The strip of land on the southwestern edge of Lake Michigan was once the home of the Miami, Sauk, Fox, Ottawa, Ojibwa, and Potawatomi peoples. The Potowatomi had established dominance over the land by the mid-18th century, which gave them a few decades to enjoy their status before white settlers started trickling in from the east. The Europeans changed the land fundamentally and permanently (so far) when they made it an outpost for commerce and trade – also guns, railroads, bricks, and whiskey – but they couldn’t freeze the never-ending Rubik’s Cube of shifting populations endemic to it. First English and French, then Germanic midwesterners, then Irish and Italian, then black, then Eastern European, then Hispanic and Asian. Give or take. Then they started mixing and moving. Blacks in and whites out then whites in and blacks out. Mexicans west and Polish north. Commingling Palestinians and Puerto Ricans. Irish, static in the south. Indians pushing Chinese and Vietnamese east into the lake. And so Chicago sits on the southwestern edge of Lake Michigan, its people never quite finished.
Studs Terkel died on Halloween, four days before one of his fellow Chicagoans was elected president. He was 96 when he died, and had just published his last book, P.S. Further Thoughts From a Lifetime of Listening. You almost expect him to send us a P.P.S. from the afterlife, or wherever self-proclaimed agnostics go. Agnostic. Studs was never quite finished.
Studs was an oral historian. His gift was his ability to make people comfortable revealing themselves, often in emotions they didn’t know they had, and in memories they thought they had forgotten. He interviewed stars, but he also interviewed bums and church-marms, children and criminals, people whose perspectives were undervalued. In his self-examining book, Touch and Go, he wrote, “It was those loners — argumentative ones, deceptively quiet ones, the talkers and the walkers — who, always engaged in something outside themselves, unintentionally became my mentors.” He allowed them to participate intimately, with laughter and tears, in the American narrative, through his popular radio shows and famous books. They, in return, taught him the joy of giving his curiosity to the world around him, to his city and his country. His self-prescribed epitaph was: “Curiosity did not kill this cat.”
Chicago is not an overtly hopeful place. It’s cold, it’s flat, it’s enormous, it’s gray. But there’s a legacy of optimistic activism there that belies the punishing environs, and which seems to be as essential to the city’s nature as are its ever-sifting populations. In Chicago, Studs Terkel and Barack Obama grew into relentlessly hopeful and particularly inclusive leaders. Now, the coincidence of one’s death and the other’s election has churned up memories of the city’s past. What inspiration can we take from the lessons of the place and the leadership of two of its brightest disciples?
The Chicago community organizer and activist Saul Alinsky published Rules For Radicals: A Political Primer for Practical Radicals in 1971, a year before his death. Whereas neither Obama nor Terkel was a native Chicagoan – Studs moved with his family as a child and Obama came to work as a young man – Alinsky was born in Chicago in 1902, and grew up in a political landscape dominated by ethnic ward bosses, anarchists, and labor organizations. He pioneered a method of helping citizens organize themselves against political machinery and corporate interests to improve immediate conditions in their neighborhoods, such as installing garbage collection or adding a park bench. His methods were radical in the truest sense of the word; they promoted activism for change at the root of the democratic process, the working citizen. (Consider Merriam-Webster’s first definition of radical: “of, relating to, or proceeding from a root.”)
The word, radical, has assumed a pejorative connotation in common parlance, especially politically, meaning “extreme.” Alinsky himself was often politically extreme. He advocated open ridicule of enemies, talked of total revolution, and framed his work as an “eternal war” against uneven power structures. But Alinsky’s work was less in service to a utopian finality than it was in celebration of perpetual struggle. In one of his first books, Reveille for Radicals, he writes, “if the common man had a chance to feel that he could direct his own efforts … that to a certain extent there was a destiny that he could do something about, that there was a dream that he could keep fighting for, then life would be wonderful living.” For Alinsky, the radical’s aim was to give all people the opportunity to enjoy, through the political process, their most basic freedom: the pursuit of happiness.
Alinsky encouraged private citizens to be rigorously public-minded. “It is a grave situation when a people resign their citizenship or when a resident of a great city, though he may desire to take a hand, lacks the means to participate…Together we may find some of what we’re looking for–laughter, beauty, love, and the chance to create.” Terkel agreed: “In a democratic society, you’re supposed to be an activist; that is, you participate.”
Obama, not yet sworn in, has already done at least as well as any previous president to employ the energy of average Americans in the political process. On the homepage of his website, his own quote is featured: “I’m asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring change to Washington … I’m asking you to believe in yours.” For his supporters who volunteered their time and money during his campaign, Obama’s grassroots organization, which made it easy to go online and find out how to contribute, was a gift. Two days of canvassing in Pennsylvania or Ohio could make someone feel he was making a difference, however small, in the future of his country.
Between Alinsky, Terkel, and Obama, there is a common faith in the great power and native intelligence of the American people. There are awfully few people in America who aren’t patriotic on some level. But the ability of these three, all from Chicago, to harness that power, to allow Americans to make their voices heard, is remarkable. Is there something about that land, with its shifting, mixing populations, that made them who they were and are? That answer is uncertain. But surely the city can be proud of its fine legacy, delivered by them, of a more inclusive, united America.
Obama made history by making it clear and easy for his supporters to find ways to share in the work of campaigning. He will change the country if he can manage to find a way to involve citizens in the work of governing. On the night of November 4th, he gave us an early sign that he will always remind us we are not quite finished. In an email, he thanked his supporters and readied them for the work ahead:
I’m about to head to Grant Park to talk to everyone gathered there, but I wanted to write to you first.
We just made history.
And I don’t want you to forget how we did it.
You made history every single day during this campaign — every day you knocked on doors, made a donation, or talked to your family, friends, and neighbors about why you believe it’s time for change.
I want to thank all of you who gave your time, talent, and passion to this campaign.
We have a lot of work to do to get our country back on track, and I’ll be in touch soon about what comes next.
But I want to be very clear about one thing…
All of this happened because of you.