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

Part Two: 1966–1972

By now, the War on Poverty was in full swing, having been announced by President Johnson three years prior. Along with establishing straightforward welfare programmes such as Medicare, Johnson’s war nurtured a new generation of leaders in marginalised community who were outside of the city machines, including the Stones, who were instead tied to the reformers in the federal government and liberal philanthropy. Naturally, the urban powerbrokers had not welcomed this outside intrusion. In the case of Mayor Daley, he would emerge as a leading critic of the War on Poverty’s support for Black Power, particularly when it came to gangs like the Stones.

A product of the established city machine, Daley had risen from obscurity with the Hamburg Athletic Club, a neighbourhood organisation which operated to recruit youths into the system he would come to preside over. Back in the early 20th century, during race riots against the city’s black population following World War One, the Hamburgs had been deeply involved in the violence, which had succeeded in ethnically cleansing much of the city. A few years later, Daley became President of the club, the beginning of his rise to the Mayoralty in 1955. By then, African-Americans had flooded back to the city as part of a wider shift from the South to the North, leading to conflict with the locals, particularly white ethnic groups such as the Irish, upon which the Daley machine relied for their support.

Although there are various versions of the Stones’ history, a common theme is that they came together for defence against white greaser gangs, which operated as farm teams for Chicago’s more established syndicates that made up a key part of Daley’s machine. Outside of the underworld, when Martin Luther King Jr came to the city in 1966, the greasers would turn out in force, forming angry mobs which greeted the civil rights icon and his supporters with open violence.

News cameras captured the depths of racial tension during an open housing march into the all-white neighborhood of Marquette Park. Mobs of angry whites screamed obscenities and hurled rocks, bricks, and bottles toward the protesters. As the marchers walked peacefully, King was struck in the back of the head with a rock, which knocked him to the ground. After recovering, King commented, “I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I’ve seen here today.”

Soon, King secured an agreement from Daley on housing, and moved on to increasingly vocal opposition to the Vietnam War. The deal with the Mayor came ahead of a planned to march on Cicero, an industrial town just outside Chicago’s borders. Decades earlier, the suburb had been notorious as the place where Mafia kingpin Al Capone seemed untouchable before his conviction for tax evasion by the federal government. In 1951, a lone black family moving in had caused days of rioting, with thousands of white locals mobilising to maintain their own system of segregation.

Despite King’s agreement, a number of activists did follow through with the march, which was documented by The Film Group. Having established themselves making advertisements for large corporations such as Sears, The Film Group would also produce a number of pieces relating to New Left causes, including the Cicero march, which had been led by Robert Lucas of the Congress of Racial Equality. At the time, CORE had recently elected a new National Director, Floyd McKissick, who oversaw its ideological transformation from pacifistic integrationism to a militant Black Power platform.

As for Lucas, he would go on to serve as the longtime head of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, founded a year before he had marched to Cicero by another young activist named Jesse Jackson. Having received a grant from the Ford Foundation to set up KOCO, Jackson would soon become a leading figure in Chicago’s activist circles through Operation Breadbasket, an economic project of King’s moderate Southern Christian Leadership Conference group, as well as his close association with the Black P. Stones and Jeff Fort during the group’s rise to power.

Over on the West Side of Chicago, a similar process was taking place with another gang, the Vice Lords. Having formed a close relationship with David Dawley, a Dartmouth graduate recently returned from a stint in the Peace Corps, the group renamed itself the Conservative Vice Lord Nation, and would also be rewarded for its apparent turn to community activism.

Along with a grant from the Department of Labor, the Lords received money from a range of private philanthropies, including the Ford Foundation, as well as Marshall Field III, the wealthy supporter of The Woodlawn Organization. As with the Stones, the money and connections helped them to grow rapidly, acquiring various small businesses on the West Side. At some point in 1969, it appears that the Lords, Stones and Disciples formed the “LSD” gang coalition, which worked with the Coalition of United Community Action, a collection of various Chicago activist groups founded by Jesse Jackson.

Most notably, they picketed the construction sites across the city, accusing local employers and trade unions of racism. Along with Jackson, a prominent figure in the CUCA was Paul King, a building contractor who later served as a national officer of the National Association of Minority Contractors, an organisation closely linked to the Ford Foundation. At the time, sophisticated systems of labour racketeering were an important part of machine politics, with gangsters taking bribes in exchange for suppressing grassroots militancy. These had emerged in the 1930s amid the Great Depression, at a time when members were making demands such as union democracy and racial solidarity. Over the decades, they had been deeply entrenched, and so were an important target for the reformists.

Like much of the Black Power movement, the Black P. Stones had been confronted by the sudden rise of the Black Panther Party, which had rejected their bourgeois emphasis on culture and self-improvement for a platform based on Marxist ideas. As a result, they were a unique threat to the elite reformists as well as political machines, and would be the subject of sabotage by both sides. Founded in Oakland, the BPP saw chapters pop up across the country in the last years of the 1960s, including in Illinois. Led by Fred Hampton, the Chicago Panthers quickly built up a mass following, calling for a gang truce and a ban on the sale of heroin. Despite his apparent turn to community activism, Fort refused to work with Hampton, reflecting the hostility of the reformists to the revolutionary BPP.

The Rangers do not appear to be militant either, at least not in the contemporary sense of the word. They have refused to make a coalition with the Black Panthers…they believe only in themselves and in their motto: “Stone Run It!”

Outside of their hostile relationship with the Stones, which saw members attacked and shot in the South side, the Chicago Panthers also rejected the actions of the white “Weathermen” organisation, which had travelled to the city to carry out a few days of attempted rioting in late 1969. In a televised interview, Hampton explicitly denounced them, accusing them of hurting the wider movement:

Shortly after, Fred Hampton was killed in a police raid, which was later exposed to have been a targeted attempt on his life. By that time, the political conflict of the period was reaching its peak, as an increasingly triumphant reformist cause absorbed their weakened rivals into their new America. As a result, the actual street-level organisations such as the Black P. Stones were superceded by more formalised, and legal, entities, leaving them in a compromised position.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store