Saul David Alinsky (January 30, 1909 – June 12, 1972) was a radical activist in the United States whose provocative tactics in pressing upon landlords, politicians, and business owners the claims of poor communities earned him national recognition as the father of community organizing. Appreciation across the political spectrum of his "near genius" was such that in the 2000s his Rules for Radicals (1971) were adapted in a primer for the Republican Tea Party Movement. On the left, Alinsky's legacy continues to be disputed. While students and other young activists applied his rules in organizing on campus and beyond in the 1960s, the New Left criticised Alinsky's approach for achieving little more than a "better ghetto." Shortly before his death, when he thought he might have "ten more productive years," Alinsky had hoped his legacy would be a progressive organization of American suburbia--the only basis, he believed, for lasting change. Feeling "more defeated and more lost on a wide range of issues" than do the poor, Alinsky insisted that the middle class majority was "good organizational material."
Alinsky in 1963
Saul David Alinsky
January 30, 1909
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
|Died||June 12, 1972 (aged 63)|
|Education||University of Chicago (PhB)|
|Occupation||Community organizer, writer, political activist|
|Known for||Political activism, writing, community organization|
|Rules for Radicals (1971)|
|Awards||Pacem in Terris Award, 1969|
Saul Alinsky was born in 1909 in Chicago, Illinois, to Russian Jewish immigrant parents, the only surviving son of Benjamin Alinsky's marriage to his second wife, Sarah Tannenbaum Alinsky. His father started out as a tailor, then ran a delicatessen and a cleaning shop. Alinsky recalls that "finally he graduated to operating his own sweatshop," but that whatever business he had the family "always lived at the back of the store".<
Both parents were "strict Orthodox," their lives revolving "around work and synagogue." He himself was devout until the age of 12, the point at which he began to fear his parents would force him to become a rabbi. To kick the religious "habit" he described himself as having gone through "some pretty rapid withdrawal symptoms". One rabbinical lesson "sank in". Alinsky had beaten up a Polish kid: "It's the American way . . . Old Testament . . . They beat us up, so we beat the hell out of them. That's what everybody does." The rabbi looked at him for a moment and said quietly, "You think you're a man because you do what everybody does. But I want to tell you something great: 'where there are no men, be thou a man." I want you to remember it." Alinsky considered himself an agnostic, but when asked about his religion would "always say Jewish."
The path to community organizingEdit
In 1926 Alinksy entered the University of Chicago. He could not believe "the horse manure" sociologists "were handing out about poverty and slums, playing down the suffering and deprivation, glossing over the misery." A chance graduate fellowship moved him on to criminology. For two years, as a "nonparticipant observer", he hung out with Chicago's Al Capone mob (as they "owned" the city they felt they had little to hide from a "college kid"). He took a job with the Illinois State Division of Criminology, working with juvenile delinquents ("even tougher to get in with" than the Capone mob) and at the Joliet State Penitentiary. It was a dispiriting experience. If he dwelt on the contributing causes of crime, such poor housing, racial discrimination or unemployment, he was considered a "Red."
In 1938 Alinsky gave up his last employment at the Institute for Juvenile Research (University of Illinois at Chicago to devote himself full-time as a political activist. In his free time he had been raising funds for the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War and for Southern Sharecroppers, organizing for the Newspaper Guild and other fledgling unions, fighting evictions and agitating from public housing. He also began to work alongside the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) and its president John L. Lewis. (In an "un-authorized biograpny" of the labor leader Alinsky wrote that he later mediated between Lewis and President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the White House).
Alinksky's idea was to apply the organizing skills he believed he had mastered "to the worst slums and ghettos, so that the most oppressed and exploited elements could take control of their own communities and their own destinies. Up until then, specific factories and industries had been organized for social change, but never whole communities."
In the belief that if in these neighborhoods he could could trial his approach, he could do so successfully anywhere, Alinksy looked to the back of the Chicago Stockyards (the area made infamous by Upton Sinclair's 1905 novel The Jungle). There with a local teacher, he set up the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council. Working with the archdiocese, the Council succeeded in rallying a mix of otherwise mutually hostile Catholic ethnics (Irish, Poles, Lithuanians, Mexicans, Croats . . .) as well as African Americans to demand, and win, concessions from local meatpackers, landlords and city hall. This, and other efforts in the city's South Side to "turn scattered, voiceless discontent into a united protest" earned an accolade from Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson: Alinsky's aims "most faithfully reflect our ideals of brotherhood, tolerance, charity and dignity of the individual."
Inventing "new and better tactics"Edit
In 1940, with the support of Roman Catholic Bishop Bernard James Sheil and Chicago Sun-Times publisher Marshall Field, Alinsky founded the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), a national community organizing network. The mandate was to partner with religious congregations and civic organizations and help build "broad-based organizations" through projects that help train local leadership and promote trust across across community divides.
Through the IAF, Alinsky spent the next 10 years repeating his organizational work--rubbing "raw the sores of discontent' and compelling "action through agitation"--"from Kansas City and Detroit to the farm-worker barrios of Southern California." By 1950 he was back in Chicago working in the Black neighborhoods. Although he was to allow that "Alinsky loves Chicago the same as I do", Mayor Richard J. Daley battled his his every effort.
With Nicholas Von Hoffman as his deputy, Alinsky mentored the Woodlawn Organization (TWO). Like other IAF organizations, TWO was a coalition of existing community entities, local block clubs, churches and businesses. These groups paid dues, and the organization was run by an elected board. The TWO moved quickly to establish itself as the "voice" of the black neighborhood, mobilizing developing and bringing up new leadership. An example was Arthur M. Brazier, the first spokesperson and eventual president of the organization. Starting out as a mail carrier, Brazier became a preacher in a store front church, and then, through TWO emerged as a national spokesman for the Black Power movement.
Through TWO, Woodlawn residents challenged the redevelopment plans of the University of Chicago. Alinksy claimed the organization was the first community group not only to plan its own urban renewal but, even more important, to control the letting of contracts to building contractors. Alinsky found it "touching to see how competing contractors suddenly discovered the principles of brotherhood and racial equality." Similar "conversions" were secured from employers elsewhere in the city with threats of mass shop-ins at department stores, and of a "piss-in" at Chicago O’Hare International Airport.
For Alinsky the "essence of successful tactics" was "originality." When Mayor Daly was "dragging his heals on building violations and health procedures, we threatened to unload a thousand live rates on the steps of city hall. Sort of share-the-rats program, a form of integration."
Any tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag itself. No matter how burning the injustice and how militant your supporters, people get turned off by repetitious and conventional tactics. Your opposition also learns what to expect and how to neutralise you unless you're constantly devising new strategies.
Alinksy said that he "knew the day of sit-ins had ended" when the executive of a military contractor showed him blueprints for the new corporate headquarters. "'And here', he said, 'is our sit-in-hall. [You will have] plenty of comfortable chairs, two coffee machines and lots of magazines . . . '". "You are not going to get anywhere", he concluded, unless you are "constantly inventing new and better tactics" that move beyond your opponent's expectations.
In the 1960s Alinksy through the IAF focused on the training of community organizers. he IAF assisted black community organizing groups in Kansas City and Buffalo, and the Community Service Organization of Mexican Americans in California, training, among others, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. Alinsky's "major battle" followed the 1964 Rochester Race Riot. Rochester, New York, was a "classic company town" owned "lock stock and barrel" by Eastman Kodak. Casually exploited by Kodak, most African Americans held low-pay and low-skill jobs and lived in substandard housing. In the wake of the riots the Rochester Area Churches, together with black civil rights leaders invited Alinsky and the IAF to help the community organize. With the Reverend Franklin Florence, who had been close to Malcolm X, they established FIGHT (Freedom, Integration, God, Honor, Today) to bring community pressure on Kodak to open up employment and city governance.
Concluding that picketing and boycotts would not work, they began to think of some far-out tactics along the lines of our O'Hare shit in." This included a "fart-in" at the Rochester Philharmonic, Kodak's "cultural jewel." It was a proposal Alinksy considered "absurd rather than juvenile. But isn't much of life kind of a theater of the absurd?" No tactic that might work was "frivolous." In the end, and following a disruption of its annual stockholders' convention assisted by Unitarians and others assigning FiGHT their proxies, Kodak reached a compromise recognizing FIGHT as a broad-based community organization and committing to black employment.
Criticism from the New LeftEdit
At the beginning of the 1960s, in the first postwar generation of college youth Alinsky appeared to win new allies. Disclaiming any "formulas" or "closed theories." Students for a Democratic Society called for a "new left . . . committed to deliberativeness, honesty [and] reflection." While regretting the perversion of "the older Left" by "Stalinism", at the cost of their sponsorship by the League for Industrial Democracy the SDS would not maintain a "red-baiting" communist-exclusion clause. Alinsky had taken a similar position. He repudiated "all dogma," but refused to apologise for working with Communists at a time when, in his opinion, they (and few others) were doing "a hell of a lot of good work in the vanguard of the labor movement and . . . in aiding blacks and Okies and Southern sharecroppers." More than this, the New Left seemed to place community organizing at the heart of their vision.
The SDS insisted that students "look outwards" beyond the campus "to the less exotic but more lasting struggles for justice." "The bridge to political power" would be "built through genuine cooperation, locally, nationally, and internationally, between a new left of young people and an awakening community of allies." To stimulate "this kind of social movement, this kind of vision and program in campus and community across the country", in 1963 the SDS launched (with $5000 from United Automobile Workers) the Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP). SDS community organizers would help draw white neighbourhoods into an "interacial movement of the poor". By the end of 1964 ERAP had ten inner-city projects engaging 125 student volunteers. 
When SDS volunteers set up shop, JOIN (Jobs or Income Now), in "Hillbilly Harlem" uptown Chicago, they duly crossed town to meet with Alinksy in Woodlawn. But there was not to be a meeting of minds.
The JOINers charged Alinsky with being "stuck in the past," and, perhaps most cutting, to be unwilling to confront white racism. JOIN claimed that they pushed whites on the race question "at every opportunity" and "even mobilized members to support Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s campaign to desegregate housing in Chicago in the summer of 1966" (although, in truth, JOIN numbers on the supporting marches do not not appear to have exceeded a couple of dozen). To meet the challenge of growing black dissent following the August 1965 Watts riots, King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) had sought a victory in the North with the Chicago Freedom Movement (CFM).
Its not clear that participation by Alinsky in the Chicago Freedom Movement was either offered or invited. Yet "Freedom Summer" seemed to follow the Alinsky playbook: "The job of the organizer is to maneuver and bait the establishment so that it will publicly attack him as a 'dangerous enemy'. The hysterical instant reaction of the establishment [will] not only validate [the organizer's] credentials of competency but also ensure automatic popular invitation".
The difficulty was that Daly's experience was such that that city hall could not be drawn into a sufficiently damaging confrontation. The mayor responded to the the brutal reception for Freedom marchers in the white neighborhoods of Gage Park and Marquette Park with a judicious expression of sympathy and support. King balked at a further escalation, a march through the red-lined suburb of Cicero, "the Selma of the North" and allowed Daly to drew him into the negotiation of an open-housing deal that proved toothless. (Alinsky later argued that Woodlawn was the one black area of Chicago that never "exploded into racial violence," even during the widespread uprisings following King's assassination in 1968, because, while their lives were not "idyllic", with TWO people "finally" had a sense of "power and achievement").
In the summer of 1967, in an article in Dissent, Frank Reissman summarized a broader case against Alinsky. Seeking to explode "The Myth of Saul Alinsky", Reissman argued that rather than politicize an area, Alinsky’s organizational efforts simply directed people "into a kind of dead-end local activism." Alinsky’s opposition to large programs, broad goals, and ideology confused even those who participated in the local organizations because they find no context for their action. As a result, confined to what might be secured by purely local initiative, they achieved, at best, "a better ghetto."
Reissman insisted that it was for the "organizer-strategist-intellectual" to "provide the connections, the larger view that will lead to the development of a movement," but adding--Hilary Rodham (Clinton) noted in her outed 1969 college thesis on Alinsky, almost "as an afterthought"--that "this is not to suggest that the larger view should be imposed upon the local group." The New Left themselves seemed unable to strike the necesary balance. Increasingly they constructed their "larger view", one-time SDS president Tom Gitlin suggests, "on the cheap".. Far from reconciling neigborhood agendas (welfare, rent, police harassment, garbage pick-up . . .) with radical ambition, reheated revolutionary dogma prepared a "left exit" from community organizing, something that most New Left groups had effected by 1970.
Rules for RadicalsEdit
It was a measure of Alinksy national celebrity that in March 1972, having "elevated the art of the magazine interview" with leaders such as Fidel Castro, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, Playboy magazine published a 24,000-word interview with Alinksy.
Alinsky was introduced as "a bespectacled, conservatively dressed community organizer who looks like and accountant and talks like a stevedore," a figure "hated and feared", according to the New York Times, "in high places from coast to coast", and acknowledged by William F. Buckley Jr., "a bitter ideological foe", as "very close to an organizational genius". Citing the critisms of the New Left, the interview effectively invited Alinsky to summarize the lessons he had drawn for the new generation of activists in (a revision of an earlier work) Rules for Radicals (1971).
Alinsky was confronted with "the tendency of communities you've organized eventually to join the establishment in return for their piece of the economic action": Back of the Yards, "now one of the most vociferously segregationist areas of Chicago," a "case in point". For Alinsky, this was only a "challenge." It is "a recurring pattern": "Prosperity makes cowards of us all, and the Back of the Yards is no exception. They've entered the nightfall of their success, and their dreams of a better world have been replaced by nightmares of fear--fear of change, fear of losing their material goods, fear of blacks." He claims to have "seriously considered" moving back to into the area and "organizing a new movement to overthrow" the one he had built 25 years before.
Did he not find this process of co-optation discouraging? "No. It's the eternal problem", to be accepted with the understanding that all life is a "relay race of revolutions", each bringing society "a little closer to the ultimate goal of real personal and social freedom." What were his "so-called" radical critics "in fact saying": that when a community comes to him ("we're being shafted in every way") and ask for help he should say, "sorry . . .if you get power and win, then you'll become, just like Back of the Yards, materialistic and all that, so just go on suffering, it is better for your souls"? "It's kind of like a starving man coming up to you and begging you for a loaf of bread, and your telling him, 'Don't you realize that man doesn't live by bread alone.' What a cop out."
Revolutionary youth may have "few illusions about the system," but in Rules for Radicals Alinksy suggested "they have plenty of illusions about the way to change our world." The "liberal cliché about reconciliation of opposing forces," so often invoked in opposition to radical confrontation, may be "a load of crap." "Reconciliation means just one thing: when one side gets enough power, then the other side gets reconciled to it." But opposition to consensus politics does not mean opposition to compromise — "just the opposite." "In the world as it is, no victory is ever absolute [there is never nirvana]; but in the world as it is, the right things also invariably get done for the wrong reasons."
The next frontier: the middle classesEdit
For Alinksy, the real limitation of organizing experience was that it had not extend into the middle-class majority:
Christ, even if we could manage to organize all the exploited low-income groups -- all the blacks, chicanos, Puerto Ricans, poor whites -- and then, through some kind of organizational miracle, weld them all together into a viable coalition, what would you have? At the most optimistic estimate, 55,000,000 people by the end of this decade -- but by then the total population will be over 225,000,000, of whom the overwhelming majority will be middle class. . . . Pragmatically, the only hope for genuine minority progress is to seek out allies within the majority and to organize that majority itself as part of a national movement for change.
The middle classes may be "conditioned to look for the safe and easy way, afraid to rock the boat," but Alinsky believed "they're beginning to realize the boat is sinking." On a wide range of issues they feel "more defeated and lost today that the poor do." They were, Alinsky insisted, "good organizational material:" "more amorphous than some barrio in Southern California", so that "you're going to be organizing all across the country," but "the rules are the same." The challenge isto start with "specific issues--taxes, jobs, consumer problems, pollution--and from there move on to the larger issues: pollution in the Pentagon and Congress and the board rooms of the megacorporations."
Not easy, but the alternative is for "their impotence" to turn into "political paranoia" making they ripe, Aliinsky suggested, "for the plucking by some guy on horseback promising a return to the vanished verities of yesterday."
On on June 12, 1972, three months after the publication of the Playboy interview, Alinsky died, age of 63, from a heart attack near his home in Carmel, California. .
Alinsky was married three times. His first marriage, which was to Helene Simon, was a very happy one which lasted until her death from accidental drowning in 1947. Alinsky mourned her passing for years after her death. In 1952, Alinsky married Jean Graham. Although the two were initially close, she started suffering from various illnesses in the 1960s which affected her mental health, and she eventually began to verbally abuse Alinsky and act irrationally. Alinsky, who was opposed to divorce due to his religion and believed that leaving a mentally ill spouse was unfaithful, eventually agreed to a divorce at the urging of his friends after conditions at home became unbearable. Alinsky never cut off contact with his second wife, and he often visited her in hospitals. In 1971, Alinsky married his third and final wife, Irene McInnis. The marriage was a happy one, lasting until his death the next year.
Legacy and honorsEdit
The documentary The Democratic Promise: Saul Alinsky and His Legacy states that "Alinsky championed new ways to organize the poor and powerless that created a backyard revolution in cities across America." Based on his organizing in Chicago, Alinsky formed the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) in 1940. After he died, Edward T. Chambers became its executive director. Hundreds of professional community and labor organizers and thousands of community and labor leaders have been trained at its workshops. Fred Ross, who worked for Alinsky, was the principal mentor for Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. Other organizations following in the tradition of the Congregation-based Community Organizing pioneered by IAF include PICO National Network, Gamaliel Foundation, Brooklyn Ecumenical Cooperatives, founded by former IAF trainer, Richard Harmon and Direct Action and Research Training Center (DART).
Several prominent American leaders have been influenced by Alinsky's teachings, including Ed Chambers, Tom Gaudette, Ernesto Cortes, Michael Gecan, Wade Rathke, and Patrick Crowley. Alinsky is often credited with laying the foundation for the grassroots political organizing that dominated the 1960s. Jack Newfield, writing in New York magazine, included Alinsky among "the purest Avatars of the populist movement", along with Ralph Nader, Cesar Chavez, and Jesse Jackson.
In 1969, while a political science major at Wellesley College, Hillary Clinton chose to write her senior thesis on Alinsky's work, with Alinsky himself contributing his own time to help her. Although Rodham defended Alinsky's intentions in her thesis, she was critical of his methods and dogmatism. (Years later when she became First Lady, based upon a White House request, the school did not make the thesis publicly available.)
According to Alinsky biographer Sanford Horwitt, U.S. President Barack Obama was influenced by Alinsky and followed in his footsteps as a Chicago-based community organizer. Horwitt asserted that Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign was influenced by Alinsky's teachings. Alinsky's influence on Obama has been heavily emphasized by some of his detractors, such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Historian Thomas Sugrue writes, "as with all conspiracy theories, the Alinsky-Obama link rests on a kernel of truth". For three years in the mid 80s, Obama worked for the Developing Communities Project, which was influenced by Alinsky's work, and he wrote an essay that was collected in a book memorializing Alinsky. Newt Gingrich repeatedly stated his opinion that Alinsky was a major influence on Obama during his 2012 presidential campaign, equating Alinsky with "European Socialism", although Alinsky was U.S.-born and was not a Socialist. Gingrich's campaign itself used tactics described by Alinsky's writing.
Adam Brandon, a spokesman for the conservative non-profit organization FreedomWorks, one of several groups involved in organizing Tea Party protests, says the group gives Alinsky's Rules for Radicals to its top leadership members. A shortened guide called Rules for Patriots is distributed to its entire network. In a January 2012 story that appeared in The Wall Street Journal, citing the organization's tactic of sending activists to town-hall meetings, Brandon explained, "[Alinsky's] tactics when it comes to grass-roots organizing are incredibly effective." Former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey also gives copies of Alinsky's book Rules for Radicals to Tea Party leaders.
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about his book Let Them Call Me Rebel: Saul Alinsky His Life and Legacy
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