Did You See Saul Alinsky the Other Night at The Kennedy Center?


Of course, had you looked, you wouldn’t really have seen Saul Alinsky (he died in 1972), but, I’m here to tell you, you would have seen Alinsky’s ghost, hovering behind the backs of President Obama, and his estimable companion, The Rev. Al Sharpton.

As President Obama and Rev. Sharpton entered The Kennedy Center, I got shivers down my spine. For, I could feel Saul Alinsky guiding them as they took their seats. There were these two men, trained in Alinsky’s methodology for achieving American justice, together to celebrate the life and work of another American justice-teacher, Dr. Martin Luther King, entering the President’s box.

It doesn’t get any better than this.

I admit:  I’m a cornball about this justice stuff. I blame it on my immigrant mother and Brooklyn-Jewish-ghetto-born father, who, in achieving their American dreams, (through dint of hard work, the G.I. Bill, and college scholarships), taught me to take-to-heart the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty and justice for all.

But, (and also thanks to my parents), I’m a serious politico. So, all I could think of, as I watched that night celebrating Dr. King, was:  Our success is palpable; our success is real; our crowd, the Alinsky as g-d crowd, has won.

In my serious-politico department, I, too, was trained in Alinsky’s methodology, by some Alinsky disciples, soon after I arrived in Chicago.  

However, I had been inspired to go down the Alinsky path a couple years before, when I met Alinsky himself. At that earlier time, the late, great Senator Paul Wellstone, (my college advisor), had invited Alinsky to the Carleton College campus. After the lecture, Paul invited a few of us to meet and chat with Alinsky.

As I write today, I don’t remember any of the substantive discussion that evening, but I sure do remember the evening’s feel. As though intimates of Alinsky’s, we students sat around a small table, in the basement of a dormitory and squeaked out a few questions, as we listened with amazement to what Alinsky had to tell us.

Why “amazement”? Well, the answer to that question gets to the very heart of the current discussions about Alinsky, prompted by Newt Gingrich’s statement: “Saul Alinsky radicalism is at the heart of Obama.”

Amazement because Alinsky told us we could be just like the Founding Fathers: radicals for the worthiest cause: equality and justice for all. 

A bit of historical context for those times (maybe, Newt the historian will find this of interest!): Those of us sitting around that Carleton table were motivated by our times: The hills were alive with the sound of freedom music, traversed by marches to end a war, surrounded by shouts for equality for women and African-Americans.

But, we knew that neither inspiration music or speeches, not marching, were sufficient to the need: We knew we also needed political skills, and an understanding of what this work would be about, on a day-to-day basis. Enter Saul Alinsky.

So, we listened, avidly, as Alinsky explained to us how our dreams could be achieved; what we were really in-for. And he made it clear: We wouldn’t get to the mountain-top by wishing, or praying, or by polite conversation in small rooms, nor even by participating in electoral politics. But we would get there by ORGANIZING with others to demand equal opportunity, a seat at the proverbial table, a voice that would count when decisions were made. (Just like those radicals the Founding Fathers.)

In his terrific piece for Politico (coulda been titled: I met Saul Alinsky, and you’re no Saul Alinsky), Alinsky’s biographer, Nicholas Von Hoffman, points-out that, contrary to Newt’s loose-lipped statements, President Obama never knew or met Saul Alinsky. (He was eleven years old at the time of Alinsky’s death.)

However, Newt is right when he connects the dots between President Obama and Saul Alinsky, for both the President, and many of his close colleagues, for instance his Kennedy-Center companion, Rev. Sharpton, take-to-heart what Alinsky taught: Speak truth to power, and organize to defeat powerful interests when they don’t have the peoples’ welfare at heart. (I cite this week’s State of the Union address as exhibit one in such a campaign.)

And while it’s true that progressives have bemoaned the fact that, at times, the President hasn’t been on this campaign trail, his association with Rev. Sharpton; indeed, his apparent closeness with Rev. Sharpton, suggest that the President does, indeed, want this Alinsky-style, speaking-truth-to-power sort of advice at (close) hand.

Otherwise, why in the world would Rev. Sharpton be sitting in the President’s box on any occasion, much less on one when the whole world is watching?  He’s just “too hot to handle,” as we used to say back on Rev. Sharpton’s Brooklyn streets. There’s just one inescapable conclusion here:  These two men are cut from the same cloth, and that cloth is from the robe Saul Alinsky wore.

One of James Brown’s (Rev. Sharpton’s first famous mentor! More on that later.) biggest hits was the anthem, “I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

Read the lyrics; they’re just amazing; they’re a community organizer’s anthem, for sure. 

Maybe, that’s it. This President, and this preacher, just like their — metaphorically-speaking — Founding Fathers, and their Jewish grandfather, Saul Alinsky, and their godfather (The Godfather), are proud, proud to assert (and fight for) their right to equality.

So, Newt: Have at it. We just want what Saul Alinsky organized for, and James Brown called for:

“Look a’here, some people say we got a lot of malice
Some say it’s a lotta nerve
I say we won’t quit moving
Til we get what we deserve
We’ve been buked and we’ve been scourned
We’ve been treated bad, talked about
As just as sure as you’re born
But just as sure as it take
Two eyes to make a pair, huh
Brother, we can’t quit until we get our share”

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