Realtors and Redlining Destroyed Neighborhoods – Was Alinsky a No-Show?

redliningNew Orleans   Looking into the rising return of the family crushing and neighborhood killing predation involved in contract-for-deed property transactions being revived by Wall Street veterans and facilitated by weak regulations and federal off-loading of foreclosure inventory from the real estate bubble of 2008, I stumbled onto an interesting book, Family Properties:  Race, Real Estate and the Exploitation of Black Urban America by Beryl Satter.  Published in 2009, Satter is not only a historian and chairperson of that department at Rutgers University, but has skin-in-the-game, since she was driven to the subject to understand the conflicting family story of her own father who died when she was a child and whether he was a crusading civil rights lawyer and advocate in Chicago or a slumlord himself.  

            Being only half through the book so far, I can’t definitively answer her question, nor have I arrived in my reading to the sections on the Contract Buyers’ League, which was central to my motivation in uploading the book to my Kindle.  On the other hand, I’m knee deep in an excellent, well-written, and researched history that puts race and real estate speculation squarely at the heart of urban neighborhood deterioration from the post-war decades until our current times.  In Little Rock, where I first ran into contract-for-deed exploitation, it was always clear that if there was a power structure anywhere in the city it was centered in the real estate interests, and from our 1972 campaign to “Save the City” forward, including forcibly confronting blockbusting in the Oak Forest neighborhood, they were our main opponents.  In that sense, Family Properties was a deep affirmation and an extension of the argument and those experiences across the urban battlefield of America.

            Somewhat unexpectedly though, I’ve found nothing subtle in Satter’s critique, and condemnation of Saul Alinsky and his community organizing in Chicago during those years.  She bells him repeatedly, beginning with his antipathy for organizing the poor, who were most exploited by all of these practices, and for his inability to strategically and tactically embrace the reality of race in his organizing and the practices of the organizations they built in Chicago.  She doesn’t argue so much that the problem was direct racism, as more fundamentally a weakness in the Alinsky organizing model itself, saying that

“…ineffectiveness of the OSC [Organization of the Southwest] and TWO [The Woodlawn Organization] highlighted the two major flaws of Alinsky’s model of organizing:  his insistence that organizing efforts be fully funded before they could be launched, which left him vulnerable to pressure by the wealthy donors, and perhaps more serious, his belief that they should tackle only issues that were ‘winnable.’”

Sharpening her point she argues that, “Unfortunately, Alinsky’s insistence on fighting only for winnable ends guaranteed that his organizations would never truly confront the powerful forces devastating racially changing and black neighborhoods.”  Ouch!

            She piles on evidence to the extent that her arguments are almost irresistible, include his scolding of his lieutenant, Nicholas von Hoffman and others, for getting too involved in real estate issues when he was in Europe, that he thought were jeopardizing organizational funding, his opposition to fighting black displacement in Hyde Park, and his view that fighting “racial discrimination that lay at the root of community decay…was ‘too complicated.’”  Satter adds that,

“Alinsky often cast urban renewal as an ‘unwinnable’ issue to be avoided.  TWO’s attitude toward housing was similarly confused.  The group apparently felt that the redlining policies that forced black Woodlawners to buy on contract were too complex for effective community mobilization.”

Satter even cites Alinsky’s own biographer in the claim that killing the Square Deal campaign was done on a totally transactional basis,

“According to Alinsky’s biographer, the Square Deal campaign was ‘intentionally terminated by Alinsky and von Hoffman’ because TWO wanted the financial support of merchants when it turned to ‘larger issues such as urban renewal.” 

Twisting the knife, she adds,

“The net result was that, instead of blazing a new path for community activism, TWO became yet another demonstration of the perils of reformers’ financial dependence on the very people they needed to challenge.”

            Adding insult to injury she argues that the creation of the West Side Organization and its achievements were “an overt challenge to Alinsky, who had warned him against organizing the very poor – an action that Alinsky believed would divide the larger community.”   During the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King effort to take the civil rights movement north, she includes an assessment from one of the movement’s legendary organizers that was equally devastating, quoting…

“…James Bevell, a charismatic Mississippi-born African American who had participated in virtually all of the major Southern civil rights crusades.  In Bevel’s view, too, Alinsky ‘simply taught how to, within the context of power, grab and struggle to get your share.’”

            None of this is definitive, but it’s a critique that has weight and can’t be ignored.  Having organized and fought redlining, realtors, and neighborhood deterioration for decades, as organizers we may have to confront whether or not Saul Alinsky, as a primary architect of community organization, was not only a no-show when it mattered in Chicago, but abetted the problem by skirting the battlefields that counted, by not using issues to build power for the bigger fights, but instead running from the fights themselves.  If that’s the case, the legacy of that shadow could still be crippling the work that needs to be done in addition to the way the work is done.


So-Called Correspondence between Hillary and Saul Alinsky

Sol Alinsky with protesters. African American woman holding sign " Kodak hire the poor" and white man holding sign "U. of Rochester S.D.S. supports FIGHT"

Saul Alinsky with protesters. African American woman holding sign ” Kodak hire the poor” and white man holding sign “U. of Rochester S.D.S. supports FIGHT”

Montreal   The rightwing blogosphere makes quite a bit of what they call “letters” between Hillary Clinton, then Hillary Rodham, and Saul Alinsky, the community organizing headliner of the time in summer of 1971. Closer inspection finds one letter sent from Hillary to Saul at his office in Chicago and no response from Saul, but a reply from his secretary, Georgia Harper.

Though many of the conservative websites refer to Hillary’s letter as “fan mail,” it is not. A more modern description would label it plain and simple “networking,” except there obviously was no “net” to work then, so she made do with what a bright, young woman had at hand and fashioned a lively, sharp, and clever piece of correspondence. The Hillary of her letter then would have clearly been fun to know. She was winning and open, and not the guarded and calculating politician that many paint her as today. At the time she was in the middle of her legal education at Yale Law School and a summer intern at a “movement” law firm of sorts in the San Francisco Bay Area, living in Berkeley.

Knowing and having written about Alinsky probably gave her a certain cache in the firm a notch above just being a law student, and the letter seems mainly about keeping the bridge at least minimally maintained between Alinsky and herself.  As young women from Wellesley were undoubtedly taught, she begins the letter with pure flattery asking whether his new book, Rules for Radicals, had been published and claiming to need “new material” after her “one-thousandth conversation about Reveille,” his book from 1949, Reveille for Radicals. The new book had been published several months before, so there’s no question she was gilding the lily, since she would have absolutely run into it in any bookstore in New Haven or Berkeley, if she had been really looking.

For all of the right’s mudslinging, she is catty and dismissive about the New Left, as she was in her thesis, saying that they are “rediscovering” Alinsky which is more flattery, but more tellingly arguing that “New Left-type politicos are finally beginning to think seriously about the hard work and mechanics of organizing….” This was neither an unfair nor an uncommon criticism at the time. She also assures Alinsky that her “belief in and zest for organizing” is “intact,” which only proves that she was whip smart about political realities, nothing more.

If anything, the letter establishes that she was in fact not really close to Alinsky. She makes the case by inference that they share “a commitment to a free and open society,” but that’s about as far as it goes, and that’s just liberal mouthwash, certainly not fire breathing radicalism. She speaks of their “biennial conversations.” She apologies for not responding to a note from him a year earlier during the “Yale-Cambodia madness.” Her “regards to Mrs. Harper,” Saul’s longtime secretary who later answers this letter, rather than Alinsky, invariably means that she has been long accustomed to making appointments through Harper in the past, rather than doing so directly, and for the same reason Mrs. Harper later does not hesitate to open the letter she sent to Alinsky marked “Personal” and respond.

Finally, she needles Alinsky and in a cute, clever way ribs him about rumors she has heard that he is traveling to the Philippines and whether or not it’s a “CIA-sponsored junket to exotica.” As we now know, his six-week trip to the Philippines and Korea, and Japanese scholars of organizing believe briefly to Tokyo, ended up planting deep seeds that inspired community organizing work in Manila and Seoul that flower and bear fruit to this day. She closes saying, “Hopefully we can have a good argument sometime in the near future.” Another pinprick, but telling. This was not a young devotee, but a smart young woman on the make trying to keep all channels wide open for the future, while she still tried to figure out her place in the world and where she could make change in some way compatible to her skills and interests.

I might wish it was more, and the right might wish it was more, but that’s all that’s there.

Al Green – A Change Is Gonna Come