This Day in Jewish History Empowering the 'Have-nots’

Saul Alinsky united a wide spectrum of U.S. ethnic groups to cooperate on issues of mutual significance.

David Green
David B. Green
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Chicago Union Stock Yards, 1947
Chicago Union Stock Yards, 1947Credit: Wikimedia
David Green
David B. Green

On June 12, 1972, Saul Alinsky, the community organizer from Chicago whose influence spread across the United States and down to the present day, died at the age of 63.

When she was a student at Wellesley College, in 1969, Hillary Rodham (later Clinton) wrote her senior thesis on Alinsky’s organizing tactics, and in the mid-1980s the community group that hired a 23-year-old Barack Obama to work on Chicago’s South Side was operating under the influence of Alinsky. Today, political pundits still argue over the meaning of his work, although it’s worth noting that both conservative and left-wing activists in America still turn to his 1971 primer “Rules for Radicals” for tips.

Saul David Alinsky was born in Chicago on January 30, 1909. His parents, Benjamin Alinsky, a tailor, and the former Sarah Tannenbaum, were both recent immigrants from the Russian Empire, who divorced when Saul was 13. It was around then, too, Alinsky told an interviewer decades later, that he began to fear his Orthodox family would pressure him to become a rabbi, and that he “kicked the habit” of Judaism.

Saul remained with his mother in Chicago after his parents’ divorce (his father moved to California), and he graduated from John Marshall High School on the city’s West Side. He attended college and then began graduate school at the University of Chicago, where he initially studied archaeology before moving to the more practical field of criminology.

Alinsky left before finishing his degree in order to take a job at the Institute for Juvenile Research, then headed by sociologist Clifford Shaw. Shaw was a pioneer in looking to urban society, rather than individual defects, as the major cause of delinquency. Alinsky also worked as a criminologist at Joliet State Prison in 1933-35.

In 1939, he began working in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood, so called because of its proximity to the notorious Union Stock Yards. There, he succeeded in bringing together members of a wide spectrum of ethnic groups to cooperate for the first time on issues of mutual significance. With the help of Catholic archbishop Bernard Shell, he also founded the Industrial Areas Foundation, a community-organizing body that took on projects in a number of urban communities across the U.S.

Alinsky was a pioneer in the field of political empowerment, and devoted the rest of his career to organizing the “have-nots” to challenge the economic and political elites. He was not an ideologue – he never joined a party and was never affiliated with communist or socialist movements – and he seemed more interested in the idea of enfranchising the weak than in pursuing any specific goal. In an interview with Playboy magazine shortly before his death, he explained that “My only fixed truth is a belief in people, a conviction that if people have the opportunity to act freely and the power to control their own destinies, they’ll generally reach the right decisions.”

By the end of the 1950s Alinsky was working largely with black communities – in Chicago’s Woodlawn section (where he helped residents challenge the U of C’s expansion plans), in Oakland and in Rochester, N.Y., where the community took on Eastman Kodak over its poor record of hiring blacks.

Alinsky viewed ridicule as “man’s most potent weapon” in fighting those with all the power, and he was not above urging residents to undertake a “flatulent blitzkrieg” (preceded, of course, by a meal of baked beans) during a Rochester Philharmonic concert, among other bizarre tactics intended to frustrate and confound the enemy. (The mere threat of the fart-in was enough to get the desired negotiations under way.) There were those who accused him of relying on gimmicks, not to mention poor taste, but Alinsky believed that a group had to employ whatever means were available to it to induce the powers-that-be to make changes.

Saul Alinsky was hit by a massive heart attack while visiting Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA, on this day in 1972. He died on the spot.

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