By David Moberg

In 1992 filmmaker Bruce Orenstein got a call from his friend Bob Hercules. Hercules had recently finished Let Them Call Me Rebel, Sanford D. Horwitt’s biography of community activist Saul Alinsky, and he wanted to make a film about Alinsky’s life. Would Orenstein serve on the film’s advisory board? “I said, Fine,” Orenstein recalls, “but under my breath I said, This is the documentary I wanted to make.”

Since his death in 1972, Alinsky has faded from memory; community organizing has a less flamboyant profile than it did three decades ago, and our faith in democratic politics has taken a beating. But in his day Alinsky was one of Chicago’s greatest political figures, an agitator whose influence rivals that of Jane Addams, Clarence Darrow, Eugene Debs, and the martyrs of the Haymarket riot. Born 90 years ago on Maxwell Street to immigrant Russian-Jewish tailors, Alinsky launched America’s modern community-organizing movement: during the Depression he agitated for better working conditions and social services in Back of the Yards, and 30 years later, in Woodlawn, he mobilized community support for voter registration and better schools. Through his books and speeches he gained widespread attention promoting a tough-minded brand of democratic radicalism.

Hercules and Orenstein decided to collaborate on the film, though they soon discovered that they had different visions for it. Hercules wanted to focus on Alinsky’s life, while Orenstein wanted to examine his political legacy. Orenstein wanted the film to convey something about how organizing succeeds, yet Hercules insisted that the documentary had to tell a story or nobody would watch. Airing on Channel 11 at 9 PM on Labor Day, The Democratic Promise: Saul Alinsky and His Legacy is a compromise, but the two visions manage to cohere, each ultimately enriching the other. Some important questions about the effectiveness of Alinsky’s strategy are addressed only briefly, but The Democratic Promise offers a hopeful and even inspiring vision of grassroots power in public life.

Hercules, son of a newspaper publisher in Gaylord, Michigan, studied filmmaking at the University of Michigan and in 1984 found work producing film and video in Chicago. Growing up around Ann Arbor’s student movements in the 60s and 70s, Hercules skewed to the left, and in Chicago he became interested in labor unions: an early documentary, The Road to Haymarket, was successful on the cable and educational circuits, and eventually he cofounded Labor Beat, the community-access labor news program on CAN TV. Labor “seemed the most organized movement at the time,” he says. “I’ve always been interested in things that work, creating change rather than being part of something that’s remote. I saw the labor movement as already organized, a natural place for people to go.”

Orenstein grew up in working-class Albany Park and briefly attended the University of Illinois at Chicago. He enlisted in the air force to avoid being sent to Vietnam but was honorably discharged; back in Chicago he resumed his studies at UIC while driving a cab. He became a canvasser for Citizen Action/Illinois, a coalition of community and labor groups, and learned community organizing at the Industrial Areas Foundation, an organization founded by Alinsky, and at the Midwest Academy, a product of the Alinsky tradition. He was greatly influenced by Alinsky’s Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals: “They helped me focus and took my hot anger and turned it into what Alinsky called cold anger.” He spent the next 15 years organizing in Chicago and Seattle, then came home after Harold Washington’s mayoral election to work with the United Neighborhood Organization of Chicago (UNO) on the southeast side. From his experience with local school councils, Orenstein had discovered how effective videos were in organizing people; in 1990 he formed the Chicago Video Project, whose videos have aided community campaigns for a living wage, affordable housing, and CHA tenants’ rights.

Video is a popular medium, and, appropriately enough, the Alinsky film considers the struggle between financial strength and populist strength. As Alinsky taught, people get nothing without power, and they’ll have no power unless they’re organized. In a typically blunt statement, he advises, “To hell with charity. The only thing you’ll get is what you’re strong enough to get.”

Alinsky’s tough-guy persona, which endeared him to some people and alienated others, may have developed while he was a criminologist at the state prison in Joliet, following his graduation from the University of Chicago. In 1938 sociologist Clifford Shaw asked Alinsky to help him research juvenile delinquency in Back of the Yards; using remarkable old photos and contemporary interviews, Hercules and Orenstein re-create the hard life of the meatpacking district and the turmoil of union organizing that Alinsky encountered. Like many intellectuals, Alinsky was drawn to the labor movement, but he was too independent and practical to become immersed in ideology. He began forming an “organization of organizations,” bringing together clubs, churches, and businesses to overcome the neighborhood’s ethnic divisions, which had hampered the union movement. At the group’s opening rally hung a banner declaring, “We the people will work out our destiny.” The day after the rally, the powerful Armour Company agreed to recognize the union.

Alinsky argued that social change was the reaction of the powerful to the initiatives of newly empowered citizens. He worked hard to provoke the powerful, whether they were meatpacking titans or political bosses. “The first rule of change is controversy,” Alinsky insisted. Yet he was oddly reliant on the Catholic Church, whose social conservatism tempered its support for social justice. As Alinsky disciple Mike Miller notes in the film, Alinsky could never have succeeded without the support of auxiliary bishop Bernard J. Sheil, who applauded the formation of the neighborhood council. Later, while forming the Woodlawn Organization, Alinsky sank deep roots into African-American Protestant churches. In 1961 the organization sent 46 busloads of black south-siders to City Hall to register to vote. In Rochester, New York, Alinsky carried on the fight for black power in celebrated confrontations with the Eastman Kodak Company that Hercules and Orenstein recount through archival tapes and interviews.

Despite Alinsky’s celebrity, the Industrial Areas Foundation was often a shambles, its small staff of true believers exhausting themselves with only intermittent guidance from their leader. After Alinsky died suddenly at age 63 the key transition figure–who assumes a low profile in the documentary–was Ed Chambers, an ex-seminarian who insisted on a small but reliable staff of professionals that could build and sustain organizations over a long period. In recent years Chambers has brought the IAF from New York back to Chicago, launching the United Power for Action and Justice, an alliance of Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim groups as well as several unions and community institutions.

In pursuing Alinsky’s legacy, Hercules and Orenstein look at the East Brooklyn Congregations, a New York group drawn from black churches that has built several thousand affordable homes, and the Texas network of IAF groups, which has fought for school reform. Ordinary citizens, often coming from church congregations, fight for their families and community, considering every action through a process Chambers describes as “deliberate, calculated, and focused.” The activists’ individual stories are both mundane and wonderful, but even after decades of effort these community groups have had less impact on American politics than their scale might imply, especially compared to the labor movement or the religious right. Many of them steer clear of electoral politics, which limits their impact but also permits coalitions that might otherwise seem improbable. The film concentrates on IAF groups, but Alinsky’s influence extends far beyond the organization he started. Dozens of other groups, including Chicago’s Citizen Action and Metropolitan Alliance of Congregations, can trace their history to Alinsky.

Originally Hercules and Orenstein wanted the film to run between 90 minutes and two hours, but the nonprofit Independent Television Services, which financed the film’s completion, persuaded them to cut it down to an hour, arguing that it would draw a larger audience. Reluctantly, they agreed; after all, they wanted to do more than tell Alinsky’s story–they wanted to continue it, inspiring people to action. “I’ve never put so much effort into anything in my life,” says Hercules. “Nothing has ever challenged me more than making this film. Sometimes I thought my brain would explode trying to deal with these issues.” But as Alinsky might have argued, sometimes an explosion can be a blessing.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Copyright Marc PoKempner 1997/AP–World Wide Photos.