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Saul Alinsky and the Dilemmas of Race

Community Organizing in the Postwar City

A groundbreaking examination of Saul Alinsky's organizing work as it relates to race.

Saul Alinsky is the most famous—even infamous—community organizer in American history. Almost single-handedly, he invented a new political form: community federations, which used the power of a neighborhood’s residents to define and fight for their own interests. Across a long and controversial career spanning more than three decades, Alinsky and his Industrial Areas Foundation organized Eastern European meatpackers in Chicago, Kansas City, Buffalo, and St. Paul; Mexican Americans in California and Arizona; white middle-class homeowners on the edge of Chicago’s South Side black ghetto; and African Americans in Rochester, Buffalo, Chicago, and other cities.

Mark Santow focuses on Alinsky’s attempts to grapple with the biggest moral dilemma of his age: race. As Santow shows, Alinsky was one of the few activists of the period to take on issues of race on paper and in the streets, on both sides of the color line, in the halls of power, and at the grassroots, in Chicago and in Washington, DC. Alinsky’s ideas, actions, and organizations thus provide us with a unique and comprehensive viewpoint on the politics of race, poverty, and social geography in the United States in the decades after World War II. Through Alinsky’s organizing and writing, we can see how the metropolitan color line was constructed, contested, and maintained—on the street, at the national level, and among white and black alike. In doing so, Santow offers new insight into an epochal figure and the society he worked to change.

400 pages | 10 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2023

Chicago and Illinois

History: American History, Urban History

Sociology: Social Change, Social Movements, Political Sociology


Saul Alinsky and the Dilemma of Race is a major contribution to scholarship on postwar racial politics in northern US cities. Writing at the intersections of urban, labor and African-American histories, Santow has forged an analytical narrative that depicts Alinsky’s decades-long efforts to bridge Chicago’s racial divide neither as a quixotic challenge to white flight nor as a broad strategy that might have prevented northern resegregation. Rather, he provides a nuanced portrait of both the potential of Alinsky’s organizing for promoting neighborhood integration and its inability to address the structural forces driving racial transition in mid-twentieth-century Chicago.”

Matthew Countryman, author of Up South: Civil Rights and Black Power in Philadelphia

"What do race in the US and Saul Alinsky have in common? Both are mercurial, shrouded in myth, and caricatured across the political spectrum. Mark Santow confronts each, illuminating the intersection of the community organizer and the pragmatics of racism in the crucible of Chicago."

Amanda I. Seligman, author of Block by Block

Table of Contents

1. “Americanism in the Truest Sense?” Alinsky and Race in Packingtown
2. “Dissolving the Walls of Racial Partition”: The 1957 General Report
3. Chicago’s “Great Question”: Racial Geography and the Creation of the Organization for the Southwest Community, 1958–1959
4. The “Benign Quota,” Racial Liberalism, and the OSC
5. “And Just All of a Sudden, They Left”: The OSC and the Challenges of Neighborhood Integration, 1961–1969
6. “We Will Not Be Planned For”: The Creation of the Woodlawn Organization
7. Truth Squads and Death Watches: TWO, Schooling, and Spatial Strategy
8. Maximum Feasible Alinsky: TWO and the War on Poverty
9. Model Cities, TWO, and the Spatial Dilemmas of Metropolitan Segregation
Conclusion: Mending Walls and Building Bridges

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