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Historically Speaking

Historically Speaking: The Father of Community Organizers

By Tom Morrow

Until presidential candidate Barack Obama was described as a “community organizer, most Americans had never heard of the term. The man generally considered the founder of this sort of political structuring is Saul David Alinsky.

A native of Chicago, Alinsky was born Jan. 30, 1909. His 1971 book, “Rules for Radicals,” has been more or less a guidebook for improving the living conditions of poor communities across the nation, especially the African-American ghettos of Chicago, Detroit, New York City, and many other so-called trouble spots. Both Obama and current presidential candidate Hillary Clinton have said they admired Alinsky and his teachings.

Over some four decades of political organizing, Alinsky received much criticism, but also gained praise from many public figures. His ideas were adapted in the 1960s by some U.S. college students and other young counterculture-era organizers who used them as part of their strategies for organizing on campus and beyond. Time magazine wrote in 1970 that “It is not too much to argue that American democracy is being altered by Alinsky’s ideas.” In 1966, conservative author/editor William F. Buckley, Jr. said Alinsky was “very close to being an organizational genius.”

Beginning in the 1930s, Alinsky organized the Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago (made infamous by Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, “The Jungle,” which described the horrific working conditions in the Union Stock Yards). Alinsky went on to organize a number of other ghetto areas.

He addressed the 1960s generation of radicals, outlining his views on organizing for mass power. In the opening paragraph of his book, Alinsky writes:

“What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. ‘Rules for Radicals’ is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.

Alinsky did not join political parties. When asked during an interview whether he ever considered becoming a Communist party member, he replied: “Not at any time. I’ve never joined any organization — not even the ones I’ve organized myself. I prize my own independence too much. And philosophically, I could never accept any rigid dogma or ideology, whether it’s Christianity or Marxism…”

Alinsky once explained that his reasons for organizing in black communities included:

“Negroes were being lynched regularly in the South as the first stirrings of black opposition began to be felt, and many of the white civil rights organizers and labor agitators who had started to work with them were tarred and feathered, castrated — or killed. Most Southern politicians were members of the Ku Klux Klan and had no compunction about boasting of it.”

Alinsky’s tactics were often unorthodox. In “Rules for Radicals” he wrote:

The job of the (community) 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.”  His book further states: “Wherever possible, go outside the experience of the enemy” and “Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.”

Before he died, Alinsky described his plans for how to begin to organize the white middle class across the United States, and the necessity of that project. He believed “The Silent Majority” was living in frustration and despair, worried about their future, and ripe for a turn to radical social change, to become politically active citizens. He feared the middle class could be driven to a right-wing viewpoint, “making them ripe for the plucking by some guy on horseback promising a return to the vanished verities of yesterday.” His stated motive: “I love this god**** country, and we’re going to take it back.”

Alinsky died at the age of 63 from a heart attack near his home in Carmel on June 12, 1972. Several prominent American leaders have been influenced by Alinsky’s teachings, including Ralph Nader, Cesar Chavez, and Jesse Jackson.

Although Alinsky held little respect for elected officials, he has been described as an influence on several notable politicians in both the Democratic and Republican parties. In 1969, while a political science major at Wellesley College, Hillary Rodham Clinton chose to write her senior thesis on Alinsky’s work, with Alinsky himself contributing his own time to help her. Although she defended Alinksy’s intentions in her thesis, she was critical of his methods and dogmatism. Years later when she became First Lady, the thesis was not made available to the public by Wellesley at White House request.

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