Wisdom from a Half-Century of Struggle: Hunter Gray on Organizing

Every now and then Left Hook likes to offer some lessons that older generations have to pass on. When it comes to having activist experience under your belt, few people can match the record of Hunter Gray. From being clubbed by Mississippi cops in the struggle for black liberation of the 1960s, to spending a lifetime in the ranks of the Wobblies and other militant labor and socialist organizations, to actively defending his own Native American background, people, and culture, Hunter Gray offers us the words of wisdom from an old-school organizer.

Here are two pieces he recently wrote. The first is a collection of principles for organizing that he has accumulated over his five decades of community activism. The second is his thoughts on what makes a "damn good" community organizer. We think our young readers will find them useful. We also urge you to check out Hunter's webpage at www.hunterbear.org .


Missing -- way too often -- in radical and general social justice circles and related settings is a willingness to get down into the grassroots and engage systematically in some of the most challenging work there is: organizing the grassroots into genuinely effective and enduring outfits. That's Genesis in the Save the World Business. It's often far too easy to engage in essentially empty "jaw-smithing." Fortunately, there are always those -- organizers and grassroots people -- who are willing to do the really tedious and tough organizing work over the long pull. Those who are reasonably experienced have their own particular approaches.

Here are my own basic ones:

These 17 essential organizing principles were created formally by me in early September 1963, after what had already been a number of years of successful social justice organizing -- and then modified and supplemented a bit over many decades of grassroots organizing campaigns. Now I've transcribed them yet again -- with some changes -- on December 25 2003. They are part of a considerably larger work that I also wrote in September 1963 -- "Organizing the Community for Action." This was initially about six tightly packed single-spaced legal size pages. I made several dozen mimeographed copies and sent them around -- and they were well received. I continued to expand and polish up all of this and used "Organizing" and my following 17 component principles many, many dozens of times in organizing campaigns, including -- among other dimensions -- struggles, organizing staff and grassroots training capacities, conferences, and university classes. By this time, my little manual itself had grown to nine tightly packed and single-spaced legal size pages. Copies of all versions of "Organizing the Community for Action" are in my collected [Salter/Gray] papers at State Historical Society of Wisconsin and Mississippi Department of Archives and History. The basically full ones began in March, 1965 and August, 1966. In addition, I have copies of all of these editions of mine right here in Idaho.

I'm presently rewriting parts of "Organizing the Community for Action" -- streamlining and updating -- and we are right now discussing the 17 principles themselves here in the Pocatello region as we get set for some anti-racist action.

The following applies primarily to organizing staff and broad-based grassroots community organizations. But they can also apply substantially -- with only a very few changes -- to other types of outfits: e.g., local union organizations.

Anyway -

1] The organizers should insure that the community organization is significant in size and composed primarily, if not completely, of those people "with the fewest alternatives".

2] The organizers should insure that active and potential community leadership is developed in such a fashion that the organization is led primarily, if not completely, by those people with the fewest alternatives.

3] The organizers should insure that the organization functions democratically, and not in an authoritarian fashion and that, among other things, formal rules of democratic procedure are established and followed and that widespread grassroots participation and decision-making in the affairs of the community organization is a continuing fact; and that there is ever developing local leadership. The executive and public meetings should be well attended and organizers must insure that an atmosphere exists in which the individual at the grassroots feels -- as is genuinely the case --that he/she is an individual; that his/her active participation in the organization is needed and welcomed; that right from the very beginning, he/she can make their voice and presence felt within the organization; and that, as the group's endeavors advance, winning victories, his/her power and ability to affect those forces out in the problematic/crisis environment and beyond, which have been affecting his/her life, will be steadily and proportionately increased.

4] The organizers should insure that the youth are involved in the affairs of the community organization -- either within it and with leadership participation, or in a parallel and cooperative youth group of their own.

5] The organizers should insure that the community organization, right from the beginning, is characterized by maximum autonomy.

6] Although the initial formation of the community organization may be around one paramount and pressing local issue, the organizers -- not through rigid superimposition but through diplomatic and effective teaching -- should insure that, in the interests of the community organization's longevity and effectiveness, the leaders and membership of the group become aware of all issues directly and indirectly affecting them. The organizers should insure, therefore, that the community organization functions on a multi-issue basis whenever possible.

7] The organizers should insure that, prior to reaching a decision on a particular course of action, the community organization is aware of all relevant tactical approaches and the various ramifications of each.

8] The organizers should insure that the leaders of the community organization can effectively handle the matter of publicity.

9] The organizers should insure that the community organization can effectively handle the raising and administration of funds -- including, when applicable, the preparation of funding proposals, the negotiation of such, and the effective administration of the money received.

10] The organizers should insure that the community organization becomes connected with various relevant public and private agencies and is able to negotiate and secure the necessary services from those agencies without surrendering its autonomy or compromising its basic principles.

11] The organizers should insure that the community organization is able to function politically in a realistic and sophisticated fashion without surrendering its autonomy or compromising its basic principles.

12] The organizers should insure that the community organization can utilize the services of professionals without becoming dominated by such.

13] The organizers should insure that the community organization is able to enter into functional alliances with other groups without surrendering its autonomy or compromising its basic principles.

14] The organizers should insure that the community organization is aware of the use of effective and rational protest demonstrations and, further, that it is fully cognizant of the merits of tactical nonviolence.

15] The organizers should insure that the community organization is aware of the effective use of legal action approaches and is aware of public and private legal resources.

16] The organizers should build a sense of the oft-visionary and just world of a full measure of bread-and butter and a full measure of freedom -- and how all of this relates to the shorter term steps.

17] The organizers, who at the outset may well play a very key role in the function and affairs of the community organization, must, on a step-by-step and essentially pragmatic basis, shift increasing responsibility to the leaders and membership of the group, to eventually:

A] First, insure that the community organization can function effectively with only occasional involvement by organizers.

B] And then, that the community organization can function effectively with no involvement by organizers to the point that, in addition to conducting its regular affairs, the group can "organize on its own" --bringing in new constituents and/or assisting other grassroots people in adjoining areas in setting up and conducting their own community organizations.

I'm an organizer -- a working social justice agitator. I've been one since the mid-1950s and I'll always be one. In many respects, it's one of the toughest trails anyone could ever blaze.

An effective organizer seeks to get grassroots people together -- and does; develops on-going and genuinely democratic local leadership; deals effectively with grievances and individual/family concerns; works with the people to achieve basic organizational goals and develop new ones; and builds a sense of the New World To Come Over The Mountains Yonder -- and how all of that relates to the shorter term steps.

An effective organizer has to be a person of integrity, courage, commitment.

And a person of solidarity and sacrifice.

The satisfactions are enormous.


I'm an Organizer, a damn good one. I get and keep people together for social justice action. I've been an organizer for virtually half a century -- all over much of what's called the United States. [I've also been, among other things, a fur trapper, forest fire fighter, soldier, prospector, metal [development] miner, minority hiring and training consultant, college/university professor, writer.]

But my vocation is organizer. I've done it full time for many years indeed. And then, in conjunction with other jobs, I've always continued to organize, somewhere and somehow.

What follows here is my essentially outline conception of the characteristics and qualities of a good and effective organizer who is genuinely on the grassroots job. That can be a union local; a temporary single-issue effort; permanent single-issue; permanent multi-issue; coalition. It can sometimes be a specialized service center -- which itself some way grows out of a community organization. A Movement is a transcendent widespread feeling, visionary, fueled by many local organizational efforts -- and it, in turn, inspires many local efforts.

Assembling my scattered notes on the matter a few days ago, I spent some very early morning hours today [I rise about 3:30 am] sketching this out on one of my traditional yellow tablets.

1] The organizer should be at least bright -- alert and sparky. And hopefully, be intelligent in a depthy and lofty sense -- which characterizes most organizers who really stick with it over the long pull.

2] The organizer should be relatively "pure" in the moral sense. But not too pure -- because no one, anywhere, wants a sanctimonious conscience hovering about. Set a good personal example. Do your recreational thing away from the project. Wherever you are, avoid all drugs and go easy on alcohol [if you are even into that sensitivity-dulling stuff.] Remember the old labor adage: "You can't fight booze and the boss at the same time." Always a special target, the organizer has to be aware of the consistent danger of frame-ups.

3] The organizer has to be a person who is thoroughly ethical and honorable. Among other things, this means fiscal honesty [as soon as possible and whenever feasible, a local committee made up of grassroots people should handle the financial end of things]. And it also means avoiding any hint of co-optation by the Adversary. The organizer should always have at least a representative group of the grassroots people present when meeting with the Other Side -- unless local people clearly approve a unilateral approach.

4] Formal academic training in the higher ed sense can certainly be useful to any organizer [or, as far as that goes, for anyone] -- but it isn't absolutely critical. The organizer, among other attributes, should be fully literate [including computer literate], with finely tuned sensitivities, with one hell of a lot of good sense. And almost anyone can do much self-teaching.

Race and social class factors are not usually critical for a good organizer. [I'm a Native American who has worked comfortably with Indians of many tribes, Chicanos, Southern and Northern Blacks, Puerto Ricans, low-income Anglos. I've also never pretended to have proletarian origins.]

In a word, be sensitive -- but be yourself.

5] The organizer absolutely has to be a person who can communicate clearly and well. Often, this can mean teaching -- without necessarily appearing to do so [many people really don't like a teacher.]

And communication, of course, involves one - to - one on a face - to - face basis, e-mail, phone calls, news announcements and press conferences, mass meetings -- and much more indeed. It can also involve an organizer helping people with their own unique individual/family problems. And that can help not only the person but will strengthen the overall effort.

6] The good organizer will have some sort of altruistic ideology: couched as an integrated, cogent set of beliefs embodying goals and tactics. After that, there are several choices:

A] The organizer can be passive; and the grassroots people can be the ones who make the goals and the tactics. Not so hot.

B] The organizer can impose a specific ideology -- including goals and tactics. Not so hot, either.

C] The organizer can convey a general ideological perspective which the grassroots people can take or not take. They are not going to want to feel pushed or hammered into things, but they'll usually take it -- especially if it's sensibly and sensitively "sold". They certainly may want some time -- and should have it -- to think it all over. And, soon enough, together the organizer and the people can develop solid goals and effective tactics. Remember, the organizer brings gifts and Úlan -- and the grassroots provides at least most of the reality.

7] The organizer must have a genuinely powerful and enduring commitment. This has to involve a deep belief -- a very real belief -- in the People and the Cause. The organizer has to be able to recognize potential leaders -- and to involve all of the people. Virtually everyone has something of substantial significance to contribute. The organizer gives ideas -- but it's ultimately up to the people whom the organizer should never manipulate. Bona fide organizing [not service center stuff] is about the hardest work there is. A good organizer is literally wedded to the campaign all the way through.

8] The organizer has to have a healthy but controllable ego -- with a strong sense of destiny.

9] And any really healthy grassroots organizing campaign has to have a Vision -- one that is two dimensional: Over The Mountain Yonder, and the Day - To - Day needs. As I have indicated, a movement which, among other things, is characterized by an idea whose time has come, is a broad-based cause growing out of local community organizational efforts -- in turn inspiring and stimulating new community-based thrusts. To become a bona fide movement, there absolutely has to be the two-dimensional ethos and active life. But the purely local effort has to have the same two dimensional ingredients, whether it's part of a movement or by itself.

[Something with vision only can easily wind up a small, in-grown sect; and something that's only day - to -day can become a tired service program. And when an organization has lost its way, factionalism is a sure thing along with the withdrawal of the local people.]

A good organizer's role in all of this vision-building is extremely critical -- especially at the outset. But it's also critical all the way through in conjunction with the growing awareness of the grassroots people. The two-dimensional vision -- Over The Mountain and Day -To - Day -- is the shiny idea that makes people part of a crusade and sometimes a truly great one. It all gives meaning to life. And sometimes, if necessary, one will die for it. Each of these two dimensions stimulates and feeds the other. A good and truly effective organizer absolutely has to show this interconnection.

10] An organizer definitely has to be a person with a tough hide -- not deterred by cruel name-calling, physical beatings, or forced out of the game by injuring bullets or other bloody efforts. The organizer has to be a person of physical courage. And an organizer also has to have the courage to take unpopular stands within the developing grassroots effort.

11] And an organizer cannot live materially in the pretentious sense. Solidarity -- and also sacrifice!

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