On Organizing the Poor

On Organizing the Poor

Though many of the young and idealistic radicals of this generation may be convinced that “participatory democracy” is a revolutionary concept of their own making, a re-reading of Saul Alinsky’s Reveille for Radicals will remind us that the essential idea has been around for at least a quarter of a century. Alinsky’s work, first published in 1945, is replete with detailed descriptions of the varied ways by which a People’s Organization can be built, offering as its most concrete example the Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, organized in Chicago in 1939. The history of this movement in the intervening period is sobering and instructive: the Back of the Yards community is today a bastion of conformity and segregation.

In 1967, almost every urban area where racial and cultural minorities are concentrated contains at least one organization which purports to represent the needs of the traditionally unrepresented poor. Organizers of such groups fall roughly into four categories:

(1) Minsky and his staff of professionals, through the Chicago-based Industrial Areas Foundation;

(2) civil rights organizations, predominantly Negro;

(3)New Left organizations, predominantly white;

(4)certain labor unions, working independently or in conjunction with other groups.