The California Federation for Civic Unity (CFCU) was a little-remembered but important civil rights group that operated between 1946 and 1956. It served to advance a broad range of issues, including discrimination, immigration, segregation, housing, and voter registration.
The group also served as an important multicultural meeting place where African American, Japanese American, Jewish, and Mexican American leaders got to know each other and work in coalition with organized labor and Catholic and Protestant leaders.
The American Council for Race Relations (ACRR), which had been active during World War II, established the California Council for Civic Unity in 1946; it became the CFCU in 1947. CFCU members included minority organizations such as the NAACP, the Japanese American Citizens League, and local councils organized in cities around the state.
Latinos were part of the organization from the very beginning, but the nature of their representation changed over time: World War II– era leaders were augmented by newly organized representatives of the Unity Leagues; these figures were, in turn, replaced by leaders from the Community Service Organization (CSO).
Fred Ross played a major role in empowering Mexican Americans at the local level and further enhancing their reach and influence by networking the new leaders with more established leaders in other minority groups.
Ross, as an ACRR employee, organized the Unity Leagues in San Bernardino, Riverside, and Orange counties between 1945 and 1947. He left ACRR in 1947 to organize the CSO as an employee of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). Ross established four CSO chapters in Los Angeles County between 1947 and 1951. The organization highlight was electing Edward Roybal to the L.A. City Council.
In 1952, the CFCU hired Ross, who moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. One of his assignments was to organize the CSO in San Jose. This led him to “discover” Cesar Chavez and Herman Gallegos, whom he mentored for the next decade, enabling them to emerge as two of the most prominent Latinos of their generation.
Herman Gallegos served on the CFCU board along with CSO leaders Gilbert Anaya and Tony Rios from Los Angeles. Anaya and Rios were also leaders within the United Steel Workers. Gallegos, a social worker, later achieved prominence as head of the National Council of La Raza, as a Ford Foundation consultant, and as one of the first Latinos to serve on a corporate board.
The CFCU enjoyed an interlocking membership with the California Committee for Fair Employment, created in 1954, to lobby the California State Legislature to enact a fair employment practices act. Gallegos, Anaya, and Rios were also active in the California Committee for Fair Employment. Governor Pat Brown signed the FEPC into law in 1959. This same basic coalition got the state to enact fair housing legislation in 1963.
The CFCU represents the best of this golden era of civil rights coalition politics. It provided an invaluable training and networking opportunity for emerging Mexican American leaders.