by the late Rev. Paul Buckwalter - originally published in a Yale Alumni Publication of May, 1978.
Below is an edited version.
Below is an edited version.
I met Saul Alinsky in the basement of a black Baptist Church on Chicago's south side in January of 1965. A collection of Protestant and
Catholic clergy, who were undergoing a "60 day wonder" course in community organizing at the Urban Training Center for Christian Mission, came to hear Saul expound on the virtues of building a mass based community organization. For Alinsky, a mass based community organization meant bringing together all groups, churches, social agencies, block clubs, businessmen's organizations, social clubs usually within an identifiable neighborhood in order to build a local nonpartisan political and economic power base. Bespectacled, heavy set, dressed in a suit, Saul spoke softly, but with what appeared to be a great amount of controlled anger. He talked for about three hours. He seemed to have a single mission to get people organized. He talked tough. He made an enormous impact on everyone there.
Some left the meeting in disbelief, then there were others, like myself, who felt that this man had changed the direction of their lives. After a couple of months serving with one of Alinsky's lieutenants, Tom Gaudette, Lead Organizer at the Northwest Community Organization, as an "intern", I returned to Cincinnati to refocus my personal ministry and mission.
It is difficult to identify cause and effect now in 1978, but the renaissance of our cities local communities is now very much part of the American scene, and local citizen participation in this renaissance is a well accepted principle. This was not so in the early 1960's, and we can attribute the early efforts of people like Allnsky to build local neighborhood non partisan political power bases, to help establish that principle. By the late 1960's federal and local policies began to reflect the need for citizen participation in local political, economic, and social institutions. A good deal of these policies changed because of the external pressures coming from Alinsky inspired community organizations such as Woodlawn, Northwest Community Organization, Organization for Better Austin in Chicago and FIGHT in Rochester.
Having moved into the world of community organizing in Cincinnati, in the early 70's, I became the lead organizer for a group of seven interracial neighborhoods called the Coalition of Neighborhoods. At its inception it was not a multi issue organization, but focused on land use development, block busting, and redlining. In sum, housing issues. A tool we used to build the power base of the Coalition and address both block busting and redlining was litigation. Two of the Cincinnati lawsuits had nationwide impact. Brown vs Federle et al filed in 1973 charged five real estate companies and some of their agents with steering, a form of block busting. The out of court settlement for this case, through a consent decree, included financing the Coalition of Neighborhoods to continue to test and monitor the real estate industry for steering practices. That's like paying people to give you a hard time. The real estate industry began to feel the pressure from neighborhood power bases.
Laufman vs. Oakley Building and Loan, filed a year later on a redlining case, as a result of the Coalition's Action-research, received judgment from Judge William Porter of the Federal 1st District Court that redlining violates the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Redlining which restricted or refused loans in black or integrated neighborhoods was determined illegal. This judgment was left unchallenged and stands as a landmark victory for local communities. Bob Laufman, the plaintiff, also won damages.
Saul Alinsky died in 1972 from a heart attack at the age of 63. Looking back, Saul Alinsky was not only an organizer, but an early prophet. His writings, including Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals, and his thinking were rooted in the 1930's labor movement. A colleague and biographer of John L. Lewis, Alinsky invented community organizing. His national prominence came first with the success of the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council in 1940 and again in the turbulent 1960's with the rise of “TWO” in Chicago, “BUILD” in Buffalo , and “FIGHT” in Rochester. Nationally known and involved, but primarily Chicago-based through the Industrial Areas Foundation, Alinsky became the model, teacher, and trainer for community organizers.
After leaving Chicago in 1965, I would occasionally run into Saul at various meetings throughout the country. Every meeting served as a refresher both in vision and methodology of the whys and wherefores of building a mass based community organization. This was a belief in local people power. Listening to him in Chicago at the south side Church in 1965, I asked myself, "what's with this guy---what's the appeal"? Over the years, encountering his tough talk, his straight pragmatic philosophy on "taking power" and building a people's organization his appeal became obvious.
He simplified things. There were the good guys (us folks, no organized power, no money,) and the bad guys (those with power "leaning" on those of us without). Our job as the good guys is take power by any means possible (meaning legal, or if illegal, up to misdemeanor). Alinsky also believed that you could organize anybody in order to build an organization. ("After all, people are already organized; it's your job as an organizer to disorganize them and reorganize them to build a base”.) Lastly he was, as he admitted, irreverent and profane---therefore funny and believable. Saul was a great story teller, and he loved to talk about community organization tactics---especially tactics that shocked people. His planned "crap in" at the O'Hare Airport ….blocking up all toilets with his troops to get a point across to Mayor Daley, was one such tactic, never implemented, but that didn't matter. The Woodlawn organization did get some concessions from the city. Alinsky's principle was, if you are alienated, then alienate those who are in power…use their tactics against them. Sit-ins, rent strikes, picketing, boycotting were all successful organizing tactics advocated by Alinsky - type community organizations. Saul would state: "Of course the ends justify the means; if the ends don't justify the means what else does"?
Alinsky talked in terms of specific issues, not in global terms
such as "black", "white", "chicano", Catholic, Protestant. For the community organizer "issue development" meant bringing different groups together to focus on community interests--housing deterioration, garbage pick up, block busting, recreation facilities, and "poverty" issues such as welfare and unemployment. Those common community ""issues" along with the leaders who advanced them were the mortar that built the neighborhood organization. Although confrontation against the "power holders" was critical in Alinksy's thought, conflict tactics were rarely mistaken for a strategy. Alinsky had an orderly mind. Alinsky advocated that community organization leadership should personalize their attacks on those who were blocking solutions to neighborhood interests and problems. But the conflict tactic was only a means to get the power holders to the negotiating tables with neighborhood leadership. Saul's primary concern was to build the neighborhood citizen based organization and develop local leadership that could wield real power in the political arena. Saul's roots were deeply embedded in a broad American democratic vision. At heart he was a pragmatist. For Saul, ideological rhetoric doesn't lead to necessary social change at the local level. Although he called himself a radical, his political roots are in Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson.
In a paper, ‘From Citizen Apathy to Participation’, written in 1957, Alinsky singled out apathy as the central challenge of our times. For Alinsky broad participation by citizens was the antidote. He wrote, “To date, experience points to the democratic way of life as the best combination of political freedom, economic security, and social opportunity, in man's search for that society in which he can best fulfill himself as an individual. The democratic process, based upon popular franchise, has its roots deep in the general populous. These roots depend upon a healthy active and participating citizenry for the sustenance of the democratic life."
If Alinsky left us with anything, it was the importance of dramatizing the alienation that the poor and middle class alike are feeling in our communities, and shaping specific, concrete objectives for improved living conditions. He showed us that the fiber of the American people can be tapped at the street level and brought together to begin to force the political leaders to recognize the place of local leadership at the table of discussion, debate, negotiation, and social change. Above all he humored us by his irreverence while his conflict tactics help disrupt the complacency, the unimaginative way of doing things deeply imbedded in political leadership at all levels.
Last year, a few days before leaving Cincinnati for an organizing job in New England, I was having lunch at the Community Chest Building, the home of all the United Appeal Agencies. I spotted an associate from a neighboring organization who had just entered the hallway to the cafeteria. He was soon followed by about 50 senior citizens with whom he was working who immediately commandeered the cafeteria's dining room tables, and opened up a vociferous game of Bingo. The whole place stopped operation. In a room next to the cafeteria, there was a board meeting of a local social service agency which ran the Senior Citizens Center. I learned later that the Seniors group had tried previously to get the agency's board to listen to their interests and problems and had received no response. Within minutes as the Bingo stopped the Seniors pushed their way into the agency's meeting. Embarrassed members of the agency board stood up. The Seniors sat down in their places around the table. They then laid out their long list of demands for the changers they wanted in Their Senior Center.
That's Saul's Legacy.
Paul Buckwalter was an Episcopal Priest and community organizer. He organized in Cincinnati for 10 years where he was cited by CINCINNATI MAGAZINE, as "one of the city's most expert organizers". He has worked in Arizona both as a parish priest and community organizer with Arizona Interfaith Network, an IAF affiliate. He was the first organizer in Yuma and North Arizona, and served as a leader in the formation of the Pima County Interfaith Council, and the Southern Arizona Interfaith Council. He lives in Tucson, AZ.