News Flush: O’Hare Restrooms Occupied in the Greatest Protest That Never Happened

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the below topics.

By Gabe Sanders.

Three people looking at a paper in black and white
The Woodlawn Organization Headquarters, 1960.[1]
The Woodlawn Organization (TWO) was born in 1960 out of squalor and neglect. Located on the southern outskirts of the University of Chicago: Hyde Park, the neighborhood of Woodlawn had been pulverized by the pervasive “racial discrimination, metropolitan residential segregation, and unequal schooling”—not to mention collapse of industrial employment—that defined the 1950s.[2] The black population of Chicago “tripled between 1940 and 1960,” and as the suburbs absorbed an influx of white Chicagoans, neighborhoods like “Woodlawn changed from 86 percent white to 86 percent black” within the span of a decade.[3] Lacking desperately needed support from local government agencies, Woodlawn became replete with social ills—from substandard family income and housing units to rising unemployment and infant mortality rates. By all accounts, Woodlawn was a slum.

In 1960, amid several urban renewal projects that evinced the institution’s indifference to the plight of indigent locals, the University of Chicago launched an effort to expand its campus into land south of Hyde Park that “could be termed ‘slum and blighted.’”[4] The “South Campus” project would require the expulsion of Woodlawn residents, augmenting community leaders’ already intense anxieties about “deterioration, inadequate services, apathy, and internal discord.”[5] Eager to address these concerns, local clergymen sought the assistance of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), a national community organizing network headed by the polarizing and eccentric Saul Alinsky—whose unorthodox yet often profoundly effective organizing tactics had earned him a reputation as a force with which to be reckoned. Partnering with a coalition of black-led civic and religious organizations, the IAF introduced to Woodlawn its “revolutionary doctrine: given the opportunity, people in a community can work out their own problems. The issues of a community are those that the people living in the community consider to be important, not those that others may think are important for them.”[6] And so, TWO came to be.

In his seminal community organizer manifesto, Rules for Radicals, Alinsky describes how TWO “quickly developed power and scored a series of victories.”[7] Its early days were focused on “five major issues involving urban renewal, all centering on stopping the close-by University of Chicago from bulldozing the ghetto.”[8] Working hand in hand with the Greater Woodlawn Ministerial Alliance, the IAF galvanized locals to protest the South Campus plan before the City Planning Commission, readily “mobilizing three hundred local citizens to attend.”[9] Among the demands articulated by demonstrators in January of 1961 were a) “any renewal project involving Woodlawn had to be part of an overall plan for the community” and b) “Woodlawn residents had to be involved in all planning and implementation.”[10]

TWO picketed and organized relentlessly, even registering 2,500 black tenants to vote in “the largest voter registration event ever at Chicago’s City Hall.”[11] Within eight months, the city acquiesced, issuing a revised policy statement. Alinsky remembers TWO leaders, the day the new policy was announced, “storm[ing] into [his] office angrily.”[12] Refusing to celebrate (or even acknowledge) “that the city’s new policy granted all the five demands for which the Woodlawn Organization began,” they harangued the IAF founder: “‘We’ll put barricades in our streets—we’ll fight!’”[13] Alinsky, for his part, was nothing short of euphoric. “Then they were fighting for hamburger,” he writes in his characteristically aphoristic tone, “now they wanted filet mignon; so it goes. And why not?”[14]

The University of Chicago, under the significant pressure generated by the IAF’s trademark confrontational tactics, ultimately terminated its South Campus program, and TWO would become the first community organization to “plan its own urban renewal.”[15] However, when then-Chicago Mayor Richard Daley narrowly won his 1963 bid, losing the white vote on account of his “perceived liberalism,” the careerist politician (who detested Alinsky and TWO—and was anything but a leftist) announced his opposition to pending fair housing legislation, which black residents desperately needed. Assuming (erroneously) that TWO’s power had dwindled, Daley signaled his intent to begin rolling back commitments he had made to the organization in 1962. Intent upon holding the Daley machine’s feet to the fire, Alinsky called upon two of his rules of “power tactics”: 1) Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have, and 2) The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.[16]

TWO chose as its target O’Hare International Airport. Daley’s “pride and joy,” O’Hare had become the “busiest airport in the world” during his tenure; thus, it served as a physical representation of both Chicago’s preeminence and Daley’s affinity for pet-projects.[17] Like most of Alinsky’s strategies, ridicule was at the heart of the effort. It began, in 1964, with IAF organizers conducting a “comprehensive intelligence study of how many sit-down pay toilets and stand-up urinals there were in the whole O’Hare complex.”[18] This research would inform how many community members were needed to occupy every stall and urinal in the airport—a stunt that would undoubtedly engender mayhem, as passengers disembarked and found themselves bereft of available toilets. The “unbelievable” scene, Alinsky predicted, would become “a source of great mortification and embarrassment to the city administration,” as “the laughter and ridicule would be nationwide.”[19]

Their plan was not lacking in detail:

For the sit-down toilets, our people would just put in their dimes and prepare to wait it out; we arranged for them to bring box lunches and reading material along to help pass the time. What were desperate passengers going to do — knock the cubicle door down and demand evidence of legitimate occupancy? This meant that the ladies’ lavatories could be completely occupied; in the men’s, we’d take care of the pay toilets and then have floating groups moving from one urinal to another, positioning themselves four or five deep and standing there for five minutes before being relieved by a co-conspirator, at which time they would pass on to another rest room.[20]

The study found that approximately 2,500 participants would be necessary to pull it off, which Alinsky said “was no problem for TWO.”[21] Arrangements were made. Then, with everything

in place, the plan was strategically leaked to city officials. If there were any lingering doubts as to whether the Daley administration believed TWO had the power to orchestrate such a catastrophic demonstration, all had been dispelled within 48 hours. Fearing the enormous threat of the tactic, the mayor’s office called TWO leaders down to City Hall, where authorities vowed that “they were certainly going to live up to their commitments and they could never understand where anyone got the idea that a promise made by Chicago’s City Hall would not be observed.”[22]

TWO’s scheme never saw the light of day. Not one restroom was occupied; nary a word of it even found its way into a newspaper column. In a 1972 Playboy interview, Alinsky marveled at the fact that “[m]ost of Woodlawn’s members don’t know how close they came to making history.”[23] Never much for decorum, the ever-eloquent organizer termed this would-be history-making demonstration “the nation’s first ‘shit-in.’”[24] Decorum or not, the ingenuity and effectiveness of TWO’s tactic cannot be overstated, making Alinsky’s “shit-in” the greatest protest that never happened.

[1] “Power, Politics, & Pride: The Woodlawn Organization,” WTTW Chicago, July 17, 2018,

[2] Mark Santow, Saul Alinsky and the Dilemmas of Race: Community Organizing in the Postwar City (University of Chicago Press, 2023), 186.

[3] John Hall Fish, Black Power/White Control: The Struggle of the Woodlawn Organization in Chicago (Princeton University Press, 2015), 12.

[4] Fish, 17.

[5] Fish, 20.

[6] Santow, Saul Alinsky and the Dilemmas of Race, 191.

[7] Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2010), 105.

[8] Alinsky, 105.

[9] Santow, Saul Alinsky and the Dilemmas of Race, 196.

[10] Santow, 196–97.

[11] Santow, 200.

[12] Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, 106.

[13] Alinsky, 106.

[14] Alinsky, 106.

[15] Eric Norden, “Playboy Interview with Saul Alinsky,” July 31, 2020,

[16] Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, 126.

[17] Norden, “Playboy Interview with Saul Alinsky.”

[18] Norden.

[19] Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, 141.

[20] Norden, “Playboy Interview with Saul Alinsky.”

[21] Norden.

[22] Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, 142.

[23] Norden, “Playboy Interview with Saul Alinsky.”

[24] Alinsky, Rules for Radicals, 141.