Essay: Radical Saul Alinsky: Prophet of Power to the People

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In order to succeed, Alinsky believes, a community organization must confront or conjure up an enemy of impressive stature. In the early '60s, he was having trouble organizing the Woodlawn neighborhood of Chicago until the University of Chicago presented itself as a fat target. Planning to tear down part of Woodlawn to make room for an expansion program, the university committed the tactical error of attacking Alinsky as a provocateur. That convinced the suspicious Woodlawn blacks that Alinsky was on their side. When he started organizing the Negro ghetto in Rochester in 1965, Alinsky found another suitable opponent in the Eastman Kodak Co., which refused to deal with Alinsky's organization, FIGHT (Freedom, Independence, God, Honor—Today), thereby enhancing its appeal to Negroes. Ultimately, the company was badgered into providing more jobs for the ghetto unemployed. Says Alinsky: "I can always depend on the Establishment to do the wrong thing at the right time."

Even Alinsky's everyday habits and gestures are intended to demonstrate the uses of power. Once, while addressing students at an Eastern college in the campus chapel, he lit up a cigarette. The college president rose to tell him that smoking was not allowed, whereupon Alinsky started to leave. "No smoking, no speech," he announced. The embarrassed president at once relented: though having made his point, Alinsky refrained from smoking. He upholds the public's right to good service in restaurants; to get attention, he will throw a glass on the floor or bellow insults at the waiter.

When he is not performing, however, Alinsky hardly fits the radical stereotype.

The gruff public harangue gives way to gentle, witty cajolery. The four-letter words that normally shock become almost terms of endearment.

He compulsively seeks out

companionship because he unabashedly likes people—all kinds of people, from waiters and airline stewardesses to journalists and even corporation presidents. Alinsky seems genuinely to enjoy life, as if he had discharged all residue of guilt and resentment in purposeful action. The notorious agitator begins to seem more like a secret philosopher whose model is Socrates rather than Lenin.

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