Saul Alinsky Interview Part 9

Posted on April 11, 2013

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Saul Alinsky Interview Part 9

After Success, Further Organizing Projects

PLAYBOY: What was your next organizational effort after your success in Back of the Yards?

ALINSKY: Well, in the aftermath of Back of the Yards, a lot of people who’d said it couldn’t be done were patting me on the back, but none of them were offering any concrete support for similar organizational efforts. Then in 1940 Bishop Sheil brought me together with Marshall Field III, one of those rare birds, a millionaire with a genuine social .conscience. There was a funny kind of chemistry between us right from the beginning, and Field became really enthusiastic about what I was trying to do. And what’s more, unlike a lot of do-gooding fat cats, he was willing to put his money where his mouth was. He gave me a grant that would allow me the freedom and mobility to repeat the Back of the Yards pattern in other communities, and with his money I established the Industrial Areas Foundation in Chicago, which is still my primary base of operations. Between Field and Sheil, I got $10,000 as an annual budget for salary, office, staff and travel expenses. Those were the days! I started moving across the country, working in different slum areas and forming cadres of volunteer organizers to carry the work on when I’d left. Those were pretty hectic times; I remember I had cards made up reading, “HAVE TROUBLE, WILL TRAVEL.”

PLAYBOY: Did you run into much trouble yourself?

ALINSKY: Yeah, I was about as popular as the plague. I used to save on hotel bills, because the minute I’d arrive in a new town the cops would slap me right in jail. There wasn’t any crap about habeas corpus and the rights of the accused in those days; if they thought you were a troublemaker, they just threw you behind bars, and nobody bothered to read you your constitutional rights. I really used to enjoy jail, though. When you jail a radical, you’re playing right into his hands. One result is that the inherent conflict between the haves and the have-nots is underlined and dramatized, and another is that it terrifically strengthens your position with the people you’re trying to organize. They say, “Shit, that guy cares enough about us to go to jail for us. We can’t let him down now.” So they make a martyr out of you at no higher cost than a few days or weeks of cruddy food and a little inaction.

And actually, that inaction itself is a valuable gift to a revolutionary. When you’re out in the arena all the time, you’re constantly on the run, racing from one fight to another and from one community to another. Most of the time you don’t have any opportunity for reflection and contemplation; you never get outside of yourself enough to gain a real perspective and insight into your own tactics and strategy. In the Bible the prophets could at least go out into the wilderness and get themselves together, but about the only free time I ever had was on a sleeper train between towns, and I was generally so knocked out by the end of the day I’d just pass out the minute my head hit the pillow. So my wilderness, like that of all radicals, turned out to be jail.

It was really great; there weren’t any phones and, outside of one hour every day, you didn’t get any visitors. Your jailers were generally so stupid you wouldn’t want to talk to ’em anyway, and since your surroundings were so drab and depressing, your only escape was into your own mind and imagination. Look at Martin Luther King; it was only in Montgomery jail that he had the uninterrupted time to think out thoroughly the wider implications of his bus boycott, and later on his philosophy deepened and widened during his time in prison in Birmingham, as he wrote in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” So jail is an invaluable training ground for radicals.

PLAYBOY: It also removes you from active participation in your cause.

ALINSKY: Oh, I’m predicating this on the jail sentence being no more than two months at the maximum. The problem you face with a heavy sentence is that you’re knocked out of action for too long and can lose your touch, and there’s also the danger that if you’re gone from the fight long enough, everybody will forget about you. Hell, if they’d given Jesus life instead of crucifying him, people would probably be lighting candles to Zeus today. But a relatively short jail term is a wonderful opportunity to think about what you’re doing and why, where you’re headed and how you can get there better and faster. It’s in jail that you can reflect and synthesize your ideas, formulate your long-term goals with detachment and objectivity and shape your philosophy.

Jail certainly played an important role in my own case. After Back of the Yards, one of our toughest fights was Kansas City, where we were trying to organize a really foul slum called the Bottoms. The minute I’d get out of the Union Station and start walking down the main drag, a squad car would pull up and they’d take me off to jail as a public nuisance. I was never booked; they’d just courteously lock me up. They’d always give me a pretty fair shake In jail, though, a private cell and decent treatment, and it was there I started writing my first book, Reveille for Radicals. Sometimes the guards would come in when I was working and say, “OK, Alinsky, you can go now,” and I’d look up from my papers and say, “Look, I’m in the middle of the chapter. I’ll tell you when I want out.” I think that was the first and only time they had a prisoner anxious not to be released. After a few times like that, word reached the police chief of this nut who loved jail, and one day he came around to see me. Despite our political differences, we began to hit it off and soon became close friends. Now that he and I were buddies, he stopped pickin’ me up, which was too bad — I had another book in mind — but I’ll always be grateful to him for giving me a place to digest my experiences. And I was able to turn his head around on the issues, too; pretty soon he did a hundred percent somersault and became prolabor right down the line. We eventually organized successfully and won our major demands in Kansas City, and his changed attitude was a big help to that victory.

PLAYBOY: Where did you go after Kansas City?

ALINSKY: I divided my time between a half-dozen slum communities we were organizing, but then we entered World War Two, and the menace of fascism was the overpowering issue at that point, so I felt Hitler’s defeat took temporary precedence over domestic issues. I worked on special assignment for the Treasury and Labor Departments; my job was to increase industrial production in conjunction with the C.I.O. and also to organize mass war-bond drives across the country. It was relatively tame work for me, but I was consoled by the thought I was having some impact on the war effort, however small.

PLAYBOY: You didn’t think of fighting Hitler with a gun?

ALINSKY: Join the Army? No, I’d have made a lousy soldier. I hate discipline too much. But before Pearl Harbor, I was offered a commission in the OSS. From what little I was told, it sounded right up my alley; none of the discipline and regimentation I loathed. Apparently General “Wild Bill” Donovan thought my experience in fighting domestic fascism could have an application to the resistance movements we were supporting behind enemy lines. I agreed. I was really excited; I pictured myself in a trench coat and beret, parachuting into occupied France and working with the maquis against the Nazis. But it wasn’t meant to be. The Assistant Secretary of State blocked my commission because he felt I could make a better contribution in labor affairs, ensuring high production, resolving worker-management disputes, that sort of thing. Important, sure, but prosaic beside the cloak-and-dagger stuff. I’ve got to admit that one of the very, very few regrets I have in life was being blocked from joining the OSS.

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Posted in: Alinsky