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Saul Alinsky, the father of community organizing, in this own words … AUDIO

Below is an interview with Saul Alinsky, the father of community organizing and the author of Rules for Radicals with Pulizer Prize-winning author, Studs Terkel.

Terkel hosted a popular radio show in Chicago for 45 years from WFMT and passed away in 2011 at the age of 96.

Thanks to the Tom Gaudette Archives and BWM-Citizen Journalism. Audio transferred from cassette. Original Broadcast unknown. Transcript below.

TRANSCRIPT: Studs Terkel and Saul Alinsky


TERKEL: If I described you, Saul, as a professional agitator, what would your reaction be on that description?

ALINSKY: That’s okay with me. You left out one word, Studs, professional outsider agitator. You see you’ve gotta be an outside agitator to begin with because agitators very rarely come up from the inside because if you come up from the inside, one of two things happen to you. Either you get knocked off or you get co-opted. That’s the reason why agitators are outside agitators. You see, when you are out to really get “change.” every community, every place is organized. When sociologists talk about social disorganization or communities that are disorganized, they don’t know what they are talking about. They can go into the crudest community, and its got a policy racket going. It’s got a syndicate up going. It’s got a political organization that is crooked as hell, and they are being exploited as if it’s a company town — but it’s organized, you know. It’s a contradiction of terns to say that there is such a thing as a disorganized community. So that the job of the agitator is first – it’s really not organizing a movement, he’s reorganizing it. First, he’s got to change the whole pattern. He’s got to disorganize it–that’s why he is an agitator. And after he disorganizes it, then he reorganizes it.

TERKEL: So, we are coming to something … then this man who enters the community, this man, this outside “agitator” has entered a community that’s organized to begin with –

ALINSKY: That’s right.

TERKEL: And organized for what? And why is he there? Organized for what?

ALINSKY: The community is organized with a certain pattern of values. You can call it an exploitation of the money by the few over there. Call it whatever you want to. The organizer brings in another set of values. Now, to say that an organizer comes in, who was just in there as sort of a blotter. He’s just going in for participatory democracy. He doesn’t have any ideas. He’s just got to be a servant of the people– of the masses so to speak. He will just reflect what they want. That’s just a lot of romantic crap. If an organizer doesn’t have ideas as to how he wants to change that thing—and more important, if he doesn’t have the sophistication and the experience to know how to get it done– you see there is a big difference between the what’s that you want to get in life and the ‘how’ you go about getting them. If you don’t know the ‘how’ about getting them – if you don’t know the ‘how,’ you are never going to get the whats.
I always used to say, that if any smart organizer had come up before the Oracle of Delphi, and the Oracle always sounded off with her usual, proverbial business of ‘know thyself,’ you know.

A smart organizer would look at her and say: ‘Okay Oracle, now how the hell do I go about doing it? Don’t tell me what I have to get, tell me how I have to get it because unless I know the ‘how’ the ‘what’ is just rhetoric you know.’

I imagine the Oracle would have had a fit. You know, would have said, ‘One question only allowed to a customer or something’ and ‘get thee going.’

The organizer has got to have ideas. If he doesn’t have any ideas when he comes in there — if he doesn’t know ‘how’ and ‘what’ to do, the only thing that his presence does is with the population was say 100,000 before he walked in, it now becomes 100,001, that’s all. It doesn’t make any difference then. He can only come in on the basis really of an invitation from the community.

I go to Houston to do nothing but to lecture at the University of Houston. I get to the airport. The whole Klan is out there in their full regalia. The Mayor is all over the front page of the newspaper. He’s going to investigate the University for inviting this radical down to speak to the university. The John Birch Society has got a mass picket line out there. The next morning you’ve got this big delegation of blacks inviting me to come in because they’ve never seen anything like this before. Everybody they hate is so uptight.

But now if you haven’t got that rep you have to go about working your way in. And one of the basic things here is whether — I really should stop and say this. Studs, that this is one field on which you really cannot pull a con game or a snow job.

If you don’t like people, they are G–damn well going to soon know it. You know, you can pull a fast job if you are selling a vacuum cleaner or something; you are only going to be with the guy for an hour, or selling a house or a car. But when you are selling people, you are working with them for hours, for days, for weeks, for months. Sooner or later they sense it, you know. So as long as you respect the dignity of people, then they will respond to you. Now that sounds like an old cliché but as long as I respect you for example, I can’t come to you and say, ‘Now Studs, this is the way you get this thing done because what I am really saying is you dumb son-of-a-b-tch, you’ve been sitting around here for years, and I’ve got to come along, and tell you now this is the way you get it done.’ Naturally you are going to resent it.

You see freedom, freedom of choice, and the freedom is a part of dignity, is really the right to make a choice.

I go into a neighborhood. I run into you. You are on welfare, you know. And you are standing on the corner. So we get into a conversation. So I say,

‘Where do you live?’

“Over there. Where do you expect me to live? I am on relief. Where do you want me to live? In a fourteen caret gold palace,’ you know.

‘No Jesus. You pay anything to live there?’

‘Oh come on. Trying to be funny?’

‘Well, no. I don’t want to be funny about … Jesus, the place looks like it’s loaded with rats and cockroaches, everything. [muffled] Humm. What would happen if you didn’t pay your rent?’

‘What would happen? They would throw me out, my kids, and everybody else. What do you mean?’

‘Yeah, what would happen if nobody paid their rent over there?”

‘Why they – ‘,

‘Well, Jesus. They would have a load of trouble throwing us all out, wouldn’t they?’


TEXT: Rochester 1964 race riots, churches and Malcolm X …


TERKEL: Who is it who invites you into a community? Specifically … who invites you in?

ALINSKY: Let’s take Rochester, New York. They’ve blown a race riot 1964. Until Watts blew the next year, it was the worst riot in the country. The National Guard was down there. A helicopter crashed. Lives were lost and so on.

So the Rochester area counsel of the churches—these are all the white churches, including some of the blacks– the respectable black churches.

My answer to them was, ‘Oh now wait. Cool it.’ ‘We are not one of these colonial operations like the Christian churches. You send your missionaries all over the country, all over the world, whether nobody asks for them or not. You haven’t gotten those speaking for the black ghetto. We’ll come in and organize but we will organize your white communities. But until the black ghetto asks us to come in, we are not coming in.’

So then the job starts very quickly. The papers went into an uproar. Front page editorials and stuff. In which they were saying, ‘If Alinsky comes in, that’s the end of peace and love.’ They had a riot the year before– between ourselves and our black fellow Americans … radio every hour on the hour. They’d come up with these editorials –I mean every hour on the hour. So the blacks were reading all this stuff, and on top of that they had this statement. Malcolm X had been in Rochester just three weeks before all of this began. It was actually just six weeks before he got it and he was asked a question about a leader of his forces in Rochester, ‘What about Saul Alinsky?’

His answer was, ‘Use him. Squeeze him dry. Get him in here. Learn everything you can, and then go on your own.’

So between Malcolm’s statement and the white establishment just raising hell about me, the next thing I knew we had an invitation from every black church in the ghetto, every civil rights group, every street gang, and more than 13,000 individual signatures on petitions from a total population of 35,000. So if you took the kids out of the scene you could say that every black in Rochester signed a petition inviting us in there. Now, that’s what I mean by an invitation. END

Click the link to listen to a longer version at BoilingWater Media .

Credit: Citizen Journalism Project documents public affairs.

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