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

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The Yards gave Alinsky a name. The Chicago Democratic machine was upset that he had challenged its iron control of the city, but Publisher Marshall Field and Roman Catholic Bishop Bernard J. Sheil gave him enough backing to set up the Industrial Areas Foundation, an organization that seeks to apply the Alinsky methods to other slums. Operating on a $150,000-a-year budget, I.A.F. has a basic staff of eleven; other organizers are put on the payroll when the need arises. I.A.F. has gone into Rochester, Buffalo and Kansas City, Mo., and has set up Mexican-American organizations in California. Not all of Alinsky's endeavors have succeeded. In the Chelsea district of New York City and in Kansas City, I.A.F. suffered significant defeats. Local groups became so obsessed with conflict that they could not agree among themselves and wound up more bitterly divided after Alinsky left than before he came.

Willingness to Surrender

The community-power movement, in fact, has taken a turn not originally envisioned by Alinsky. He has always tried to make sure that demagogues did not get control of his organizations. But by building up such a fierce sense of group solidarity and resentment of the outsider, he may have unwittingly contributed to a new kind of racism. Today, Back of the Yards is under attack for keeping Negroes out; Alinsky threatens to organize the neighborhood all over again. In Rochester, FIGHT became tainted with black racism and whites have been discouraged from joining. In an updated version of his 1946 textbook on organization, Reveille for Radicals, Alinsky wonders how white liberals can believe in the dignity of all races when they are so willing to surrender their own by submitting to outrageous attacks from blacks. "During the trial of Black Pan ther Leader Huey Newton, many liberals wore buttons reading 'Honkies for Huey!' " he notes. "Can you imagine, if a white civil-rights leader were on trial, that blacks would go about with buttons reading 'Niggers for so-and-so'?"

Alinsky is equally impatient with white student radicals because of their innocence about power. "You never take an action," he says, "without first figuring out the reaction. Periodic mass euphoria around a charismatic leader is not an organization." He feels that Utopian militants are just as much dropouts from society as hippies, because both "dogmatically refuse to begin with the world as it is." He has little faith in the staying power of some of the more belligerent radicals; often they are the first to give up when the going gets rough. "He who lives by the sword shall perish by the champagne cocktail."

Threat of Paranoia

Despite his interest in helping the poor to help themselves, Alinsky believes that no durable reform is possible without the backing of at least a substantial portion of middle-class Americans. Today they are ripe, he feels, for his kind of power-oriented organization. They are squeezed by taxes and inflation, bewildered by the revolt of youth against everything they stand for. "Their fears and frustrations at their helplessness," says Alinsky, "amount to a political paranoia, which can demonize them to turn to the law of survival in the narrowest sense."

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