Date:    Tue, 20 Aug 1996 14:01:56 CDT
Sender:  H-Net/H-Urban Seminar on History of Community Organizing &
         Community-Based Development 
Subject: ABSTRACT: Alinsky/Organization for the Southwest Community (1959)
Posted by Wendy Plotkin 
Prior to posting
   o Richard Wood's abstract of his 1995 dissertation comparing racial
and religious approaches to organizing in the San Francisco area,
   o  Michael Byrd's paper on the IAF and various approaches
to religion in organizing, and
   o  Michael Miller's critique of Gary Delgado's BEYOND THE
POLITICS OF PLACE and a sales list of historical and contemporary
publications available from the Organize Training Center,
I'd like to offer two postings on Alinsky's career that will tie the
earlier papers on Alinsky to these analyses of post-Alinsky organizing.
These are both drawn from Sanford Horwitt's biography LET THEM CALL ME
1989).  I'll remind readers of two reviews of this book:  one by Bob
Fisher in the February, 1992 JOURNAL OF URBAN HISTORY (18:2) essay
entitled "Organizing in the Modern Metropolis: Considering New Social
Movement Theory" and another one written for this seminar by Back of
the Yards historian Bob Slayton.  In his JOURNAL OF URBAN HISTORY
review, Bob Fisher writes,
    "In Horwitt's LET THEM CALL ME REBEL, the first
     truly excellent biography of Alinsky, Alinsky
     emerges as a complex and contradictory figure.
     Horwitt has carefully mined the Alinsky archives
     and done the hundreds of interviews necessary to
     create a personal as well as political biography
     of Alinsky and his times." (JUH, 227)
To obtain a summary of Fisher's review and Bob Slayton's
review in full, send e-mail to with the
messages -- leaving the subject line blank and adding no other
text in the message, especially signatures --
                GET FISHER INTRO
                GET ALINSKY REVIEW
In this posting, I address Alinsky's early attempts to extend his
experience in Back of the Yards to another working class white
neighborhood in Chicago.
Horwitt describes Alinsky's attempts to confront the issue of race in a
Southwest Side neighborhood in Chicago consisting of working class
white Catholics and Protestants, committed to sustaining the white
character of their neighborhood.  According to Horwitt, Alinsky was
disturbed by his inability to introduce racial integration into the
Back of the Yards in the 1940s and 1950s.  Irony prevailed.  The Back
of the Yards Council was being proclaimed nationally by authors such as
effectiveness in preserving the neighborhood in the face of an aging
housing stock and industrial disinvestment.  Ignored was the fact that
the unity that contributed to this community effort was fueled in part
by an anti-black agenda, in which the only outreach to
African-Americans was the effort to protect them at their place of
employment and their travels thereto from their segregated
neighborhoods.  In an attempt to stem the Council's segregationist
agenda, Alinsky tried to persuade his Back of the Yard Council
co-founder Joseph Meegan and key Catholic officials to accept an agenda
of limited integration, involving racial quotas that would avoid the
rapid racial turnover of the neighborhood.  The antipathy of these
erstwhile allies amazed and overwhelmed him, and led him to an attempt
to achieve some type of integration in another similar neighborhood on
the Southwest Side of Chicago.
The impetus for organizing this neighborhood came from the upper
echelons of the Chicago Catholic hierarchy and some of the clergy in
the area.  They were concerned that like many of Chicago's
neighborhoods in the 1950s, the Southwest Side would experience loss of
the majority of its white Catholic population.   Fear of the burgeoning
African-American population, deterioration of the housing stock, and
attraction to the white suburbs would lead them to flee.  To discourage
the realization of this likely course of events, community leaders
prior to Alinsky adopted the methods used in the U.S. in the heyday of
urban renewal and rehabilitation -- "conservation" programs that
offered affordable home loans for the rehabilitation and repair of the
housing stock (an emphasis ignored by federal FHA policy, which focused
its programs on the suburbs).
The more progressive clergy realized that more than physical
preservation was needed to prevent turnover in the face of pressure
from a growing African-American population.  Since the late 1940s, this
population had been expanding out of the ghetto in response to the
growth of its community, the end of racial residential covenants, and
the availability of housing stock as whites fled to suburbs.  The
church leaders who recruited Alinsky argued that only a massive
community organizing and education effort would enable the neighborhood
to respond to these demographic changes in a rational way that would
work to the benefit of the existing and new residents.  The Catholic
Archdiocese of Chicago was willing to set aside resources for this
effort -- although, according to Horwitt, the program was
interpreted by some of the less progressive priests in the parish
as one to forestall the in-movement of African-Americans.
 Alinsky began to lay out his organizing strategy in early 1959.  He
was assisted in this project by two staff organizers destined to be
important players in extending Alinsky's legacy -- Nicholas von
Hoffman, an attractive young organizer later to become a well-known
journalist, and Ed Chambers, who took over the IAF upon Alinsky's death
in 1972.  Hoffman acted as Alinsky's manager, and he hired Chambers and
a local organizer to obtain as much information on the neighborhood as
possible -- interviewing residents and owners of commercial
establishments on every block, collecting census and other statistics.
The objective of this intensive information-gathering effort was to
identify the issues and trends affecting the neighborhood, and to
introduce themselves to the organizations and individuals that would
constitute the community organization.  The community organization was
the foundation of the effort, although the agenda in part was
Alinsky's.  According to Horwitt,
  "Alinsky and von Hoffman had only one clear goal: to set up
   a community congress as soon as possible.  A congress would
   mean recognition and legitimacy; delegates from church
   groups, social and fraternal clubs, neighborhood associations,
   and local businesses would ratify a constitution, elect
   leaders, and adopt a program." (325)
Thus, the tactics that had been shaped in the Back of the Yards
neighborhood began to take form again in this Southwest Side
neighborhood -- identification of member organizations, many of which
were church-based; identification of leaders within those
organizations; development of committees and of a multi-faceted agenda;
and a founding convention of the Organization of the Southwest
Community (OSC) in 1959.  Annual conventions followed.  While the OSC
worked on typical neighborhood issues having nothing to do with race,
Alinsky's integrationist agenda emerged.  As a result of intensive
organizing by some of Alinsky's staff, the OSC slowly incorporated
African-American churches and other organizations into its structure --
although Horwitt describes how it took sly gerrymandering of the OSC's
boundaries on the part of Alinsky to even contend that these
organizations were part of the neighborhood.  The implicit modus
operandi was to first integrate the organization, and lay the basis for
integrating the neighborhood.
The challenge they faced was the entrenched racist convervatism among
clergy and layperson alike.  The conservatives physically and/or
verbally assaulted Alinsky and his organizers, accusing them of being
"commies" (indicating the enduring effects of McCarthyism in the late
1950s and early 1960s) and "nigger-lovers."  This was a level of overt
hostility that Alinsky had not appeared to face in his earlier efforts
in Back of the Yards -- most likely because he had avoided any
indication of integrationist schemes, and because the Cold War had
added a new element to the American creed.
According to Horwitt, the organizers' care in allowing the
conservatives to have their say, their muffling of the calls for
complete integration by the outspoken liberals, and most importantly,
the ability to identify alternative targets of antagonism were
responsible for the successes they achieved.  In their meetings with
conservatives, the organizers described in detail the mechanics of
block-busting, and convinced some of the most influential conservatives
that it was real estate dealers engaging in unethical practices and not
African-Americans (other than the African-American real estate dealers)
that were the true threat to the neighborhood.
In his description, Horwitt displays an admiration for Alinsky's and
his organizers' ability to open lines of communication in this
conservative community, a result of painstaking attention to the
beliefs of all individuals in the community.  He applauds the success
in achieving cooperation among Catholic and Protestant clergy, an
accomplishment at a time when barriers between the major U.S. Christian
denominations were high.  He highlights the conversions of several
conservatives to a more moderate stance on race, and their courage in
the face of rejection among their friends and family resulting from
their stances.
At the same time, Horwitt admits that the effort ultimately was a
failure, one that disappeared from Alinsky's accounts of his
organizing.  Racial change had taken its toll before the effort had
begun in the 1950s, due in part to prejudice and redlining
(U.S.-sanctioned discrimination against lending in inner-city
neighborhoods).  In spite of the attempts of the OSC, the organization
created by Alinsky and his organizers, the outflow of whites continued,
first the rabid racists and then those who feared the loss of the
equity in their houses if they stayed.  In the end, the neighborhood
primarily housed African-Americans, and OSC became a black-dominated
organization that used pressure tactics to attain small victories
against the entrenched whites that controlled the city of Chicago.
Horwitt's assessment of the situation indicates an attempt to be both
even-handed and yet to identify specific sources for the failure to
integrate racially.   Drawing on the assessments of Alinsky's
organizers, he singles out the Catholic clergy for criticism of its
lack of leadership.
   If the Catholic leadership had been more courageous,
   O'Toole [a real estate broker who sympathized with
   Alinsky] maintains, it could have made an important
   difference.   O'Toole, like the newspaper publisher
   Bruce Sagan, recognized that the archdiocese had taken
   a risk -- a terrible risk, Sagan believes -- in
   embracing Alinsky's plan of limited racial integration
   as a price for stabilization.  But then, O'Toole says,
   'the Church simply turned chickenshit, to put it in the
   most brutal terms, the whole gang." (433-434)
As it's easy to overlook important aspects of such a complex
story, if I've left out anything important or if you are aware
of other sources on this topic, I'd appreciate additions.
This entire experience in Alinskyite organizing seems to be a rich vein
to mine in assessing community organizing goals, the role of the
Catholic church, and racial relations in the U.S. in the twentieth
century.  Fortunately, COMM-ORG has commissioned  a review essay on
THE TWENTIETH-CENTURY URBAN NORTH (Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1996),
Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995).
Furthermore, upcoming COMM-ORG papers, including most likely several
papers written for a seminar on race and organizing, should stimulate
some interesting discussion on the history and on-going issues of
race, religion and organizing (hopefully, not only in the U.S.).
Wendy Plotkin COMM-ORG