Ranger Nation: Jeff Fort, Richard Daley and the War on Poverty in Chicago (Part One)

In 1967, a community group on Chicago’s South Side named The Woodlawn Organization was awarded nearly $1 million by the federal government’s Office of Economic Opportunity. The money was supposedly for a youth program in inner-city Chicago, with members of a local gang, the Blackstone Rangers, hired as staff. According to the OEO, the scheme would take advantage of the apparent leadership skills of the Rangers, who would pass these on to disenfranchised youth, thereby working to solve America’s growing urban tensions.

The project was to include eight hundred out-of-school unemployed youths. And the entire program was to operate through four job-training centers which were to be set up in the home territories of the Rangers and Disciples. Reverend Arthur Brazier, president of The Woodlawn Organization, was responsible for bringing the interest of OEO to the proposed program, which was admitted to be a “high-risk venture.”

Part of the wider War on Poverty of the Johnson administration, the funding proved controversial with the local authorities, including longtime Mayor Richard J. Daley, who attacked the federal encroachment into his territory. For decades, reformist elements of the American ruling class had sought to bring down the political machines of Daley and his fellow city bosses. Largely coming from elite backgrounds, they had failed to offer up a counterweight to these networks of power, which stretched from neighborhood-based community organisations all the way to the Mayor’s office. As a result, when groups marginalised by the machines, particularly African-Americans, began to form independent streets gangs around the 1950s, the reformists would quickly bring them into their orbit, a process accelerated by Johnson’s War on Poverty.

Supported outside of government by powerful private entities such as the Ford Foundation, the reformists would strike a critical blow to the power of the machines, which desperately attempted to fight back, causing turmoil in the streets of America’s big cities.

Part One: 1959–1966

Founded in the late 1950s by Jeff Fort and Eugene Hairston, the Blackstone Rangers expanded quickly in the South Side of Chicago around the middle of the next decade, recruiting other gangs into their “Almighty Black P. Stone Nation” alliance, in some cases by force. By the time they linked up with The Woodlawn Organization, the Nation was apparently governed by the “Main 21” council, which was made up of the leaders of the various other groups they had absorbed. According to George W. Knox, a professor of criminology and director of the National Gang Crime Research Center, their sudden rise had been facilitated by a local Presbyterian Minister named John Fry:

During the early 1960’s the BPSN existed as a small rag-tag group of misfits; juvenile delinquents of the classic type. It was not until the mid-1960’s, in fact, until they came into contact with Rev. Fry that the BPSN became a formidable force. The BPSN would grow exponentially with the financial, social, political, and other support from Rev. Fry…In otherwords, prior to the arrival of Rev. John Fry…this gang known then as the “Blackstone Rangers”, could probably not mobilize more than a dozen teenagers.

Exactly how Fry, who moved to Chicago to head the First Presbyterian Church in 1965, connected in the first place with the Rangers is unclear, although it could relate to outreach by the church in the young offenders homes, such as the Cook County Temporary Juvenile Detention Center and Illinois Department of Corrections state juvenile institution, where the gang had coalesced. At any rate, what is known is that Fry’s go-between with the gang was youth worker Charles La Paglia. Later called to before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations after his work caused intense controversy, La Paglia testified that his career with gangs had begun years earlier, as part of an initiative sponsored by the Welfare Council of Metropolitan Chicago.

Founded in the early 20th century, the council brought together various reformist organisations in the city, with a sociologist from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Ernest Burgess, appointed as the first chairperson. At UIC, one of Burgess’s students had been Saul Alinsky, who had subsequently taken up a job in the Psychiatry Department’s Institute for Juvenile Research. Then, in 1938, he left academia to found the Industrial Areas Foundation with the support of a local Catholic bishop, Bernard James Sheil, and Marshall Field III, the wealthy grandson of the founder of a Chicago-based chain of department stores. Alinsky would retain his links to the world of academia however, which would prove vital in securing support for his later career, which saw him become a hero of the New Left and a villain to the conservative movement.

In 1960, Alinsky had helped establish The Woodlawn Organization, along with the Reverend Arthur M. Brazier, a pastor at Chicago’s Apostolic Church of God who eventually rose to the position of Bishop. Another clergyman, Leon Finney Jr, soon joined them, having previously served in the Military Police of the United States Marine Corps. Finally, from the world of business, TWO had recruit Sam Stains, who had been running a jobs training scheme in Chicago for the Xerox Corporation.

Together, they would successfully apply for funding from the Office of Economic Opportunity, a move which soon generated intense controversy for the group’s hiring of local gangs. Along with the Blackstone Rangers, TWO also employed members of the Eastside Disciples, which appears to have been an early incarnation of the various Disciples gangs in Chicago. According to research conducted by sociologist James Short, who received his doctorate from the University of Chicago, “a boy named Barksdale” was a prominent member of the Disciples. This was likely to have been David Barksdale, whose fate would be closely tied to that of the Rangers.

At the time, it is generally reported that the two gangs were sworn enemies, with the programme supposedly intended, in part, to help the gangs resolve their differences. In practice however, had a result which was more related to the wider power struggles going on in American cities like Chicago between elite reformists such as Marshall Field II and machine politics like Mayor Daley. For the most part, the federal government was of a generally reformist position, with a notable exception being the Federal Bureau of Investigation under staunch conservative J. Edgar Hoover.

For decades, Hoover had sought to undermine the influence of his more reformist rivals in the federal government, including the Central Intelligence Agency, which was closely linked to the Ford Foundation. Back in the 1950s, the two had worked together to promote causes such as abstract expressionism, which had been attacked by traditionalists such as Hoover. Into the 1960s, the Ford Foundation would also act to promote an ideological justification for the reformist embrace of the minority street gangs, which was created from the top down through academia and the media.

When Saul Alinsky had been at UIC, the institution had been headed by Robert Maynard Hutchins, who would later be put in charge of the immensely Ford Foundation. With him in charge, the foundation spearheaded the liberal embrace of the Black Power movement during the later years of the 1960s:

The Ford Foundation not only bankrolled but originated many of the black power era’s hallmark legacies: community control of public schools, ghetto-based economic development initiatives, and race-specific arts and cultural organizations…Ultimately, this new racial liberalism would help foster a black leadership class — including Barack Obama — while accommodating the intractable inequality that first drew the Ford Foundation to address the “race problem.”

In practice, Black Power was anti-machine but pro-capitalist, with proponents benefitting from reformist support, who were eager to develop new power structures in American cities to serve as ground troops in their battles with the political machines. Soon, the conflict would intensify, creating turmoil in the streets and ultimately handing the upper hand to the reformists.

Part Two:





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