The Democratic Promise: Saul Alinsky and His Legacy
This exceptional and compelling documentary, narrated by Alec Baldwin, examines the life and legacy of legendary community organizer Saul Alinsky. From the late 1930s until his death in 1972, Alinsky led the movement to empower disenfranchised communities through collective action.
Today, hundreds of community organizations nationwide have embraced Alinsky’s vision and are using it to reshape America’s body politic. In a larger sense, the film explores the restoration of American democracy through shared public participation in civic life — a vital concern in an era of increased citizen alienation and political apathy, even among college students.
The first half of the film focuses on Alinsky’s organizing methods and is filled with a rich combination of archival film clips and photographs as well as eyewitness testimonials. It provides case studies of three key Alinsky organizations to show the development of his methods over time. The Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council in Chicago’s stockyards neighborhood was the pioneering first organization, started by Alinsky in 1939. The Woodlawn Organization, in Chicago’s predominantly African-American South Side, was founded in 1959 and won several landmark concessions in important battles with Mayor Richard Daley’s powerful Democratic Party machine. In the mid-1960s, the FIGHT organization in Rochester, New York, took on the Eastman-Kodak company over racist hiring practices and won a series of impressive victories.
These three organizations show how Alinsky’s ideas, in turn, influenced the Civil Rights Movement, the farmworkers’ struggle, and many Vietnam-era political protests.
The second half of the film jumps forward to the late 1990s and examines two contemporary organizations that share Alinsky’s enduring legacy. The East Brooklyn Congregations is shown struggling with various New York City administrations to fulfill its goal of building 1,200 low-income housing units in one of America’s most blighted neighborhoods. In Dallas, members of Dallas Area Interfaith are shown lobbying state legislators in an effort to increase funding for an innovative public education program called the Alliance Schools Initiative.
“The Democratic Promise” will inspire discussion and analysis in a wide variety of courses in American history and American studies, sociology, urban studies, political science, and African American studies, among other disciplines. It was produced by Bob Hercules and Bruce Orenstein and is a presentation of the Independent Television Service.