Saul Alinsky

On this date in 1909, the great 20th-century community organizer Saul David Alinsky was born in a Chicago slum to Russian Jewish immigrant parents. Alinsky said in an interview that his parents "were strict orthodox; their whole life revolved around work and synagogue." When asked if he was a devout Jew as a boy, Alinsky responded: "I suppose I was — until I was about 12. I was brainwashed, really hooked. But then I got afraid my folks were going to try to turn me into a rabbi, so I went through some pretty rapid withdrawal symptoms and kicked the habit" (Playboy, 1972). Alinsky majored in archaeology at the University of Chicago, but after two years of graduate study he dropped out to work as a criminologist for the state of Illinois. In the mid-1930s, he started working with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), and became a close friend of John L. Lewis. Alinsky shifted from labor to community organizing in 1939, focusing first on improving the impoverished slums he grew up in. In 1940, millionaire Marshall Field III provided Alinsky funds to start the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), which grew into a prominent training institute for radical community organizers across the country. Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez were connected to the IAF, along with numerous other leading community organizers and movements. Alinsky's "street-smart tactics influenced generations of community organizers," including President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who wrote her senior honors thesis at Wellesley College on Alinsky (The New York Times, "Know Thine Enemy," by Noam Cohen, Aug. 22, 2009). The New York Times said Alinsky was "hated and feared in high places from coast to coast" for being "a major force in the revolution of powerless people... "

Though Alinsky said he always told people he was Jewish (Playboy, 1972), his political philosophy was very nonconformist, and this carried over into his personal life. When asked if he had ever considered joining the Communist party, he replied: "Not at any time. I've never joined any organization — not even 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" (Playboy). The goal of the radical, Alinsky explained in his final book, Rules for Radicals (1971), must be to bring about “the destruction of the roots of all fears, frustrations, and insecurity of man, whether they be material or spiritual." Enemies of the poor "can no more live up to their own rules than the Christian Church can live up to Christianity. . . . No organization, including organized religion, can live up to the letter of its own book. You can club them to death with their ‘book’ of rules and regulations" (Rules for Radicals, p. 128 & 152). In a move that horrifies the religious right to this day, Alinsky dedicated his final book to "Lucifer": "Lest we forget at least an over the shoulder acknowledgement of the very first radical, from all our legends, mythology, and history . . . the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom — Lucifer." In the opening paragraph of Rules for Radicals, Alinsky wrote: "What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be." Alinsky died of a heart attack at the age of 63. D. 1972.

"If you think you've got an inside track to absolute truth, you become doctrinaire, humorless and intellectually constipated. The greatest crimes in history have been perpetrated by such religious and political and racial fanatics."

—Saul Alinsky in an interview with Playboy Magazine, 1972

Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch

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