A Gutsy Grass-Roots Community Leader

LET THEM CALL ME REBEL: SAUL ALINSKY - HIS LIFE AND LEGACY by Sanford D. Horwit, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 595 pp., $29.95

THIS wonderful book, rich in data, narrative, and delightful tales about Saul Alinsky (1909-72), the pioneer of grass-roots community organizing in Chicago and elsewhere from the 1940s onward, grips us at four overlapping levels. It ranges from straightforward biography to a sad overarching conclusion: Alinsky's hopes for the ordinary people of urban America foundered ultimately on the racism that still batters society.

Sanford Horwit has combined solid academic training with practical political experience to write a great book. First and foremost, it is a smooth-flowing account of a gutsy, irreverent, nonviolent rebel, a true populist who developed and preached the doctrine of community organizing that others now spread. Alinsky fought smugness and bigotry, isolation and insecurity, bossism and machine politics, taught empowerment to ordinary folks - ``We the people will work out our own destiny'' - and developed the methodology of participatory democracy and the transformation of ``people'' into ``citizens'' long before the 1960s radicals (whom Alinsky viewed skeptically) entered the fray.

This street-smart son of Russian Jewish immigrants spiced his interpretation of the Judeo-Christian ethic with a thumb-to-the-nose attitude toward the rich and powerful. ``I'm always glad to visit Rochester,'' said Alinsky while helping organize that city's blacks in 1966, ``because it makes so many of the right people so miserable.''

``Here lies the man who antagonized more people than any contemporary American,'' was the epitaph suggested by columnist Irv Kupcinet. ``[Alinsky] would consider it high praise.''

Second, this book is a fascinating study of the declining years of big-city, ethnic, machine politics, particularly in Chicago, the site, first of the Kelly-Nash organization, and then of mayor Richard J. Daley, and the world he ruled of wards, precincts, and neighborhoods, of Poles and Czechs, Irish and Italians, Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, and of course, of blacks, the wild card whose push for recognition in the 1960s upset established calculations and interests.

So this book resounds with the bouncy chutzpah of Saul Bellow's novel, ``The Adventures of Augie March'' (1953), and with the gritty, hard-nosed realism of Mike Royko's ``Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago'' (1971) and Milton Rakove's ``Don't Make No Waves ... Don't Back No Losers'' (1975), two studies by insiders of how politics were cooked, sliced, consumed - and worshipped - when Daley reigned supreme.

Alinsky was too shrewd a strategist to confront ``The Boss'' head-on, but his Woodlawn Organization sometimes came close. And Alinsky, though openly agnostic and radical, was affectionately allied to the dense Protestant and especially Roman Catholic structures of Chicago (Horwit is delightful on clerical politics Chicago-style, on its rivalries, ambitions, and earthy spirit).

It paid off - to a point. Witness the summer Saturday in 1961, when Alinsky, the irrepressible Nicholas von Hoffman, and others led a bus caravan of 2,500 black Woodlawnites to city hall for a voter registration. Consternation! What are ``they'' doing here? And the police appeared in force. But the buses held priests and nuns: ``In tight situations in Chicago, you couldn't be too Catholic, was Alinsky's common-sense philosophy.'' Von Hoffman yelled at a Daley lieutenant, ``Hey, what are you going to do, marshall, machine gun the nuns? These people are all your voters.''

But that was precisely the issue, as we find on the book's third level: The Daley organization, white Chicago as a whole, saw blacks not as full citizens, but as a nameless, faceless - and potentially riotous - mass. The great urban political machines of the American north had been successful in easing immigrant masses into politics, but did not even try with blacks. Daley was masterful at monopolizing power, and at using it to keep Chicago's trains running on time.

BUT he just didn't have it in him to address the unprecedented ``black crisis'' of the 1960s: the unwillingness of whites - who quickly fled to suburbia - to cut blacks in on the action. And Alinsky, the much-denounced ``radical'' who actually wanted calm and stability based on justice, couldn't push white Chicago forward. Even the University of Chicago - Alinsky's alma mater - fought the Woodlawn Organization tooth and claw for control of the university's self-defined sphere of influence.

Which brings us to the fourth level: Was Alinsky a success? Horwit is optimistic, pointing to the spread of grass-roots political action since Alinsky's day, its general acceptance, and its undoubted accomplishments. True, but not the whole truth. The absence of a shared ideology beyond local empowerment, of a national vision, and of direct impact on Washington, present enormous limitations, which Alinsky never addressed. If his beacon sometimes flickers uncertainly, Alinsky nevertheless showed what one person can do. Glory to him! And to this wonderful book that rescues his memory.

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