What Do Grassroots Organizers Actually Do When They Organize?

Mark Rudd recently contributed an article here on building a movement and the distinction between activists and organizers. Now, MIKE MILLER offers a veteran organizer’s perspective. For five years in the 1960s he was a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee field secretary; he directed a Saul Alinsky organizing project, and has been an organizer ever since. His work in San Francisco’s Mission District has been s described on this site by Joe Paff.  AC / JSC

Mark Rudd’s essay on organizing begins promisingly, with a concern that I share, about the “nothing anyone does can ever make a difference” response he is getting “in discussions with young people.” Rudd distinguishes organizers from activists and evidences some understanding of organizing in his statement, “Organizers are activists who, in addition to their own participation, work to move other people to take action and help them develop skills, political analysis and confidence within the context of organizations.”

But I would have liked to see more attention paid to one of the most important things that organizers do, namely, develop relationships of mutual confidence among people, so they can act together; also, that organizers, successful ones at least, build powerful organizations.

Here’s where Rudd could think more about what it is that organizers do: “Organizing is a process – creating long-term campaigns that mobilize a certain constituency to press for specific demands from a particular target, using a defined strategy and escalating tactics.” Not exactly: organizers build organizations that engage in campaigns. The process is organization building; one of the tools for doing that is action on issues. Other tools are mutual aid, member education, values reflection, internal organization renewal (when you’re working with existing congregations and union locals), or building new organizational units (when you’re creating a new, direct membership, organization), etc. Campaigns win things and are one of the things that build organizations. Organizers want to change the relations of power, not simply win this or that issue.

Rudd is interesting when he says, “We were organizers, our work was building a mass movement, and that took constant discussion of goals, strategy and tactics (and, later, contributing to our downfall, ideology.)” Here, Rudd and I appear to be on the same page: I’m particularly fascinated by the very last part of the point on ideology – after all my years of being told by various people on the left, “you don’t have an ideology” (of course, everyone does, and you need to define the term), it was a bit surprising to read this.

The discussion of what he and his comrades did at Columbia is interesting too, and here he identifies building relationships of mutual confidence as crucial to what they did. His counterparts at San Francisco State similarly organized their campus. Their problem was that they didn’t understand how to relate to the broader community – a subject, to which I devote considerable attention in my book, A Community Organizer’s Tale.  If you didn’t back the student movement 100 per cent, you were a sellout. This wasn’t too productive an approach to the problem of how to develop the majority constituencies that are essential to bring about significant change in this country. The students’ view of the world was far from how everyday laborers, homemakers, teachers, clerks, welfare recipients and others with whom I worked thought about what was going on at State (and in the student movement generally).

Rudd pays appropriate tribute to one of my favorite books about SNCC, Charles Payne’s I’ve Got The Light of Freedom, and talks about Greenwood, MS, 1961-1964. I was on the SNCC staff, 1962 through 1966, and spent the summer of 1963 in the Mississippi Delta town of Greenwood – the subject of Payne’s book – working with people like Sam Block, Wazir Peacock, Bob Moses, Martha Prescod, Stokely Carmichael, and others; I got to know Fanny Lou Hamer and a number of the local leaders there as well.

In his interpretation of Payne, Rudd lets the blinders, rather than insights, of ideology take over. “Black churches,” he writes, “usually had charismatic male ministers, who, as a consequence of their positions, led in an authoritarian manner.” Rudd should look at this matter more closely. Any black minister who tried to lead in that fashion would soon find himself with a shrinking congregation or be thrown out by the lay board. While Rudd more or less gets the part about the women at the base of these churches and SNCC’s “central organizing principle,” his ideological impulse to polarize their role and the role of the ministers obscures the dialectical relationship that existed between them, and the many complexities of it.

Rudd juxtaposes “the developmental method” (which he approves of) to “Alinsky-style organizing, which is usually characterized as top-down and manipulative.” (Now, you can’t beat “top-down” and “manipulative” for bogeyman words, can you?)

He elaborates, “For a first-hand view of Alinsky organizing, see Barack Obama’s book…” Now, I don’t want to take anything from the very smart and very talented Barack Obama, but one would hardly use a new organizer’s work under a supervisor who worked for someone who never directly worked for Alinsky or one of Alinsky’s major organizers as the source of a “first-hand view of Alinsky organizing.” Nonetheless, Rudd asks decent questions: “Who trained him (Obama)? What was his training? Who paid him?… What is his relationship to the people he calls ‘my leaders’?” He also asks, and here my antenna quiver in trepidation, “What is the guiding ideology?”

Then a familiar litany of anti-Alinsky-tradition organizing questions intrudes: “Are they (his leaders) above him or are they manipulated by him? Who are calling whose shots? What are the long-term consequences?” And, no, Obama’s book is not “a great piece to start a discussion on organizing with young organizers.” Better to read Alinsky, Gaudette, von Hoffman, Chambers, Harmon, Cortez, Gecan, Trapp, Ganz, yours truly and others, who spent more time in the organizing work and who were directly trained by someone close to Alinsky.

Now, let’s talk about two things here that deserve serious discussion on the part of people who want to learn from the past so they might avoid old misconceptions. First, let’s look at the issue of “top-down” versus “bottom-up.” When SNCC’s Bob Moses first went to Mississippi, he had a list of respected leaders given to him by Ella Baker, a former Director of Branches of the NAACP. They were people with whom she had worked earlier. When Moses arrived in McComb, it was through local leaders that he began his work. Here’s a section from Wesley Hogan’s excellent book on SNCC, Many Minds, One Heart: SNCC’s Dream for a New America (University of North Carolina Press), along with some italicized notes by me:

“In July 1961, when Moses first arrived in McComb, Webb Owens, a retired railroad employee and treasurer of the local NAACP, picked up Moses and began making the rounds to every single black person of any kind of substance in the community. For two weeks, during each visit, Moses conversed with these leaders about his proposal to undertake a month-long voter registration project. [This idea came out of Moses’ earlier conversations with Cleveland, MS, NAACP leader Amzie Moore, to whom Moses was introduced by Ella Baker.] Other SNCC staff members would come to help, he promised, if the community raised money to support them. At that point, Owens moved in with a closer. A smart, slim, cigar-smoking, cane-carrying, sharp-dressing gregarious man known in the community as “Super Cool Daddy,” liked and trusted by all, Owens solicited contributions of five to ten dollars per person [equal to $50 – $100 in today’s dollars; at the same time, in the same period, Cesar Chavez asked even more in dues from farm workers]. Before the rest of the SNCC staff arrived, the black community not only supported the project, it financed it as well.

“Surfacing here is one of the central causal dynamics of the civil rights revolution in the South of the 1960s. While SNCC people may not have broken down the recruiting process into its component parts, these components are now (and were at the time) quite visible: Moses would approach a local leader – in this case, Webb Owens. [There is the preliminary component of getting an introduction to Owens from Amzie Moore via Ella Baker.] He then listened to Owen’s ideas and, in so doing, built a relationship. [While listening is deservedly stressed, it is not all that Moses did – he had ideas of how to move forward in Mississippi, namely, the voter registration drive.] Impressed, Owens led Moses to all of the potential leaders in the community, in the process exposing himself to great risks as a local NAACP leader. When he extended himself on behalf of Moses and asked citizens to financially support a voter registration drive, things began to happen. The quality of the local person that you go to work with is everything in terms of whether the project can get off the ground, Moses later explained. The McComb voter registration drive would not have taken off without someone like Owens.”

“Top Down” vs. “Bottom Up”

Too many discussions of “grassroots organizing” and “top-down versus bottom-up organizing” ignore the lessons that are taught by this SNCC experience. Respected local leaders introduced Bob Moses into the local communities, in which voter registration projects started, and asked the local community to financially support the voter registration work that Moses and other SNCC field secretaries were going to do. To the question that might be asked of a SNCC worker, “Who sent you?”, the answer was Webb Owens or Amzie Moore or CC Bryant or any of a number of respected local people who legitimized SNCC’s presence in their community. Where that beginning legitimacy was lacking, the SNCC worker had to earn the right to meddle by gaining the trust of locally respected people. SNCC field secretary Charles McLauren wrote a paper on invited and uninvited organizers, and what the latter had to do to earn trust, which was the precondition to engaging people in “Movement” activity.

Over time, the SNCC workers themselves became people to be trusted and respected – at least those who listened to local people, did good work, and stayed the course – as, for example, Sam Block and Willie Peacock in Greenwood, but when they first arrived in town as uninvited organizers, they slept in their cars because no one was ready to open his or her home to them. Their steadfastness, willingness to listen to and respect local people, and willingness to overcome fear and confront local racist power, all combined to earn them the right to provide the kind of leadership that organizers provide. This pattern was repeated by other SNCC field secretaries in other counties as well.

Sounds like you could call that “top-down,” doesn’t it? But, secondly, let’s look at the ministers decried by Rudd, because it is through them that a lot of Alinsky’s organizing was done. (It should be noted that in his black community organizing projects of the 1960s, there were also block clubs, tenant organizations, welfare rights groups, and others. And it is true that the institutional anchors for the organizations were the churches.)

Rev. Aurelius Walker, pastor of the True Hope Church of God in Christ (COGIC), began his ministry by talking with prostitutes, pimps, alcoholics, drug abusers and other marginal African Americans on the streets of San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood. He started holding small Bible study and revival meetings with them, helping them get straight jobs and kick their habits. After a number of years of this, he, they and others rented a storefront as a church. The congregation soon contributed enough for him to become a full-time pastor. The church grew, bought some land, constructed a new building, and, when I was last in regular touch with it, had a worshipping community of 1,000+ people, almost all African Americans, most low-to-moderate income. Internally, members were organized in small support-and-study groups that were called “auxiliaries.” The budget came from the Sunday collection plate, pledges and fundraisers. When Organize Training Center was exploring a religion-labor alliance in San Francisco, organizer Larry Gordon talked with Rev. Walker about his church joining this alliance. Now, I suppose you could call that “top-down” organizing, but I hope you’ll agree that calling it that obscures much more than it illuminates.

In the COGIC denomination, mostly black, Pentecostal in its theology, and mostly poor and working class, the way you become a bishop is by 20 congregations deciding they want to follow your leadership. So, if I were going to a new city hoping to involve the black community, including black Pentecostals, in an organizing effort, among the people to whom I’d want an introduction would be any COGIC bishops in town. And if I couldn’t get someone to introduce me, I’d sure find a way to meet him or them because they’d be a good starting point – not the only one to be sure – to the rest of the COGIC believers in town.

I won’t go into the polity of the mainline Protestant denominations, but, for the most part, they have elected boards made up of lay people who take their roles very seriously; they include groups within the churches as well – men’s groups, women’s groups, youth groups, a choir, a senior club … and committees – social action, stewardship, etc. And if you think the way the Catholic Church works is that the pope tells bishops what to think and do, and they tell pastors what to think and do, and the pastors tell the laity what to think and do … you’ll sure miss some organizing opportunities.

Rudd is encouraging when he recognizes that he fell “under the spell of the illusion of revolution,” abandoning organizing for militant confrontation … and then armed urban guerilla warfare. But he’s still hanging onto a lot of new left baggage – familiar biases that would take more time to unpack. That’s too bad, because Rudd appears to be open to ideas on what mass organizing might be all about.

To return to more of Rudd’s questions: “Are they (Obama’s leaders) above him or are they manipulated by him? Who are calling whose shots? What are the long-term consequences?” Organizers influence people. Does that mean they manipulate them? Of course, it depends on how you define “manipulate.” Any organizers I’ve ever known, who ever organized anything, want people with whom they’re working to behave differently in the future than they’ve been behaving in the past. Otherwise, why should the organizer be there? A union organizer sent by “the international” goes into workplaces and tries to get respected workers to form an internal organizing committee that will, in turn, influence workers to support the organizing drive, become involved with it, vote for the union in a recognition election or participate in a card check, participate in union activities, and so on. But internal “salt” organizer does more or less the same thing. Insider or outsider, in order to build a powerful, democratic union, they have to move people from point A to point B. If you don’t like what they’re doing, you call it manipulation: isn’t that what almost every employer calls what union organizers do? But I don’t think this is what Rudd means.

The more negative meaning of manipulation is that you have a hidden agenda. Most of the Alinsky-tradition organizers I know who are successful in the work are very explicit about their agenda: they want to build people power organizations so that regular, everyday, discriminated against, exploited, marginalized people can influence and, hopefully, shape the decision-making processes that affect their lives. That takes substantial people power. Building it is what these organizers do. Along the way, they develop trusting relationships with the people with whom they work. Their biases may affect the questions they raise and what they do. From my point of view, given the crisis of these times, they are often too cautious. But that’s a different point.

To return to SNCC for a moment, SNCC opened up new turf to organizing. The organization’s two major flaws that in combination assured its demise were as follows. First, once the space opened up for organizing (when violence and intimidation diminished and citizens began to be registered to vote), more conservative and middle-class forces in the black community generally came to the fore, and local black people who had emerged from SNCC work joined the poverty program. SNCC simply lacked the tools to keep the poor majority in control of their movement. Second – and the first problem might have been overcome with time had this one not been so destructive – SNCC didn’t know how to organize itself into an organization of organizers. To favor SNCC’s bottom-up to Alinsky’s top-down is to ignore the fact that SNCC failed to build black power that was an expression of the poor. Thus, for example, Fanny Lou Hamer became marginalized in Sunflower County – her home. And a number of years later, when mostly black catfish workers organized there, the black community organizations that were the descendants of what SNCC began failed to support them. A new book, Bloody Lowndes, by Hasan Jeffries, on Lowndes County, Alabama, where SNCC people organized the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (whose symbol was a black panther), sounds like it gives rich detail on the complexity of the organizing process there.

No doubt, Alinsky had his weaknesses. But there is much to learn from him about organizing that can contribute to what might now be a more transformative organizing process. In his warnings about a right-wing reaction bigger than what the student movement and other militants were doing in the late 1960s, he was dead-on accurate. We still live with that legacy, and would do well not to repeat its mistakes. Close to the end of his CounterPunch piece, Rudd says, “We abandoned organizing when more organizing was needed to build a permanent anti-imperialist mass movement.” Substitute “mass movement for democracy and social and economic justice” for “anti-imperialist mass movement,” and Rudd would be right on target.

MIKE MILLER lives in San Francisco. Readers can learn more about his work at www.organizetrainingcenter.org. He can be reached at mikeotc@aol.com.