Holding America to its Commitment

The Democratic Promise: Saul Alinsky and His Legacy. Produced by the Chicago Video Project and Media Process Educational Films, 1999, Time: 56:40. $225 purchase; $75 rent. Limited number free to social change groups. Distributed by University of California Extension, 510-642-0460.


Labor and civil rights activist Saul Alinsky unquestionably affected many United States’ citizen-based movements. A master political agitator, tactician, and social organizer, he influenced leaders such as Heather Booth, Cesar Chavez, and Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael). Even Time magazine said he had forever changed the way American democracy worked.

The Democratic Promise uses various Alinsky organizing campaigns to illustrate his theories and principles, starting with a glimpse of what shaped his philosophies and led to his early organizing efforts.

A product of Chicago’s Jewish ghetto, Alinsky believed that participation in the political process was the key to preserving democracy. In the early 1930s, with a University of Chicago graduate degree in criminology, Alinsky got close to members of Al Capone’s gang to study criminal behavior. He concluded that most criminal activity is a direct result of poverty. This began his quest to level the playing field.

His first organizing effort was with Chicago’s meat packers, who at one point in the ’30s had their wages cut three times in one year. Envisioning an “organization of organizations” to support the workers, Alinsky brought together neighborhood groups, small businesses, labor unions, and the Catholic church. In 1939 this coalition became the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council (BYNC), encompassing 100 Chicago-area organizations.

The Council immediately attained legitimacy when a few days after its first official meeting Alinsky arranged a massive labor rally, featuring powerful labor leader John Lewis and Chicago’s Bishop Bernard Sheil, against the backdrop of a threatened meat packers strike. The next day, Armour Meat Company, Chicago’s second largest meat company, recognized the union, and Alinsky’s career was on its way.

Lewis became Alinsky’s mentor, teaching him the organizing principles with which Alinsky in 1940 formed the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), an umbrella organization for new organizing campaigns across the country.

Along with Alinsky’s theories, The Democratic Promise covers battles waged by organizations he formed, including The Woodlawn Foundation in Chicago and FIGHT in Rochester, NY, and shows how his legacy is being carried out today by IAF member organizations like East Brooklyn Congregations in New York and Dallas Area Interfaith in Texas.

Producer Bruce Orenstein provides a great introduction to one of America’s most revered organizers, including a healthy dose of Alinsky espousing his own theories, giving the viewer a first-hand feel for the activist’s character.

The presentation falls short, however, when it glosses over the shortcomings of Alinsky’s theories, and avoids discussing what didn’t work. Additionally, more time could’ve been spent discussing Alinsky’s ability to work inside the dynamics of race and racial polarization, since he was often organizing in African-American communities. For example, the various stills that Orenstein uses from the BYNC formation show clearly the involvement of African-American laborers. It would have been interesting to hear how the young Alinsky pulled that off in racially polarized 1930s Chicago.

But ultimately, The Democratic Promise delivers. Inspiring and educational, it’s a useful tool for those interested in the art of organizing a community for power.

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