Posts Tagged ‘Saul Alinsky’

Tribute to Saul Alinsky, Community Organizer

Le Penseur, Museé Rodin, Paris by Innoxious/CC-BY-SA-2.0

Le Penseur, Museé Rodin, Paris by Innoxious/CC-BY-SA-2.0

The long narrative poem I began in May 2012 available in paperback and e-book editions. The title is taken from a quote of Rabbi Hillel, which Saul Alinsky learned as a boy and sought to adhere to throughout his life that ended suddenly in 1972 on a sidewalk in Carmel, California at the age of 63.  Hillel counseled: “Where there are no men, be thou a man.” The cover image of Rodin’s The Thinker is a reminder that Alinsky kept on his desk a figurine of the famous sculpture.  The community organizer was expert in using the Socratic method to get people to think about how they could change their lives.

Be Thou a Man is a biography written in formal verse telling the story of Saul Alinsky’s work as a criminologist, social activist, and community organizer–a legacy that Barack Obama drew from in his own work in Chicago. I correct the misconceptions surrounding Alinsky’s name, which some political figures like Newt Gingrich have tried to associate with the far left, socialists and communists. The truth is Alinsky was none of these, and more accurately espoused a grass-roots, democratic process to problem-solving. Because of views I expressed in a Letter-to-the-Editor, I  was associated negatively with Alinsky, the insinuation being that because my roots were in Chicago, I was contaminated by Alinsky’s radicalism. My knowledge of the man was vague, so I began to read everything I could find out about him and learned he was no more a radical than the Founding Fathers. In Alinsky’s vocabulary radical is not a derogatory term, but one he proudly adopted. Alinsky did not belong to any political party, but rather fell into the conservative camp in his opposition to Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, which he termed a “prize piece of political pornography.”

The narrative poem is divided into the seven decades of the twentieth century in which Alinsky lived. In the final section, “Missive from the Underworld,” Saul Alinsky speaks from hell to the people living today and comments on current American conditions. The poem concludes with this stanza delivered in his voice:

From out hell’s friendly flames I can spy

the middle class contract, reduced to fears

of foreclosure, not able to get by:

I strike the match to rears of financiers.

From torrid lips I fire furious blast

of liberty’s bugle rousing the caste

whose reservoir of patience has run dry,

their fair share the super-rich have siphoned

off—in protest they march, all toughened,

on Wall Street, the middle in gear at last.

To hell with humdrum chain gang plaints

or Can’t-Win-For-Losing blues anymore

for We’re The People the document paints

paramount, those the Union was made for.

I once said on earth the angles abound;

hear me frolic with angels under ground.

You may ask why on earth write the biography in formal verse? Any numskull knows poetry doesn’t sell. Nobody reads poetry in the United States anymore. Poets don’t have an audience outside of barroom poetry slams. Are you joking?  You’re beating your head against a brick wall.

This poet has a thick skull. I wrote my tribute as a long narrative poem because I wanted to.  I decry the state of poetry as the reserve of the academics.  I still cling to the notion that narrative poetry in the past has appealed to a broad base of general readers and it can again, for narrative poetry is the mode to capture a larger readership for poetry. Published poetry today is either filled with obscure, self-absorbed, abstract images accessible only to its creator or written in prosaic lines. I am a literature major and confess to either not getting most of the poetry I read in Poetry or other prestigious literary magazines or being so bored with the pedestrian lines of prose arranged as poetry that I can’t finish reading the poem. I wrote my tribute as a long narrative poem because I like reading verse-novels such as Byrne by Anthony Burgess and Darlington’s Fall by Brad Leithauser. These are wonderful book-length narrative poems. I enjoyed the challenge of writing Be Thou A Man as a narrative poem. Above all I wrote it in formal verse, because poetry is the best form to praise great men.

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Crisis in Black and White: Still Pertinent Today

Barack Obama, the first American President of African descent, was re-elected this week. This week I also finished reading for the first time Charles E. Silberman’s classic study of the Negro in America, Crisis in Black and White. The book was published in 1964 while I was still a student in an all-white Chicago suburban high school and when pent-up black rage was exploding in our cities.  I come away with a feeling of what a perspective on history and sociology of the city and race relations that Silberman had even in the midst of the turbulent civil rights movement occurring at the very time he was writing. Even if he had written his book in hindsight, he could not have provided better insights. The dynamics and urban malaise of the urban black ghetto persist. I read in the newspaper almost daily about shootings of children caught in the cross-fire of other young people’s guns on Chicago streets, even children being killed while they are sitting in their living rooms watching television.

The prescription for recovery remains the same. The people of the blighted communities must reclaim and put into practice democracy’s tenet of power to the people.  When people in a community seize power, they do demonstrate they have the ability to solve their own problems when social agencies and government programs have failed to do so. Belief in the wisdom of the people forms the optimistic core of democracy.  These community action programs succeed because they rely on indigenous leaders, men and women who actually live in the communities they wish to uplift.

Paradoxically, this is basically a conservative viewpoint and the model for community action that Saul Alinsky successfully employed and taught until his death in 1972.  Barack Obama pursued this type of grassroots  work for change in Chicago after he graduated from Harvard Law School instead of seeking a high-paying job with  a corporate law firm.  Silberman dedicates an entire chapter to Alinsky’s organization of the Woodlawn neighborhood adjacent to the University of Chicago campus. The Woodlawn Organization (TWO) fought City Hall’s Negro Removal Plan (aka urban renewal) and organized bus loads of residents to register to vote in the early sixties. In fact, Alinsky was the first  to successfully show a black community how to organize and to harness the power of their numbers to effect change. In Rochester, New York, he duplicated that effort when he helped the black community organize to demand jobs and job training from Kodak  Corporation.

From Obama’s community action work,  Americans can understand they have a President who sincerely loves the people, who passionately believes people can organize for change. In 1964 people of color did not occupy high offices in government, education, and business;  and few were seen on television. Progress has been made since the turbulent race riots of the 1960s and 1970s, which had to occur in order to move on. But I am not so insensible that I cannot perceive the racism that still runs under the surface in the white community, and unfortunately, has manifested in some hateful effigies of President Obama and an inordinate antipathy voiced in private.

More progress will be made in American society when we no longer hear our politicians and political pundits talk of the black vote, the latino vote or the white vote.  Individuals of whatever hue will vote for the person who best represents the democratic vision and who promotes the welfare of the broad spectrum of the population, and who tries to embrace all the people. Saul Alinsky said that anyone who wanted to do community action work must love the people in action, not in the abstract; and he did not hesitate to attack liberals who in theory spoke of their love of the common man but would not rub shoulders with the masses or dirty their sleeves in the nitty-gritty work in organizing the slums. Perhaps that is a good character description as well for anyone who aspires to public office, more accurately put, public service in a public office.

Obama convinces me he cares about the people more than himself, more than personal fame or fortune.  The other presidential candidate was less convincing.

In the aftermath of this  year’s election, it is fortuitous that my reading of Crisis in Black and White coincided with Barack Obama’s successful bid for a second term to serve all the people–We, the People of the United States.