Date:    Fri, 6 Sep 1996 08:51:55 CDT
Sender:  H-Net/H-Urban Seminar on History of Community Organizing & 
         Community-Based Development 
Subject: Alinsky/TWO: 1960s Organizing in an African-American Community
Posted by Wendy Plotkin 
I'd like to respond to Randy Stoecker and describe Alinsky's major
organizing initiatives in an African-American neighborhood of Chicago
in the 1960s so that we can move on to post-Alinsky organizing.
Randy asks whether Alinsky's failure to achieve his goal of gradual
racial integration in a white working class Chicago neighborhood in
the early 1960s was due to an absence of theory, a failure to identify
the structural forces that made segregation so appealing to the working
classes.   According to Sanford Horwitt, Alinsky's biographer, Alinsky
did have a theory.  The theory was *not* a critique of capitalism, but
of the distribution of power within capitalism.  Essentially, Alinsky
was a pluralist, arguing that a thriving democracy depends on competing
interests, and that power is the prime ingredient for success of any
organization in the democracy.  Community organizing was the means of
"empowering" a community -- something that was achievable within
capitalism, although it required a vigilant citizenry to maintain it.
In the Back of the Yards and the Southwest neighborhood, Alinsky was
pushing for an equalization of economic and political power against the
"Goliaths" of government and business. [1] Increasingly, Alinsky also
saw the need for a redistribution of power among the races at the local
level.  According to Horwitt, this became especially apparent to
Alinsky as he viewed those whom he had empowered in these neighborhoods
exerting their power against African-Americans seeking expansion out of
the Black Belt of Chicago.
Thus, Alinsky turned to organizing an African-American community,
Woodlawn, in Chicago in the 1960s.  Aided by funding from several
churches, both Catholic and Protestant, Alinsky accepted the program in
part because it fit his racial agenda.  As Horwitt writes,
  "...what was needed in Chicago--and as a model for other
   Northern cities--was a powerful black community organization
   that could 'bargain collectively' with other organized
   groups and agencies, private and public.  Alinsky told
   von Hoffman, 'There is no substitute for organized power....
   We know all of the opposition which would come, including
   many of the Negro leaders and agencies who actually
   depend upon segregation for their very existence.
   We also know that there is no Negro organization in the field
   equipped or able to do the kind of job that has to be done."
It is in this last statement that one sees the rationale for a
white-led organization, the IAF, taking on the challenge of organizing
an African-American community.  There was some indigenous organizing
within the neighborhood, including the United Woodlawn Conference,
which according to Horwitt was only marginally effective.  Its
"Communist" leanings were seen as offensive by some inside Alinsky's
team, but Alinsky intended to include the Conference in his own
organization, the Temporary Woodlawn Organization (TWO), that was
created in January, 1961.  An intensive organizing effort followed, led
by Alinsky's second-in-command Nicholas von Hoffman, and aided by the
hiring of Robert Squires, a Woodlawn resident.  They made their way
through the middle class sections of Woodlawn that already contained
block clubs, and through the East Woodlawn area, which was considered a
disorganized disaster (von Hoffman: "Anyone who claims to have anything
remotely resembling a representative organization in East Woodlawn is
either a liar or a fool.  I have absolutely no faith in any of the
organization maneuvers which have been pulled in the past, and that
includes my own.  None of them will work, no matter how much energy and
vigor is put into them.") (397)
Robert Squires asserted that he became acquainted with "every bookie,
every whore, every policy runner, every cop, every bartender, waitress,
store owner, restaurant owner." (398)  With von Hoffman taking the lead
in overseeing Squires and the entire effort, the targets of attack were
identified:  the University of Chicago and its urban renewal program,
the city School Board and its inferior facilities for African-American
students, slum landlords, and local businessmen with bad business
practices -- targets that provoked the citizens into participation.
Horwitt describes the increasing involvement of local African American
leaders such as the Reverend Arthur Brazier in the organizing, and the
application of the painstaking techniques that had been used in earlier
organizing, interviewing and identifying individuals and organizations.
The organizing took on a different direction when the national civil
rights movement hit Chicago, however.  While the micro-organizing was
proving effective in small measure, the appeal to support the Freedom
Riders who'd been beaten in the South in 1961 mobilized the community
in a manner not dreamed of by Alinsky.  Always the opportunist, Alinsky
immediately adapted to this new stimulus, and incorporated the civil
rights movement into  a local voter registration drive.
By March, 1962, TWO was on sound enough footing to become a permanent
organization, re-christened The Woodlawn Organization.  The founding
convention was attended by the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, a major
organizer within the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)
and Mayor Richard J. Daley.
Were Alinsky and those he trained inside the neighborhood
successful in organizing Woodlawn?  If one uses the past as
the threshhold of comparison, Horwitt argues that major successes
occurred, such as the agreement of the city to include Woodlawn
residents in significant numbers in the neighborhood's planning process
(resulting in the disruption of the University of Chicago's plans, and
the eventual alliance between the University and TWO in later battles);
the decision of Marshall Field's, an exclusive department store, to
hire African-Americans as salespersons; successes in getting slum
landlords to clean up their properties or businessmen to cease cheating
the residents.
In the long run, larger forces proved too tough for Alinsky, according
to Horwitt, and his ambition and/or zealousness defeated him.  In spite
of the occasional local successes, von Hoffman asserts that Alinsky was
aware that it wasn't enough to organize the residents -- that obtaining
political power in larger arenas was necessary.  At the local level
"TWO was a political island without enough of a power base--control of
enough precincts, wards, and people--to grow and prosper." (513) An
attempt to defeat the Daley machine in the 1966 Congressional race
(with Abner Mikva the reform candidate) went sour when (according to
Alinsky), the Woodlawn leaders were unable to rise to the level of
vote-stealing necessary to win the election (515).
Beyond the political defeat were the immense forces facing
the neighborhood, forces reqiring
     "vast amounts of energy and perseverance--like TWO's
     job-training program and, perhaps, most of all, the
     subsidized housing TWO fought for on a strip of land on
     Cottage Grove Avenue.  Although the 502-unit project--a
     scaled-down version of the original--was still a pround
     achievement, one of the first housing developments in a
     black ghetto planned, owned, and managed by an indigenous
     community organization, some important goals had been
     sacrificed because fo the delays and other factors." (515)
Thus, in this passage, there is a hint of some of the issues
Randy has been raising about community organizations taking on
more they can handle -- and draining their enthusiasm and
Horwitt also asserts that the national civil rights movement
was a mixed blessing to the organizing in Woodlawn -- although
it provided a boost in participation, it allowed the organization
to prosper without the fundamental grass-roots organizing that
was required for a firm foundation, that would withstand the
waning of the civil rights movement or the intense pressures
put on the neighborhood when it attempted to address local issues.
Alinsky also hurt his own cause by taking organizers out of
Woodlawn to establish projects elsewhere -- abiding literally
by his assertion that after 2-3 years, a neighborhood should have
developed adequate resources to carry on on their own.  Horwitt asserts
that Alinsky should have known better -- his own experience in Back of
the Yards had demonstrated that ongoing outside support was necessary
for far longer.
At the same time, the black power movement made it difficult for
Alinsky to stay in Woodlawn.  Although initially applauding it, and
being applauded by it (Stokely Carmichael cited an Alinsky project as
an example of what "black power" meant), Alinsky became critical of the
"black power" ideology as it evolved.  In turn, he was attacked as
being an "exploiting liberal" for his work in African-American
neighborhoods. (506-510)
Horwitt deals with Woodlawn in a more superficial way, and with much
more attention to the Alinsky/von Hoffman/Chambers role than does John
ORGANIZATION IN CHICAGO (Princeton: Princeton U. Press, 1973).  Fish,
who spent six years observing TWO prior to authoring this book, shows
the initial importance of Alinsky to the organization, after which, by
about 1966, the organization was basically on its own without active
participation of the IAF.  Fish indicates that Alinsky was invited in
to deal with the "powerlessness" of the many organizations in the
neighborhood.  Alinsky instilled his principles of
organization-building, small successes, and conflict into the
organization, which was led by Reverend Arthur Brazier, who himself
ORGANIZATION (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.,
1966) and staff director Leon Finney.
Fish goes into detail about TWO's early organizing, emphasizing the
organization's agenda of establishing itself as the community "voice"
through advocacy activities.  In TWO's early phases of establishing
itself, Fish sees the Alinsky influence,  as it set its sights on
achievable and visible victories.  At the same time, he sees the
pitfalls of such an agenda -- achievable victories exist in power
vacuums, in areas in which the powerful forces in the city are not
especially interested, or in which the stakes are low.  Thus, victories
over slum landlords or local sleazy businessmen are only marginal in
affecting the distribution of power that affects the neighborhood,
while visible voter registration drives are useful but not adequate to
fight the corrupt tactics of the machine.
Thus, Fish sees TWO's turn to "community control" of governmental
functions such as education, economic development, and social welfare
as an attempt to raise the stakes and have an impact on the major
forces shaping the neighborhood.  In each of its major initiatives --
experimenting with educational reform at the neighborhood level,
offering a community-controlled and -operated job training program, and
presenting a Model Cities plan that (unlike the city's plan) was
developed by and for the Woodlawn community -- TWO tried to take over
planning and resources for its own neighborhood, targeting them to its
own needs rather than to those of politicians, office holders, and
service providers, none of whom (according to TWO, Fish or Alinsky) had
the community's best interests at heart.  In each of these initiatives,
Fish describes the enormous resistance of the establishment to the
community initiatives, and essentially credits the establishment with
undermining all of the creativity and awareness of their own issues
that TWO brought to these initiatives.
As Horwitt relied on BLACK POWER/WHITE CONTROL in his 1986 biography of
Alinsky, it's not surprising that the two books should share similar
assessments about the successes and failures of TWO.  As described in
Harvey Molotch's review of BLACK POWER/WHITE CONTROL, Fish displays
some "ambivalence" about TWO [2], although he is essentially positive
about its past and future importance to the neighborhood.  In earlier
chapters, after describing the need of the organization to attain
community control over its institutions, he describes the drawbacks of
community control.  Community control, if achieved, might have
backfired in putting the community organization in the position of
raising expectations that it would deliver where the city had failed,
minus sufficient resources to do so.  This would lead to community
dissension and division, rather than focusing the energies of the
community on the external forces that Fish argued were central to its
Failing to achieve control, and not content to return to advocacy as
its only role, TWO took on community development, developing housing
and commercial projects in Woodlawn.  Fish defends the change from
advocacy to development as an appropriate adaptation.  He asserts that
any diminution of TWO's advocacy role resulting from its development
activities was *not* responsible for the decline of the neighborhood,
which worsened in the 1960s and 1970s due to a rash of arson and
continuing disinvestment.  Instead, external forces were so
overwhelmingly against the organization, nothing would have prevented
the decline of the neighborhood.
Furthemore, Fish asserts that TWO, both as advocate/gadfly and
developer, *tempered* these effects.  TWO prevented the elimination of
the neighborhood via urban renewal, developed affordable housing,
offered an experiment in involving gangs in job training and stimulated
an intangible sense of self-esteem and community spirit through its
successes. [3] Furthermore, Fish argues that although the neighborhood
organization could not successfully compete with the city and social
welfare officialdom that were threatened by it and did their best to
defeat it, future failure of these centralized efforts to deal with the
neighborhood problems might result in the neighborhood organization's
being handed the control it had sought as the only remaining remedy.
Fish acknowledges that his interpretation of TWO was not (in
1973) the only one, nor necessary the most popular.  He presents
alternate interpretations -- that TWO's confrontative activities
alienated it in the eyes of those actors with whom it would have
been better to have cooperated, or that TWO "sold out" to the
capitalist ethos in taking on community development.  He also
describes the prevailing theories about neighborhoods in the early
1970s, from Theodore Lowi's THE END OF LIBERALISM that called for
an end to local attachments and commitment to a more rational
planning over larger areas to Milton Kotler's call for NEIGHBORHOOD
Obviously, this literature is "old" and much has been written since on
organizing, the IAF, and religious and racial organizing.  In the
abstract of his 1995 dissertation from the University of California at
Berkeley, "Faith in Action: Religion, Race, and the Future of
Democracy," Richard Wood describes some of the newer issues being
discussed.  This will be posted separately, and I welcome any
discussion of the issues raised to date on Alinsky's organizing in
working class white and African-American communities -- as well as
suggestions of more recent literature on these topics.
Wendy Plotkin
[1] A more thorough account of the Organization of the Southwest
Community is available in an older collection on which Horwitt drew in
LET THEM CALL ME REBEL, by John Fish, Gordon Nelson, Walter Stuhr, and
Commission, Church Federation of Greater Chicago, 1966).  The preface
for this book begins
  "This research documents reports on the involvement of several
   local Protestant and Roman Catholic churches with a mass
   community organization in a racially changing area of
   Chicago.  The corporate participation of churches in this
   social and political experiment and others of its kind
   has been the subject of much controversy.  The research
   is an inquiry into the interaction between churches and
   the community organizations, and into the meaning of this
   interaction for the participants." (xi)
The Table of Contents for the book is:
  Chapter 1: The Story of the Organization for the Southwest
  Chapter 2: The Stories of the Churches
  Chapter 3: The Churches in Comparative Profiles
  Chapter 4: What Shapes Attitudes Toward Church
             Involvement in Community Organization
  Chapter 5: Summary and Interpretation
[2]Harvey Molotch, Review of _Black Power/White Control_ in
AMERICAN JOURNAL OF SOCIOLOGY, v. 80, May, 1975, pp. 1481-82.
[3] The assessment of the TWO jobs training program, in which
Woodlawn's gangs were a major part, is one area in which Horwitt
and Fish appear to disagree.  The job training program appears to have
occurred after Alinsky's involvement in TWO, and to the extent that he
discusses it, Horwitt tends to dismiss the gangs as a negative
influence in the neighborhood. Fish spends some time in defending the
inclusion of the Blackstone Rangers in the program, and asserts that
there were signs of progress that were ignored by those who eventually
contributed to the demise of the program.
Date:    Mon, 9 Sep 1996 12:28:34 CDT
Posted by Amanda Seligman 
Wendy's as-always able summary of Alinsky's work in Woodlawn includes
the following comment on the job training program that TWO ran for two
Woodlawn area gangs, the Blackstone Rangers and the East Side
>[3] The assessment of the TWO jobs training program, in which
>Woodlawn's gangs were a major part, is one area in which Horwitt
>and Fish appear to disagree.  The job training program appears to have
>occurred after Alinsky's involvement in TWO, and to the extent that he
>discusses it, Horwitt tends to dismiss the gangs as a negative
>influence in the neighborhood. Fish spends some time in defending the
>inclusion of the Blackstone Rangers in the program, and asserts that
>there were signs of progress that were ignored by those who eventually
>contributed to the demise of the program.
I am currently away from all of my sources, but can offer the following
observations about this program, based on the research I did for my
first year paper in Northwestern's history PhD program several years
TWO was already offering a job-training program for adults in Woodlawn
before  pursuing the teen-oriented program.  As I recall, the adult
program included specific training for jobs in health services, as well
as more general work readiness efforts such as workshops about what
employers expected of employees.
In 1967, the federal Office of Economic Opportunity approved a grant of
$927,341 to TWO to provide a job training program for members to the
rival gangs in their neighborhood.  In the spirit of "maximum feasible
participation" one of the important qualifications of the program was
that the gang members themselves would administer the job training
program.  This program caught the attention of conservative Arkansas
Senator McClellan, who held hearings about the use of the grant money
and put TWO and the Blackstone Rangers into a hostile national
spotlight.  Shortly after, the grant was terminated.   In his book _The
Promised Land_, journalist Nicholas Lemann wrote, "In the history of the
OEO, there was no grant that was as complete a failure."
I've learned much since I first wrote my paper on this project, so at
the present time I offer only some comments on why Horwitt and Fish
viewed this project and the Blackstone Rangers so differently.
Fish was (and is) a resident of Chicago's Hyde Park (directly north of
Woodlawn), and at the time was a seminary student (BLACK POWER/WHITE
CONTROL is a published version of his dissertation).  Like many others
involved in TWO in the early 1960s, it was not at all clear to Fish
that the Blackstone Rangers and other gangs were irredeemably bad.  As
Frederic Thrasher began documenting earlier in the century,  there were
many, many groups organized as "gangs" in Chicago (1,313, I think).
Some were merely loose social clubs, others were "athletic clubs," and
others organized criminal activities.  The word "gang" had not yet
acquired its present pejorative connotation and applied to all these
groups; for example, the Boy Scouts in Chicago held an annual "Gang
Show" (which I gather was a sort of variety show put on by the Scouts).
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Americans began to worry about
"youth" in a new way.  They simultaneously worried about (witness REBEL
WITHOUT A CAUSE) and romanticized (witness WEST SIDE STORY) the
experiences and anxieties of young people.  Poor black people living in
Woodlawn were no less susceptible to fears about the future of their
neighborhood's children than other Chicagoans and other Americans.
Thus, it seemed reasonable to members of TWO and to participant John
Fish to take advantage of the opportunities represented by the War on
Poverty to reach out to the young people in Woodlawn by offering them a
share of the pie, and a share of the pie whose terms the young people
would have a chance to define.
Horwitt, on the other hand, wrote his book 20 years later, when the
word gang had taken on a much narrower and more negative meaning.
Aside from having the perspective that told him that the Blackstone
Rangers became the yet more notorious El-Rukns, it makes sense that
Horwitt shares the judgment of Senator McClellan and others that TWO's
job-training program was a mistake.
My point here is not to judge whether TWO *should* have attempted to
reach out to the Rangers (I thought that I had worked that out when I
first wrote my paper, and now I am less certain).  Rather, I would like
to stress that from a historical perspective, TWO's attempt makes
Amanda Seligman
Department of History
Northwestern University
[Full citation is Nicholas Lemann, _The Promised Land: The Great
Black Migration and How It Changed America_, Alfred A. Knopf, 1991
Frederick Thrasher was the author of _The Gang; A Study of 1,313 Gangs
in Chicago_, first published in 1927 by the University of Chicago
Press, re-released in 1936 and 1947 by the Press, and then re-issued in
an abridged version in 1963 with an introduction by sociologist James
For a copy of the overview of Woodlawn and TWO, send e-mail to with the message:  GET WOODLAWN OVERVIEW
                                    -- W. Plotkin, COMM-ORG]