Radicalized by Saul Alinsky
Wednesday, February 8, 2012
When I hear former House Speaker Newt Gingrich rail against the “radical” Saul Alinsky I react with a knowing smile. I was radicalized by Saul Alinsky.
In the late 1960s I was a student at The Loomis School, a prep school just north of Hartford, Conn. The outside world was breaking loose with protests against the war in Vietnam. It was the golden age for sex, drugs and rock and roll. But students at Loomis were required to wear jackets and ties to class and attend mandatory chapel twice during the week and again on Sunday.
We had to get up early, dress like gentlemen, then stay awake in the stiff pews. The chaplain at the time was a podium-pounding fundamentalist who famously gave a sermon titled “You Can’t Make Love Out of a Second Story Window”. He wasn’t reaching us.
Try as the school did to mold us, you could smell marijuana smoke drifting from dormitory bathrooms where boys exhaled into the ventilation grates. We were straining to be allowed to grow our hair long and wear blue jeans to class, to be free.
Yet even while holding on to the Edwardian Age, the school exposed us to change with great visiting speakers; The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, the anti-war chaplain at Yale; Roger Hilsman, the World War II veteran of Burma who advised Kennedy on Vietnam; and the radical organizer Saul Alinsky.
He was a balding man in rumpled clothes who spoke in a forceful voice. We listened quietly. Then Alinsky said he got his start organizing a rebellion against mandatory chapel at The University of Chicago. A roar went up from the students and it was a good five minutes before Alinsky was able to speak again.
Within weeks we were freed from mandatory chapel. Jackets and ties disappeared and we grew our hair. We woke up to recognize the lives that were not as privileged as ours and the forces that held those people down. I registered for the draft as a conscientious objector and never wore loafers again.
Alinsky challenged us to examine who we were and what was important. He told us to care for the poor and stand up to the rich. He told us to value peace, education and equality.
Saul Alinsky radicalized me by standing up for everything a presidential candidate should stand for today.