Empowering People, Not Elites
Interview with Saul Alinsky, Part Twelve
Saul Alinsky is, along with Thomas Paine, Henry George, and Dorothy Day, one of the great American leaders of the nonsocialist left.
Response to our earlier article dealing with Alinsky has been so great that we worked to obtain this extensive interview with him, conducted by Playboy magazine in 1972. It is, by far, the most detailed conversation with Alinsky that we know of. The interview will be appearing in weekly installments here at The Progress Report.
Part One Part Two Part Three Part Four Part Five Part Six Part Seven Part Eight Part Nine Part Ten Part ElevenThe Struggle with Eastman Kodak
PLAYBOY: What was your next organizational target after Woodlawn?
ALINSKY: I kept my fingers in a number of pies throughout the Sixties, organizing community-action groups in the black slums of Kansas City and Buffalo, and sponsoring and funding the Community Service Organization of Mexican-Americans in California, which was led by our West Coast organizer at the time, Fred Ross. The staff we organized and trained then included Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. But my next major battle occurred in Rochester, New York, the home of Eastman Kodak -- or maybe I should say Eastman Kodak, the home of Rochester, New York. Rochester is a classic company town, owned lock, stock and barrel by Kodak; it's a Southern plantation transplanted to the North, and Kodak's self-righteous paternalism makes benevolent feudalism look like participatory democracy. I call it Smugtown, U.S.A. But in mid-1964 that smugness was jolted by a bloody race riot that resulted in widespread burnings, injuries and deaths. The city's black minority, casually exploited by Kodak, finally exploded in a way that almost destroyed the city, and the National Guard had to be called in to suppress the uprising.
In the aftermath of the riots, the Rochester Area Council of Churches, a predominantly white body of liberal clergymen, invited us in to organize the black community and agreed to pay all our expenses. We said they didn't speak for the blacks and we wouldn't come in unless we were invited in by the black community itself. At first, there seemed little interest in the ghetto, but once again the old reliable establishment came to the rescue and, by overreacting, cut its own throat. The minute the invitation was made public, the town's power structure exploded in paroxysms of rage. The mayor joined the city's two newspapers, both part of the conservative Gannett chain, in denouncing me as a subversive hatemonger; radio station WHAM delivered one-minute editorial tirades against me and told the ministers who'd invited me that from now on they'd have to pay for their previously free Sunday-morning air time. A settlement house that had pledged its support to us was promptly informed by the Community Chest that its funds would be cut off if it went ahead; the board retracted its support, with several members resigning. The establishment acted as if the Golden Horde of Genghis Khan was camped on its doorstep.
If you listened to the public comments, you'd have thought I spent my spare time feeding poisoned Milk-Bones to seeing-eye dogs. It was the nicest thing they could have done for me, of course. Overnight, the black community broke out of its apathy and started clamoring for us to come in; as one black told me later, "I just wanted to see somebody who could freak those mothers out like that." Black civil rights leaders, local block organizations and ministers plus 13,000 individuals signed petitions asking me to come in, and with that kind of support I knew we were rolling. I assigned my associate, Ed Chambers, as chief organizer in Rochester, and prepared to visit the city myself once his efforts were under way.
PLAYBOY: Was your reception as hostile as your advance publicity?
ALINSKY: Oh, yeah, I wasn't disappointed. I think they would have quarantined me at the airport if they could have. When I got off the plane, a bunch of local reporters were waiting for me, keeping the same distance as tourists in a leper colony. I remember one of them asking me what right I had to start "meddling" in the black community after everything Kodak had done for "them" and I replied: "Maybe I'm uninformed, but as far as I know the only thing Kodak has done on the race issue in America is to introduce color film." My relationship with Kodak was to remain on that plane.
PLAYBOY: How did you organize Rochester's black community?
ALINSKY: With the assistance of a dynamic local black leader, the Reverend Franklin Florence, who'd been close to Malcolm X, we formed a community organization called FIGHT -- an acronym for Freedom, Integration, God, Honor, Today. We also established the Friends of FIGHT, an associated group of some 400 dues-paying white liberals, which provided us with funds, moral support, legal advice and instructors for our community training projects. We had a wide range of demands, of which the key one was that Kodak recognize the representatives of the black community who were designated as such by the people and not insist on dealing through its own showcase "Negro" executive flunky with a Ph.D. Kodak naturally refused to discuss such outrageous demands with us, contending that FIGHT had no legitimacy as a community spokesman and that the company would never accept it as such.
Well, that meant war, and we dug in for the fight, which we knew wouldn't be an overnight one. We realized picketing or boycotts wouldn't work, so we began to consider some far-out tactics along the lines of our O'Hare shit-in. At one point we heard that Queen Elizabeth owned some Kodak stock, and we considered chartering an airplane for a hundred of our people and throwing a picket line around Buckingham Palace on the grounds that the changing of the guard was a conspiracy to encourage picture taking. This would have been a good, attention-getting device, outrageous enough to make people laugh, but with an undertone serious enough to make them think.
Another idea I had that almost came to fruition was directed at the Rochester Philharmonic, which was the establishment's -- and Kodak's -- cultural jewel. I suggested we pick a night when the music would be relatively quiet and buy 100 seats. The 100 blacks scheduled to attend the concert would then be treated to a preshow banquet in the community consisting of nothing but huge portions of baked beans. Can you imagine the inevitable consequences within the symphony hall? The concert would be over before the first movement -- another Freudian slip -- and Rochester would be immortalized as the site of the world's first fart-in.
PLAYBOY: Aren't such tactics a bit juvenile and frivolous?
ALINSKY: I'd call them absurd rather than juvenile. But isn't much of life kind of a theater of the absurd? As far as being frivolous is concerned, I say if a tactic works, it's not frivolous. Let's take a closer look at this particular tactic and see what purposes it serves -- apart from being fun. First of all, the fart-in would be completely outside the city fathers' experience. Demonstrations, confrontations and picketings they'd learned to cope with, but never in their wildest dreams could they envision a flatulent blitzkrieg on their sacred symphony orchestra. It would throw them into complete disarray. Second, the action would make a mockery of the law, because although you could be arrested for throwing a stink bomb, there's no law on the books against natural bodily functions. Can you imagine a guy being tried in court on charges of first-degree farting? The cops would be paralyzed. Third, when the news got around, everybody who heard it would break out laughing, and the Rochester Philharmonic and the establishment it represents would be rendered totally ridiculous. A fourth benefit of the tactic is that it's psychically as well as physically satisfying to the participants. What oppressed person doesn't want, literally or figuratively, to shit on his oppressors? Here was the closest chance they'd have. Such tactics aren't just cute; they can be useful in driving your opponent up the wall. Very often the most ridiculous tactic can prove the most effective.
PLAYBOY: In any case, you never held your fart-in. So what finally broke Kodak's resistance?
ALINSKY: Simple self-interest -- the knowledge that the price of continuing to fight us was greater than reaching a compromise. It was one of the longest and toughest battles I've been in, though. After endless months of frustration, we finally decided we'd try to embarrass Kodak outside its fortress of Rochester, and disrupt the annual stockholders' convention in Flemington, New Jersey. Though we didn't know it at the time -- all we had in mind was a little troublemaking -- this was the seed from which a vitally important tactic was to spring. I addressed the General Assembly of the Unitarian-Universalist Association and asked them for their proxies on whatever Kodak stock they held in order to gain entree to the stockholders' meeting. The Unitarians voted to use the proxies for their entire Kodak stock to support FIGHT -- 5620 shares valued at over $700,000.
The wire services carried the story and news of the incident rapidly spread across the country. Individuals began sending in their proxies, and other church groups indicated they were prepared to follow the Unitarians' lead. By the purest accident, we'd stumbled onto a tactical gold mine. Politicians who saw major church denominations assigning us their proxies could envision them assigning us their votes as well; the church groups have vast constituencies in their congregations. Suddenly senators and representatives who hadn't returned our phone calls were ringing up and lending a sympathetic ear to my request for a senatorial investigation of Kodak's hiring practices.
As the proxies rolled in, the pressure began to build on Kodak -- and on other corporations as well. Executives of the top companies began seeking me out and trying to learn my intentions. I'd never seen the establishment so uptight before, and this convinced me that we had happened onto the cord that might open the golden curtain shielding the private sector from its public responsibilities. It obviously also convinced Kodak, because they soon caved in and recognized FIGHT as the official representative of the Rochester black community. Kodak has since begun hiring more blacks and training unskilled black workers, as well as inducing the city administration to deliver major concessions on education, housing, municipal services and urban renewal. It was our proxy tactic that made all this possible. It scared Kodak, and it scared Wall Street. It's our job now to relieve their tensions by fulfilling their fears.
PLAYBOY: What do you mean? Surely you don't expect to gain enough proxies to take control of any major corporation.
ALINSKY: No, despite all the crap about "people's capitalism," the dominant controlling stock in all major corporations is vested in the hands of a few people we could never get to. We're not even concerned about electing four or five board members to a 25-member board, which in certain cases would be theoretically feasible. They'd only be outvoted by management right down the line. We want to use the proxies as a means of social and political pressure against the megacorporations, and as a vehicle for exposing their hypocrisy and deceit.
The proxy tactic is also an invaluable means of gaining middle-class participation in radical causes. Instead of chasing Dow Chemical recruiters off campus, for example, student activists could organize and demand that the university administration turn over the Dow proxies in its portfolio to them. They'd refuse, but it would be a solid organizational issue, and one or two might even be forced to give in. By assigning their proxies, liberals can also continue attending cocktail parties while assuaging their troubled social consciences.
Proxies can become a springboard to other issues in organizing the middle class. Proxy participation on a large scale could ultimately mean the democratization of corporate America, and could result in the changing of these corporations' overseas operations, which would precipitate important shifts in our foreign policy. There's really no limit to the proxy potential. Pat Moynihan told me in Washington when he was still Nixon's advisor that "proxies for people would mean revolution -- they'll never let you get away with it." It will mean revolution, peaceful revolution, and we will get away with it in the years to come.
Next Week -- Final Thoughts
Alinsky's first book, Reveille for Radicals
Alinsky's second and final book, Rules for Radicals
Alinsky's biography is available here
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