When Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty introduces himself to Republicans around the country in hopes they’ll support him for president, he tells about his working-class upbringing in South St. Paul. One thing he doesn’t say: “Saul Alinsky organized my hometown.”
It’s a little-known fact that Pawlenty’s hometown was an important early beachhead for Alinsky, the pioneering American community organizer.
“I grew up in a town of South St. Paul, Minnesota,” Pawlenty told the Values Voter Summit on Friday. “I was the only Republican in my family. Back then it was the world’s largest meatpacking plants and the world’s largest stockyards.”
In 1941, Alinsky established a new community council in South St. Paul, one of two meat-packing communities – and the first proper city – to which he applied his Industrial Areas Foundation efforts after successfully organizing Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood. The council lasted almost until Pawlenty’s birth in 1960.
Though he died in 1972, Alinsky’s name remains current today. He’s famously anathema to conservatives politically, even as his “Rules for Radicals” are celebrated by tea-baggers and town-hall blowhards.
Alinsky’s legacy also lives on in the work of groups like the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). Last week Pawlenty ceremoniously stripped ACORN of state funding that the group wasn’t getting anyway.
Association with Alinsky dogged both leading Democrats in last year’s presidential race. To dodge political brickbats, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton had earlier suppressed the Wellesley College thesis (pdf) she wrote about Alinsky.
But in 2008 the words “Saul Alinsky” found their target as a commonplace slur against one-time Chicago community-organizer Barack Obama. The epithet reached all the way to Moorhead, Minn., where Alinsky’s name was hurled in a parking-lot dispute that the Minnesota Independent caught on video during the heat of the fall campaign.
“Here’s the thing about Obama,” says a Sarah Palin supporter in a baseball hat and a flannel shirt (at the 4:10 mark in the video). “He’s a Saul Alinsky fan. He’s a Marxist.”
But if for Obama names like “socialist” and “Marxist” sometimes stuck along with the association with Alinsky, Alinsky himself had proved adept at evading such smears in South St. Paul. As Sanford D. Horwitt tells it in his book, “Let Them Call Me Rebel: Saul Alinsky, His Life and Legacy”:
In fact, the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension asked the FBI to check reports that Alinsky “may be interested in organizing some type of Communistic or subversive group in the packing area of South St. Paul.” Finally, after several months had passed, the FBI concluded, in January 1941, that Alinsky was not a communist …
Alinsky set up the South St. Paul Community Council to draw members broadly across the city, headed by a Democrat and a Republican. Out of the gate, the council took on tasks no one could argue with (boosting local businesses, hosting patriotic activities) as it geared up for a community fair in the fall.
It also tangled with its official counterpart, the South St. Paul City Council, over a new electricity contract that didn’t benefit the city enough in the community council’s view, according to stories in the South St. Paul Daily Reporter at the time.
Although Alinsky drew great inspiration from the labor movement, South St. Paul was the last place where he organized workers together with the broader community. The council survived well into the 1950s, though at times it suffered from leadership and manpower struggles.
A highlight was the community council’s fair, which took place in the Croatian Hall (or “Cro Hall”) – the same place that Pawlenty chooses for significant speeches at turning points in his career, such as the announcement of his run for governor in 2002 and, this summer, his decision not to run for re-election next year.
Alinsky also spoke at the Croatian Hall on Sept. 20, 1941, during the fair, which he considered a great success:
My wire from St. Paul was dispatched in one of those bursts of enthusiasm, after seeing how the immigrant groups of this community had not only banded together in an American organization but taken the leadership in the American way of life. Incidentally, the native-born Americans were the followers. Immigrant leaders even conducted the final services on Saturday night, when gold-braided American flags (to be hung in the windows) were presented to mothers of all draftees. The presentations were made by a committee consisting of five immigrants – a Serbian, a Russian, a Rumanian, a Yugoslav and a German. … All of the people were dressed in their native costumes and it truly was the most colorful Fair of all three communities [the others being Back of the Yards, Chicago; and Armourdale, Kansas City, Kan.], despite the fact that it was the smallest in view of the small population of South St. Paul.
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