Who is Saul Alinsky?

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Saul Alinsky on Chicago's south side, where he organized the Woodlawn area to battle slum conditions. Feb. 20, 1966 (AP)

The way Newt Gingrich refers to the connection between Barack Obama and Saul Alinsky, one might think the president and the community organizer were golf buddies… except for the stubborn fact Alinsky died in 1972 when Obama was 10.

Among Gingrich’s quotes: “Obama believes in Saul Alinsky and secular European socialist bureaucracy.” And “Saul Alinsky radicalism is at the heart of Obama.”

Two things Obama and Alinsky do have in common are their Chicago home bases and parts of their resumes. As NPR puts it, “President Obama proudly talks about his days as a community organizer in Chicago, and the late Chicagoan Alinsky ‘wrote the book’ on community organizing.”

“My only fixed truth is a belief in people, a conviction that if people have the opportunity to act freely and the power to control their own destinies, they’ll generally reach the right decisions.”
— Saul Alinsky to Playboy, 1972

Born in Chicago in 1909, the child of poor Russian Jewish immigrant parents, Alinsky majored in archaeology at the University of Chicago and later became a criminologist. But Alinsky’s true calling came in the late 1930s when he began work as a labor organizer. Later, he focused his attention on organizing communities against substandard living and working conditions in places including Chicago’s depressed Back of the Yards neighborhood, made famous in The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.

After being mentored by the powerful labor leader John L. Lewis, Alinsky founded the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), which trained community organizers around the country. With the financial backing of liberal millionaire Marshall Field III, Alinsky was able to expand his mission of inspiring and organizing poor, urban communities across the nation. His first book Reveille for Radicals, published in1946, became a best-seller, and is considered a handbook for social change.

Sanford Horwitt, who wrote Let Them Call Me Rebel: Saul Alinsky, His Life and Legacy, told NPR that Alinsky “wanted to see especially lower-income people who were getting pushed around to exercise some influence and even power over decisions that affected their lives.”

“As an organizer I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be. That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be – it is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it to what we think it should be. That means working in the system.”
— Saul Alinsky in Rules for Radicals

Alinsky’s tactics were unusual, humorous, and provocative. In his book Rules for Radicals, Alinsky describes the role of the organizer “to maneuver and bait the establishment so that it will publicly attack him as a ‘dangerous enemy.'”

But though his means and methods have been and continue to be adopted by political groups, Alinsky was no fan of affiliations.

“I’ve never joined any organization — not even the ones I’ve organized myself,” Alinsky told Playboy in 1972, shortly before his death. “I prize my own independence too much. And philosophically, I could never accept any rigid dogma or ideology, whether it’s Christianity or Marxism…The greatest crimes in history have been perpetrated by such religious and political and racial fanatics, from the persecutions of the Inquisition on down to Communist purges and Nazi genocide.”

By the 1950’s, Alinsky’s main focus was organizing African-American communities. He brought modern civil rights efforts to Chicago and helped the black community of Rochester, New York challenge the mighty Eastman Kodak’s hiring policies.

During the 1960’s Alinsky set up institutes to train other organizers, and his reputation as a visionary organizer and activist began to spread. None other than Hillary Clinton chose his work as the topic for a Wellesley College thesis in 1969. According to a 2007 Boston Globe article, Clinton interviewed Alinsky twice for the paper, which was entitled “There is Only the Fight: An Analysis of the Alinsky Model.”

In it, Clinton writes, also according to the Globe, “Much of what Alinsky professes does not sound ‘radical.”… His are the words used in our schools and churches, by our parents and their friends, by our peers. The difference is Alinsky really believes in them and recognizes the necessity of changing the present structures of our lives in order to realize them.”

Alinsky published his third book, Rules for Radicals, A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, in 1971, and it’s become popular even outside the communities and audiences he called his own. One prominent example: Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy organization that assists tea party groups, has distributed Alinsky’s books in training sessions.

Saul Alinsky died of a heart attack in 1972, but his legacy lives on not only through the work of the IAF —  now represented by 47 organizations across the country – but through the tactics of grass roots groups on all sides of the political playing field.

Still, Alinsky likely never would have imagined his most popular days would arrive exactly ten years after his death, as the shallow buzzword of a politician on the ropes.

Explore More:

The Democratic Promise: Saul Alinsky and his Legacy is a 1999 documentary produced and directed by Bob Hercules and Bruce Orenstein. Narrated by Alec Baldwin, the film shows how Alinsky championed new ways to organize the poor and powerless that created a backyard revolution in cities across America. In this clip, Baldwin tells the story of Alinsky’s help in organizing the black community in Rochester, NY.

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  • Donna

    Thank you for this good and thought-provoking article.  I’ve never heard of this man, but we sure need more straight-thinking and common sensical people like him now.

  • Cate Mabrey

    Now I understand why Newt is so afraid of him. I’d guess less than 1% of the people who have heard Newt “trash” Saul Alinsky have bothered to find out just how important Alinsky’s work has been. If only there were more of him today! Of course, with social media, we’re able to mobilize against the too-big-to-fail banks who accepted Bush bail outs (move your money), monthly charges to use debit cards, Netflix (raised their rates “just because”), Verizon who wanted to add an extra charge for paying your bill, and most recently, the Susan G Komen Foundation’s abdication of their standing non-partisanship policy on women’s health issues when they cut off funding to Planned Parenthood for breast exams. Shame on them! We are the 99% and we will fight injustice, inequity, and stand up for each other.

  • Raitzkybar

    How would Saul Alinsky “organize” a semi rural, suburban, all white Republican-voting community who has just allowed it’s reps to levy a fee on 911 calls among other acts of all out war on the lower middle class?

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1059009795 Sandy Knauer Morgan

    How can anyone with a conscience support the Republican Party when they are so outspoken about hating everything and everyone that is decent? 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1590627197 Rosemarie LaRose

    Here’s the sad truth: The 1% believes I am incapable of reading, researching and thinking for myself. So, Republicans, I’m here to tell you I’m pissed-off, I’m not going to believe anything you tell me-period. And it’ll be a cold day in Hell before I EVER vote for any of you. Period! You think
    I’m so ignorant and uneducated, so stupid as to take your word for anything? We, The People, are rising up, we will not quit, and we will take our Country back. Just watch us! I wish I could be there when you try to explain yourselves to God. Godd Luck with that.

  • Heavenandearthnow

    The video keeps shutting down, but I saw enough. Go to h___, Newt.

  • Anonymous

    Mr. Moyers — I like how you set the record straight.  This reminds me of the interview you did with Wright; the lead in to the Wright interview was brilliant for its brevity, tone and implication — art.

  • Real American


  • Bcdctf

    Marxist intend on destroying the USA.

  • Anonymous

    Please call all the Planned Parenthood offices you can find and ask them when someone can come in for a breast exam. I believe you will find that Planned Parenthood does not do breast exams. Check financial records for Planned Parenthood and find out they make millions of dollars performing abortions, then they want handouts from the government and from private foundations.

  • carolynh2

    Wherein the he’ll did you come up with this. I don’t know any Republicans who fit that description.

  • carolynh2

    You’ve had the country for four years. What have you done but complain about republicans?

  • america

    nothing but a red!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/dscottfrazier Scott Frazier

    You want to take your country back? From your brief comments here, it seems to me your side has taken over the country at the moment…so what is there to take back? You say the 1% think your incapable of thinking for yourself? I’m not sure where you get this idea or why you inject class warfare into this at all. The Dems…especially the left wing liberal Dems…don’t want people thinking for themselves, and think that we’re incapable of making our own decisions, taking care of ourselves, and need government to do for us, what we should do for ourselves. The US is still a center-right country…and WE are taking our country back on November 6, 2012.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1850122457 John Christensen


  • 777

    Rules for Radicals is the title of the book, A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals, by Saul Alinsky. He’s no longer alive, but his work lives on.
    Here is Saul Alinsky’s dedication to his own book: “Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history (and who is to know where mythology leaves off and history begins — or which is which), the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom — Lucifer

  • Kim Reed-Deemer

    So. How’d that work out for ya?

  • Anonymous

    Poor Girl ! I hope you get the help you so sorely need ! You need to come back to our side of the looking glass !

  • Anonymous

    Sandy, I am a Republican and I don’t hate you. But I bet you hate me.

  • Anonymous

    And you are so open minded, Rosemarie.

  • Anonymous

    Alinsky was “decent”? hahahahahahahaha 😀 lmfbo My God, you’ve obviously been lobotomized.

  • Anonymous

    The only sad truth here is that imbeciles like you are permitted to vote. So you’re pissed off? Why not get even through violence like some on your side advocate, for example, Van Jones? You want to take my country from me, grandma? Come and get it. Bring Jones with you. I’ll gladly take you both on at the same time, but you better bring an army with you. Moron.

  • Anonymous

    Um, Rosemarie. I think you are in favor on communism. Are there many massage therapists in a communism country?

  • Anonymous

    you are not the 99% or do you really believe 99% of Americans are left wing nuts

  • Anonymous

    honestly you have never heard of Saul Alinsky? Saul a left wing nut job, He prides himself in his independence won’t let anybody push their views on him, but has no problems pushing his radical views on others

  • Anonymous

    organizing poor people…..just like the rich, who organize capital, and use their wealth and power to keep poor people oppressed. Right wingers ALWAYS use a double standard!

  • C4F

    I just have to ask, where do liberals/democrats or whatever you want to call them, get the idea, that republicans and conservatives want anything or anyone to be harmed, mistreated or put down, or live in poverty??
    It comes from the incessant negative rhetoric and name calling, coming out of the mouths of the far left. Which reflects some of Alinsky’s teachings, to denigrate your opponent, then box him in, so that he must defend the accusations, rather than be able to debate the issues. So when you consider 90% of all television media, from which, most people these days get their news, do nothing but bad mouth republicans and conservatives, and when the majority of left wing politicians to include the President, use some of the most vile epithets to describe their opposition, is there truly any wonder why people like Sandy M. and Rosemarie L. on this thread, say the things they say? Such people should read the book “Useful Idiots” written by Mona Charen, and read the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Engels. To do so might educate such people to the dangerous road this country is currently on, and how close we are to the precipice, of losing everything we hold dear.

  • Chuhyona

    Many people still do not realize what the ” Tea Party ” is. It is a movement, a feeling for freedom and liberty from an over bearing restrictive government. It is a yearning to have a chance to earn your own way without the interference of bureaucrats who’s entire existence is fed by other’s sweat and effort. It is people who want to bring back a government that is directly responsible to the voters of this great country. We are people of every race gender and religion, we are in every city, town, village, and state. We are your neighbor, friend, brother and sister. We can never be eliminated or dismissed by any political organization because we are not an organization we are just Americans.

  • Archer

    Nice pic. Why’d you change it?
    It’s hard for me to believe that so many people didn’t know who obama was before he was elected the 1st time.
    Those that are “surprised” either willing buried their heads in the sand or willing decided to remain ignorant. Either way, I’ve no sympathy for them.

  • Archer

    Wrong on so many levels.
    Liberal leftists, particularly the wealthy ones, USE the poor and minorities only for their votes.

    Conservatives actually care.

  • Anonymous

    In his book Rules for Radicals, Alinsky describes the role of the organizer “to maneuver and bait the establishment so that it will publicly attack him as a ‘dangerous enemy.’”

    You know a good way for a community organizer to get attacked?
    Lie all the time.

  • Anonymous

    “to maneuver and bait the establishment so that it will publicly attack him as a ‘dangerous enemy.’”
    Who’d have thought how sucessful he would be at continuing to do that decades after his death?

  • Anonymous

    You are referring to Glen Beck of course?

  • Anonymous

    They won by a landslide. Didn’t you hear Dick Morris and Karl Rove?

  • SecludedCompound

    Strangely enough, “deluding yourself into believing your own shtick” wasn’t one of Alinsky’s tactics. The continuing decline of the right wing in this country might tell you why.

  • SecludedCompound

    It’s amazing how deluded you people are.

  • Archer

    Oddly enough, obama’s approvals are the ones that are falling. I am certain that saul didn’t use those words.
    I am sure obama beleives his own shtick.

  • SecludedCompound

    Falling to… 45%? What is the republican party’s approval rating, pray tell? Here’s a hint: it’s half that. The Tea Party’s is even lower.

    You guys are losing, and what’s better, your demographic, aging white males, are dying off quicker than you can say “the South ain’t rising again.”

    Have fun in the wilderness, buddy. 😉

  • Anonymous

    I seem to recall that he was a Senator. Are you lying, by chance?

  • Anonymous

    Or saving it, depending on your perspective.

  • Gypsyeddie

    My recommendation than is to go to China where your cup would runneth over.

  • Steve Nelson

    You have allowed yourself to become so miserable, Rosemarie. You have been completely deceived by lies. Alinsky has certainly gotten to you. First of all, the “1%” does not believe what you say they believe. This is a myth the propagandists have brainwashed you with.

  • Steve Nelson

    Sandy, you are not thinking for yourself. You willfully believe in propaganda that makes you feel good for the moment. Maybe your dad didn’t give you the attention that you thought that you should of had. It is you, through your bitterness, that is hating.

  • J P

    playing both ends against the middle is nothing new. Saul just sat down, wrote a book about it, can be described as How to Be a Successful Bully w/others’ sweat and money.

  • Steve

    LOL. You call a state or us senator a real job? LOL!

  • Anonymous

    Why yes I do. That you represent a party which doesn’t take that job as anything other than an excuse for obstructionism and tearing down the government is your problem.

  • Steve

    I’m a senator from illinoise and I vote “present!” LOL!

    “Barack Obama’s 129 ‘present’ votes in the Illinois Senate have often been used against him during his presidential campaign.

    Hillary Clinton raised the votes as evidence of Obama’a slipperiness and indecision during the primaries,…”

  • Anonymous

    Destroying it, if you can possibly begin to appreciate objective reality.