Saul David Alinsky (1909-1972) was both a committed organizer and activist (founding the Industrial Areas Foundation in Chicago) and an influential writer.
His books Reveille for Radicals (1946) and Rules for Radicals (1972) were, and remain, important statements of community organizing.
Alinsky’s ideas bear careful exploration and have a continuing relevance for informal educators and all those whose role involves trying to effect change in communities.
They are particularly useful for those who have to engage with local or national power structures and workers who wish to engage alienated or disparate communities and seek common cause between them.
Saul Alinsky was born in Chicago on 30 January 1909, the child of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents.
Saul Alinsky’s parents divorced when he was 13 years old, and he went to live with his father who had moved to Los Angeles.
He earned a doctorate in archaeology from the University of Chicago in 1930.
However, it was spending a summer helping dissident miners in their revolt against John L. Lewis’s United Mine Workers that influenced his future direction.
Upon graduation he won a fellowship from the university’s sociology department which enabled him to study criminology.
He went to work for Clifford Shaw at the Institute for Juvenile Research and soon found himself working at the State Penitentiary (at which he stayed for three years).
At this time he married Helene Simon, with whom he had a son and a daughter. He had met Helene while studying at the University and they married in 1932.
As Horwitt has commented, the Depression and the growing turbulence of the 1930s politicized both of them.
Helene, a social worker, was a strong organizer and gained a considerable reputation in the labour movement.
In 1939 Saul Alinsky established the Industrial Areas Foundation to bring his method of reform to other declining urban neighborhoods.
He left the Institute to work for the Foundation.
His approach depended on uniting ordinary citizens around immediate grievances in their neighborhoods and in protesting vigorously and outside of the ‘established’ ways of expressing dissent (see below).
He concentrated on recruiting and training indigenous ‘organizers’ to take a lead in the communities.
By the 1950’s, Alinsky’s main focus was organizing African-American communities.
He brought modern civil rights efforts to Chicago and helped the black community of Rochester, New York challenge the mighty Eastman Kodak’s hiring policies.
During the 1960’s Alinsky set up institutes to train other organizers, and his reputation as a visionary organizer and activist began to spread.
None other than Hillary Clinton chose his work as the topic for a Wellesley College thesis in 1969.
According to a 2007 Boston Globe article, Clinton interviewed Alinsky twice for the paper, which was entitled “There is Only the Fight: An Analysis of the Alinsky Model.”
Saul Alinsky died on June 12, 1972 in Carmel, California.
He had been to visit Jean, gone to a bank, and then collapsed outside of a heart attack.
Alinsky likely never would have imagined his most popular days would arrive exactly ten years after his death, as the shallow buzzword of a politician on the ropes.