Saul Alinsky, Who?

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Saul Alinsky (AP)

And now, a word about a good American being demonized, despite being long dead. Saul Alinsky is not around to defend himself, but that hasn’t kept Newt Gingrich from using his name to whip up the froth and frenzy of his followers, whose ignorance of the man is no deterrence to their eagerness, at Gingrich’s behest, to tar and feather him posthumously.

In his speeches, Gingrich pounds away at variations on the theme like the piano player in a cheap Western saloon. He declares, “The centerpiece of this campaign, I believe, is American exceptionalism versus the radicalism of Saul Alinsky,” or, “I believe in the Constitution, I believe in the Federalist Papers. Obama believes in Saul Alinsky and secular European socialist bureaucracy.”

It’s all quite clever and insidious, a classic lesson in how to slander someone who cannot answer from the grave, reminiscent of the tactics Gingrich used in those GOPAC memos back in 1996, when he suggested buzz words and phrases to demonize opponents: corrupt, decay, pathetic, permissive attitude, self-serving, and, of course, radical.

In the case of Saul Alinsky, most of the crowd knows nothing about the target except that they’re supposed to hate him. And why not? There’s the strange foreign name – obviously an alien. One of them. And a socialist at that. What’s a socialist? Don’t know — but Obama’s one, isn’t he? Barack Hussein Obama, Saul Alinsky – bingo! Two peas in a pod, and a sinister, subversive pod at that.

But just who was Alinsky, really? Born in 1909, in the ghetto of Chicago’s South Side, he saw the worst of poverty and felt the ethnic prejudices that fester, then blast into violence when people are crowded into tenements and have too little to eat. He came to believe that working people, poor people, put down and stepped upon, had to organize if they were going to clean up the slums, fight the corruption that exploited them, and get a handhold on the first rung of the ladder up and out.

He became a protégé of labor leader John L. Lewis and took the principles of organizing into the streets, first in his hometown of Chicago, then across the country, showing citizens how to band together and non-violently fight for their rights, then training others to follow in his shoes. Along the way, Alinsky faced down the hatred of establishment politicians, attacks both verbal and physical, and jail time.

He was a gutsy guy. Outspoken, confrontational, profane with a caustic wit, one journalist said he looked like an accountant and talked like a stevedore. He had a flair for the dramatic, once sending a neighborhood to dump its trash on the front step of an alderman who was allowing the garbage to pile up. Or immobilizing city hall, a department store or a stockholders meeting with a flood of demonstrators demanding justice.

One thing Newt has right — Saul Alinsky was a proud, self-professed radical. Just look at the titles of two of his books – Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals. But a communist or socialist he was not. He worked with them on behalf of social justice, just as he worked alongside the Catholic archdiocese in Chicago. When he went to Rochester, NY, to help organize the African American community there after a fatal race riot, he was first invited by the local Council of Churches. It was conscience they all had in common, not ideology.

As far as his connection with Barack Obama, the president was just a kid in Hawaii when Alinsky died, something you would expect a good historian, as Gingrich claims to be, to know. The two men never met, although when Obama arrived on the South Side of Chicago as a community organizer, some of his grass roots work with the poor was with an Alinsky-affiliated organization.

But that’s how it goes in the fight for basic human rights. Alinsky’s influence crops up all across the spectrum, even in the Tea Party. Get this: according to The Wall Street Journal, the conservative holy of holies, the one-time Republican majority leader in the House of Representatives, Dick Armey, whose FreedomWorks organization helps bankroll the Tea Party, gives copies of Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” to Tea Party leaders.

Watch out Dick – you could be next on Newt’s list, although, curiously, in his fight against the wealthy Mitt Romney, Gingrich himself has stolen a page from Alinsky’s populist playbook. After Romney beat him in the Florida primary, Newt insisted he would continue the fight for the nomination and shouted, “We’re going to have people power defeat money power,” a sentiment that was Saul Alinsky through and through.

Alinsky died, suddenly, in1972. At the time, he was planning to mount a campaign to organize white, middle class Americans into a national movement for progressive change, a movement he vowed to take into the halls of Congress and – his words — “the boardrooms of the mega-corporations.”

Maybe that’s why Newt Gingrich has been slandering Alinsky’s name. Maybe he’s afraid, afraid that the very white folks he’s been rousing to frenzy will discover who Saul Alinsky was – a patriot in a long line of patriots, who scorned the malignant narcissism of duplicitous politicians and taught everyday Americans to think for themselves and fight together for a better life. That’s the American way, and any good historian would know it.

Watch a video version of this ON DEMOCRACY essay.

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  • Anonymous

    Your discussions are good, but it needs to be repeated that the reason we need social safety nets is that the wealthy got that way by systematically stealing from the rest of us. Whether by not paying a living wage, engaging in insider trading, or getting bailed out by the US Treasury, thievery has created poverty. Alinsky knew this, and so do your guests, but somehow it gets lost in a capitalist bias that assumes thievery is human nature, when the evidence shows it is a small minority that lives by that credo.

  • RAN

    I don’t know much about Mr. Alinsky, but I do know better than to put “John L. Lewis” and “non-violently” in the same sentence. The Herrin massacre in 1922 put to rest any doubt about “nonviolence” being a part of the United Mine Workers. 

  • leftofcenter

    Assuming that Romney gets the nomination, how much do you wanna bet that the first “debate” moderator won’t ask him about Alinsky?

    How ironic is this? We have a Socialist Senator from Vermont. Yet, many people use the word socialist as an insult. Would the world end if the MSM actually said, today on Capitol Hill, Socialist Senator Bernie Sanders said ________? We already have many socialist things in our society (firefighters, cops, Medicare, Social Security and others). If any of the neocon candidates lost everything, they would instantly be screaming about how horribly they’re being treated by the system. Naturally, because they’re a “name”, the MSM would carry every word of it. Yet, if an average person does that, who pays attention?

    Massive hypocracy which many call “normal politics”.

  • Atokaite Tn

    Author fails to mention the associations with the Mid West Academy, The underground Weathermen activity, the various Chi Town Socialistic Organizations, all in all a white wash of the 1960s radicalism, downright Communism.
    Newt’s use of the Rules is appropriate. The RULES are not the problem, rather the application of such.
    The US Electorate is not stupid. Neither are the Old Geezers of the Tea Party. The Sun Tze Tung rules for war also apply, but the author appears to be enamored with the Radical Rules. So be it,
    As the Chaldean Hand has written on the Oval Office wall, this admin has been found wanting.
    Semper Fi

  • Gregrushing

    Thank you Mr. Moyers for setting the record straight about Mr Alinsky, his life and the work he did on behalf of hard working Americans.

  • Anonymous

    The strange foreign name is a Jewish name, a very Jewish-sounding name. Saul Alinsky was a Jew, easy to presume from just the sound of his name by those with no prior knowledge of him. A Jew, a socialist, a grass-roots community organizer for working people, he influenced President Obama who grew up as “a kid with a funny name,” an African and a Muslim name. Mr. Gingrich is whipping up the froth and frenzy of bigotry, racism and anti-Semitism for the purpose of winning himself votes.
    I love your books and programs, Mr. Moyers, and I am an enthusiastic supporter. But, I am very surprised you did not mention Saul Alinsky was obviously Jewish. Here is fear and hate-mongering in the most blatant and deplorable form.

  • Anonymous

    I hope voters are not stupid. You definitely are.

  • Rayrlewis

    What happened to the white middle class effort? Any descendents of the campaign?

    “Alinsky died, suddenly, in1972. At the time, he was planning to mount a campaign to organize white, middle class Americans into a national movement for progressive change, a movement he vowed to take into the halls of Congress and – his words — “the boardrooms of the mega-corporations.”

  • Brian

    Brilliant stuff, Mr. Moyers, thanks for this show, however, if you had been doing due diligence and listening to the de facto leader of the Republican party, Rush Limbaugh, you would know where Gingrich gets his Alinsky references. El Rushbo and his kewpie-doll sidekick, Sean Hannity, have made regular references to Alinsky in comparison to Obama. Glenn Beck might figure in here as well. In other words, this wasn’t Gingrich’s idea, he’s just using the right-wing-talk-radio playbook, and playing to the listeners. NPR has also wondered aloud whence Gingrich’s Alinsky references…you public tv & radio folk need to listen or have a staff member keep tabs on right-wing radio; you’ll get the entire Republican game plan mapped out for you.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for truth telling about Saul Alinsky. A hero. 

  • John Olsen

    As an old but worn hand at the community organizing game, I remember a story about Alinsky that tickled my fancy.  When the Chicago airport was trying to destroy a low income neighborhood to extend the runway, he brought his people to the opera one night but first fed them a big meal of beans and encouraged them to let their biological functions free.  Was it just allegorical?  

  • Margaret Randall

    Thank you, Bill Moyers, for salvaging and educating about yet another figure from our history who instead of being slandered by the likes of Newt Gingrich should be taught in our schools as a model of independent thought and action. 

  • Linda

    I see no mention of God anywhere in these stories, essays, articles, etc.  I do see each and every one giving their comment  totally capable of finding reason and back up for their views – and taking one thought, one plot and stretching it in so many different directions that it truly could make your head spin… if you did not have the one True place to begin. 

  • Veritas

    “The Truth shall make [us] free.”  Thank you Bill Moyers et. al. for offering an antidote to the venom spewed by three of the four remaining Republican candidates (excluding Ron Paul, MD).

  • Andrea Burlingame

    Thank you and thank you again for this post.  I have friends and relatives posting on Facebook about how Obama in cahoots with the evil likes of Saul Alinsky, the Socialist.  The Communist!  It was great to be able to educate people with a well-written article that went right to the point.

  • Andrea Burlingame

    Andrew Brietbart liked to draw an “evil” connection between Obama and Alinsky, too. 

  • James

    You butt-kissers are all completely out of your mind. Hey Moyers, how do you respond to this direct quote from Alinsky, who’s butt you apparently love to kiss through your idolizing of him: A Marxist begins with his prime truth that all evils are caused by the exploitation of the proletariat by the capitalists. From this he logically proceeds to the revolution to end capitalism, then into the third stage of reorganization into a new social order of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and finally the last stage — the political paradise of communism. — Saul Alinsky

  • Kathleen Nelson

    I’ve heard this, too, and it is one of my favorites!

  • Galut1

    Alinsky believed in allowing the community to determine its exact goal.

    Which means any group or individual can take up a cause…right ,Wrong or indifferent and use alinskys rules to exact their cause. Hitler Would and indeed used similar rules to get his way in Germany…there was fertile ground for Hitler to utilize in his rise to power….which says in the wrong hands his rules could spell disaster to society ….

    There must be a solid moral and selfless connection to the rules that Alinsky has outlined…

  • Steve

    Believe me, Gingrich is not ‘afraid’ of Alinsky. The fruits of Alinsky/Democrat policies can be seen today in the South Side of Chicago. Rampant crime, baby mammas on every street corner, absentee fathers of 8 kids, and Trillions of dollars poured into these communities to support democrat Big Government programs that create false moral values, and now, several generations later, the Black Community is really of a Victim of Saul Alinsky and the Democrats policies. They should have been given access to school choice, lessons in economics, family values, religious instruction in how to conduct themselves, and good old Puritan work ethics. Sad to say, a lot more are going to die and really – no one cares anymore. The whole community is one big Cabrini-Green failed Democrat program.

  • Steve

    The proof is in the pudding and Alinsky’s values have failed America, just as Obama is the worst, most corrupt, liar- president ever.

  • Steve

    Animals acting like animals – well done Saul. Build that airport runway, and let commerce flourish.

  • Steve

    That’s because there is one. Are you kidding? And I suppose Hillary ain’t connected either?

  • Anonymous

    Alinksy was a Communist in spirit, if not in name – I would not be at all surprised to find he was part of the Communist underground.