King v. Alinsky: Which Man Is Most Influential Today?
That we live in a highly polarized society is not a controversial statement today. We lived in a highly polarized society in the 1960’s too. Back then it seems that one of the primary face-offs could have been that between Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jim Crow. Spoiler alert: King won. And rightly so.
But it occurred to me recently that Dr. King is having to fight another battle, this time posthumously. And the opponent is a surprising one.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is held in high esteem in our American society. Every school child knows who he was and seemingly every major city has named at least a street after him. He has had his own Federal holiday for decades now.
Most of us have read or seen King’s “I have a dream” speech, or at least parts of it. We certainly know its point, which is that no matter our skin color we are brothers and sisters in the same human family.
How many people know who Saul Alinsky was? Many who are politically active do, but I would suspect that most others do not. Alinsky may have been the original “community organizer”, a job title that got wide exposure when Barack Obama was running for president in 2008. Where Dr. King left a substantial body of written work, Alinsky is best known for a 1971 book entitled Rules For Radicals.
These brief introductions are only mentioned to give some background to the question that recently came to my mind: would the political activists of today (both left and right) buy into Dr. King’s vision if he were still here? Or has the philosophy of Saul Alinsky taken over as the paradigm for modern political debate?
The question presented itself to me recently when I read something that quoted Dr. King from something written a little more than a decade before his tragic assassination. One of Dr. King’s recurring themes had been nonviolence. In a 1957 piece about the power of nonviolence, Dr. King wrote that the nonviolent resister “does not seek to humiliate or defeat the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. … And so at the center of our movement stood the philosophy of love.”
Saul Alinsky stands in stark contrast. A contemporary of King, Alinsky also saw a need to help the downtrodden that he saw around him. In his case, those victims were the poor of Chicago during the Great Depression and the years that followed. His outlook and his methods, however, could not have been more different.
Alinsky wrote Rules for Radicals about a year before his 1972 death. One of those Rules, Number 13, stated: “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.“ Followers were instructed to “cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions.” Where King was all about love, Alinsky was all about power.
These wildly different views are understandable when we look at the mens’ divergent backgrounds. Dr. King was a preacher and an evangelist. While he did not expect everyone to believe in a personal God, he surely did himself and always came from a place deeply informed by that Christian worldview. “[T]he only way to ultimately change humanity and make for the society that we all long for is to keep love at the center of our lives.”
Although Alinsky had been raised in an observant Jewish home, he became an agnostic as an adult. He even recognized Lucifer as perhaps the original radical in the introduction to his book. That said, he joined Dr. King in a refusal to condone violence. In condemning some who had resorted to revolutionary violence he wrote “we are dealing with people who are merely hiding psychosis behind a political mask.”
However, Alinsky’s Rules refer to “enemies” time and again, in a way that would have been quite foreign to Dr. King (and in a way that would make resorting to violence a not-unforeseeable result of putting Alinsky’s Rules into practice.)
So we must ask – which of these two opposite approaches has become the most common one in dealing with the difficulties of our time? And not just among those who would consider themselves as liberal or progressive activists – this choice applies to political activists all across the political spectrum. I think the answer is, unfortunately, all too obvious.
We disagree on many things in our society today. It seems to me that the question comes down to this: are those with whom we disagree our enemies? Or are they friends we hope to make by demonstrating our beliefs from a place of love and respect? Alinsky’s way seems easy and carries a visceral satisfaction that is undeniable. King’s way is hard – and it was no easier in King’s day than it is now.
Personally, I think that we could use a lot more King and a lot less Alinsky. It is one thing to tear down – something that both men set out to do, each in his own way. It is quite another thing (and a much harder one) to build something better in a way that invites the participation of all.
Alinsky seems to have been unable to see beyond the idea of the downtrodden as the new overseers. It was Dr. King who sought an eventual end to conflict by the nourishment of mutual respect and friendships. Hatred of enemies will never be able to do this. But love of those we disagree with can.
The Power Of Nonviolence, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., June 4, 1957 (found at http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/the-power-of-non-violence/ )
Saul Alinsky’s 13 Tried-And-True Rules For Creating Meaningful Social Change (found at http://www.openculture.com/2017/02/13-rules-for-radicals.html )
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Crop of August 28, 1963 photo of the civil rights march on Washington, photographer unknown, from the National Archives and found at Wikimedia Commons
Saul Alinsky: August 2, 1963 photo, Wikimedia Commons, creative commons license.
All the way up to the next to last paragraph, where you articulated it, I kept thinking about how one method appeals to baser human instincts while the other requires a certain degree of maturity and intellect. As you said, one is indeed much easier than the other.
It’s a true shame so many in the world, even those in elected office, have devolved to this point. How quickly a society can realize the need to abandon such primitive behavior is going to be an interesting thing to see as a goodly number of younger people have never seen anything different than this unsavory approach to philosophical differences.
I fear that although we have been paying lip service to King and his nonviolent approach, we have all been living Alinsky’s way. Which is not setting a good example for the next generation.
Interesting, never heard of Alinsky before but I think you’re right.
Even if someone in the public eye is trying to be nuanced and have an actual discussion, we now have powerful forces that can take, twist and polarize the message without their involvement. Makes me glad to have not had cable the last 20 years.
Not having cable is probably a good plan. Staying off the political rants on YouTube helps too.
Obfuscation, insults and operating in bad faith with a veneer of innocence are cornerstones of our political environment at this moment in time. I think we both agree that King’s message is a more attractive vision of society, but his methods are near-useless on this modern crop of legislators. I hope in the long run it’s that peaceful vision that wins out, but first, politicians who listen to the suffering of Americans and are willing to operate in good faith to fix issues must be installed.
Also, this piece’s subtextual theme of a lack of Christian faith leading to the moral degeneration of a nation hasn’t gone unnoticed.
I always saw King’s target not so much as the politicians but as the people who elect them. There is going to have to be some kind of concensus for things to settle down and I see making friends and having civil discourse as the only way. One side cramming laws down the throats of the other side is never going to work.
I was not trying to make the connection between faith and morality on a broad scale, only to illustrate that it was certainly a factor in the differing worldviews of Alinsky and King. I will happily agree that most people who are not religious are also good, well-intentioned people.
BRAVO. I’ve seen so much hateful screaming in the past year — even from a self-described Christian preacher, who vowed to protect his first-amendment right to free speech with his second-amendment right to bear arms — that it’s hard to imagine any compromise when both sides are demonizing the other. But you’re very right to evoke King’s memory and methods. As you point out in your most recent comment to John, King’s message was aimed at the ordinary American (because we must each take responsibility for modeling the change we wish to see in the world). And although it may take a long time, a grassroots movement of ordinary Americans who demand integrity and civility from their elected representatives could effect real change. That’s not to say we’ll ever have a peaceable Shangri-la in which everyone agrees all the time … because with more than 300 million Americans, someone is always going to have a beef. But we simply MUST get away from this toxic gridlock and blame that isn’t solving any of our problems. So sorry to ramble on, but as you see I’ve been thinking about this too. Great post, J.P.
Thanks for the thoughtful reply. As the day has worn on, it has occurred to me that if anyone was entitled to point at “the other side” and advocate for force it would have been MLK. After all, a whole lot of people then (and not just those in government) considered him and others like him to be sub-human. But look at what King accomplished – I don’t think I know a single person under 60 who believes that (and mighty few over 60 who do).
A constant war of two equal sides will never result in an end to hostility absent the surrender of one side. We must do a better job of treating those who disagree as people of worth and dignity. Only then, as equals and friends, can we reason our way to a compromise.
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My observation is that the socially organized, grassroots, public “protests”, such as the Women’s Marches and high school student gun-control events are completely in King’s style. Smaller or more politically, top-down organized groups, whether Trump campaign rallies, Antifa, or white supremacist groups are certainly not. I think the former, which have generally been peaceful and positive, still give me hope regardless of one’s political views.
You make a good point on grass-roots v top-down organizations. Although I doubt that there is a 100 percent correlation, you may have something there.
Certainly not 100%. And, in this age of social media manipulation, I suspect a lot of grass-roots movements are more top-down than many believe. But I truly believe that a group of people that get together, whether marching, protesting, evangelizing etc, TOGETHER (even if following some leader), are going to be far more engaged with the people around them and aware of their diversity, than a captive audience passively watching TV or a talking head behind a podium.
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