Ross was born in San Francisco, California, in 1910. He graduated from the University of Southern California in 1936 with a teaching credential; due to economic conditions during the Great Depression he instead found work with the Farm Service Administration at the Arvin Migrant Worker Camp in the lower Central Valley; two years prior his arrival, John Steinbeck had modeled the fictional work camp in his novel The Grapes of Wrath after camp conditions there. From his position as camp director, Ross encouraged residents to band together as a means to resist the violent incursions from growers and local law enforcement seeking to squash their competition. Later, as World War II drew to a close, Ross secured jobs and homes for interned Japanese Americans.
Under the aegis of Saul Alinsky's Industrial Area Foundation, Ross established the CSO in Los Angeles in 1947. Alinsky was a notable 20th century community organizer responsible for organizing workers in Chicago's notorious slaughterhouses. One of the stated goals of the newly established CSO was to involve Mexican Americans in the political process; to accomplish this goal, Ross linked the resolution of such issues as housing discrimination and police brutality to voter registration. With a bloc of 15,000 newly registered Latino voters, Ross and the CSO were largely responsible for the election of the first Latino city councilman since the 1880s. Ross instituted a decentralized, grassroots organization, thereby reducing dependency on external figures and enabling members to become effective advocates for themselves. Ross later condensed this wisdom into his axiom, "You can never do for people what they can do for themselves." One of the most noted examples of early organizing efforts by the Ross and CSO was the resolution to the "Bloody Christmas" incident. On December 25, 1951, police offers from Los Angeles beat defenseless Latino prisoners already in their custody. In response, the CSO mobilized its community networks to demand official action against the officers involved, which resulted in the dismissal of five officers for their role in the beatings.
Five years after founding the Los Angeles chapter of the CSO, Ross turned his attention to form a second chapter in San Jose, California; at the time, San Jose was home to the second largest population of Latinos in the state. Soon after Ross arrived in San Jose, Father Donald McDonnell, a Catholic priest, directed him to César Chávez, a local man he thought might be a useful member of the CSO. Chávez initially rebuffed attempts by Ross to meet with him due to suspicions about his motives; Chávez was all too familiar with sociologists from the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University arriving in the barrios to conduct research projects and leaving as soon as they had collected their data. Nevertheless, after Ross finally received an audience, he quickly demonstrated his familiarity with living conditions within the barrio and his commitment to their resolution. In addition, the role Ross and the CSO had played in the resolution of the Bloody Christmas incident the previous year further demonstrated to Chávez that Ross was a figured to be trusted. Chávez quickly ascended through the ranks of the CSO, eventually becoming the executive director of the organization. Ross and Chavez went on to found 30 statewide chapters of the organization in such locations as Oakland and Carpinteria. Ross was also responsible for recruiting Dolores Huerta, another key figure in the CSO as well as the UFW, to join the CSO in 1959.
Since the scope of the CSO's work constellated around urban issues, Chávez and Huerta left the organization in 1962 to organize area farm workers. Soon after, Ross also eventually left the organization he had helped establish. Three years after leaving the CSO, Ross taught classes in community organizing to members of the school of social work at Syracuse University. After leaving his teaching position at Syracuse, Ross continued to train activists in the methods he had perfected during his time at the CSO. He worked extensively with Neighbor to Neighbor, an organization founded by his son, Fred Ross Jr., that protested U.S. military interventions in Central America. He also trained activists from such organizations as Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) and Alliance for Survival, which advocated nuclear disarmament. Throughout this time, he continued to work with the UFW. In 1989, Ross published two books; the first, titled Conquering Goliath: Cesar Chavez at the Beginning, recounts the early years of the CSO and his relationship with Chávez; the second, titled Axiom for Organizers, condensed his wisdom into 89 principles.
Ross died on September 27, 1992, in San Rafael, California. His funeral was attended by such notable figures from his organizing days as César Chávez, Dolores Huerta and California governor, Jerry Brown. Due to Ross's firm belief that his role within the CSO was to train local leaders who could then effectively advocate concerns that most affected their communities, it is difficult to measure his impact on the organization. Nevertheless, Ross will long be remembered for the leaders he enabled, of which Chávez and Huerta are the clearest exemplars.
Griswold del Castillo, Richard and Richard Garcia. César Chávez: A Triumph of Spirit. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995; Arax, Mark. “UFW Memorial Honors Lifelong Activist Fred Ross Labor: Cesar Chavez Eulogizes the Man 'who Changed My Life.’ His Mentor’s Many Causes Included Dust Bowl Migrants and the Civil Rights Movement." The Los Angeles Times, October 19, 1992; Bruns, Roger. Cesar Chavez: A Biography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005; Henry, Mark. "Fred Ross, Veteran Community Organizer, Honored." The Los Angeles Times, August 25, 1985.