What Has Actually Become of Saul Allinsky?


When I wrote a 1965 article on Saul Alinsky for Christianity and Crisis magazine - later anthologized in the book Witness to A Generation -  Alinsky had seven years to live.  By 1972 when he died at age 63, he was the dean of community organizers in the United States. He had largely overcome the objections of his critics. save for the most obdurate on the hard right. 

Researching prior to the Obama run in 2008, I found two others had taken in-depth looks at Alinsky - Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Alinsky was clearly a major stop on the learning tour these two took before they decided that electoral politics is the best way to actually get things done in America.

And that's the story in a nutshell almost fifty years from the time I entered Alinsky's modest Michigan Avenue  office  and began an investigation of several months duration. The verdict then, which has not been contradicted, is that Saul Alinsky was a crack organizer whose basic values were tolerance, democracy and helpfulness. He  applied these values to get things done in a country where the ultimate prize was  and remains the control of governance itself. 

That Alinsky championed a confrontational, in-your-face militancy is   true, but the provocative things he did were like  the Yippies, not their violent cousins. Alinsky was good at scaring media and ginning up controversy. These were weapons of the powerless and marginalized. Saul gained very least a voice at the table for such folk.

Alinsky also left a legacy that was explicit, the Industrial Areas Foundation which continues his work and extends his influence. Community organization was responsible for the ground game of the Obama operation and the various permutations of the Tea Party insofar as they have involve grass roots efforts. Even the now-hapless Karl Rove achieved some successes by assiduous grass roots organizing.

That's all we are talking about. Grass roots organizing with a patina of Yippie sensibility. If one looks back today, one would have to conclude that Alinsky helped to fashion in the American mind a role for the community organizer, a role that transcends political party or religious persuasion. Today and in the future, there will be no democratic politics or social movement that does not make an implicit bow to Saul.

That said, both President Obama and Secretary Clinton realized the clear and daunting limitations of community organizing. Both entered electoral politics precisely to get things done that cannot be achieved just by gaining some power at the grass roots.  I went back and looked at one of the organizations Alinsky lofted into the stratosphere in the 1960s - the Woodlawn Organization (TWO) in Barack Obama's neighborhood in Chicago. At the time, Alinsky could stimulate apoplexy in the adjacent University of Chicago community with a few well-chosen sound bites. Today the conflict has morphed into what can only be called an arrangement in which both sides of the dispute have had successes. Suffice to say that without TWO things would have been worse over time. 

      I would hazard the guess that in the future Alinsky's methods and aims will be integral to American politics and determine both winners and losers, just as they did in November, 2012. The key to community organizing remains constant. Doing it and doing it well.
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