January 30, 1909 - June 12, 1972
Saul Alinsky was an american community organizer, founder of modern community organizing, author of the famous Rules for Radicals.
Saul Alinsky was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1909, to Russian-Jewish immigrants Benjamin and Sarah Tannenbaum-Alinsky.
His parents were strict Orthodox Jews, and the boy was raised in such strict conditions, that later in his youth he was “truly afraid” he would be forced to become a rabbi, and rebelled against the prospect by gradually becoming a hardcore agnostic. Paradoxically, he always – and strongly – insisted he was a devout Jew and kept a close connection with the culture of his people.
He finished a public school and then enrolled into the University of Chicago, where he majored in archaeology – right in time for the Great Depression, which made his profession “in as much demand as horses”, and left all the practicing archaeologists stranded, because “the guys who funded our field trips were being scraped off Wall Street sidewalks."
So, Saul was forced to accept work for the state of Illinois as a criminologist, at the same time working as an organizer and political activist for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). In the latter capacity, he worked in the notorious Back of the Yards district of Chicago, trying to improve the miserable lives of the local folk. Alinsky spent the next 10 years repeating his organization work all across the nation, from Kansas to Detroit and to the Southern California, employing an extremely unorthodox tactics, that would later be compiled into his Rules for Radicals and be taken up by the generation of the rebels of the 60s and early 70s.
For example, Alinsky once threatened Rochester (New York) authorities with a "fart in" – a gathering of activists after a hearty meal of beans, breaking wind in unison at a Rochester Philharmonic concert. The threat of such a disruptive action forced the authorities to give in, so next he threatened a "piss in" at Chicago’s O'Hare Airport – arranging for a large numbers of well-dressed African Americans to occupy the urinals and toilets at the airport, thus creating a serious (and quite noticeable) PR problem for the city bosses. Surprisingly, this threat was also effective!
Notably, Alinsky never aligned his actions with any political movement, replying to journalists’ eternal questions on this account with his famous saying that “I've never joined any organization—not even the ones I've organized myself. I prize my own independence too much.”
Alinsky died at the age of 63 of a sudden, massive heart attack in 1972, on a street corner in Carmel, California, leaving behind a manifesto of a professional rebel - a document whose rules have since been adopted by both the left and the right of the American political establishment, and whose methods are still routinely used during especially unscrupulous election campaigns.
In his personal life, Alinsky was just as steady as in his political career: he was married three times, with the first marriage lasting until his wife Helene Simon’s death, the second marriage, with , Jean Graham, ending in a divorce after 18 years, and the third marriage, with Irene Alinsky, ending with his death. His first wife brought him two children, Katherine and David.
In the course of nearly four decades of political organizing with the goal of improving the living conditions of poor communities across North America, Alinsky received both criticism, as well as praise from many public figures.
"Saul David Alinsky". Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1994.
Nicholas Von Hoffman (2010). Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky. Nation Books. pp. 108–109.
Cohen, Alex; Horwitt, Sanford (January 30, 2009). "Saul Alinsky, The Man Who Inspired Obama". Day to Day. NPR. April 17, 2011.