Biography of Saul Alinsky

Political Activist's Reputation Was Revived to Attack Liberals

Photo of Saul Alinsky on a Chicago picket line.
Organizer Saul Alinsky, left, at a picket line in Chicago in 1946. Getty Images

 

Saul Alinsky was a political activist and organizer whose work on behalf of poor residents of American cities brought him recognition in the 1960s. He published a book, Rules For Radicals, which appeared in the heated political environment of 1971 and went on to become familiar over the years mostly to those who study political science.

Alinsky, who died in 1972, was perhaps destined to fade into obscurity.

Yet his name unexpectedly surfaced with some degree of prominence during high-profile political campaigns in recent years. Alinsky's reputed influence as an organizer has been wielded as a weapon against current political figures, most notably Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Alinsky was known to many in the 1960s. In 1966 the New York Times Magazine published a profile of him titled "Making Trouble Is Alinsky's Business," a lofty credential for any social activist at the time. And his involvement in various actions, including strikes and protests, received media coverage.

Hillary Clinton, as a student at Wellesley College, wrote a senior thesis about Alinsky's activism and writings. When she ran for president in 2016 she was attacked for supposedly being a disciple of Alinsky, despite having disagreed with some of the tactics he advocated.

Despite the negative attention Alinsky has received in recent years, he was generally respected in his own time.

He worked with clergymen and business owners and in his writings and speeches, he stressed self-reliance.

Though a self-proclaimed radical, Alinsky considered himself a patriot and urged Americans to take greater responsibility in society. Those who worked with him recall a man with a sharp mind and a sense of humor who was genuinely concerned with helping those who, he believed, were not being treated fairly in society.

Early Life

Saul David Alinsky was born in Chicago, Illinois, on January 30, 1909. His parents, who were Russian Jewish immigrants, divorced when he was 13, and Alinsky moved to Los Angeles with his father. He returned to Chicago to attend the University of Chicago, and received a degree in archaeology in 1930.

After winning a fellowship to continue his education, Alinsky studied criminology. In 1931, he began to work for the Illinois state government as a sociologist studying topics including juvenile delinquency and organized crime. That work provided a practical education in the problems of urban neighborhoods in the depths of the Great Depression.

Activism

After several years, Alinsky left his government post to become involved in citizen activism. He co-founded an organization, the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, which was focused on bringing about political reform that would improve life in the ethnically diverse neighborhoods adjacent to the famous Chicago stockyards.

The organization worked with clergy members, union officials, local business owners, and neighborhood groups to combat problems such as unemployment, insufficient housing, and juvenile delinquency. The Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, which still exists today, was largely successful in bringing attention to local problems and seeking solutions from the Chicago city government.

Following that progress, Alinsky, with funding from the Marshall Field Foundation, a prominent Chicago charity, launched a more ambitious organization, the Industrial Areas Foundation. The new organization was intended to bring organized action to a variety of neighborhoods in Chicago. Alinsky, as executive director, urged citizens to organize to address grievances. And he advocated protest actions.

In 1946, Alinsky published his first book Reveille For Radicals. He argued that democracy would function best if people organized in groups, generally in their own neighborhoods. With organization and leadership, they could then exert political power in positive ways. Though Alinsky proudly used the term "radical," he was advocating legal protest within the existing system.

In the late 1940s, Chicago experienced racial tensions, as African Americans who had migrated from the South began to settle in the city.

In December 1946 Alinsky's status as an expert on Chicago's social issues was reflected in an article in the New York Times in which he expressed his fears that Chicago might erupt in major race riots.

In 1949 Alinsky published a second book, a biography of John L. Lewis, a prominent labor leader. In a New York Times review of the book, the newspaper's labor correspondent called it entertaining and lively, but criticized it for overstating Lewis's desire to challenge Congress and various presidents. 

Spreading His Ideas

Throughout the 1950s, Alinsky continued his work in trying to improve neighborhoods which he believed mainstream society was ignoring. He began to travel beyond Chicago, spreading his style of advocacy, which centered on protest actions which would pressure, or embarrass, governments to tend to critical issues.

As the social changes of the 1960s began to shake America, Alinsky was often critical of young activists. He constantly urged them to organize, telling them that although it was often boring daily work, it would provide benefits in the long run. He told young people not to wait around for a leader with charisma to emerge, but to get involved themselves.

As the United States grappled with the problems of poverty and slum neighborhoods, Alinsky's ideas seemed to hold promise. He was invited to organize in the barrios of California as well as in poor neighborhoods in cities in upstate New York.

Alinsky was often critical of government anti-poverty programs and often found himself at odds with Great Society programs of Lyndon Johnson's administration.

He also experienced conflicts with organizations who had invited him to participate in their own anti-poverty programs.

In 1965, Alinsky's abrasive nature was one of the reasons Syracuse University chose to cut ties with him. In a newspaper interview at the time, Alinsky said:

"I've never treated anyone with reverence. That goes for religious leaders, mayors, and millionaires. I think irreverence is basic to a free society."

The New York Times Magazine article about him, published on October 10, 1966, quoted what Alinsky would often say to those he sought to organize:

"The only way to upset the power structure is to goad them, confuse them, irritate them, and most of all, make them live by their own rules. If you make them live by their own rules, you'll destroy them."

The October 1966 article also described his tactics:

"In a quarter-century as a professional slum organizer, Alinsky, who is 57, has goaded, confused, and infuriated the power structures of two score communities. In the process he has perfected what social scientists now call 'Alinsky-type protest,' an explosive mixture of rigid discipline, brilliant showmanship, and a street fighter's instinct for ruthlessly exploiting his enemy's weakness.

"Alinsky has proved that the fastest way for slum tenants to get results is to picket their landlords' suburban homes with signs reading: 'Your Neighbor Is A Slumlord.'"

As the 1960s went on, Alinsky's tactics delivered mixed results, and some localities which had invited were disappointed.

In 1971 he published Rules For Radicals, his third and final book. In it, he provides advice for political action and organizing. The book is written in his distinctively irreverent voice, and is filled with entertaining stories that illustrate the lessons he learned over decades of organizing in various communities.

On June 12, 1972, Alinsky died of a heart attack at his home in Carmel, California. Obituaries noted his long career as an organizer.

Emergence as a Political Weapon

After Alinsky's death, some organizations he worked with continued. And Rules For Radicals became something of a textbook for those interested in community organizing. Alinsky himself, however, generally faded from memory, especially when compared to other figures Americans recalled from the socially turbulent 1960s.

The relative obscurity of Alinsky abruptly ended when Hillary Clinton entered electoral politics. When her opponents discovered that she had written her thesis on Alinsky, they became eager to link her to the long-dead self-professed radical.

It was true that Clinton, as a college student, had corresponded with Alinsky, and had written a thesis about his work (which purportedly disagreed with his tactics). At one point, a young Hillary Clinton was even invited to work for Alinsky. But she tended to believe that his tactics were too outside the system, and she chose to attend law school rather than join one of his organizations.

The weaponizing of Alinsky's reputation accelerated when Barack Obama ran for president in 2008. His few years as a community organizer in Chicago seemed to mirror Alinsky's career. Obama and Alinsky never had any contact, of course, as Alinsky died when Obama was not yet in his teens. And the organizations Obama worked for were not those founded by Alinsky.

In the 2012 campaign, the name of Alinsky surfaced again as an attack against President Obama as he ran for reelection.

And in 2016, at the Republican National Convention, Dr. Ben Carson invoked Alinsky in a peculiar accusation against Hillary Clinton. Carson claimed that Rules For Radicals had been dedicated to "Lucifer," which was not accurate. (The book was dedicated to Alinsky's wife, Irene; Lucifer was mentioned in passing in a series of epigraphs pointing out historic traditions of protest.)

The emergence of Alinsky's reputation as essentially a smear tactic to use against political opponents has only given him great prominence, of course. HIs two instructional books, Reveille for Radicals and Rules For Radicals remain in print in paperback editions. Given his irreverent sense of humor, he would probably consider the attacks upon his name from the radical right to be a great compliment. And his legacy as someone who sought to shake up the system seems secure.