Chicago: Mighty, Lord.

August 2015


SOMETIME between 1961 and 1963, according to evidence presented to a Senate subcommittee chaired by John McClellan of Arkansas last July, an unknown number of black young men, who lived in the general area of Sixty-sixth Place and Blackstone Avenue in the Woodlawn area of Chicago's South Side, organized a street gang.

Like most street gangs, it was formed to protect its members from intimidation by other gangs in the South Side area. The most formidable enemy of this new group was a gang called the Devil's Disciples, which claimed part of the neighboring Kenwood area. In the years which followed, the Disciples became the traditional enemies of the Woodlawn youths, who called themselves Blackstone Rangers.

Excerpt from the May 1969 Issue of the Atlantic: Chicago's Blackstone Rangers (I)


Photography by Lee Balterman


At first the Rangers were interested only in protecting their territory and their membership from attacks and retaliations by the Disciples, but by 1965 there were an estimated 200 of them in the group, and they were breaking with traditional gang patterns. They were organizing in Woodlawn. And this organization caused some public concern, and even fear, because it began during a period of violent rivalry between the Rangers and the Disciples.

Excerpt from the May 1969 Issue of the Atlantic: Chicago's Blackstone Rangers (I)


Photography by Robert Sengstacke


The Ranger Nation is headed by a group of young men called the Main 21. Until 1968 the president of the organization was Eugene "Bull" Hairston, the vice president was Jeff Fort (also called "Angel" and "Black Prince"), and the warlord was George Rose (also called "Watusi" and "Mad Dog"). The Rangers' spiritual leader was Paul "The Preacher" Martin, and the rest of the Main 21 was made up of leaders of the minor gangs who had joined with the Rangers. Each individual gang, it seems, maintained its own organizational structure with its own officers; but collectively all of the gangs made up the Blackstone Nation, which is presently incorporated to do business under the laws of Illinois.

Excerpt from the May 1969 Issue of the Atlantic: Chicago's Blackstone Rangers (I)



Photography by Robert Sengstacke


Since the emergence of the Ranger Nation, individual members have been charged with murder, robbery, rape, knifings, extortion of South Side merchants, traffic in narcotics, extortion and intimidation of young children, forced gang membership, and a general history of outright violence, especially against the Disciples who never joined the Rangers.

Excerpt from the May 1969 Issue of the Atlantic: Chicago's Blackstone Rangers (I)


Photographer Unknown


"On the other hand, the Ranger Nation has been credited with keeping the South Side of Chicago "cool" during the summer of 1967 and the spring of 1968, following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King." 

Excerpt from the May 1969 Issue of the Atlantic: Chicago's Blackstone Rangers (I)


Photographer Unknown


CHICAGO’S WEST SIDE WAS IN FLAMES ON April 5, 1968, the day after the Reverend Martin Luther King, was shot. In Woodlawn, officials at Mount Carmel High School, 64th and Dante, ended classes early and ordered CTA buses to take the 700 white students out of the neighborhood. Without warning, a long line of Blackstone Rangers surrounded the buses and began rocking them.
“I thought they were going to tip them over,” recalls former Scott School principal Norman Silber, who watched the scene from his office window. “But then Fort raised his arm again and they stopped, did an about-face, and marched right back. He controlled them like a general in the army.”

After the buses were loaded, the Rangers lined 64th Street for two or three blocks. Fort was atop a mailbox. As each bus drove by, he held up a long stick and the Rangers roared a deafening “Black-stone!”

“It was incredible theatre,” says the Reverend Tracy O’Sullivan, pastor of St. Clara—St. Cyril Roman Catholic Church, at 64th and Woodlawn. “He decided right on the spot that it would be wrong to attack the school. He was reading the scene beyond the emotion of revenge and saying, ‘How can I use this to further my power?’ ”

“The guy was a genius. I never had a doubt about that from seeing him in operation,” says O’Sullivan.

 Excerpt from The Making of Jeff Fort (1988) Chicago Magazine


Screen Shot 2015-08-19 at 9.58.32 PM.jpg

Photographer Unknown


It has been said that they have kept drugs, alcoholics, prostitutes, and whites hunting for prostitutes out of their neighborhoods. They have also been credited with making genuine attempts to form lasting peace treaties between themselves and the Disciples in order to decrease the level of gang fighting on the South Side. They have been alternately praised and condemned by the national press, their community, the United States Senate, the local police, and Chicago youth organizations to such an extent that, if one depends on the news media for information, it is almost impossible to maintain a consistent opinion of the Blackstone Rangers.

Excerpt from the May 1969 Issue of the Atlantic: Chicago's Blackstone Rangers (I)


Photography by Robert Sengstacke


IN EARLY June of 1967, The Woodlawn Organization (T.W.O), a grass roots community association made up of one hundred or so block clubs, and civic, religious, and business organizations in the Woodlawn area of the South Side, received a $957, 000 grant from the Office of Economic Opportunity to set up a special kind of youth project in the Woodlawn area. The purpose of the program was to utilize the existing gang structure—the Blackstone Rangers and the Devil's Disciples—as a means of encouraging youth in the gangs as well as non-gang youth to become involved in a pre-employment orientation, motivational projects.

Excerpt from the May 1969 Issue of the Atlantic: Chicago's Blackstone Rangers (I)


Photography by Robert Sengstacke


In September of 1967, The Woodlawn Organization opened four training centers in the Woodlawn area: two for the Blackstone Rangers and two for the Devil's Disciples.

Excerpt from the May 1969 Issue of the Atlantic: Chicago's Blackstone Rangers (I)


     Photography by Robert Sengstacke

 

The trainees were paid $45 a week to take five hours of instruction a day for five days a week, in, addition to travel expenses. The instructors in the program, or Center Chiefs, were not professionals but gang leaders who were supposed to be under the supervision of professionals because, as Reverend Brazier stated before the McClellan Committee, "many of these youth do not relate to professionals because the professionals with middle-class attitudes do not relate to them." Eugene Hairston, president of the Rangers, was hired as an assistant project director at a salary of $6500 a year. Jeff Fort, Ranger vice president, became a Center Chief and received $6000 a year. And many of the other members of the Main 21 occupied, at one time or another, salaried positions in the project.

Excerpt from the May 1969 Issue of the Atlantic: Chicago's Blackstone Rangers (I)


Photography by Robert Sengstacke


One of the activities which helped their public image was the production of a musical review called Opportunity Please Knock, which was sponsored by Oscar Brown, Jr., the jazz pianist, and performed by groups of Rangers and students from the Hyde Park High School. The show, which was eventually taken over by the Rangers, ran for six weeks in May and June of 1967. An estimated eight thousand people went to the First Presbyterian Church during the first weeks of its performance, and it received very favorable nationwide publicity. Subsequent performances were given in various suburban communities around Chicago, and parts of the show traveled to Watts to perform.

Excerpt from the May 1969 Issue of the Atlantic: Chicago's Blackstone Rangers (I)


Photography by Robert Sengstacke


Oscar Brown Jr., said in a 1996 interview with Rick Wojcik:

"I made contact with the Blackstone Rangers, and we began talkin’ to them about some alternative activity to what they were doin’, which was basically gang-bangin’ and terrorizing the neighborhood… The fact that there was this gang presence was bad for business and that’s one of the reasons that I contacted gangs- could we do something for them that would stop them from steppin’ on my hustle! I said we’d do a show for ’em, but they said, “well, we got some talent, can we be in the show?” We wound up doin’ a show called Opportunity, Please Knock, which really changed my life, basically, because it let me see that there was this enormous talent in the black community. This is where all the dances came from; this is where all the popular music comes from; so I began to really concentrate on that."

Excerpt from Dark Jive: Chorus: Opportunity Please Knock: Oscar Brown Jr.'s Collaboration with the Blackstone Rangers


Photography by Robert Sengstacke


"Some members of the troupe appeared on the Smothers Brothers show, and Ebony featured a large cover story of the production in its August, 1967, issue."

 

Excerpt from the May 1969 Issue of the Atlantic: Chicago's Blackstone Rangers (I)




"The Ranger Vice President, Jeff Fort, had been jailed on July 30 on murder charges and was still in jail on Bud Billiken Day."


Screen Shot 2015-08-19 at 10.38.08 PM.jpg

Photography by Robert Sengstacke


There are conflicting statements about whether or not Fort threatened to start a riot. Policemen have testified that he stated that if he were arrested, "the city would burn," while other sources reported that he cautioned the Rangers, after his arrest, not to riot. In any case, he remained in jail until early September of 1967, and there was no riot. The Rangers attended their picnic, and there were few incidents during the day.

Excerpt from the May 1969 Issue of the Atlantic: Chicago's Blackstone Rangers (I)


Photography by Robert Sengstacke


 

JEFF FORT WAS BORN ON FEBRUARY 20, 1947, IN ABERDEEN, Mississippi, the second of ten children born to Annie and John Lee Fort, who made their living by picking cotton. The Forts migrated to Chicago in 1955, and John Lee went to work for U.S. Steel.

Annie Bacon (who divorced and remarried 15 years ago) says her family first moved to 22nd Street and Cottage Grove, but soon relocated to Woodlawn. At some point the Forts moved into “Big Red,” a red brick building at 6536 South Blackstone Avenue, by the corner where the Blackstone Rangers gang was born.

Jeff enrolled at Scott Elementary School, 64th and Blackstone.

“The Forts were very attractive people,” says a former teacher at Scott. “Political and organizational sense must have run in the family. Jeff’s eyes had that brown-eyed commanding presence that drew you in. I liked Jeff. I don’t like what he did, but I liked him.”

Excerpt from The Making of Jeff Fort (1988) Chicago Magazine

 

            Photography by Robert Sengstacke


JAMES MONTGOMERY VIVIDLY RECALLS THE first time he met Jeff Fort. The year was 1971. Richard Nixon was in the White House and the U.S. attorney for northern Illinois was a young, ambitious Republican named James R. Thompson. The War on Poverty was over; the war on the Left was in full swing. Just two years earlier, Senator Charles Percy had praised Jeff Fort as a bright young man who should enter politics and had invited him to Nixon’s inauguration. (Fort sent two lieutenants in his place.) But by 1971, the party was over.

Montgomery would later serve as Mayor Harold Washington’s corporation counsel, but in 1971 he was a young lawyer in what he calls his “black rage” days, defending Black Panthers and civil rights leaders. One day, Montgomery recalls, he held an impromptu press conference on the courthouse steps, lashing out at the white Establishment. Afterwards, he was approached by two young black men.

Excerpt from The Making of Jeff Fort (1988) Chicago Magazine

 


Photography by Robert Sengstacke


“Jim, you hate those motherfuckers as much as we do,"Jeff Fort said. “Why don’t you represent us?”


Photography by Robert Sengstacke


Fort needed a good lawyer. The TWO job training program had turned into a scandal, and in March, Jim Thompson had indicted Fort and 23 Stones on conspiring to defraud the U.S. Government. Montgomery was intrigued by the government’s case. It read like a blueprint for a right-wing counterattack on the liberalism of the 1960s: Destroy one of the last vestiges of the War on Poverty and put away a young man who posed a threat to Mayor Daley’s tight rein on black Chicago—all in one neat, orderly showcase of a trial.

Excerpt from The Making of Jeff Fort (1988) Chicago Magazine


Photography by Robert Sengstacke


More than a decade before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Jeff Fort, longtime Chicagoan and former leader of the Blackstone Rangers, which morphed into El Rukn, one of the city's most lethal street gangs, and some of his fellow gang members were the first Americans to be convicted of domestic terrorism, according to "The Almighty Black P Stone Nation: The Rise, Fall and Resurgence of an American Gang."

There has always been a strong presence of various Islamic schools of thought in correctional facilities across America. So while Jeff Fort was in prison from 1971 to 1976, he was introduced to the Islamic teachings of the Moorish Science Temple of America. When Jeff was released from federal prison, he changed the name of the organization to reflect the new direction and ideology of the group. Upon this transformation, the Stones became El Rukn, which means "foundation" in Arabic.

After the U.S Government successfully convicted Fort and a group of El Rukns for plotting (to commit domestic acts of terrorism) with Libyan operatives, the infrastructure of the group began to unravel, (and) a new era driven by the emergence of crack cocaine changed the direction of the organization. In the book, we talk about a renegade state of today's Stones and other street organizations that has led to a lot of the violence and problems on the streets today.

Excerpt from Chicago Tribune: New Book on the Black P. Stone Nation (Interview) 2011


The Wall of Respect


Photography by Robert Sengstacke


Few works remain from the heyday of the community mural movement in the early 1970s; fewer still retain their power to inspire or indict. One notable exception is Wall of Daydreaming, Man's Inhumanity to Man, a two-part piece painted nearly a quarter century ago by Mitchell Caton and Bill Walker at the corner of 47th and Calumet. Once a south-side mecca noted for its vibrant nightlife, the neighborhood had gone to seed, becoming a haven for gangs, gambling, drugs, and prostitution. "I felt the theme of the wall should reflect the lifestyle and values of the people in the community," Caton wrote. "A warning to all the pushers and users, chippies and chasers that using drugs is a quick way to death and no mistake about it."

Excerpt from Chicago Reader: Wailing Walls (Michael Claton's Murals had the String and Swing of Jazz)


Spectators Watching the Wall of Respect

Photography by Robert Sengstacke



Black Power and the Black Panther Party


Inspired by the growth of the Black Panther Party (BPP) nationally, a group of SNC members on Chicago's South Side began efforts to organize a local chapter of the BPP beginning in early summer 1968. Bobby Rush and Bob Brown, who had both participated in the CFM, were among the SNCC activists who toured local college campuses looking for recruits. 

They soon met Fred Hampton, a nineteen-year-old student who at the time was still a leader in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Hampton had already become enamored with the BPP philosophy, thanks in large part to earlier conversations he had with Lennie Eggleston, a Los Angeles BPP member who had recently visited Chicago. 

Meanwhile on the city's West Side, a group of younger Deacons for Defense members, let by Jewel Cook and Drew Ferguson, joined together with a group of Vice Lords to form their own BPP branch. By the fall of 1968 these two groups merged, and the Illinois Chapter of the BPP officially opened its headquarters on the city's Near West Side on November 1, 1968.

Excerpt from Chapter III: The Revolution Has Come



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Photography by Robert Sengstacke



Chicago Gang Wars: Life Magazine

Photography by Lee Balterman



 

Conservative Vice Lords (C.V.L)


Film Stills from DeWitt Beall's, 'Lord Thing' (1970)


Benneth "Bennie" Lee was a leader of the C.V.L in the 1970s and 1980s. 

When a riot broke out in Pontiac Prison in 1979 where Bennie was incarcerated, he and other gang chiefs were indicted for 15 counts of murder. He spent three years on death row before being acquitted and is now one of Chicago's most prominent counselors.

Excerpt from UIC: Urban Crisis, Vice Lords (2002)



In the '60s and early 1970s, the civil rights movement was still a positive force in the black community," said Lance Williams, the son of a former Vice Lord. Williams teaches at Northeastern Illinois and as an interventionist has shown the film to the gang members. "Absent of these movements, it's going to be difficult for kids to accomplish what the Conservative Vice Lords accomplished."

Excerpt from Chicago Tribune: 'Lord Thing,' 44 Year Old Doc may have Lessons for Today (2014)


Photographer Unknown


"You probably’ve seen Vice Lords with the ___ ___ and the two half moons, and the 5 point star, you probably thought something simple. What those __ means the two half moons represented one nation of people that has been divided into two. The one on the left represent our people over in the east in Africa. The one over on the right represents us here, __ wants us go back. Cause we one nation and we broke away from our true heritage over there. This is why Vice Lord brothers ……. And that 5 point star represent the true nature of man. For every man is seeking for love, peace, freedom, justice, and equality in his life. But also man must give into his trouble, that man retrogressive knows the 5 points of the law, the <can’t understand> and this is why a lot of Vice Lords are getting killed, are in jail, are strung out on drugs, they gonna deviate from God’s laws, through the nature of man. So just being a part of that gave me my personal understanding of my culture."

Excerpt from UIC: Urban Crisis, Vice Lords (2002)


Photography via Bobby Gore, via the Hull-House Museum



"I always say those southern Illinois farmers they got a new crop – called the inmate."


Photography by Jim Goldberg, Stateville Prison (IL)

 

"They have political wars over whose little town will get a prison in it because prisons is big business now."

Excerpt from UIC: Urban Crisis, Vice Lords (2002)


Photography by David Dawley


The film 'Lord Thing'ends in 1969-'70 with the demise of the reformed Conservative Vice Lords, caused by a crackdown on gangs that was led by Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and Cook County State's Atty. Edward Hanrahan.

"There were still other factions of the Vice Lords that were still involved with crime, and that was putting a negative light on what the Conservative Vice Lords were trying to accomplish," Lee said. "The media and law enforcement made it seem like what the Conservative Vice Lords were doing was a front for criminal activities, and it wasn't."

Excerpt from Chicago Tribune: 'Lord Thing,' 44 Year Old Doc may have Lessons for Today (2014)


Photography via Bobby Gore, via the Hull-House Museum


"Absent of these movements, it's going to be difficult for kids to accomplish what the Conservative Vice Lords accomplished."

 


 
 

Note: The Chicago Defender and Bud Billiken Day and Parade were both Founded by Robert S. Abbott; the great-uncle to Robert Sengstacke, Photographer.