Saul David Alinsky (January 30, 1909 - June 12, 1972), born in Chicago of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, grew up in the midst of poverty. The suffering and injustice he witnessed, coupled with his mother's strong influence of responsibility and justice, prompted him into social activism. He was one of the original pioneers of grassroots organizing, and his methods continue to be used long after his death.
Alinsky was a passionate believer that social justice could be achieved through American democracy, that it was meant to ensure the promises of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; the promises of his nation's Founding Fathers. His work, which inspired the community-organizing movement, continues to inspire and empower people to govern their own lives and to take ownership over their communities' situations.
A man both hated and revered, he is known as the father of community organizing. He utilized his tremendous organizational skills as well as his powerful personality to help secure rights for many in impoverished and oppressed situations throughout the middle 1900s.
Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama both have studied and actively promoted his community organizing philosophy. However, Alinsky's early communist and gangster connections and his radical 'the ends justify the means' philosophy have created political fodder for critics of his modern adherents.
Mr. Alinsky died suddenly in 1972, of a heart attack, at 63 years of age.
Saul David Alinsky was born in Chicago, on January 30, 1909, the child of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents, Benjamin and Sarah (Tannenbaum) Alinsky. Though many Jews were active in the new socialist movement during his youth, his parents were not. Instead they were strict Orthodox; their whole life revolved around work and synagogue.
Alinsky's parents were divorced when he was 18, and his father moved to California. For several years he moved back and forth between them, living variously in both Chicago and California.
In an interview with Playboy Magazine in 1972, Alinksy talked about what influenced his path to activism:
(And) poverty was no stranger to me, either. My mother and father emigrated from Russia at the turn of the century and we lived in one of the worst slums in Chicago; in fact, we lived in the slum district of the slum, on the wrong side of the wrong side of the tracks, about as far down as you could go. My father started out as a tailor, then he ran a delicatessen and a cleaning shop, and finally he graduated to operating his own sweatshop. But whatever business he had, we always lived in the back of a store. I remember, as a kid, the biggest luxury I ever dreamed of was just to have a few minutes to myself in the bathroom without my mother hammering on the door and telling me to get out because a customer wanted to use it. To this day, it's a real luxury for me to spend time uninterrupted in the bathroom; it generally takes me a couple of hours to shave and bathe in the morning—a real hang-up from the past, although I actually do a lot of my thinking there.
Alinsky had a passion for justice which originated from his experience growing up in Chicago's Jewish ghetto, where he witnessed suffering during the Depression. It was his mother who influenced him most. Alinsky's son, David, once said, "…at the core of what motivated him was his mother, Sarah Rice…She taught him that…individuals must be responsible for other individuals and that you can't just walk away when you see something that's not right."
In the early 1930s, Alinksy married Helene Simon, with whom he had two children, a son and a daughter. She died in a drowning accident in 1947. He soon after married Ruth Graham; this marriage ended in divorce in 1970. When he died in 1972, he left behind a third wife, Irene.
Alinsky returned from California to Chicago to study at the University of Chicago, from which he earned a doctorate in archaeology in 1930. Upon graduation, he won a fellowship from the university's sociology department, which enabled him to study criminology.
After earning a graduate degree in criminology, Alinsky went to work for sociologist Clifford Shaw at the Institute for Juvenile Research. He was assigned to research the causes of juvenile delinquency in Chicago's tough "Back-of-the-Yards" neighborhood. In order to study gang behavior from the inside, Alinsky ingratiated himself with Al Capone's crowd. Through this, he concluded that poverty and powerlessness were major forces in the resort to criminal behavior.
Chicago in the 1930s was still in the grips of the Great Depression. Controlled by the Kelly-Nash political machine and by Frank Nitti (heir to Al Capone's Mafia empire), it was a rough and tumble city. This is the world that shaped Saul Alinsky and his "hard-nosed" politics.
Saul Alinsky pioneered a new face of political activism through his powerful grassroots social movement. The old stockyards neighborhood of Chicago was the birthplace of America's twentieth century phenomenon known as "Community Organizing."
Alinsky left his positions with the state in order to co-found the Back-of-the-Yards Neighborhood Council. This is one of the oldest community organizations in the country still in operation, and was Alinsky's first attempt to build neighborhood citizen reform group. His work here earned him a reputation as a radical reformer.
A largely Irish-Catholic community on Chicago's southwest side, near the Union Stockyards, the Back-of-the-Yards neighborhood had been deteriorating for years. Alinsky believed that a council made of local residents willing to unite in protest to their community's decline was necessary to pressure city hall for assistance. The Back-of-the-Yards Neighborhood Council succeeded in stabilizing the neighborhood and restoring morale to the local residents.
Alinsky explained his beginnings with organizing, including his motivation:
My first solo effort was organizing the Back of the Yards area of Chicago, one of the most squalid slums in the country…I always felt that my own role lay outside the labor movement. What I wanted to try to do was apply the organizing techniques I'd mastered with the C.I.O. to the worst slums and ghettos, so that the most oppressed and exploited elements in the country could take control of their own communities and their own destinies. Up till then, specific factories and industries had been organized for social change, but never entire communities. This was the field I wanted to make my own—community organization for community power and for radical goals.
What Alinsky formed with the BYNC set the pattern for what became known as the Alinsky school of organizing. A neighborhood's existing social groups were utilized—membership in a newly-formed council was based on organizations, rather than individuals. An organizer from outside the community would work with local leaders in setting up a democratic organization. This was a place in which people could freely express themselves, their situations, needs, and fears. The initial efforts of the council centered around basic organization and economic justice. With such goals, the BYNC was successful in uniting the Roman Catholic Church and radical labor unions towards a common goal—the betterment of the community.
Neighborhood conservation became the focus of the council in the 1950s. They worked with local banks to provide funding for mortgages and building upgrades. In their first year of this effort, there were 560 home-improvement loans in the local area. The rehabilitation of 90 percent of the community's stock was fostered by the council during the ten years between 1953 and 1963.
With the success of the Back-of-the-Yards Neighborhood Council behind him, Alinsky was able to secure funding from the Marshall Field Foundation in 1939. With this, he established the Industrial Areas Foundation in order to expand his method of reform to other declining urban neighborhoods. His approach was dependent upon his ability to unite ordinary citizens around immediate grievances in their neighborhoods and inspire them in protest. He believed in the power of the grassroots community to effect change, if only they ceased to accept their plight and were willing to speak up loudly.
Racial discrimination was strong in Chicago in the 1950s. The city's African-American residents had extremely limited opportunities for advancement. During the 1940s, a huge influx of blacks from the South seeking better economic opportunities arrived in Chicago. The crowded neighborhoods were unofficially segregated, while slumlords controlled the situations of the new emigrants.
The Woodlawn neighborhood on the city's south side welcomed these newcomers, as well as others who were displaced by redevelopment elsewhere in Chicago. Many were angry at being displaced and channeled their energy in two directions. Many young men joined two new street gangs, the Blackstone Rangers and the East Side Disciples.
By 1959, residents joined together in a coalition composed of block clubs, business owners, and churches seeking a solution to the neighborhood's desolation. They invited Saul Alinsky's Industrial Areas Foundation into Woodlawn to guide them in their endeavors.
The Temporary Woodlawn Organization (later renamed The Woodlawn Organization, or TWO) was led by Rev. Arthur Brazier and Leon Finney. They initiated a series of well-publicized protests against school overcrowding, slumlords, exploitative local merchants, and a plan by the University of Chicago to expand into land occupied by recent arrivals. In the late 1960s, the group garnered national attention for participating in the Model Cities program and using a War on Poverty grant to train gang members for jobs.
As TWO developed, it adopted less controversial activities. Its lack of success in its 1970s efforts at halting neighborhood deterioration did not deter it, and they continued to provide service programs in the community. They were a key component in the 1990s rebuilding of a Woodlawn neighborhood.
He gave a wide ranging Playboy Magazine interview shortly before his death. In it he gives a detailed description of his 1930s life as a communist fellow-traveler.
Alinsky told Playboy, “I knew plenty of Communists in those days, and I worked with them on a number of projects. Back in the Thirties, the Communists did a hell of a lot of good work…. Anybody who tells you he was active in progressive causes in those days and never worked with the Reds is a goddamn liar. Their platform stood for all the right things, and unlike many liberals, they were willing to put their bodies on the line. Without the Communists, for example, I doubt the C.I.O. could have won all the battles it did. I was also sympathetic to Russia in those days, not because I admired Stalin or the Soviet system but because it seemed to be the only country willing to stand up to Hitler. I was in charge of a big part of fund raising for the International Brigade and in that capacity I worked in close alliance with the Communist Party.
“When the Nazi-Soviet Pact came, though, and I refused to toe the party line and urged support for England and for American intervention in the war, the party turned on me tooth and nail. Chicago Reds plastered the Back of the Yards with big posters featuring a caricature of me with a snarling, slavering fanged mouth and wild eyes, labeled, ‘This is the face of a warmonger.’"
His critics counter that while he may not have ever joined the Communist Party his 'the ends justify the means' philosophy that he laid out in his Rules for Radicals puts him in the same league as Leon Trotsky. Alinsky devotes an entire chapter to the problem of “Means and Ends” — of how a radical can justify breaking the moral order to achieve radical ends.
Throughout the 1960s, Alinsky worked in numerous cities across America; organizing community-action groups in the black slums of Kansas City and Buffalo, and sponsoring and funding the Community Service Organization of Mexican-Americans in California, which was led by the Industrial Areas Foundation West Coast organizer, Fred Ross. The staff that was organized and trained by Alinsky's team, included Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.
He had this to say of his time in Kansas City;
One of our toughest fights was Kansas City, where we were trying to organize a really foul slum called the Bottoms. The minute I'd get out of the Union Station and start walking down the main drag, a squad car would pull up and they'd take me off to jail as a public nuisance. I was never booked; they'd just courteously lock me up. They'd always give me a pretty fair shake in jail, though, a private cell and decent treatment, and it was there I started writing my first book, Reveille for Radicals. Sometimes the guards would come in when I was working and say, "OK, Alinsky, you can go now," and I'd look up from my papers and say, "Look, I'm in the middle of the chapter. I'll tell you when I want out." I think that was the first and only time they had a prisoner anxious not to be released. After a few times like that, word reached the police chief of this nut who loved jail, and one day he came around to see me. Despite our political differences, we began to hit it off and soon became close friends. Now that he and I were buddies, he stopped pickin' me up, which was too bad—I had another book in mind—but I'll always be grateful to him for giving me a place to digest my experiences. And I was able to turn his head around on the issues, too; pretty soon he did a hundred percent somersault and became pro-labor right down the line. We eventually organized successfully and won our major demands in Kansas City, and his changed attitude was a big help to that victory.
Alinsky's next major encounter was in Rochester, New York, the home of Eastman Kodak. In 1964, African-American workers, frustrated with the exploitative policies of the company finally rebelled in a bloody race riot which nearly destroyed the city. The National Guard was called in to suppress the uprising.
Alinsky's Industrial Areas Foundation successfully organized local African American residents to pressure Eastman Kodak to hire more blacks and give them a role in selecting the company's employees. With the assistance of a dynamic local black leader, the Reverend Franklin Florence, who'd been close to Malcolm X, they formed a community organization called FIGHT—an acronym for Freedom, Integration, God, Honor, Today. Also established was Friends of FIGHT, an associated group of some 400 dues-paying white liberals. Friends of FIGHT provided funding, moral support, legal advice, and instructors for community training projects.
Simultaneously, Alinsky took part in a federally-funded leadership training institute at Syracuse University which had been created as part of Lyndon Johnson's "war on poverty."
In the early 1970s, Alinsky began directing his efforts to organizing the middle class, believing it to be the arena where the future of the country would be decided. With education, he believed, the white middle class in America would mobilize as one of the most effective instruments for social change the country had ever known; and that change would benefit not only themselves, but all disenfranchised—blacks, chicanos, poor whites.
He said in his Playboy Magazine interview of 1972,
Yes, and it's shaping up as the most challenging fight of my career, and certainly the one with the highest stakes. Remember, people are people whether they're living in ghettos, reservations, or barrios, and the suburbs are just another kind of reservation—a gilded ghetto. One thing I've come to realize is that any positive action for radical social change will have to be focused on the white middle class, for the simple reason that this is where the real power lies. Today, three fourths of our population is middle class, either through actual earning power or through value identification.
Alinsky's ability to organize, determination to succeed, and his toughness labeled him an enemy to many in the status quo. His reputation preceded him; often he would be arrested as he entered a city, whether stepping off a plane or driving over a bridge. He tended to be either loved or hated, never anywhere in the middle.
"No matter how bad things may look at a given time, you can't ever give up. We're living in one of the most exciting periods of human history, when new hopes and dreams are crystallizing even as the old certainties and values are dissolving. It's a time of great danger, but also of tremendous potential."
This exhortation of hope made Alinsky, by the late 1960s, a folk hero to America's young campus radicals. In 1969, he wrote Rules for Radicals, in which he urged America's youth to become realistic, not rhetorical, radicals. This same year, he set up a training institute for organizers to pass on his methods for realistic change. The following year, in 1970, Time Magazine praised Alinsky as "a prophet of power to the people," declaring that his ideas had forever changed the way American democracy worked.
Saul Alinsky was a passionate believer in the causes of social justice. Believing that American democracy contained the foundation for social equality and economic opportunity, he developed a system of community organizing that had a powerful impact on twentieth century society. He methodically taught the disadvantaged how to organize their communities and target those in power, politically out-maneuvering them.
His worked created a revolution of sorts in grassroots America as he imparted dignity and power to those whom society had overlooked. His work energized the struggle for civil rights, shaped the farm workers movement, and effected the very nature of political activism.
Several generations of organizers fell under his mentorship; people such as Cesar Chavez, Fred Ross, Dolores Heurta, and Ed Chambers. The Industrial Areas Foundation served as the training ground for organizers who formed some of the most important social change and community groups in the country.
When Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton faced off for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 their common connection to Alinsky became a source of great controversy with their Republican opponents. Obama embraced many of Alinsky's tactics of community organizing in his path to becoming a politician while Clinton's interest in his philosophy began with her senior thesis at Wellesley College in 1969 titled 'There Is Only the Fight . . . ': An Analysis of the Alinsky Model."
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