multi-dimensional side to living the life of an
organizer. The sexism was especially ironic because Ross made reaching
women a priority in his organizing.
Ross’ era, it was frequently accepted that men could go off and save
the world and the women should take care of the home front. We should
be careful about judging a past period based on the norms of our
current era. Yet one can conclude that, first, there were alternative
courses even during that era, and, second, that the cost, not only to
Ross’s two wives and children but to Ross himself, were severe.
social movements there are intense pressures on organizers—paid and
unpaid—to put everything else aside in the name of the cause. There are
circumstances where that is necessary, if not unavoidable. I am
reminded of a South African activist, Nimrod Sejake,
who was exiled due to his anti-apartheid work, spending years in
Ireland, the result being his missing out on years in the lives of his
children. One cannot second-guess such a decision, made under extreme
conditions. Yet the decision came at great cost. His family was very
divided over whether his sacrifice had been worth it, a very tragic
legacy for a person who committed so much for a greater cause.
Ross, however, the idea of the organizer prioritizing organizing above
everything—including one’s family—rose to the level of principle. It
was not only about what one might be forced to do under extraordinary
circumstances, but what an organizer should be prepared to do at
virtually any point. In Ross’s case, this included ignoring his wife
during certain key moments when she was recovering from polio.
failure to recognize the need for a balance of family and a life
committed to social justice inevitably led to dysfunctions in the way
that Ross thought and operated. The movement became everything, and
this meant, at certain key moments—as we would see when Ross worked
with Cesar Chavez—a willingness to turn a blind eye to terrible,
abusive practices carried out in the name of the movement. Ross failed
to question the actions of someone who, even more than Ross, believed
that he was putting the movement before everything else.
Thompson also offers an insightful and emotionally challenging look at the development of the United Farm Workers of America.
Cesar Chavez, the legendary founding President of the union, was
someone who Ross mentored. Over the years their relationship evolved,
such that Ross came to not only admire Chavez, but to see him as the
leader who could transform American society. This evolution took very
tragic consequences when Chavez himself evolved into a leader filled
with paranoia, anti-communism, and quite possibly, some level of
anti-Semitism, as Randy Shaw recounts in Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.
witnessed firsthand the deterioration of the UFW, including the purges
carried out against outstanding leaders and activists, such as the
purging of two great leading figures in the UFW, Marshal Ganz and
Eliseo Medina (the latter going on to become Secretary-Treasurer of
SEIU), or the manipulation of a key vote at the UFW convention that led
to the departure of many UFW activists, feeling betrayed. Yet he said
nothing. Thompson proposes that Ross might have been one of the few
people who could have successfully challenged Chavez as he descended
into Tartarus, taking with him a union that in so many ways pointed in
the direction necessary for broader U.S. labor renewal.
not only tells an excellent story, but he also, at key moments in the
book, identifies certain lessons for organizers, drawing from the life
and work of Ross. He does not editorialize as to whether he, in every
case, agrees with Ross, but the lessons are clear. One example, noted
above, was Ross’ awareness that women are generally the best
organizers, and that if one wishes to get any substantial project off
the ground, one must win over women. It was not clear, however, the
extent to which Ross recognized that winning over women was not just
about winning them in the initial organizing efforts, but ensuring that
they have a full leadership role throughout the process of the
construction and life of an organization.
additionally, promoted the notion of beginning with where people are,
then moving them forward, a truism for organizing whether one
subscribes to Alinsky or Mao Zedong. The book lists myriad of
additional lessons that Ross drew from his own experiences and which he
theorized, to varying degrees.
did not believe in the concept of “burnout”. He believed that an
organizer is either an organizer or they have given up and dropped out.
In reading about this I was reminded of the famous story of the
incident involving General George S. Patton—during World War II—where
he hit a soldier who was suffering battle fatigue (an incident
dramatized in George C. Scott’s remarkable portrayal of the general in Patton).
both Ross and Patton’s case, there was a misreading of human beings.
These were not simply examples of macho, whether applied to organizing
or to war. It was a failure to understand how human beings cope with
pressure and particularly over extended periods of time. Organizers do
burnout. Some of them leave the movement entirely; others return full
swing after a certain period; and others ‘renegotiate’ their
relationship to the movement on different terms.
good friend of mine stepped away from a leadership position in a major
local union. I asked him why he did this. He replied: “Because of my
family. I realized that if things kept going the way that they were
going, I would not be part of the lives of my children as they grew up
nor be a good partner for my wife.”
might have described such an approach as what we used to call
“half-stepping,” evidence of someone who wasn’t fully committed to the
movement. I would look at it as more of an adjustment to the simple
fact that involvement in the movement is a marathon. This is a
long-distance race during which time one’s speed may vary or breathing
may change. But one never loses sight of the final goal. Failing to
appreciate the multi-dimensionality to the life of an organizer
guarantees that instead of building and reinforcing organizers, we
produce Blade Runner-type replicants or androids who may, at first
glance, appear to be human, but have actually lost their souls.
many respects, this is what appears to have happened to Ross. Yes, he
was without question great and dedicated. But in failing to appreciate
the marathon nature of our journey and the need for balance, he began
losing pieces of the humanity for which he had actually been fighting
for most of his life.
Thompson has produced one of the most thought-provoking books on
organizing and affecting social change that I have read in some time.
In telling Fred Ross’ life story, Thompson has dared to push the
envelope on matters that many progressives would rather ignore.
This commentary was originally published by The Stansbury Forum