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A Shared Vision: Cesar Chavez and the Black Panthers

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In celebration of Black History Month, we are highlighting Cesar Chavez and the farm worker movement’s deep roots and successful collaborations with the Black Panther Party and African American activism in Oakland.

Before starting to build what became the United Farm Workers in 1962, Cesar helped organize and lead the Community Service Organization, California’s largest and most effective Latino civil rights group in the 1950s and early ‘60s. The first CSO chapter Cesar organized on his own was in West Oakland around 1953.

Founded in Oakland in 1966, The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was ideologically rooted in Black Power, self-determination, and the right to defend oneself against oppressive systems. It quickly gained the trust and respect of Black community members thanks to its Community Survival Programs such as free breakfasts, health clinics, food banks, health clinics, and more.

Greeting young African American children in Oakland (from left) Cesar Chavez, Bobby Seale, and Chavez aide Richard Ybarra.

In its early years, the UFW organized farm workers by providing them with services such as a credit union, death benefit insurance, a service station where migrants could buy cheap gas and fix their cars, and service centers to help them with myriad problems. Cesar and his colleagues believed workers weren’t just workers. While only a union could remedy abuses in the fields, workers faced other crippling dilemmas when they returned to their communities. So, it would take more than a union to overcome those dilemmas; it would take a movement.

Black Panther founders and early leaders Bobby Seale and Huey Newton emphasized dismantling systemic injustice. By focusing on the laws, bureaucratic structures, and economic incentives that maintain white supremacy and capitalism, they strove to dismantle them from the roots.

Meantime, from the UFW’s inception, Cesar Chavez inspired farm workers to challenge and overcome a farm labor system in this country that treats them as if they are not important human beings—as if they are beasts of burden—through self-organization and collective action.

Those visions perfectly positioned the Panthers and the UFW to share a commonality of missions and led them to support each other’s struggles.

Walking precincts in West Oakland in the mid-1970s (from left) U.S. Rep. Ron Dellums, Alameda County Supervisor John George, Cesar Chavez, and Assemblymember Tom Bates.

The Panthers joined the UFW’s international boycott of California table grapes in the late 1960s by picketing major supermarkets in Oakland. They supported farm worker boycotts of grapes, lettuce, and Gallo wine in the early-to-mid ’70s. The party refused donations to its free breakfast program from boycotted stores and organized carpools to shuttle shoppers to other markets.

Cesar and the UFW campaigned to send Ron Dellums to Congress in 1970, the first African American ever elected from Oakland. Cesar and the farm workers worked with the Panthers in Bobby Seale’s unsuccessful 1973 run for Oakland mayor, and in 1977, they helped elect Lionel Wilson, the first African American mayor of Oakland. Cesar walked precincts in West Oakland alongside African American elected officials.

Throughout their decades-long connection, each organization supported the other. The inspiration from their model of multi-racial solidarity is perhaps more relevant in this time of increasing polarization and ideological entrenchment. Their alliance is a reminder that authentic coalition building is possible when we connect through a larger shared vision for systemic change.

Would you like to know more about Cesar Chavez’s legacy? Please visit the National Chavez Center, an organization that is committed to promoting and conserving the memory of Cesar Chavez through his words and images, and the place where he lived during the last quarter century of his life – the César E. Chávez National Monument.

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Board of Directors Announces Paul Chavez’s Retirement

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The Cesar Chavez Foundation (CCF) Board of Directors announces President Paul Chavez’s retirement at year’s end. During more than 30 years with CCF, Paul Chavez has ensured the legacy and values of his father continue inspiring people to make a difference in their lives and communities. Under his leadership, CCF has grown and transformed into a successful collection of social enterprises supporting millions of Latinos and working families, inspiring and transforming communities from rural to urban areas throughout the Southwest and across the generations. We thank Paul for his unwavering determination, guidance, and his nearly 50 years of commitment to the movement.

The Board of Directors has named CCF’s Chief Operating Officer Manuel Bernal to succeed Paul Chavez as president. Manuel has spent nearly 35 years in community development and a quarter century in leadership roles crafting a vision for CCF. He first joined the foundation in 1999, and until 2011 was Executive Vice President for Housing and Economic Development. Then, he served on the Board of Directors until 2017. Most recently, as chief operating officer, overseeing CCF’s four core programs: affordable housing, education, communications, and legacy work. Manuel’s roots and passion for community development have provided a strong vision for CCF’s future.

We have full confidence in Manuel’s vision for CCF and wish him success in his new role. Following his retirement, Paul will continue to serve on CCF’s Board of Directors and will continue serving farm worker movement organizations as a member of their boards. We wish Paul a happy retirement and thank him for his service in expanding our impact inspiring and transforming communities. We stand ready to support Manuel as he guides the organization forward.

Sincerely,
Cesar Chavez Foundation Board of Directors

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Fred Ross Jr.’s matchless organizing talents empowered farm and other workers

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Fred Ross Jr.’s matchless organizing talents empowered farm and other workers

It is with profound sadness that the Cesar Chavez Foundation mourns the passing of Fred Ross Jr., whose six-decade-long organizing career empowered poor and oppressed workers to overcome bigotry and exploitation through self-organization and collective action. His wife, Margo Feinberg, who shared his passion for empowering workers and time with family and friends, reported that Fred passed away on the evening of Sunday, November 20, having just celebrated his 75th birthday. The cause of death was pancreatic cancer.

His father, Fred Ross Sr., was a legendary community organizer who Cesar Chavez credited for “training me and inspiring me and being my hero.”

In his eulogy for Fred Ross Sr. in 1992, Cesar said his “deeds live on in the hundreds of organizers he trained and inspired. Not the least of them is his son, Fred Jr., who made his father very proud.” “Fred Ross Jr. was a good shepherd of his father’s legacy,” affirmed Cesar’s son, Cesar Chavez Foundation President Paul F. Chavez. “Part of Fred Jr.’s mission was developing future generations of leaders and organizers among poor and working people—perhaps the greatest thing an organizer can achieve,” Paul Chavez said.

Fred Ross Jr. was born in Long Beach, Calif. in 1947. His mother, Frances Ross, also influenced her son, having pioneered services for the mentally ill. Fred Jr.’s early childhood was in Boyle Heights where his primary language was Spanish.

After graduating from Redwood High School in Marin County and U.C. Berkeley in 1970, Fred joined the United Farm Workers, helping organize that year’s giant Salinas and Santa Maria lettuce and vegetable strikes. In addition to his father, at the UFW Fred Jr. was trained and mentored by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. The next few years were spent organizing farm worker campaigns in Oregon and Washington state, and leading the boycotts of grapes, lettuce, and E.&J. Gallo wines in the Bay Area.

After taking office in January 1975, California’s new governor, Jerry Brown, was not responding to UFW calls for a farm labor law granting field laborers the rights to organize, vote in union elections, and negotiate with their employers.

So, Fred proposed and spearheaded the UFW’s high-profile march from San Francisco to Gallo’s Modesto headquarters. Nearly 20,000 workers and supporters filled the streets of Modesto on the last day of the trek, March 1, 1975. The next day the UFW got a call from the governor’s office. The following week Cesar Chavez and UFW General Counsel Jerry Cohen met Jerry Brown at his house in Los Angeles’ Hollywood Hills. Fred’s march on Gallo kick-started three months of negotiations producing the historic Agricultural Labor Relations Act. When the first farm elections began that year, Fred directed UFW organizing in the Santa Maria area.

Fred pursued the law, graduating in 1980 from the University of San Francisco Law School and working as a public defender. By 1985, he led Neighbor to Neighbor, turning the national grassroots organization into an effective foreign policy advocacy group challenging the Reagan administration’s murderous Contra War in Nicaragua and its backing of death squads in El Salvador. He used his organizing skills leading the 1987 San Francisco grassroots get-out-the-vote drive electing Nancy Pelosi to Congress.

By 1998, Fred returned to his labor roots by organizing health care and service workers for the Service Employees International Union. In 2009, he began crafting an innovative organizing program for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245, recruiting, engaging, and training the next generation of organizers from the ranks of its members dedicated to social justice and union solidarity. Fred retired from the union in February 2022.

Fred spent this past year working with filmmaker Ray Telles on a full-length feature documentary about his father, showing how collective action can combat prejudice and greed.

The father, Fred Ross Sr., had remarkable achievements. But perhaps his best legacy was Fred Jr. Colleagues over many decades said Fred Jr.’s organizing talents matched anyone’s, including Cesar and Fred Sr. As with his father, Fred Jr.’s labors were never about himself. He was always about empowering others to believe and indeed know they were responsible for the progress they won. Fred Jr.’s nature was ceaselessly positive; he always thought things could be done.

Fred Ross Jr. is survived by his wife, Margo Feinberg, a union labor lawyer; their two children, Charley and Helen Ross, who were introduced to picket lines as toddlers; brother Bob Ross; sister Julia Ross; and a legion of loving friends and family members and generations of organizers.

In lieu of flowers, the Ross family asks that contributions go to the Fred Ross documentary project. Written condolences to the family may be sent to FredrossMemories@gmail.com