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The Community Service Organization (CSO)
The Community Service Organization (CSO)—one of the oldest and most enduring Mexican American civil rights organizations in America—was founded in Boyle Heights in 1947. But the organization’s origins can be traced to the Second World War. Racial tensions flared during the years of the war, resulting in violent mob attacks on African American communities in Detroit, Harlem, Mobile, and dozens of other cities across the U.S. in the summer of 1943. In Los Angeles, Mexican Americans became the primary targets for racial violence that summer, specifically so-called pachucos, Mexican American teenagers known for their distinctive draped suits (known as zoot suits). While most pachucos were simply hip, young people eager to express their independent, rebellious spirit through their style, in the eyes of some, including the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, pachucos were violent gang members and juvenile delinquents. When in 1942, a Mexican American teenager named José Díaz was found dead at Sleepy Lagoon, a popular hangout for pachucos, it seemed to confirm their suspicions, prompting an LAPD dragnet during which seventeen young men were arrested and charged with Díaz’s murder. As the racial hysteria surrounding their trial increased in the summer of 1943, groups of white servicemen sought their own form of justice: over the course of ten days, hundreds of servicemen—cheered on by the local press—attacked young Mexican Americans across the city, beating young men and stripping them of their clothing and assaulting dozens of young women. The Zoot Suit Riots, as they are known, exposed the deep-seated racial animus and discrimination that Mexican Americans in Los Angeles faced on a daily basis.
While inspiring such despicable violent acts, the trial, and subsequent conviction, of the Sleepy Lagoon defendants also generated new forms of inter-racial cooperation. The Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee (SLDC)—formed to raise funds to appeal the verdict—drew support from a broad coalition that included civil rights organizations like the NAACP and the Urban League, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Lawyers’ Guild. The SLDC also drew support from several of the city’s largest unions, including the United Auto Workers (UAW), the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), and Hollywood unions like the Screen Artists Guild (SAG). Jewish organizations joined as well, including the Jewish Community Relations Committee and the Jewish Labor Committee, both originally founded to raise public awareness about the threat of fascism and Hitlerism. The SLDC not only helped to overturn the convictions of the young defendants, but also forged an inter-racial coalition that became the foundation of the civil rights movement in the postwar years.
Service in World War II also changed the attitudes and expectations of Mexican American veterans, who became leaders in the fight for civil rights when they returned home. In Orange County, a group of Mexican American veterans working with the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) spearheaded efforts to fight discrimination in the local school district, which, like many others in Southern California, maintained a system of forced segregation of Mexican American students. In 1946, five Mexican American fathers filed a lawsuit protesting the “Mexican Schools” policy as a violation of equal protection under the 14th Amendment. The verdict in their case, Mendez v. Westminster School District, was the first to hold that school segregation was unconstitutional, helping to establish an important precedent for the subsequent verdict in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). It also inspired another Mexican American veteran, a young social worker named Edward Roybal, to mount a campaign for the Los Angeles City Council in 1947 to represent the 9th District, which included downtown Los Angeles and the surrounding neighborhoods of Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Central Avenue, and Boyle Heights, where Roybal had grown up.
Roybal’s first election campaign failed but motivated local activists and community organizers to consider new ways of mobilizing the voting power of Boyle Heights’ Mexican American residents. Amidst those discussions, Fred Ross Sr., who worked for Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation, approached Edward Roybal and Antonio Rios, a union organizer with the United Steelworkers of America, with the idea of forming a community-based organization in the style of the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council in Chicago. Together, they founded the Community Service Organization (CSO) with the goals of protecting civil rights of Mexican Americans and fostering their political and civic engagement.
From its offices at 2130 East First Street, the CSO launched a variety of grassroots initiatives, including voter education and registration drives, citizenship classes, and neighborhood clean-up days. Its young Mexican American organizers knocked on doors and talked to their neighbors, reached out to neighborhood religious leaders, and encouraged young people like themselves to engage in the political process. Their efforts earned the support of many of the individuals and organizations that had been part of the Sleepy Lagoon Defense Committee, particularly local unions including the UAW and the ILGWU, whose membership included large numbers of Jews and Mexicans, as well as the Jewish Labor Committee and its affiliated unions. The Jewish Community Relations Council offered significant financial support as well; its Executive Director, Fred Herzberg, served as only non-Mexican American member of the CSO advisory committee. And young Jews in the neighborhood volunteered for the CSO along with their Mexican-American peers, encouraging their friends and families to vote as well.11 With the momentum of the CSO’s community-organizing efforts behind him, Edward Roybal ran again for City Council in 1949 and won, becoming the first Mexican American to serve on the Council since 1881. He served on the Council until 1962, when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, serving until he retired in 1993.
In the years after Roybal’s election, the CSO expanded its efforts, organizing chapters across the state of California, beginning with San Jose, San Bernardino, Stockton and Oxnard. Its members also spearheaded dozens of legislative and legal campaigns, beginning with an effort to stop the displacement caused by freeway construction in and around Boyle Heights. While those efforts largely failed, they successfully lobbied Roybal and other members of the City Council to fund street paving and lighting and the construction of sidewalks and traffic signals to protect pedestrians in the neighborhood. They won legal victories for victims of police brutality, including the young Mexican American men who were severely beaten by LAPD officers during the Christmas party in 1951 (known as the “Bloody Christmas” incident), and two of the CSO’s leaders—Antonio Rios and Alfred Ulloa—who had been arrested after they intervened to protect a man being beaten by a police officer in 1952. Working with the NAACP, the Urban League, the Jewish Community Relations Committee, and the Japanese American Citizens League and other civil rights organizations, they fought discrimination in education, housing and employment on the local and state level. By 1963, the CSO had 34 chapters across the southwest with over 10,000 dues-paying members which, between them, registered some 500,000 new voters and helped over 50,000 Mexican immigrants obtain citizenship.
The CSO in turn served as a training ground for a generation of Mexican American community organizers. Herman Gallegos, the first president of the National CSO, became one of the founders of the National Council of La Raza, and Bert Corona, a labor organizer and CSO alumni, led the fight for immigration reform in 1965. The CSO was also a training ground for many of the young leaders who helped to establish the United Farm Workers, including Dolores Huerta, César Chávez, and Gilbert Padilla, as well as Fred Ross’ son, Fred Ross Jr. To this day, countless other alumni of the CSO are fighting for change in their local communities, including the original CSO chapter in Boyle Heights which continues to lead the fight for equity and justice in the neighborhood.
To learn more about the work of the CSO, you can watch "Organize! The Lessons of the Community Service Organization" or visit the CSO History Project at csohistoryproject.com.