Alinsky was born on January 30, 1909 in the slums of Chicago, the only child of orthodox Jewish parents from Russia. His father was a tailor. His father and mother divorced when Alinsky was 13, and the boy moved with his father to Los Angeles and periodically visited his mother in Chicago. After graduating from Hollywood High School in 1926, he entered the University of Chicago. His major was archaeology, which he combined with sociology. Already interested in social causes, he organized a group of students who drove down to southern Illinois with truckloads of provisions to help coal miners who were at odds with John L. Lewis, head of the United Mine Workers.
Graduating in 1930, in the teeth of the Great Depression, Alinsky saw that prospects in archaeology were unpromising and stayed on at the University of Chicago to do graduate work in criminology, with a fellowship. His doctoral subject was a study of the gangster Al Capone's crime syndicate, and he befriended the gang members and spent two years taking notes on their talk and stories. Having decided against scholarship, Alinsky took a job with the Illinois Division of Criminology, working with delinquent youths. In 1933, he was hired as a criminologist for the Illinois State Penitentiary at Joliet, where he acquired an insight into the causes of criminal behavior: "poor housing, discrimination, economic insecurity, unemployment, and disease," he told an interviewer later in life.
During the 1930s, even before he made a career of social activism, Alinsky spent his free time helping to raise funds for the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, the Newspaper Guild, and Southern sharecroppers. In 1938, he took on as a full-time project the Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago, a slum area next to the stockyards that was controlled by the meat-packing companies. Its poor were mainly Irish. To channel their demands for better jobs, schools, and housing, Alinsky organized the slum residents into the Back of the Yards Council, which won the support of the Roman Catholic clergy, some of the Democratic Party, and the labor unions. By such means as boycotts, rent strikes, and picket lines, the people pressured the private and public elites—the packing companies and government bureaucrats—into reforms that made the area a decent neighborhood. Alinsky's credo was based on three tenets: organize, show people what they can do, and trust them.
In 1940, with financial backing from Chicago philanthropist Marshall Field III and support from Catholic Church leaders, Alinsky established the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) as a base for advice and help to troubled communities interested in organizing. During the World War II years, he was a consultant to the U.S. government on questions of labor and finance. Resuming his community work for the IAF, he antagonized those in power and was periodically arrested. While in jail, he wrote Reveille for Radicals (1947), a manifesto of his radical views rooted in his experiences with the IAF. He also wrote a biography of his early adversary and later exemplar, Lewis, in 1949.
Supported during the late 1950s by a coalition of churchmen and businessmen, Alinsky formed the Organization for the Southwest Community in an impoverished area of Chicago. He first worked with poor African Americans in 1960, when he assembled the Woodlawn Organization in a blighted area near the University of Chicago to help local residents deal particularly with housing and sanitation problems. Elsewhere in his home city, he helped create the Northwest Community Organization.
In 1965, Alinsky went to Rochester, New York to organize poor African Americans in their fight for greater job opportunities at Eastman Kodak Company, the city's principal employer. The organization, named FIGHT, standing for "Freedom, Independence, God, Honor—Today," won concessions in the hiring and training of African Americans and recognition of FIGHT as the African-American community's representative in dealing with the city government regarding education, housing, and similar matters. Alinsky fostered similar organizations in Detroit, Buffalo, Syracuse, and other cities. He turned much of his attention later to helping organize white middle-class communities, which were losing power and had become alienated from neighboring African-American groups.
Federal programs aimed at fighting poverty earned slight praise from Alinsky, who told an interviewer that they would "only institutionalize the old city hall and social work approach at a time when traditional approaches will not do." Another journalist wrote that Alinsky "cannot be bought; he cannot be intimidated; and he breaks all the rules."
Alinsky retired in his sixties to Carmel, California, where he died of a heart attack on June 12, 1972.
William McGuire and Leslie Wheeler
Bailey, Robert Jr. Radicals in Urban Politics: the Alinsky Approach. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1974; Horwitt, Sanford D. Let Them Call Me Rebel: Saul Alinsky, His Life and Legacy. New York: Random House, 1989;; Von Hoffman, Nicholas. Portrait of Saul Alinsky. New York: Nation Books, 2010.