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Saul Alinsky was a writer and community organizer from the United States. He is credited with founding the modern idea of community organizing. Alinsky famously wrote the well-known book Rules for Radicals, a guide to community organization. He founded the Temporary Woodlawn Organization and many others to give power to the urban poor.

Youth and Education

Saul David Alinsky was born on January 30, 1909, in Chicago, Illinois, to Jewish immigrants from Russia. He was the only living son of his father, Benjamin Alinsky, and the marriage to Sarah Tannenbaum, his second wife.[1] Alinsky described his parents as “strict Orthodox, their whole life revolved around work and synagogue... I remember as a kid being told how important it was to study.” They never participated in the “new socialist movement.” [2]

Alinsky’s father worked as a tailor and landlord. He attended Marshall High School and his parents divorced before he graduated. He stayed with his mother in Chicago. Growing up, he experienced anti-Semitism that “was so pervasive you didn't really even think about it; you just accepted it as a fact of life.”[3]

Alinsky enrolled at the University of Chicago in 1926 to study urban community struggles and conduct field research with the University’s prestigious sociologists. He graduated in 1930 with a Bachelors in Philosophy. He enrolled again at the University of Chicago to earn a graduate degree in criminology.

Saul Alinsky married Philadelphia-native Helene Simon in June 1932 after they met as undergraduates.[4]

Early Career

After graduating, Saul Alinsky first joined the Institute for Juvenile Research as one of Clifford Shaw’s staff members. Shaw believed that social delinquency did not come from the individual, but from urban society disorganization in the U.S. He then worked at Joliet State Prison as a criminologist between 1933 and 1935.

In 1939, Alinsky returned to the Institute and began the reorganization of the Back of the Yards, the poor South Chicago neighborhood. The Back of the Yards neighborhood was the inspiration for the horrific working conditions fictionalized in The Jungle, written and published by Upton Sinclair in 1906.[5] Alinsky’s work to "turn scattered, voiceless discontent into a united protest” grabbed the attention of Adlai Stevenson, the governor of Illinois.[6]

The Beginnings of Structured Community Organization

Saul Alinsky and Clifford Shaw fell out due to Alinsky’s involvement with the Back of the Yards. Shaw thought this beyond the realm of the Institute. Bernard Sheil, a Roman Catholic archbishop, and Alinsky then co-founded the Industrial Areas Foundation, so he could continue organizing. He led the Foundation until he died.

Saul Alinsky operated under the notion that neither the elite nor the government should be able to control the fate of impoverish urban citizens.

The core tenants of Alinsky’s community development philosophy begin with the impoverish urban dwellers feeling powerless over their own lives. Traditionally, social work involved outsiders entering the community and telling the poor how to fix their lives Alinsky believed social workers needed to create organizations within the community to help them gain control of their own lives by their own efforts. This caused conflict with the ideas of traditional social workers, the upper class, and political power structures.

Alinsky employed similar community organizing techniques in South St. Paul and Kansas City, but they did not succeed as well due to insufficient trained organizers and funds. When World War II began, he focused on other issues, including working with the War Manpower Board to boost worker morale.[7]

Personal Life and Later Career

In 1947, Saul Alinsky’s wife, Helene, drowned while rescuing children from Lake Michigan. Soon after, his good friend died unexpectedly of polio. The beginning of the McCarthy era made it difficult for anyone considered a radical to work. His personal and professional struggles persisted even as he succeeded in organizing a community of Mexican-Americans in California.

Alinsky remarried to Jean Graham in 1952. She showed signs of multiple sclerosis soon after. In 1969, they divorced and he married for a third time in 1971 to Irene McGinnis. He kept the Industrial Areas Foundation alive during this time by publishing a biography of John L. Lewis, and donations from Catholic Charity’s John O’Grady and the Schartzhaupt Foundation.

Saul Alinsky kept organizing in California and New York, but it never reached the same success as the Back of the Yards. He faced insufficient funding, inexperienced organizers, conflict with fellow social workers, and control issues. Also, his belief that the newly created organization should only take three years to become self-sustaining allowed unsavory rules to be established, including attempts to thwart integration.

Alinsky created the Temporary Woodlawn Organization in 1961 to address the problems in Chicago being exacerbated by the University of Chicago’s plans to expand. He employed new tactics to organize the urban African-American community surrounding the area, the first attempt of its kind. Alinsky registered huge groups of black citizens to vote by driving them to City Hall.

Saul Alinsky is one of the first examples of a grassroots organizer in the United States.

In Summer 1964, Rochester, New York faced violent race riots and Alinsky went to organize the African-American community. He formed the organization FIGHT, which stands for Freedom, Integration, God, Honor - Today, which succeeded in making demands of the Eastman Kodak Corporation and the City of Chicago. He controversially employed tactics like ridicule, embarrassment, and stock proxies in the fight.[8]

Alinsky posed the idea of a “fart in” at the Rochester Philharmonic, where members of FIGHT would eat baked beans and then flagellate during the concert. Another posed tactic was a “piss in” staged at O’Hare Airport in Chicago, where smartly dressed African-Americans would occupy all the toilets and urinals to get the attention of the city. These threats never needed to be fulfilled since the other side conceded.[9]

Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, and his Death

Saul Alinsky spent his remaining years writing his guide to community organizing entitled Rules for Radicals. He published it in 1971, only a year before his death. In it, he documented his controversial tactics and unorthodox viewpoints, including:

“The job of the organizer is to maneuver and bait the establishment so that it will publicly attack him as a 'dangerous enemy.’ The hysterical instant reaction of the establishment [will] not only validate [the organizer's] credentials of competency but also ensure automatic popular invitation.”[10]

Saul Alinsky died on June 12, 1972, of a heart attack in Carmel-by-the-sea, California. He is buried in Chicago’s Zion Gardens Cemetery.[11]



Alinsky, S. (1972, March). An Interview with Saul Alinsky. Interview by Playboy. 
Dictionary of American Biography. (1994).

Dictionary of American Biography. (1994). Saul David Alinsky. Dictionary of American Biography. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.[2]

Horwitt, S. D. (1989). Let Them Call Me Rebel: Saul Alinsky, His Life and Legacy. New York: Random House.


  1. Horwitt, 1989
  2. Alinsky, 1972
  3. Alinsky, 1972
  4. Dictionary of American Biography, 1994
  5. Dictionary of American Biography, 1994
  6. Alinsky, 1989
  7. Dictionary of American Biography, 1994
  8. Dictionary of American Biography, 1994
  9. von Hoffman, N. (2011). Radical: A Portrait of Saul Alinsky. New York: Avalon Publishing Group.
  10. Alinsky, S. D. (1989). Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals. New York: Vintage Books.
  11. Buchinski, R. (2009, October 28). Saul Alinsky (1909 - 1972). Find A Grave Memorial.[1]

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